Some people keep pets for the cuddles and companionship; it turns out what I enjoy are the philosophical rabbit holes, the sudden tumbles into life’s deepest, most intractable mysteries.
Like, when my cat Toby looks at me, what does he see? As a provider of food and shelter, does he regard me as a parent? Or, with my towering (relative) size, my powers over light and dark and my apparently infinite supply of cardboard boxes, am I more like a deity to him?
But here I am doing it again — I’m projecting my own human intuition onto my feline. While some behavioral studies suggest cats respond to human social cues and may even like interacting with people, the research also says that there’s wide variation in individual cats’ attitudes. And because cats tend to be far less cooperative with humans’ silly experiments than are dogs, we generally know quite little about what’s happening in their heads. To imagine that my cat spends any time considering my place in his life might be flattering myself. To him I could be nothing more than a natural resource to exploit, what the beehive is to the honey-loving bear. (See the classic Onion story, “Vacationing Woman Thinks Cats Miss Her.”)
I’m getting way ahead of myself.
It’s not only because he is impossibly cute. What I have found magical is the way he helps lift my gaze above dreary immediate circumstance. There is a lot going on in the world, a lot of it unpleasant. Watching Toby romp about has become a reliable way to escape all that. I find myself jumping from small questions — does Toby seriously not realize, in moments of play, that he is attached to his tail? — to larger, more abstract and eternal ones: Does Toby even understand that he is — does he, in the way René Descartes conceived it, possess knowledge of a self? More specifically: What is it like to be my cat? Is he “conscious” in the way I am? What, anyway, is consciousness? And if a cat can be conscious, can a computer?
Yes, these sound like questions one asks when the edible hits. That, though, is my point. Compared to dogs, who have lived with humans for tens of thousands of years and have evolved to read human body language to induce our affection, cats are almost alien in their unanthropomorphizable aloofness. House cats have likely been with humans for less than 10,000 years, and genetically they are little different from cats in the wild. They don’t really even need humans to survive. I think this is what I love about them: Cats are just precisely not-human-enough to confound you, and the confounding is the intoxicating pleasure of them.
Consider the question of a cat’s consciousness. Tobias behaves in very ordinary cat-like ways. To him, no hole is too small to explore, no perch too high to aim for, no dangling object too dull to resist. It can often appear as if he is driven mainly by simple, hard-coded instinct and response: IF something moves, THEN pounce. To Descartes, this sort of reflexive behavior suggested that animals were “automata,” essentially mindless machines that lacked the subjective experience of a conscious self.
I’ve been throwing around the term “consciousness” as if everyone knows what I mean, but defining consciousness is actually one of the more difficult aspects of studying it. “Consciousness” is an ambiguous term that refers to an ambiguous concept, the subjective experience of life. The philosopher David Chalmers, one of the subject’s foremost scholars, describes consciousness as a “felt quality” — consciousness is what it feels like to see the sun set or hear a trumpet call or smell the rain on a spring morning.
If this strikes you as vague, you’re not alone. Consciousness has been puzzled over for millenniums, but because it is an internal, subjective experience, merely trying to describe it can hurt your brain. This gets to what Chalmers calls the “hard problem” of consciousness — the mystery over why subjective experience arises out of biological processes, like why when light of a specific wavelength hits your eyeballs you experience the feeling of seeing a shade of vivid red. “Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all?” Chalmers asked in a seminal 1995 paper. “It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does.”
Getting back to my kitty: When he hears me pop open a can of yummy chicken slop and comes running and meowing, I sometimes imagine a little dialogue playing out in his furry heads. Perhaps “Food, yay, food, food, now!” or maybe “Chicken, again?!” Descartes would call me crazy for thinking this; to him, the cats are only responding to the sound of the opening can and the smell of the slop, all reflex and no higher-order experience.
Modern scholarship has pretty much undone Descartes’s view. One reason to suspect animals possess consciousness is that we are animals and we possess consciousness — suggesting that creatures with similar evolutionary histories and brain structures, including all mammals, “feel” in similar ways.
There is also evidence that non-mammalian creatures with quite different brain structures possess a conscious self. In 2012, after reviewing research on how animals think, a group of neuroscientists and others who study cognition put out a document declaring animals to be conscious. They wrote that the “weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness,” which they said could likely be found in “nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses.” It is not only possible, then, that my kittens feel the subjective experience of being served chicken slop several times a day — it might be likely that they feel something, even if we have no way of knowing what it is. Still, I don’t blame you if after all this you’re left asking, Hey Tim, I’m glad you like your cats but why does it matter to anyone what’s playing out in their heads?
I’ll end with a couple thoughts, one slightly obvious and one less so. The obvious reason: Consciousness matters because it confers ethical and moral status. If we agree that our dogs and cats are conscious, then it becomes very difficult to argue that pigs and cows and whales and even catfish and chickens are not. Yet if all these creatures experience consciousness analogous to ours then one has to conclude that our species is engaged in a great moral catastrophe — because in food production facilities all over the world, we routinely treat nonhuman animals as Descartes saw them, as machines without feeling or experience. This view lets us inflict any torture necessary for productive efficiency. The other reason to contemplate a cat’s consciousness is that we might learn something about those other creatures over which we now hold dominion:
Humanity is presently engaged in a grand effort to transfer many cognitive tasks from humans to machines. Today’s artificial intelligence systems program our social-networking feeds and identify faces in a crowd; in the future, computers may drive us to work, target missiles in war and offer guidance on big decisions in business and life. Monitoring these machines is already difficult; many A.I. systems are so complex that even the engineers who built them don’t completely understand how they operate. Consciousness would only exacerbate the difficulty. If sufficiently complex A.I. systems could somehow develop consciousness, they might prove more inscrutable and unpredictable than we can now imagine. Not to put too fine a point on it, but depending on the powers we grant them, conscious A.I. could go full Terminator on us. Machine consciousness may strike you as an absurd proposition. But consider that we have no real understanding of how consciousness comes about, nor any real way of detecting and measuring consciousness in anyone beyond ourselves. Given how little we know about the phenomenon, it would be myopic to suppose that machines could never attain consciousness — as naïve as it was for Descartes to conclude that animals aren’t conscious.
Do you need pet cats to begin to ask these questions? Of course not. It sure helps, though. Before Toby, and prior to him; Smirk, arrived in my home, I rarely had occasion to consider the inner lives of non-humans. But cats are a trip; in their everyday, ordinary strangeness, they seem to demand you puzzle out why they’re doing what they’re doing. You might never solve these riddles; cats don’t give up their secrets easily. But the challenge is why I’m a cat person rather than a dog person. Dogs — they’re just like us! They present little mystery. Cats are the more cerebral companion. The fun is figuring them out.