Philosophy and Animal Consciousness

Updated on April 28, 2017

Cats and Gravity

In research conducted in Kyoto University, cats would stare longer in boxes that made rattling noises expecting some object to fall out of it once it was turned over. Moreover, the cats also stared longer at boxes that produced the rattling noise (followed by no object falling out) as well as boxes where an object fell out with no rattling sound. This study showed that cats may have an understanding of cause and effect, as well as having some understanding of some laws of physics (in this case, gravity).

In philosophy, this may raise the question of whether animal have minds that can attain such understanding. Here, I will compare what two prominent thinkers would think of the experiment.



Hume and Descartes

Descartes agreed with idea of complex behaviors among animals like dogs. However, he was not so sure about the idea that animals could think or that they have a mind. Here, it is first important to mention that Descartes was a dualist, which means that he was of the opinion that human beings have a mind and a body and that the two are distinct from each other. The question for Descartes is whether animals have a mind like human beings. To answer this question, Descartes suggested two important tests for animal minds. The first test is that of language and the second is the action test. Given that the animal (in this case the cat) is unable to arrange a number of words or signs as humans do nor find solutions to a broad range of problems, then it does not have a mind nor can it reason as a human being (Boyle 2). From this line of though, then the animal simply acts through the disposition of its organs. This is to say that the animal acts mechanically or through instincts.

For Hume, animals also learn from experience, which allows them to expect that given events will result from given causes. For instance, it is through experience that a dog learns to answer as soon as its name is called. For Hume, nature has provided animals with instincts, which allow them to learn as is the case with children.

Hume vs Descartes on Animal Minds

With regards to the Kyoto university research, it becomes evident that both Hume and Descartes would agree that it is through instincts that that the animal would expect something to fall out of the box with rattling noise. Here, the cat would continue staring at the box from which a rattling noise originated given that it still expects something to fall out from past experience. In this case therefore, the two philosophers agree that the animal does not use a mind to understand this, but rather acts on the basis of instinct and experience.

According to Descartes, in the event that a given phenomena can actually be explained without the need to infer to the existence of any extra metaphysical entity, then the existence of such an entity should not be accepted. In the case of an animal, if the behaviors of a given animal can simply be explained simply through the behavior of matter, then, according to Descartes, there would be no need to infer that the animal has a mind (immaterial). In this case, the cat would not think. In the experiment therefore, the cat is not thinking nor understanding the events that are happening. They are simply reacting. Descartes used an example of a machine, saying that it is possible for human beings to build a machine that is capable of complex motions without having minds of their own. In the same way, nature produces animal that are more complex than such machines capable of such movements and reactions even though they lack a mind.

Animal Minds


Different Points of View

Although Descartes and Hume do agree to some degree, they also disagree in other areas. For Descartes, animal do not have a mind. Therefore, their ability to feel and behave in various ways is dependent on their body organs and not an immaterial mind. Here, Descartes seems to use the materialism approach, which holds that a distinct mind does not agree. This is not the case with Hume, who suggests that for both human beings and animals, there are differences in their levels of memory, observation and attention in the mind. For example, Hume argues that one mind may be larger and better able to remember a chain of events than another. This is also applied to animals to show why human beings are better at some things than animal. From this line of thought, it becomes evident that while Hume attributes the capacity to learn through experience, attention and observation etc on the mind (for both animals and human beings). He notes that “It seems evident, that animals as well as men learn many things from experience, and infer that the same events will always follow from the same causes. By this principle they become acquainted with the more obvious properties of external objects, and gradually, from their birth, treasure up a knowledge of the nature of fire, water, earth, stones, heights, depths, &c., and of the effects which result from their operation” (Cahn 240) Descartes is convinced that animals do not have minds and their ability to feel and behave in certain ways is dependent on bodily organs.



With regard to the cats in the Kyoto University research, Hume would argue that following several observation, and thus experience, the cast develop memory in their minds that something will come out of the box after the noise. However, this does not suggest that the cat can reason. Rather, it has learnt from experience of what to expect. For Descartes, such information or experiences are not on the mind of the cat given that the cat does not have a mind and would not be able to learn/reason out such a phenomenon. Hume’s argument also appears to suggest that animals are to some extent similar to human beings. This becomes evident when he says that human beings and animals have some similarities when it comes to instincts. According to Hume, even though this may differ a little, they both have instincts. In this case therefore, even though a person may not reason, like a cat, an individual would learn to associate given experiences of the box, rattling sound with an object falling out. Here, Hume appears to be applying the same concept to animal, which would suggest that the cats would learn and with time, associate sound in the box with an object being released.

I Agree With Hume

Between Hume and Descartes, I find Hume's argument more compelling and acceptable. In his argument, Hume also compares animals to younger children. Although a child is not yet able to use reason, the child will learn from experience. For instance, after touching a hot object (such as a cup of hot tea), a child will fell heat that may even burn him. This information is stored in the brain, and the next time the child sees the same cup, he/she will not be in a rush to touch it. Hume makes an important point by noting that a collection of information from experience (observation, hearing etc) is all stored as memory. This is the same with animals. Information from experience is stored in the mind, not for reasoning, but rather to be used to relate given events, and from past experiences, expect certain outcomes. Although both agree that animals cannot necessarily use reason, they differ as to how animals arrive at given behavior. However, Hume makes an argument that is more plausible when comparing human children with such animals as dogs and cats. In the case of the cats in the study therefore, there behavior of looking and staring at some of the boxes was as a result of past experience, where they expected certain outcomes.

Questions & Answers


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      • Patrick Patrick profile imageAUTHOR


        2 years ago from Nairobi

        I think so too my friend. I think most a good number of recent studies are proving the same

      • FlourishAnyway profile image


        2 years ago from USA

        Interesting article. I believe that animals do have minds and can interpret cause and effect as well as emotions. Humans often assume that spoken language is preeminent but just because animals do not speak doesn't mean they don't have language, thoughts, minds or emotions. I liked your presentation of perspectives.


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