Recently a prominent international group of cognitive neuroscientists issued The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness proclaiming that “non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses” are conscious beings. At first I huffed because this kind of thinking gives the impression that science and religion are in conflict.
Then I found myself thinking about how St. Thomas Aquinas might have responded back in the Middle Ages when science and theology were a united search for truth. I’m no saint or high scholar, but I do find the clarity and logical exactness of his writing refreshing (unlike said declaration about octopus emotions). St. Thomas would probably have somewhat agreed.
Scholastic thought in the Middle Ages recognized that “brute” animals had internal awareness, and are able to process and respond to sensory perceptions (S.T.I-I, 75, 3). The Latin word, brūtus, refers to animals that act on physical appetites such as hunger, exhaustion, or fear, but cannot reason. Can an octopus use tools? Sure. Can it recognize familiar things? Yes. These reactions, however, are caused by changes in the body. St. Thomas even recognized that animals have a “sensitive soul” (from the senses). This declaration on consciousness is only about 750 years late coming to this conclusion.
St. Thomas also makes a distinction between humans and other animals. While we also have sensitive appetites and respond to what we see, hear, smell, taste and touch, humans can reason beyond sensory perception. We can infer and deduce abstract things like justice, freedom, beauty, and love. Our soul has the powers of will and intellect, and is not merely controlled by base appetites. We can chose to do good or evil, to grow in virtue or give in to vice. We desire to learn and innovate, to conduct scientific inquiries. Animals don’t issue declarations on consciousness, for instance.
St. Thomas, citing another 6th century theologian, defined a person as “an individual substance of a rational nature.” The understanding of personhood developed from theological efforts to understand the Divine Persons of the Blessed Trinity. Mankind is created in the image of God, individuals but one united race, each to know, love, and serve others and our Creator, to seek Heaven. Humans are persons; animals are not.
I hope rational people will not suggest that we start granting animals personhood just because they are aware of hunger and pain and obey their instincts; for that would not elevate animals beyond what they already are. It sure would confuse the meaning of being human though.