Scientists push new paradigm of animal consciousness, saying even insects may be sentient

Scientists push new paradigm of animal consciousness, saying even insects may be sentient

Far more animals than previously thought likely have consciousness, top scientists say in a new declaration — including fish, lobsters and octopus.



Keep in mind that this is journalism not science. Whether or not it accurately reflects the scientists’ results is moot.

For example, I see no sign of a “new paradigm of animal consciousness” in this report. Is this what the scientist said or is this just the journalist’s spin on what they said?

And keep in mind that “consciousness” is an abstraction anyway. There’s really no such thing as consciousness; it’s just an idea that some people have about their first-person perspective on sensory experience.

Clearly mammals and birds are sentient. The question is, how far down the scale of brain complexity does sentience go?

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For example, I see no sign of a “new paradigm of animal consciousness” in this report. Is this what the scientist said or is this just the journalist’s spin on what they said?

The New York Declaration on Animal Consciousness

April 19, 2024 | New York University

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I will just share some observations I had of an insect. It can fly, is small, it is digging into a pile of sand, perhaps like making itself a home. When I stood still near it, it had no fear and kept digging in. Whenever I moved, it flew out of the hole and landed somewhere nearby, as if on guard and then searched for the hole again to dig in after a while of being satisfied of there’s no danger. It’s basically planning, intention to return, fear, etc. It’s very hard to say it’s all instinct as compared to an actual sentient being who can think, decide, feel emotions etc.


There’s really no such thing as a tree either. Tree is an abstract noun for a class of things. However the concept is important and sensible.


Yes, agree…I dont see much new there other than getting a group of experts together to agree on something, which is often one of life’s little miracles in and of itself!

The issue here is the lack of appropriate terminology methinks. I don’t think ‘sentience’ is really the point (assuming it is referring to the ability to note a sensory input without further ‘processing’). In my cogitation on this topic, it seems to me that volitional decision making based on greed hatred and delusion (or other bases) is the issue. Automaton-like reacting to a sensory input is different to making a conscious decision to think, speak or do based on that sensory input. Western science hasnt caught up with how to investigate the mental paradigm.

I have heard Bhikkhus say that things you can see might be ‘living’ whereas microscopic things are not considered ‘living’ things (e.g., using antibiotics doesn’t breach the 1st precept, whereas insecticide does). This seemed quite arbitrary to me, but I didnt have a better option, but looking into it the smallest thing that has a nervous system (ie could be expected to be able to sense something and then have some volitional decision making potential based on that sensation) would be a tapeworm…which you can see. Bacteria and giardia and single cell organisms dont have a nervous system.

Do you need a nervous system to have volition? No idea, but seems like it would be more likely that you might…

But how is this a “new paradigm”?

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Sure “tree” is an abstraction, in the sense that it is the name for a mid-level taxonomic category of some things that we routinely encounter in nature in daily life (I’m lucky to live a city filled with trees, including some rare and interesting specimens).

I can take you on a tour of notable trees of Cambridge: you can see, hear, smell, taste, touch them. And we can discuss whether a shrubbery is a tree of not, based on the extent to which it resembles are respective prototypes for the category. On the other hand a bicycle is clearly not a member of this category, since it in no way resembles any known trees.

It’s possible to have epistemically objective knowledge of trees. And, therefore, it is incorrect to claim that there is no such thing as a tree. All the trees in the world give the lie to this.

Where can I see, hear, smell, taste, touch examples of “consciousness”? If you want to treat it as a category, then on what prototype is the category based? What are we comparing a given example of “consciousness” to, when we say that both are examples of the same kind of thing?

If you want to put it in Buddhist terms, “consciousness” is an ātmavāda. It posits a lasting entity to account for subjective experience. People talk about “possessing consciousness” or “transferring consciousness” as though it is a thing. And, again, in Buddhist terms there simply is no such entity. It’s entirely clear, for example, that viññāṇa is not related in any way to our abstraction “consciousness”. And that no other word in Pali comes close to our use of “consciousness”.

By contrast, I possess a bodhi tree that I grew from seeds collected from the bodhi tree in Bodhgaya. I can transfer possession of it by giving it to someone else (I’ve gifted cutting to many people). No one would disagree that my bodhi tree is a an example of tree.

You cannot say that you possess consciousness. You might be conscious, but that’s a subjective state of awareness that you are in, rather than an objective thing that you possess. The abstraction in this case is misleading; you create a false impression by equating the two.

If the idea of some scientists supposedly promoting a new paradigm for “consciousness” tells us anything, it is that while we have a name for it, we still cannot agree on what that name “consciousness” refers to. It continues to seem that it does not refer to anything.


Ok, an exercise "Set an intention to know the sensations in your right hand. it’s ok if it’s blank, or there’s no sensation. Just let intend to know the sensations there. "

That intention directed consciousness to the sensations. The sensations were already there. But they were unconscious before. Then the sensations arose and became known. That difference is consciousness.

A Buddhist might say you cant have consciousness other than through your ability to “see, hear, smell, taste, touch” but would add “think” to that list as consciousness could be said not to exist in Buddhism other than the 6 fold sense spheres of contact.

Dont agree…This “tree” you say exists “from its own side” (as you might say referring to a Tibetan Buddhist saying that “nothing exists from its own side”)…let me ask you this question. Is the “thing” that dropped the seed that turned into this tree also a tree?
What about the “thing” that dropped the seed that turned into that tree?
What about the one before…and the one before … and the one before…

Is there a point that one of the progenitor “trees” is no longer a “tree” but is some other construct?

Arent they all constructs? Its a bit like the “its turtles all the way down” I guess :slight_smile:

I’m not quite sure why humans always think they are the only ones, having consciousness and are sentient beings.
I personally have never questioned that. Even some trees come to the rescue of a fellow tree when it is unable to get water.
Every being is sentient for me and accordingly I treat every being. Watching nature shows so much proof how “clever” animals including insects etc are. This makes life often so wonderful and gives me the feeling of a “whole” or “belonging”. :blush:


I also take it for granted that any being with a nervous system is a conscious and feeling being.

And even the plant world, while I don’t think it’s conscious in the way beings with nervous systems are, we should treat it with as much gentleness as possible just in case.


This isn’t a new paradigm in science and it’s been talked about plenty before, even for plants/fungi. The article is then vague on what “consciousness” means (it admits this), and also on what exactly the tests were which they did to figure this out. It just says “cognition tests” and gives an example of one that already existed, the mirror-mark test, which I could go on for a long time on how inaccurate and meaningless it is (whenever that test is performed, people always presuppose that the animal interprets the body as itself, which also exposes the circular reasoning fault of self-view well).

Birch said “In the case of crabs and lobsters, there are pretty inhumane methods, like dropping them into pans of boiling water…”

“inhumane” – why are humans the center? Why not inanimal? Do you feel this bias I’m referring to? Animal comes from anima/breath/animate (life) after all.

Another problem is that in asking “are animals sentient?” it presupposes that you and other humans are sentient in the first place. How do you know that, really?

You can tell other people (and yourself) are sentient simply by observing them as exhibiting those traits, so why not do that exact same thought process for other animals: they clearly make decisions, sense, prefer, change, etc. Not to mention the obvious fact that humans have every trait that animals do and “species” is a vague measurement of difference anyway hence the many kinds of hybrid animals and the many past relative species to humans.

Saying that only humans are sentient implies that somewhere in pre-human history, there must have been a line where they went from non-sentient to sentient. How could you draw that line besides with biblical creation stories or something metaphysical?

We know where this belief comes from. It’s the history of “man is perfection; made in God’s image” still leaving effect on modern culture. And probably not being able to admit that they are causing real pain because of their desire of foods/products (like fur coat, ivory, deforestation).

They also learned to push off the weights people put on there to stop them.

Do birds make decisions, are creative, and have feelings? It’s a mystery.


The sensations ‘were already there’, but ‘the sensations arose’ only ‘then’?
And where exactly was this ‘already there’?

The intention directed attention to the sensations. The sensations were already there. (Otherwise it is simply impossible to direct awareness to something that is not already there). But there was no awareness of the sensations before. Then the awareness of the sensations arises and the sensations becomes known. The presence of the sensations, or any experience at all, is consciousness. The presence of the experience and the presence of the knowledge on account of the present experience are different things.

It is impossible to see or know consciousness, because consciousness is the presence of seeing or knowing.

It is impossible to observe consciousness from the outside because the presence of that observation would be your consciousness and without that presence there would be no consciousness, there would be no observations.

Whatever the point of your exercise, you are still talking about “consciousness” as an entity rather than as an abstraction. And this the problem of hypostatising the abstraction is exactly the problem I wished to highlight.

Moreover the fact that you rely an idiosyncratic definition of “consciousness” which is not shared by the majority of experts in the field is symptomatic of the problem. No two experts agree on what “consciousness” denotes. Literally everyone who argues about “consciousness” resorts to an idiosyncratic definition chosen to suit their rhetorical purposes. That in itself is revealing. I take this to be indicative of a poorly framed question. If you start with an abstraction, it’s very difficult to get back to talking in concrete terms without reifying the abstraction.

All that you really show with your gedanken experiment is that “consciousness” is entirely unlike a tree. Which is a refutation of your earlier point.

There is still no word in Pali that means “consciousness”. I’ve said this many times over the years and no one has ever disproved it. And given how much effort goes into disproving everything I say, this ought to be significant to my detractors.

There is no Buddhist concept of “consciousness” and there never was. So why are we even talking about it?