Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Consciousness, Suffering, Animals and Plants

This is a bit afield of yoga postures, but it bears on Yoga with a capital "Y."

I prepared most of this in response to a question by a friend who asked, in essence, "Why should I care more about the suffering of animals than I do about plants, which also respond when they are harmed?"

In responding to that question, I had to tease out my thinking about some of the issues relating to my decision to go vegetarian. I post the response here to see what others think about the subject.

As I think of responding to the question, my thinking subdivides along the following lines:

1. What is required to experience pain and suffering?
2. Are there factual bases to conclude that animals experience pain and suffering?
3. Are there factual bases to conclude that plants experience pain and suffering?
4. Based on answers to those questions, are there conclusions I can or should draw about how I should respond ethically to such situations?

1. What is required to experience pain and suffering?
This is the question that sent me off on a couple of weeks of background reading. I had read Antonio Damasio’s book, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness, several years ago, and I remembered enough to recall that his thinking was relevant to this question, but I’d forgotten the details of his thinking. I’m a little more refreshed on the concept now, and if you’ll bear with me, I’ll review some of it here. Damasio is a neurologist who has studied (like all neurologists, apparently) people with various kinds of brain lesions. One of the people he studied had episodes during which he lacked consciousness, which Damasio carefully defines as awareness of self. Damasio recounts observing and interacting with the patient during those periods – though not “conscious” of himself as a self, the person was not lying on the floor catatonic – he could stand, walk around the room, drink coffee from a mug. But he did not have any notion of himself as a person. His sensory perception was functional – he could see, hear, feel, etc. But he was not aware that he was seeing, hearing, feeling. When I read this, it took me a while to process what, exactly, Damasio was getting at. To the extent I’ve succeeded, his key points (for the purposes of this discussion) are these:

There is a difference between experiencing a stimulus that causes a response and experiencing pain and suffering. Losing consciousness does not require shutting down of sensory perception. Think of Terri Schiavo movies. But without consciousness, there is no perception of pain. Accordingly, once the anesthesiologist puts me out, the surgeon cutting me open no longer worries about using local anesthetic for pain control purposes. When there is no “self” to perceive the stimulus as pain, there is no pain, per se. The same is doubly true of “suffering,” which is mental anguish associated with the perception and anticipation of pain, and other second-order kinds of experiences, all of which have basic consciousness as a pre-requisite condition.

If Damasio is right (and I think he pretty clearly is, though it took me a while to figure out exactly what he was saying), then pain and suffering are significantly different than simply stimulus/response. The tricky part to this is that stimulus/response developed, evolutionarily, well before consciousness did. Organisms evolved to flee from external factors that made holes in the organisms long before those organisms developed consciousness in any meaningful degree. The mechanisms that run those operations are no more alive than a light switch is alive. The light turns on when the system receives the stimulus of the switch being flipped. So, too, biological damage-avoidance mechanisms can operate without anything more than mechanics. That makes, sense, since it’s evolutionarily a good idea to keep one’s cellular membranes intact, to say nothing of avoiding becoming a dinosaur’s meal. I say all this to make this point: we have to be pretty careful in thinking about pain and suffering. Because damage-avoidance developed before consciousness did, responses that conscious beings make to painful stimuli are often identical to the responses that non-conscious beings make to organism-damaging stimuli, without ever perceiving anything like pain.

Once consciousness did develop, it created the ability to override the automatic responses triggered by stimuli. That had the potential to be very advantageous from an evolutionary perspective – it would allow an organism to keep fighting, even in situations in which it was being damaged. In a world where there is competition for limited resources, disabling the automatic “flee” mechanism was useful. Unfortunately, that same consciousness had the unfortunate effect of disconnecting organism-threatening stimuli from the automatic organism-protecting responses. In such an environment, it’s easy to see why the organism with emerging consciousness was benefited by developing a decidedly unpleasant signal to indicate damage to the organism – pain. Theoretically, there’s nothing necessary about damage to the organism being signaled by pain to consciousness. Instead, theoretically, damage could have been signaled by any other arbitrary perception – say a vision of a particular color or perception of a particular sound or smell. But pain – a signal that conscious beings innately dislike and want to avoid – was more adaptively advantageous. The organisms for whom the damage signal was a psychically neutral color, sound, or smell didn’t have a perception that would cause them to avoid the damaging stimulus. But pain turned out to be very useful, precisely because it was unpleasant to conscious beings. When that evolutionary change happened, it enabled the organisms to weigh in the balance the possibility of avoiding the pain against the possibility of advantages to be gained by suffering the pain. At that point – bingo – you have the LDS version of Eve: And Eve … heard all these things and was glad, saying: “Were it not for our transgression we never … should have known good and evil…”

2. Are there factual bases to conclude that animals experience pain and suffering?

With Damasio’s model of consciousness in mind (excuse the pun), it’s worth exploring what it takes to have a sense of “self.” This process requires a couple of inferences, but not wildly excessive ones. But, again, it’s useful to me to start with basics. First, because of the way reality is constructed, we can only experience our own subjectivity. In other words, we can never be 100% certain that beings other than ourselves are really conscious. Everyone else might simply be very elaborately programmed stimulus-response mechanisms. Despite this possibility, we use inference to conclude that organisms that have similar structures to us and that display similar responses to ours do so because they, too, experience subjectivity – i.e., they have a sense of “self” just like I do. This isn’t an insignificant assumption – it’s the basis on which we conclude, from an ethical perspective, that it’s wrong to squash another person without a good reason to do so, while it’s not wrong to squash a rock without a good reason to do so. Despite the significance (and I’ll come back to it later for all the reasons that may be becoming obvious at this point), it’s a pretty basic inference, and it’s a pretty common one.

What are the similar structures that help fortify the inference that other humans have subjective senses of “self”? To respond to this question, I resort, again, to Damasio’s studies – this time, studies of people with brain lesions that appear to have taken away those people’s senses of “self.” I will leave you to read Damasio’s entire book, if you’re interested in the details (and hypotheses – this is hardly finished science). In short, Damasio concludes that to have consciousness – including a functional sense of “self” – one must have, intact, at least the portions of the brain that are used to sense the body (visceral perception and emotion perception, among others), as well as the portions that perceive an object that is not the body (sensory perception), and the portion of the brain that retains in (short-term, at least) memory the relationship between the body and the object. Lacking (or having lesions that eliminate) any one of those three systems, patients do not have a sense of self – even if they are awake and able to focus attention on objects, they lack consciousness.

Do other organisms besides myself have each of those three systems? Yes. Most humans have all of them. A number of non-human animals clearly do, too. Using the assumption that like objective structures and like observable actions are reasonable evidence of like subjective experience, at least some non-human animals are conscious beings. If they’re conscious beings, they can experience pain and (perhaps to more attenuated degrees) suffering. It’s not clear that all creatures with brains have the structures required for consciousness, and some pretty likely don’t. But a brain is the starting point in the required structures for our style of consciousness.

3. Are there factual bases to conclude that plants experience pain and suffering?

Answering this question highlights the importance of the like-structures-lead-to-like-experiences inference. Is it possible that other, non-similarly-designed things have developed senses of “self,” but use entirely different physical structures to do so? Certainly. There are lots of examples in evolutionary biology of convergent adaptation – different organisms developing similar structures to adapt to similar environments. The easy and obvious example is that of the relatively streamlined body shapes of fish and whales. Clearly, the pressures of the particular environmental niche (water) had significant and similar effect on the two differently-originating populations. So just as a water environment could cause development of streamlined body shape in very differently constructed populations, so, too, could the environmental pressures that caused the development of consciousness in (at least some) brain-possessing population cause the development of consciousness in creatures that lack central brain-like structures. In this regard, an interesting possibility would be the relatively intelligent mollusks – octopi and cuttlefish, which have distributed nervous systems, rather than centralized nervous systems.

But so far as we can tell (and that’s an important qualification), while plants are certainly capable of stimulus/response processes (every cell has them), they lack the structures from which we can reasonably infer that they have consciousness that would enable them to perceive stimuli as pain, let alone the more abstraction-creating aspects of mind necessary for suffering. Might there be a mechanism for consciousness that doesn’t include any nervous system at all? Of course. The human immune system pretty clearly has sensory elements and “memory” elements without involving the use of neurons. (I’ve not heard a suggestion that the immune system also has decisional elements, so I tend not to think of that particular system as independently conscious, though it clearly relates to and interacts with the consciousness of normally functioning humans.) But I’m not familiar with any well reasoned argument that plants have such consciousness. FWIW, the non-replicability of the experiments reported in books like The Secret Life of Plants makes me suspect defective procedures, rather than consciously alive sunflowers. The accounts that, upon predation-type harms, acacia trees emit chemicals that make their own remaining foliage and the foliage of surrounding acacia trees less palatable to acacia-tree-eaters is a fascinating demonstration of the interdependence of organisms, and of communication, but nothing in the accounts I’ve seen suggests the more elaborate notions required for consciousness, and, therefore, for the experience of pain or suffering.

4. Based on answers to those questions, are there conclusions I can or should draw about how I should respond ethically to such situations?

To get to ethical conclusions from facts, I have to add in values that help give shape to the ethical questions. Without the values, the facts of animal pain and suffering are nothing more than facts. So to the foregoing mix of facts and inferences, I add the following values:

(1) Any degree of consciousness is, itself, both beautiful and sacred to me. As a point of departure, it is the only aspect of existence that I identify as “self,” and I don’t view consciousness as distinctively “me.” IOW, when I perceive my own consciousness, I perceive it to be an artificially divided subset of the consciousness manifest in all other conscious beings. Consciousness is, simply, the way the universe is aware. Though the conditions to which it is exposed and the opportunity for development differ significantly from person to person to animal to animal, the consciousness I experience is not essentially different than that which you or any other person or animal experiences. Memories, instincts, emotions, everything else changes, sometimes rapidly, sometimes slowly. Consciousness is the only true constant. Seeing it in my own subjective experience and seeing it manifested and fostering its development in the lives of others is the core of my spiritual practice. My recognition of consciousness in others is the basis on which I identify with them – I believe mistreatment of humans is wrong because humans have consciousness – they are subject beings, to borrow a phrase from Arosophos. They are ‘selves.’ I believe mistreatment of animals is wrong for exactly the same reason. I could go on at much greater length about this, if helpful, but I’ll stop with that as an intro. If you’re interested in the applications of this value in my life, let me know, and we can discuss it further.

(2) Pain and suffering are real experiences of subjective beings, and they are, by definition, negative experiences that – perhaps because of the nature of consciousness, perhaps because of the nature of our peculiar psychology – tend to wreak havoc on consciousness itself. Without training, few people learn to respond positively to pain and suffering, though it seems that there are great souls every now and again who do. While there are ways of using pain and suffering to accomplish good – meditation is one of those ways, but that’s a different subject – intentionally causing another to experience pain and suffering that does not confer create some countervailing benefit works against the value that I place on consciousness. Also, it triggers my sense of empathy – I suffer when I witness another suffering. I rejoice when I witness another experiencing joy. I believe it morally wrong to harm others without, at least, a good reason for doing so.

There are probably other values that could factor into the question, but I think those two will get me as far as I need to go in response to your question. (And, if you’re still reading, you probably just guffawed and asked yourself, “Might he actually go longer than he already has???”)

So when I combine the facts, inferences, and the values, I arrive at these conclusions:

Industrial farming practices

Current industrial farming practices in the US cause incredible pain and suffering on livestock animals that I have good reason to believe have consciousness. So far as I can tell, the only countervailing good that is generated by inflicting that pain and suffering on animals is a marginally lower price for meat. I’ve established to my own satisfaction that I can live – quite well and quite healthily – without eating meat. Given that, there’s very little to weigh in the balance with the pain and suffering that are undeniably caused by my participation in the agricultural system that uses industrial farming practices. Do I like the taste of meat? Yes. Do I like it enough to justify skinning live and conscious creatures? No. Do I like low prices? Yes. Do I like low prices enough to justify skinning live and conscious creatures to keep prices low? No.

Plants v. Animals

As I noted above, the pain and suffering issue itself is based on an inference – that others like me have subjective experience – that they’re not just sophisticated automatons. That inference is pretty common among humans, as it forms the basis for almost all ethical principles I can think of for interacting with other humans. I’ve explained why that inference is logically and reasonably extendible to at least some animals. (I haven’t tried to detail the various lab experiments that have been devised and conducted to test the hypothesis – some are pretty interesting and compelling, but in the end, they still depend upon the same core inference.) I’ve also explained why that particular inference does not support the same conclusion respecting plants. Might I be wrong? Of course.

But, even if your original point were correct – that plants suffer just as animals do – there’s still a kind of logic to preferring a vegetarian diet, so long as self-preservation counts in the scheme of things (I discuss why I think it does, below): fewer plants are destroyed if I eat the plants themselves than if I consume livestock that consume plants. (Though others on this thread have questioned this, the basic principle is unquestionable. It’s really just an application of the 2nd law of thermodynamics to the food chain.)

Hierarchy of Consciousness

Is it right for one conscious being to kill and eat another, even if no pain or suffering is involved? I don’t know. There is an easy case against inflicting pain and suffering on animals. The “ethics” of paying someone to inflict mind-numbing pain and suffering on an animal so I can have shrink-wrapped t-bones on the grill are pretty easy to reject. But supposing death can be inflicted without pain and suffering? This is a much harder question for me than the previous ones were. I suspect that if I had to answer the question of whether I think that there is a hierarchy, I’d answer that I think there is. A manifestation of consciousness that is more developed is of greater value to me than one that is less developed. A manifestation of consciousness that has greater potential for development is more valuable to me than one that has less potential for development.

But note that these are incredibly – horribly, perhaps – notions of value. In theory, the concepts could apply equally to different humans. That potential makes me very uncomfortable with them. I don’t want to justify eating children (less developed) vs. adults (more developed), nor eating people with limited mental faculties (less potential) vs. those without such limitations (greater potential). But the fact is that I value people who apparently cannot live without consuming meat more than I love animals. I’m dubious that such a position is morally justified, but I live with it, nonetheless.

I do what I can to persuade those who don’t believe they can live without meat that it’s entirely possible – at least it is for almost everyone. I’m familiar with a few people for whom a vegetarian diet just hasn’t worked. If I were in that position, I’d probably eat meat, too.

I do what I can to persuade those who believe that they can live without meat, but who don’t want to give up the char-broiled t-bone, that there are better ways of pursuing joy than indulging cravings for a particular food, particularly given the pain and suffering of others that is involved in serving that craving.

And I offer this as a rule I live by: if you choose to eat animal flesh, choose animals that are less likely to experience pain and suffering. Fish? Yes, maybe. How do you feel about clams?