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Cynthia Bateman

March 16, 2010

The Case for Creature Consciousness

We live in an anthropocentric world, of that there can be no doubt. Our philosophical and

scientific knowledge is geared to focus upon how facts and theories affect the human race

primarily and then all other species secondarily. For some studies such an egoistic approach is

satisfactory. Say, for instance, when we attempt to theorize how memory works or how light

waves travel, a method of study that focuses on human memory or perception of light and color

seems more pertinent than a study about the memory of an ant or an oyster’s experience of color.

However, there are some areas of philosophy and science in which an anthropocentric view is

not only irresponsible, it’s downright intolerable. One such area is the realm of determining

consciousness. Since Descartes first made mention of his plan to establish whether or not he

existed, scientists and philosophers have been obsessed with answering the question: What

makes an entity conscious? Their results have been divided between the ideas of creature

consciousness and state consciousness. And while theories that depend on state consciousness

are attractive to many scientists and philosophers alike, it is in the notion of creature

consciousness that one finds the most thorough criteria for identifying grounds for establishing

consciousness. Moreover, upon close examination it is clear that state consciousness cannot exist

independent of a notion of creature consciousness.

The first step in establishing creature consciousness as the superior theory of

consciousness is to analyze the concepts of creature consciousness and state consciousness in

detail. Let us begin with creature consciousness. In his essay, “Explaining Consciousness,”

philosopher David Rosenthal describes creature consciousness in the following manner:

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We describe people, and other creatures, as being conscious when they are awake and

their sensory systems are receptive in the way normal for a waking state. I call this

phenomenon creature consciousness. Consciousness in this sense is a biological matter,

consisting in a creature’s not being unconscious- that is, roughly, in its not being asleep

or knocked out (406).

Simply put, to have creature consciousness one must be in a wakeful state, able to

respond to one’s environment in an appropriate manner. Creature consciousness is whatever

differentiates ordinary creatures who are either awake or in REM sleep from ordinary creatures

who are in non-REM sleep, in a coma, etc (Piccinini, 103). Under the umbrella of creature

consciousness, a creature may be considered conscious whether it is having conscious or

unconscious mental states. For example, a human infant would be considered conscious when it

cries if it’s hungry even though it seems to be responding only to the biological feeling of hunger

and not the conscious state of being hungry.

Similarly, an oyster would be considered a conscious creature when it snaps shut if it

senses movement in the waters around it. The oyster may only be responding to its biological

instinct. It may not be having a conscious mental state of danger, but it is conscious because it is

in a wakeful state and able to respond to its environment in an appropriate capacity.

It bears mentioning that there are other more restrictive versions of creature

consciousness than the one described above. Some versions include criteria such as sentience or

self-consciousness or transitivity. The definition of creature consciousness proposed by this

essay is simply one of wakefulness. To limit creature consciousness by any means beyond a

creature’s ability to be awake and appropriately responsive seems to apply anthropocentric

criteria to a universal principal. For example, by what means other than our own human
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judgment can we determine whether the oyster exhibits a characteristic of sentience? We only

have our limited humans tools for observing and interpreting what we see in an oyster. Perhaps

sentience in an oyster looks much different than it does in a human being. In fact, it seems like

sentience would have to manifest itself differently in an oyster than it does in a human simply

because the biological make up of the two creature in question is so dramatically distinct. To that

end, throughout this essay, creature consciousness will be defined as a creature that is wakeful

and reasonably responsive to its environment.

The other concept of consciousness to be considered in this essay is that of state

consciousness. State consciousness is the notion that certain mental states, processes, events, and

activities are said to be either conscious or unconscious (Dreske). It is assumed that either

conscious or unconscious states occur within a conscious creature. For example, in his essay,

“What Good Is Consciousness?” Fred Dreske writes, “When we describe desires, fears, and

experiences as being conscious or unconscious we attribute or deny consciousness, not to a

being, but to some state, condition or process in that being.”

In order for a state to be considered conscious, one must be aware one is having such a

state. Under a concept of state consciousness, the example of the hungry infant would not qualify

as being in a conscious state because the infant is not aware of its desire to eat. It is not aware it

is in a state of hunger Similarly, the oyster in not aware it is in a state of fear when it snaps

closed. Both of these organisms would be having unconscious mental states. Simply reacting to

their environment does make a creature conscious of its mental state. The creature must be aware

it is exhibiting the state it is in order for that state to be considered a conscious state (Rosenthal,


But how do we determine when a creature is conscious of its mental states? By what
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criteria do we judge that an oyster is aware of a state of fear when it snaps closed and not just

reacting to its environment? Science often disagrees as to when humans are exhibiting conscious

mental states, let alone an organism as foreign to our human make up as an oyster. Once again,

as in trying to narrow a definition or criteria for creature consciousness, the problem of limited

human knowledge and understanding becomes an issue when trying to determine when to judge

a state conscious and when to judge it unconscious.

With regards to unconscious states, such a notion of whether a mental state can ever be

unconscious is a source of contention among philosophers. Dreske writes that what is considered

by philosophers to be an unconscious state is actually a conscious state that is not being

perceived by the creature having it. An example of this type of unperceived conscious state

would be a long-distance driver whose attention lapses but continues to be conscious of the road

ahead. The driver, however, does not seem to perceive such a conscious state (Rosenthal, 407).

If the driver were truly unconscious of the road on which he/she was driving, it seems he/she

would be unable to keep a vehicle on the road without crashing. The driver may have no

recollection of perceiving that he/she was having a conscious mental state of driving a vehicle,

but what else explains the ability of one to operate a vehicle successfully without having memory

of operating a vehicle? Dreske’s theory that unconscious states are merely unperceived conscious

states seems to be a logical conclusion in this example.

Rosenthal, however, disagrees with Dreske’s assessment of an unperceived conscious

mental state. He writes that there are, in fact, mental states that are unconscious. He offers the

following example of such a state:

We often consciously puzzle over a question about what to do or how to solve a problem,

only to have the answer occur to us later, without the matter having in the meantime been
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in any way consciously before our mind. Though it doesn’t seem, from a first-person

point of view, that we were thinking about the issue, it’s clear that we must have been.

And unlike the case of the long-distance driver, here no shift of attention would change

things. Also we often take in sensory information without being at all aware of doing so,

again no matter what we’re paying attention to. Since, from a first-person perspective, we

seem not to be in any relevant sensory states, those states are not conscious states (407).

Rosenthal’s theory of unconscious states does not seem to rule out the possibility that

unconscious states are just unperceived conscious states. Take, for instance, his point about the

taking in of sensory information without being aware of doing so. Dreske would respond to this

claim by saying that a creature is taking in sensory information without perceiving an awareness

that such information is being taken in. In the case of discovering an answer to a problem

without being conscious of thinking of the problem, it only seems logical that, while a creature

had no perception that it was “thinking” of a solution to its problem, it must have been doing so.

Where else would an answer to a problem come from if not from the conscious but unperceived

problem solving mental state of a creature? Rosenthal’s notion of unconscious mental states

seems to have the solution to the creature’s problem fall from the sky and seat itself into a

creature’s consciousness.

In addition to making a distinction between perceived conscious states and unperceived

conscious states, Dreske differentiates two kinds of perceived conscious states. He continues his

theory of state consciousness by proposing that there are conscious states we are transitively

conscious of and conscious states we are not transitively conscious of. To have transitive

consciousness means to be conscious of something. He uses the following example to illustrate

the definition of transitive state consciousness, “To be conscious of an F is not the same as being
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conscious that it is an F and certainly not the same as being conscious that one is conscious of an

F.” To be having a transitively conscious mental state about F, one must be conscious that what

one is aware of is an F and that one is, in fact, conscious of that F.

Another example Dreske gives regarding transitive consciousness is the smelling of burnt

toast. Dreske claims that an animal may be aware that it is smelling something (the burnt toast)

without being aware that it is burnt toast that it is smelling or be able to understand that it is

aware that it is aware of something. To be transitively conscious of the burnt toast, a creature

must be aware that it smells burnt toast and be aware that it is aware that it smells burnt toast. If

the creature is only conscious that it smells something, then it is not transitively conscious of its

mental state. Nonetheless, it is still having a conscious state because it smells something. Thus,

Dreske concludes, that there are conscious states which creatures are transitively conscious of

and conscious states that creatures are intransitively conscious of. A creature may be conscious

of burning toast, but it may not be transitively conscious that it is burning toast it is conscious of

or that it is aware that it is conscious of burning toast.

This distinction of transitive and intransitive conscious mental states has great

significance when it comes to determining animal consciousness based on a theory of state

consciousness. If a mental state can be considered conscious even if it a creature is not

transitively conscious of having it, then any state of seeing hearing, smelling, etc... is appropriate

grounds for saying that an animal is having conscious mental states. Under this distinction, the

hungry infant would be considered to be having a conscious mental state because it is in a state

of hunger. It does not know what hunger is nor is it aware that it is in a state of hunger. All the

infant knows is that it is aware of being hungry. Similarly, the oyster would also be considered to

be having a conscious mental state when it snaps closed in response to vibrations in the water
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around it. The oyster may not be aware that it is having a mental state of fear or be aware that it

is fearful of something. It may just close in response to being aware of vibrations in the water.

Regardless of whether the infant’s or the oyster’s mental states are transitively conscious or

intransitively conscious, they are, in fact, conscious.

But what does it even mean for a mental state to be conscious? Is a mental state, in and of

itself, conscious? It seems that a state cannot be conscious without residing in a conscious

creature. If a creature is deemed unconscious by the definition of creature consciousness

provided in this essay, it seems it is unable to have conscious mental states. An unconscious

creature cannot have a conscious mental state of pain because in order to be a conscious mental

state, there must exist some creature that is aware of it, whether transitively or intransitively. If

there is no conscious creature to be aware of a conscious mental state, there can be no conscious

mental state. And, as Dreske explained, since there are only conscious mental states, whether

perceived or unperceived, if there are no conscious mental states, then there are no mental states

at all. Thus an affirmation of state consciousness presupposes creature consciousness. A

conscious state is conscious in as much as it is the object of a creature’s awareness, not the cause

of the creature’s awareness.

Both Rosenthal and Dreske disagree that with the statement that creatures make the states

that occur within them conscious by becoming conscious of them. He writes that the function of

state consciousness is to make creatures conscious and without state consciousness, there can be

no creature consciousness. To illustrate his point, he offers the example of the gazelle and the

lion. Dreske writes:

When a gazelle sees a lion, its visual experience of the lion qualifies as a conscious

experience, a conscious state, because it makes the gazelle visually conscious of the lion.
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Without this experience, the gazelle would not be visually aware of anything, much less a


But Dreske’s gazelle example can be understood another way. A conscious state of being

visually aware of anything cannot exist if it does not take place in a conscious creature. And

while the argument between state consciousness causing creature consciousness and creature

consciousness allowing for state consciousness may seem like the proverbial chicken and the egg

problem, it is not. The gazelle could not have had the conscious state of seeing the lion if it were

not awake and reasonably responsive to its environment. If the gazelle did not possess the notion

of creature consciousness, it could not have had the conscious mental state of seeing the lion. A

mental state is only conscious when a conscious creature is aware of it. A mental state is the

object of a subject’s consciousness, not the subject.

In his book, Animal Minds: Beyond Cognition To Consciousness, Donald Griffin makes

the case that using state consciousness to determine whether a creature is conscious is often used

as grounds to exclude certain creatures from the realm of conscious consideration. Most often,

the excluded creatures are nonhuman animals (17). Griffin writes that when we use state

consciousness as a means for determining the existence of consciousness, we are begging the

question of what makes a state conscious and how do we know if a creature is in possession of a

conscious state. It is easy enough for us to look at the oyster and say it does not possess a

conscious mental state and therefore is not a conscious creature, but as this essay has illustrated,

such a statement is irresponsible.

First, there is the real possibility that there are no unconscious states so any wakeful creature that

is having mental activity is having conscious mental states. Second, there is the unanswered

question of how we go about determining what the oyster perceives or understands when it snaps
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its shell closed in response to the movement of water around it. As Griffin points out, a concept

of consciousness based on the presence of mental states is subject to the rules created by

whichever scientist or philosopher is defining what constitutes a mental state (253).

Put another way, a concept of state consciousness is entirely dependent upon human

interpretation for determining what is a conscious mental state and what is not, and what

creatures have conscious mental states and which ones do not. Such a reliance on the relativity

and subjectivity of human knowledge and experience makes determining consciousness based on

the concept of state consciousness unreliable at best, and in some case, downright irresponsible.

Again, human knowledge is not complete enough to thoroughly understand the complexities of

human mental states. Science is continually revealing facts learned about the conscious

awareness of autistic people or those who suffer from other, various mental disorders. These are

individuals who, by some accounts, were not previously thought to have conscious mental states.

If we can be so wrong when it comes to determining conscious states in our own species, how

could we possibly think our knowledge about the conscious states of nonhuman creatures is

anything more than incomplete? And, if our knowledge is incomplete, it is unethical for us to

make judgments regarding whether a creature is conscious or not based on a concept of state


In summary, there exist two main problems with a concept of consciousness based on

state consciousness. The first is that in order for one state to be conscious, it must sit in contrast

to a state that is not conscious. As this essay has illustrated through the writings of Fred Dreske,

evidence exists that suggests that there are no such things as unconscious mental states. If there

are no such things as unconscious mental states, there can be no creature that is having an

unconscious mental state. Therefore, all creatures having mental states must be having conscious
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mental states and so must be conscious creatures. So having conscious mental states cannot be

what determines a creature’s consciousness, since all conscious creatures must have conscious

mental states.

Another problem with a concept of consciousness based on a theory of state

consciousness is that states, in and of themselves, cannot be conscious. A mental state is only

conscious if it occurs within a creature that is aware of it. Therefore, a concept of state

consciousness presupposes a concept of creature consciousness.

And lastly, as demonstrated by the writing of Donald Griffin, even if one subscribes to

the notion that mental states can be conscious or unconscious, such a criteria for determining

consciousness is incomplete. Deciding what determines a mental state is conscious depends

entirely upon human observation and interpretation. Given that human judgment is prone to error

and that we are, by nature, incapable of absolute knowledge, any concept of consciousness that

depends upon our interpretation is relative to our access to and understanding of subjective

information. Therefore, a concept of state consciousness leaves us open to the possibility of

excluding some creatures from the realm of consciousness based on errors in our judgments.

In conclusion, given the evidence presented against using state consciousness as a means

of determining consciousness, it is clear that a concept of creature consciousness is the most

reliable means of determining consciousness. A concept of creature consciousness that includes

as its criteria of consciousness that a creature be in a wakeful state and able to reasonably

respond to its environment offers the most inclusive definition of consciousness. Given all of the

moral and legal pitfalls that stem from a creature being excluded from the conscious world, it

seems that a concept of consciousness that allows for the most inclusion is the more responsible

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Works Cited

Dreske, F. “What Good Is Consciousness?” . Web. 12 March,


Griffin, D. Animal Minds: Beyond Cognition to Consciousness. Chicago: University of Chicago

Press, 2001. Print.

Piccinini, I. “The Ontology of Creature Consciousness: A Challenge For Philosophy.”

Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 30.1 (2007): 103-104. Print.

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Rosenthal, D. “Explaining Consciousness.” Philosophy of Mind: Classical and Contemporary

Readings. Ed. David Chalmers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. 406-417. Print.