The Spiritual Life of An Atheist

May 6, 2012

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: Animal Consciousness

I read lots of books about consciousness.  We humans take a great deal of pride in the fact of our unique consciousness.  We privilege our particular consciousness above that of all the other sentient creatures we share Earth with.  This is true of scientists and religious adherents alike.  From a scientific perspective, we are not just aware but are aware of our awareness and have used that exponent to craft a picture of the origin and scale of the Universe.  We are a way that the Universe has come to know itself.  Beautiful fact.

But while I am a great appreciator of human consciousness and its cumulative, collective powers, I’m less sure it deserves the exalted throne we give it.  My reluctance may stem from having taken the childhood game of “if you could be an animal, what animal would you be” to heart.  To this day, I love richly imagining the interior experience of other animals.  Favorites include an African elephant in a herd, with a thickened hide, ears that can pick up low-register vocalizations from miles away, huge, clumsy, dangerous feet, and a trunk that can caress, grasp, smell, breathe, and squirt water down my back and the back of my calf.  Yes, African elephants don’t have complex language, can’t do calculus, know nothing of the Big Bang, and probably can’t even recognize themselves in mirrors.  But to be honest, I might trade all of that for the lived experience of being an African elephant.

Elephants not your cup of tea.  How about dolphins?  If you need more specificity–I’ll pick spinner dolphins.   Living in pods, flying in the ocean, seeing sonically, continually chirping at each other, breaching the ocean surface to twirl, torpedoing after fish.  Kind of think a spinner dolphin’s phenomenal experience might beat having grammar, calculus, and a Big Bang theory.

And how many of us have come back from a hard day’s work to our lounging, contented, well-cared for dog companions and sincerely thought, “Well, that’s the life!”?

The fact is that there is an ancient, shared animal consciousness.  This is why we can experiment on rats so successfully.  This ancient consciousness may not be exponential but it is valuable to the animals who possess it, providing them with vivid sensory experiences and feelings about those experiences.  Yes, except for us, they didn’t develop sophisticated cultures or tool use or testable theories of existence.  But who wouldn’t, at least as a child, have considered living a day in their gargantuan feet, elegant fins, or pedicured paws a privilege?


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