Descartes and Animals: What if they also think?

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Before humans shifted into rational thinking, we saw our world as reflections of us; we knew we existed as a part of the great web of existence. And we therefore understood that non-human animals are different from us in degree only. We did not see ourselves as distinct, as a completely separate species. We knew that other animals operate with awareness, understand the world in different, sometimes superior ways, and respond consciously to the world. We saw them with compassion.

But we’ve left that behind since Descartes. We still, as a society, see non-human animals as instinctual, reflexive beings. At least that’s the official line. I grew up with this mindset. While I grew up with cats, the occasional dog, monkeys, hamsters, and so on, I observed them through this rational, scientific filter and interpreted their actions from within its framework. I especially enjoyed cats, and spent many happy hours petting and observing them—still I never really saw them. At least, most of the time. Occasionally, they jolted me awake with behaviors I couldn’t explain as instinctual.

My first lesson occurred when I was twelve. We had two male cats in our household, both un-neutered. Smokey, a Siamese, was “mine,” while Soot, a gray tiger, held my sister as his primary human. Smokey, like Michael Jackson, was “a lover, not a fighter.” Soot, however, was the bully on the block, and regularly attacked Smokey as well as other neighborhood cats, often at night, the peak time for nocturnal animals. On one of these nights, the squalling came from the back porch, close enough and loud enough to wake me. It was winter and new snow and ice covered the porch, where Soot had Smokey cornered.

I ran out the back door onto the frozen porch in my pajamas and bare feet to break up the fight. I grabbed Smokey up into my arms and turned back to the door. As I reached for the handle, I felt a sharp sting on my leg, and then several stings, where Soot had wrapped his legs around mine, digging in with his front claws while biting me on the calf. I jumped, slipped on the ice, and tumbled, scattering both cats in the act. I partly fell on Soot, who scooted into the night. Snatching Smokey, I ran inside, stunned by this turn of events.

Smokey and I retreated to my bedroom, where I lay wide awake, not from my wounds, but in awe of Soot’s inexplicable action. I hadn’t been schooled enough yet to simply dismiss this as redirected aggression, or as an instinctual attack on me in an attempt to get at Smokey. No, even at twelve I knew this went much deeper, that Soot likely knew full well who and why he bit in that last, frustrated attack. It was quite clear he was pissed at me for getting in the way, and this implied a much deeper awareness, a consciousness I had never heard discussed and cannot say I had experienced before. It was one of those moments where the world shifted slightly off its axis, where things were no longer as they had been. And yet, it was dreamlike enough that I also wondered if it was true. Not whether Soot had bitten me—of that I had ample proof. But was it true that he did so consciously? I felt sure it was, but I hadn’t enough awareness myself to properly integrate this knowledge, and there was no one with whom I felt I could discuss my experience.

In fairness, at twelve I was not really aware of my own consciousness. I did know, however, that I thought about my actions, that I responded emotionally to others’ actions. I knew that I participated in my life with awareness, though I hadn’t taken time to consider this awareness. My teachers and my elders, in contrast, all said that animals acted only through instinct, like the baby chick who imprints upon whatever it sees upon emerging from its egg, accepting that as its mother.

With that background, I stewed upon Soot’s actions for a few weeks. I had never seen such behavior in an animal. I found it puzzling, yet I could also imagine reacting similarly if I were in his place. His reaction seemed so human. And there’s the clue: emotional and conscious responses I thought limited to humans; so I thought his behavior human-like when it appeared conscious, emotive. There’s the bias, right in our language, right in my thoughts.

My next lesson came during veterinary school, from Isabel, a stocky black female who’d shown up as a stray kitten at our student housing apartment. My wife and I both loved animals, so we took Isabel in immediately, despite rules forbidding pets in campus housing. It wasn’t in rebellion; we simply saw a cold, hungry kitten and brought her inside, not even considering the rules. We quickly became attached, and that was that. Isabel was independent and a bit ornery, but also a very nice cat. She just liked her space. One evening, as we sat down after dinner, I picked Isabel up to hold her, but apparently she did not want to be held, and so she scratched me, swatting my nose with her claws, drawing blood. I put her down, my feelings hurt, and said, “Fine, Isabel, be that way. I’ll just leave you alone from now on.” She ran into “her” room—our spare bedroom, where she spent many hours in solitude.

I’d grown up with cats and had always connected easily with them. But, in a sense, I only saw them as living, breathing stuffed animals. Something to pet, to cuddle, to love—on my own terms and without real concern or awareness that they had their own desires and needs, which might be different from mine. I thought they liked me and always wanted me to pet them.

Isabel’s reaction not only surprised me, but I also felt hurt by her rejection. I was so unaware that I hadn’t even noticed that she did not want me to pick her up. I didn’t see her as Isabel; rather I saw her as a cat, and in my mind, cats liked attention, liked petting.

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Hi Don,

Wow - what a beautiful article! My favorite part was when you say:

“I now see them as at least equal, and in many ways superior to me, to humans. For it is we, more than they, who blunder unconsciously through life, not seeing any others, human or non-human, in our quest for satisfaction.”

Thoughts like that and a conscious shift in my perception allowed me to see animals for exactly the higher beings that they are. In fact aside from health reasons it was one of the greatest reasons for my decision to become vegetarian.  I do not believe that we can discriminate and say this animal deserves to live while this one is meant to be eaten.

They are all precious, they do think, they do feel and they are here to create their own experience, one which I do not think we should be taking away from them for simple reasons of “tastes”, “economy”, and the like.

Posted by Evita  on  08/31  at  07:52 AM

What a great read Don, thank you!

I have always had cats in my life, my present platonic feline life partner is Shara, a large squishy tortoiseshell, who takes life and snuggling very seriously, except when she doesn’t.

I have been with her since I moved to Seattle almost 9 years ago, and she really gave me the love and tenderness necessary to get me through the immigration process and the culture shock of leaving England for this crazy country.  ;-)

That cat can communicate more with one look than most people can with a whole conversation.

I’d like to bring your attention to Da Fear No More, a unique sanctuary for non-humans, set up by the late Spiritual Master Adi Da Samraj, specifically for all the reasons you describe above. Not only to provide a hermitage sanctuary for them, a place where their spiritual life is respected and encouraged, (you’ve observed your cats meditating frequently?), but where we humans can learn from them, about ourselves, and about them as conscious beings.

Posted by Chandira  on  02/11  at  09:19 AM
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