Neuroscience & Mind Icon Neuroscience & Mind

Should Spider Dreaming Really Give Us “Ethical Pause”?

Denyse O'Leary
Photo credit: Shot by Cerqueira via Unsplash.

Anyone familiar with the current “animal consciousness” scene might have seen this one coming. At The Scientist, we learned earlier this month that animals dream, according to researcher David M. Peña-Guzmán. Recently, it was spiders that were found to dream. Michael Egnor and Günter Bechly have discussed the question.

Human and Animal Consciousness

Therefore, it is now implied, human and animal consciousness do not differ very much:

In When Animals Dream, I argue that the mere fact that animals dream poses a formidable challenge to that bastion of traditionalism that is the human-animal divide, raising provocative ethical questions about the status of animals as moral subjects toward whom we have urgent and inexorable ethical obligations. This fact also frustrates the common view that only humans are “cognitively free” because only we can liberate ourselves from our immediate surroundings through acts of imagination, while the rest of the animals remain forever trapped in the here and now. The dreams of other species elegantly refute this claim by suggesting that non-human life forms also stage mental escapes from reality during sleep, fleeing from the physical world that surrounds them and charging into an imaginary world of subjective make-believe.

DAVID M. PEÑA-GUZMÁN, “OPINION: ANIMAL DREAMING SHOULD GIVE US ETHICAL PAUSE” AT THE SCIENTIST (AUGUST 15, 2022)

This “spiders dream” project morphs effortlessly into denigrating the significance of being human and of human ethical choices.

To be clear, the researchers are not demonstrating consciousness — in the human sense — in plants or spiders. Philosophers admit that they don’t know what human consciousness even is. Rather, what it means to be conscious is changing so as to include plants and spiders. And probably, soon enough, electrons.

Panpsychism Overtakes Materialism

As noted earlier, when discussing recent claims for consciousness in plants, panpsychism is rapidly overtaking materialism in science. Were that not so, we would not be reading such reflections in a mainstream science publication. And we are.

What it means: The “ethical pause” for spiders, in a time-limited world, encroaches on the time allowed for an “ethical pause” for starving or oppressed humans. It may not be an intended consequence but it is a natural one.

Naturalists (often called “materialists”) believe that nature is all there is. Human consciousness presents a problem for them. They have long tried to show that human consciousness is an illusion. But that approach didn’t really work because the obvious question is, whose illusion is it? 

Panpsychism offers a different vision that erases the significance of being human: Every living entity (and possibly even every non-living entity) is “conscious.” But the term is still undefined… And if it were defined in these quarters, it would be defined in such a way as to pretend to incorporate human consciousness without really doing so.

Read the rest at Mind Matters News, published by Discovery Institute’s Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence.