REPOST: Science and philosophy probe the emotional lives of animals

Do animals have feelings like humans do? Joe Gelonesi of writes an article about the philosophical arguments that have been made to answer that question.

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Pythagoras was never the same after his gap year in Egypt. As it turned out, the gap lasted 10 years, and filled his head with mathematics and geometry, as well as an overall outlook on life that would find some sympathy today. He dressed like the locals, wearing linen and papyrus sandals, as the Egyptian priests would not wear clothing or shoes made from the pelts of animals. Moreover, he foreswore the killing or eating of animals. The Pythagoras of Ovid’s Metamorphoses pleads for compassion for suffering beings, including oxen, sheep and goats: beasts of the earth that help man without complaint. Thus, we have the first animal-friendly philosopher in the western tradition. Pythagoras also went on to free his slave and become his friend, only a couple of millennia ahead of the curve.

However, after Pythagoras the road is long and arduous. By the Middle Ages, the relationship between humans and animals was showing serious strain. As philosopher Stephanie Theodorou explains, one thinker in particular helped set the scene for centuries-long attitudes that have been difficult to shift.

‘[Thomas] Aquinas, for various theological reasons, argues that animals lack intrinsic value and he argues that we are superior to all other lives, and this reflects the classical hierarchy of being,’ she says.

In Aquinas’ cosmic scale of importance, all creatures are ranked according to their ability to consciously reflect and understand God as the absolute truth.

‘The further down one goes, the less mind one has and is therefore less able to understand God. As a consequence animals fall below us,’ says Theodorou.

By the time Descartes arrived on the scene the fate of animals was sealed.

‘Descartes in the early modern period is famous for his negative attitude to animals, stating that animals are basically machines and his thinking is echoed by today’s hardline materialists like Daniel Dennett,’ says Theodorou.

The modern materialists such as Dennett assail the sensibilities of those like Stephanie Theodorou and her collaborator Leon Niemoczynski, who have been working on a project that tries to comprehensively document animal experience, taking in what we know through science along with 2500 years of western thought. Both are committed to shining a light on the inner lives of animals as a way of changing deeply embedded, damaging beliefs.

Both have had to get their heads around a good deal of animal science and ethology, researching and reading widely. Perhaps the best shortcut they’ve come across is provided by renowned evolutionary biologist and friend of the animals Marc Bekoff.

Niemoczynski credits Bekoff as providing a firm platform for a big intellectual deep dive. ‘Bekoff … argues that science reveals that there is core of primal emotions hard-wired into the evolutionary limbic system, in the amygdala, which is the oldest emotional part of the brain. Human beings have this as well, as do fish, amphibians, reptiles and birds. So what it boils down to is that we share [with animals] the same neural mechanisms that produce these emotions,’ says Niemoczynski.

‘What Bekoff is suggesting is that in some cases even without a neocortex—the higher order thinking part of the brain—animals can still experience emotions.’

Niemoczynski and Theodorou, from their base in the philosophy department at Immaculata University, near Philadelphia in the USA, have compiled an open access book, available online. It charts developments in the science of animal emotions in detail. What makes it such a far-reaching document is that it is backed up by a thorough compendium of philosophical thought through the eons, beginning with Pythagoras and ending with modern day attempts to revive animism.

We can all intuit through life with our pets that something is going on inside them—animals relay an inner life in much the same ways that we do. Niemoczynski and Theodorou have assembled a range of readings which explore in depth this broadcasting of consciousness and cognition. From dolphins whistling when called by their first name, to the cries of lost domestic kittens, the pair builds a case for the inner experience.

For them, perhaps the most persuasive arguments for animal emotion involve animal suffering, from anxiety in rats to the grieving of Asian elephants.

‘Elephants have elaborate rituals and behave in ways that suggest an internal experience of grief,’ says Niemoczynski. ‘There are elephant graveyards where elephants caress the bones of their dead. Wolves too, who’ve lost family members in the pack, have been known to grieve their losses. There are many anecdotes that suggest that animals feel the pain of losing a loved one. We believe this has important ethical consequences.’

Still a philosophical hesitation lingers: how do we know that they feel like we do? In the famous essay What is it like to be a bat?  distinguished contemporary American philosopher Thomas Nagel ponders the difficulties in making the breakthrough connection as part of his argument against reductionism in the mind-body debate. It’s hard enough trying to reckon with other human minds, let alone cracking the subjective experience of a bat, argues Nagel.  Theodorou, however, is not put off by the ‘other minds’ problem.

‘We tend to anthropomorphise … we have to be aware of that,’ she says. ‘On the other hand, Nagel’s argument gives credence to the idea that there really is some meaningful inner life even in a bat.  The bat’s perceptual system is organised differently from ours, as it’s based on echolocation and sonar. So we’ll never know how a bat processes this form of experience from its perspective, but it still supports the idea that there is an experience to be had: it’s real.’

Bekoff himself is often asked the same question. In an interview for a documentary about his life and work, he summarised his stance: ‘A lot of people say to me, “how do you know what dogs feel; they can’t talk to us?” One retort is, “how do you know they don’t?”  My argument is that we should err on the side of animals, because what we believe animals feel informs how we should treat them.’

Although Aquinas and Descartes set some precedents that are hard to dismantle, other big thinkers on the trail have left important contributions to the discussion. One was Alfred North Whitehead, writing in the early part of the 20thcentury. For Niemoczynski, Whitehead is a crucial figure in any rehabilitation of the relationship between humans and animals.

‘What Whitehead suggests is that reality is experiential. He’s in a camp of philosophers known as panpsychists, meaning that awareness and a primitive form of consciousness is present pretty much everywhere,’ says Niemoczynski. ‘He follows the Darwinian line of thinking, which states that differences between non-humans and humans are not of kind, but by degree. So the feelings you and I have are also had by other forms of life.’

Niemoczynski sees this as incredibly important.  For him, it acknowledges a basic tenet of how life really works.

‘It projects into the future new forms of animal ethics that recognise animal feelings, and that the evaluative nature of experience
is emotive.’

For Theodorou, this idea of a continuity of feeling in the chain of life can also be found in the work of one of the greats of German philosophy.

‘I’m reminded of Arthur Schopenhauer,’ she says. ‘He saw animals as valid expressions of what he calls nature’s will-to-be, so they are to be respected as such. He drew quite a bit of that from eastern philosophy, from Hinduism. Schopenhauer as a western thinker tries to unite humans and animals through this notion of the will; both animals and humans willing themselves into being and thus both having an emotional relationship to the world.’

Through exploring creaturely will Schopenhauer works his way to the notion of suffering as the affective value that most securely binds us all. For Niemoczynski, this remains the prize argument.

‘Schopenhauer did in fact have an animal ethics that was based on suffering. He said that suffering should be the basis of ethics for all life and that we should be able to empathise with all creatures who suffer.’

It’s taking some time to clarify confused ideas about the inner lives of animals. However, as Theodorou and Niemoczynski are painstakingly showing, science and philosophy can combine to liberate a new way of thinking, which in fact could turn out to be as old as Pythagoras’ papyrus slippers.

Lou Habash discusses philosophical questions such as this in his class at King’s College, New York. Discover more articles like this from his blog.

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