I’m sure you’ve all laid awake at night, pondering the question…what’s it like to be a bat? Well, perhaps you’re more profound than you gave yourself credit for.
The experience of qualia – the internal and subjective component of sense perceptions, arising from stimulation of the senses by phenomena – is fundamental to the contention that humans possess phenomenal consciousness. By dint of being aware that we experience existence, we conclude that we exist.
Although some philosophers try to downplay the primacy or actuality of the experience of qualia, overall, the ability to experience qualia is regarded as the signature of phenomenal consciousness. It remains the ‘Hard Problem,’ as defined by Professor David Chalmers.
And, if the experience of qualia characterises human consciousness, does such phenomenal consciousness exist within lower species? Thomas Nagel explored this sense of qualia experience by defining it in terms of “what it’s like-ness” to experience internally a particular sensory stimulus. He famously extended the question to the what-it-is-likeness to be a bat or any other creature. What qualia do they experience and enjoy? Really, we can’t even tell what any other human experiences internally as their own subjective qualia. We, therefore, have no real idea of what the qualia experience is for any other creature.
But, although we may not understand the exact qualia experience another species enjoys, we may be able to ascertain that they do, indeed, experience qualia of some sort.
We ask: why do flowers have colours? Why the colours of a peacock?
These, of course, are often explained by the Darwinian idea that colours in flowers aid their pollination and reproduction by attracting and guiding birds and insects. That the peacock’s plumage makes it more attractive to a potential mate.
If this analysis is correct, the conclusion must be that these birds and insects are experiencing the different colours of the flowers etc. in distinct ways. They may not see “red” as the same qualia experience that we see “red,” but they must have a different experience of the thing we call “redness” from that which they experience as “whiteness” or “greenness.”
(There is a false contention that dogs are colour-blind. Their colour palette is limited, but does seem to include some colours. For some humans, and potentially other species, who are achromatic, even the experience of various shades of grey is qualia.)
Science can’t have it both ways. We can’t claim both Darwinian advantage to colours and then say animals don’t experience them as qualia. That would be inconsistent within the realm of scientific interpretation and speculation. And, if creatures do experience qualia (as these examples indicate), that demonstrates the key feature of phenomenal consciousness.
According to our working model, it is not necessary for consciousness to be expressed as self-reflective or epistemic for it to indicate a level of conscious experience that is inexplicable in neurological terms. The experience of qualia is sufficient to assert that there must be an observer of such internal and subjective experience. Animals need not be reflective à la Rene Descartes. They don’t need to know that they know of their own existence. That is an advanced state of cognition, perhaps reserved for humans. But, the actuality of the subjective experience of qualia alone indicates that such a creature possesses similar phenomenal consciousness as ourselves.
Our working model concludes from a neurological analysis that neurological functions alone are not sufficient to account for the experience of phenomenal consciousness. It suggests that it is reasonable to postulate that consciousness may, therefore, be an irreducible feature of a field of reality distinct, though interactive with, physical matter.
There appears to be hesitation in conferring phenomenal consciousness on lower species, though increasingly this is being challenged by many recent studies. For example, although the subjective experience of pain was noted in higher forms, researchers at Queen’s University Belfast demonstrated that even shellfish exhibit intentional strategies beyond automatic stimulus/response action for the avoidance of pain. Evidence is emerging that plants learn and communicate information, even without neural systems.
Part of the hesitation in conferring phenomenal consciousness on lower species is an issue over the use of language, which some philosophers believe is intrinsic to having the ability to think. And, without the facility of thought, they ponder, is it possible for a lower species to be properly sentient? That approach is currently being challenged and is a separate topic.
In conclusion, our approach to the biological purpose or function of colour and other sensory properties should be consistent with the conclusion that many species experience those external properties as internal subjective experience. They experience qualia. This supports the contention that these species possess some degree of phenomenal consciousness. They may not be intellectually aware that they are aware, but they are aware. We may not understand what it’s like to experience life as a bat, but at least we should treat them as having the right to that enjoyment and experience.