I realise that when I wrote about Consciousness a couple of months back, I used the terms ‘consciousness’ and ‘self-awareness’ fairly interchangeably. What’s the difference? I believe it’s all to do with the perception of time.

 . . . and one more thing – Since Jan 2024 I have started putting my essays on Substack and with audio too! Please follow me there and give it likes and shares. Pretty please all that good stuff.


I enjoyed listening to Bob Fischer the other day discussing animal welfare. I specifically liked his focus on how one should distribute a budget for charity between human welfare and animal welfare. Before he gets into the different philosophical or logical ways that people might approach the problem, he looks at a model for how we can assess animal suffering on the same scale as human suffering. He approaches this by assessing what he calls the relative Moral Weights of different species.

In his research, as director of the The Society for the Study of Ethics and Animals, Fischer revisits experimental data and metastudies of different metrics both on what you might consider intuitive measurements (for example, should we consider how many neurons each animal has in its brain?) and harder evidence, (say, captive animals may exhibit distressed behaviours that we can measure without anthropomorphising their ‘emotions’) His results are well-argued and for the sake of this discussion I’m going to assume that they are justifiable and robust. He concludes that if we are comparing the suffering of a pig with that of a human, there might be a multiplier of something around say two. That means that the suffering of one distressed human might have the same moral weight as that of two pigs, but with a margin of uncertainty. An octopus might be a smaller differential (as we will understand if we have seen that Netflix documentary) but with a bigger margin of uncertainty, and if we considered a shrimp we would see a bigger gap. 

Perhaps the most surprising conclusion from his research and the one he asked us to take away, was that if you are comparing human suffering and shrimp or insect suffering we should be considering factors of maybe tens or hundreds but not thousands or millions.  Interestingly with reference to that, when the discussion swung to saving people from malaria, it didn’t mention the plight of the mosquito at all.

The first thing we might wonder, is why this matters if we can never know what it feels like to be a shrimp. That’s why I think his metaphor of a charity budget was a good one. If we see that farmed shrimps suffer stress which causes physical damage or death, and let’s say I take a factor of 1/500 for the moral weight of a shrimp then yes, for every $500 I donate to human welfare why not donate one dollar to make shrimp farms more humane? Now put like that it even seems that perhaps 1/500 is being unfair to the shrimp. And of course we might look at how many humans my $500 helps and how much and how many shrimps my $1 affects and adjust my donations accordingly. Fischer also looks at how different people would assess these things and I won’t repeat that here, but he labels them as utility, risk aversion, futility, and ambiguity aversion, so we can note that there is a variety. It’s not an exact science.

It’s helpful to be able to use these logical analytical techniques to depersonalise these discussions. This helps us make good decisions about suffering, life and death which can easily become emotive and tribal, even political. So I would agree that this is a good starting point, and I am quite comfortable in using this kind of logic in choosing how to spend my money. 

But Fischer is also a professor of philosophy, so what about the famous ‘lever on a railway points’ dilemma? The runaway train is coming and I have to choose whether to push the lever on the junction one way to save the life of a human who is strapped to the rails of one siding, or to push it another way and save 500 shrimps, or two pigs, or an octopus. Which would I choose? Well, even on our worst day pretty well everyone would save the human. Wouldn’t we? Same maths same research, but for this thought experiment at least, an entirely different result.

So why is there such a discrepancy? I think it lies in the difference between consciousness and awareness, and that difference lies in what time means for different creatures.

Going back to my earlier essay on consciousness, I used consciousness and self-awareness fairly interchangeably. Perhaps I might better have suggested a spectrum going from intelligence through consciousness to awareness. Actually I think it’s more like three distinct steps rather than a continuum.

But firstly these words are woolly, so I have to define what I mean by them as I go. I was listening to a debate the other day between Steven Pinker and one Jagadish Vasudev (aka Sadhguru) about whether consciousness is a miracle. That interchange, I wouldn’t call it a discussion, didn’t resolve anything, because these two guys have absolutely different definitions of both the word ‘consciousness’ and the word ‘miracle.’ One was saying that if we remain deliberately unsophisticated, then we feel a sense of wonder when we observe nature, the other said that physical systems may still be logical even when they become so complex that they appear to transcend mechanism. Both of their points of view can live perfectly happily in the same universe, (Unlike for example a discussion on religion between Christopher Hitchens and Anne Widdecombe or one on truth between Donald Trump and any number of people who will never have the chance to debate it with him.) So when discussing stuff like this, it’s better if I define what I mean by these woolly words as I go along.  

Are all animals intelligent? Yes in my definition they are, and not just animals. The definition I am using here is different from what others may use, so I’m specifying it as the ability to take stimuli and then modify one’s own behaviour to optimise the result. All animals must be able to do that, because they have to carry out whatever actions they need to keep themselves alive. Some are hard-wired, some are explicit. I might say I am more intelligent than a bat even though the bat can catch a fly in mid air in the dark. Why is that? Well, it’s because I can consider abstract concepts of echolocation and triangulation and algebra and Newtonian physics. The bat could never grasp any of those concepts. So I am using some kind of active intelligence whereas the bat is just using muscle memory and intuition. Either way the calculation works, and actually much faster and more easily for the bat than for me.

None the less I’m ticking both our boxes for crossing the threshold of intelligence.  Japanese metro slime mould, any plant that turns to the sun, an abacus and my laptop all tick that box too, perhaps even a mousetrap, so it’s a pretty low threshold. It’s also easy to grade a scale up from the threshold and calibrate it experimentally.

I am tempted to feel that there are two kinds of intelligence here. One that we might call the hard-wired type of calculation, (and hard wired has an interesting etymology here because a computer does most smart stuff using the opposite of hard wiring) and the other being the explicit kind, where the knowledge is held outside of the organism and considered what we might call academically. But that distinction is actually what I am calling awareness and why I am making these distinctions at all, so bear with me.

Next up, consciousness. Perhaps generic consciousness or maybe the potential for cognition. Anyone who doesn’t think a dog or a horse or a cat has conscious has never looked one in the eye. But what does that mean? As a starting point, I’m calling consciousness the ability to differentiate self from environment and to reflect on that, even at a rudimentary level.

Perhaps the defining point then is humour? I googled – ‘do animals have a sense of humour?’ I got a couple of not very convincing results about rats laughing at hypersonic frequencies, abused bees becoming pessimistic, and gorillas finding double-meanings in sign language vocabulary. These animals are all showing something more than say our best AI models are doing at the moment. So I’ll give them a tick for cognition – meaning the ability to find meaning in things through explicit thought. That thought link in the chain is important. A self-driving car understands that certain patterns of light have meaning and can then calculate what to do about that perception, but could it hold the idea of what it is doing as a concept and then talk about it? I don’t think so. Not yet. It would certainly make for a few amusing instagram memes.

But if Coco the gorilla can joke that the word ‘hard’ would apply both to a rock and work, then she is demonstrating that she sees herself as observing the words with thought, and I’d say that indicates positive evidence of consciousness. So I would define this step change between intelligence and consciousness as the point where the organism separates itself from what it is thinking about. We could say understanding. It’s difficult to imagine how that could occur in something without consciousness. For an animal to show any kind of humour or perhaps even the use of language, it is setting itself as distinct from its environment. The animal has become an observer of things.

Now, animals can also show jealousy and object to unfairness after comparing themselves with their colleagues, and these reactions grow in time. So yes, animals can think. They can have consciousness and cognition. I’m sure AI will have this one day, but I don’t believe it has yet. I don’t believe plants or slime mould have it at all. And no, for the record, I don’t believe that ‘the Universe’ has, or that ‘every cell in my body’ has it.

If we are already beyond the limits of AI, then why then am I making a further distinction between consciousness and awareness? Am I not just talking about taking another step back in the observation? Ok let’s take a step back and zoom out one layer.  Could we ask the gorilla if she thought her joke about the word ‘hard’ was funny? Well we already know she did. The moment consciousness exists, it has already opened up the possibility of reflective thought. If I can hold thoughts and concepts about the world outside my body, then it doesn’t take an extra step to hold thoughts about my place in the world. How else can a galloping horse know how to jump a hedge under its own coordination while under the general direction of its rider? 

So what is the extra step that I am calling awareness? Well, I don’t think any of the situations I have discussed indicates that the animal is aware of its place in time. Surely, it is thinking about the current Newtonian dynamic of making its immediate trajectory intercept a fly or jump a hedge. However I doubt that Coco will ever observe that her handler enjoyed her jokes more yesterday than he appears to be doing today. If a dog gets increasingly jealous of its neighbour over time, that process doesn’t require that the dog tell itself stories about the good old days, it only indicates the habitual reinforcement of a repeated annoyance.

Humans experience time-awareness in a wider sense. We consider and discuss and care about our place in our environment not only now but yesterday and tomorrow. We think about whether others deserve to be better off than us because of what they have done in the past, or whether their ancestors mistreated our ancestors. We discuss whether we will be rewarded in heaven for our transgressions today. Once we factor time into this discussion that opens up a whole new hall of mirrors, enabling arguments of cause and effect, and hence responsibility, shoulds and oughts, morality, and philosophy. Ain’t no animal has any of that.

An illustration how we differ from animals is our consideration of death. We consider what it is like to be alive in the context of time. We look into a future where we no longer exist except in the form of dust, and we deny it or we grieve for it. What about animals? I eat little meat for a number of reasons, but I’m neither vegan nor vegetarian, and the least concern I have about this is that meat-eaters sponsor the killing of livestock. When vegetarians say it is cruel to kill animals, my knee jerk reaction is to observe that almost no animal in the wild dies of old age. They almost all get eaten alive, by predators, scavengers or by parasites. Should I worry about that? Should vegetarians? Well the animals don’t, nor do their families, other than in a very few mate-for-life species.

What happens when a wild animal is injured is that it probably cries out in pain. I’m not denying that suffering, and if I were witnessing that, my heart would yearn to help it. But then after minutes or hours, it accepts its fate and whether dead or still breathing, it becomes food for the local environment. Look at the same situation for humans. The family goes into overdrive and pays whatever it takes to mitigate suffering and optimise the prognosis. Interestingly, it’s almost universal behaviour to favour the optimisation of the prognosis over the alleviation of suffering. That’s what the phrase ‘bite the bullet’ is all about. And sure enough, the risk of intense but time-limited pain almost never stops sportsmen or mothers from repeating the exercise. 

So that’s what I am considering when I say I believe that humans have a kind of awareness that is a step change above that of animals. It’s not self awareness, it’s time awareness. I think this is what’s missing from animals and it’s what is responsible for our human traits of anxiety, ambition, competitiveness, meanness – haha  – gosh I seem to be sliding towards the negative there, so I’ll add heroism and cultural progress.

But to get off my humanocentric navel gazing and back to the ethical philosophy of animal welfare, I believe this is why we shouldn’t use calculations that work for immediate distress, or even habitual distress, in questions of life and death. A pig may squeal if it sees its brother being slaughtered, but there is nothing you could do to alert it with concern about its own impending death tomorrow. And if a pig doesn’t care about that itself, why should I carry the burden of guilt and worry on behalf of it? I think the question of whether their life is long or short doesn’t matter to any animal except humans. I would rather wish that a given pig would be slaughtered humanely than die in a ditch while some opportunistic scavenger picks its bones.

So how do I think we should use Fischer’s research? Well – I believe it is our responsibility to consider the welfare of animals living in captivity whether in zoos or farms – and that includes fish farms and shrimp farms. Fischer tells us that shrimps suffer on the same scale as mammals, that’s good enough for me. Thank you, professor, your work for me is done.

I do believe that animals that are slaughtered for food, should be treated humanely in every way, even if that makes my hamburger more expensive. But I also think that it is pointless to worry for this reason about whether we are killing animals in general. There are reasons for humanity to go vegan (most specifically climate change) but a concern that animals are slaughtered is not one of them.

Nick James      Posted in:



March 2024, Bonn, Germany

Header Image:

An animal in captivity. Credit – A Colourful Riot