Descartes and Animals: What if they also think?

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To be fair to myself, the cats with whom I’d grown up generally had enjoyed petting—or, at least, had not resisted so forcefully, so clearly. They’d had different names, but acted enough alike to assume they were the same. It took Isabel to say, “I am an individual, I have needs, and I don’t have to subsume my needs to yours.” I learned a lot from her response. Isabel’s needs led her to “speak her mind” in the ways at her disposal. She first expressed her desires with body language, which in my ignorance I either missed or ignored. Her only other option was to strike, at least in her mind.

The most interesting part, though, is that, within just a few minutes, Isabel came right back out of her room and strode over to the sofa, jumped onto my lap, and settled down. This was not common. Again, my brain whirred as this new information tried to find a place to settle into, though space was limited by my ongoing veterinary education. Still, I clearly saw conscious awareness here, as with Soot. Could I say Isabel felt remorse, or that she was apologizing to me? At the time, it seemed pretty clear that her expression was something like this. Her actions were clearly intentional, and she came right back to me like a moth to a flame. It was not an accident; this much was certain. My world rocked off kilter again, if only for a short time. I finally had to put the experience into a closet with the other ones, as they did not mix with my schooled understanding. I don’t mean that I consciously set these things aside, only that they stayed in limbo, as oddities that did not fit, and slowly got buried under mounds of anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, microbiology, and other medical data. Veterinary school required all of my attention, or at least enough, that I had not the luxury for philosophical speculation at the time.

And then there was Nikki. Nikki lived with my friend Annelise. Nikki reminded me of Isabel: stocky, feisty, and fiercely independent. Yet she also interacted with everyone, and people always liked her fiery and friendly nature. She loved to be in the middle of the action. Like an actor who just loves the limelight, Nikki loved to be seen. She craved attention, but not necessarily pets, and she drew clear boundaries when she’d had enough.

Annelise lived in an A-frame house, with its tall, sloping roof and high ceilings. A freestanding set of upper and lower cabinets, with barstools on either side, divided the kitchen from the dining area. All five cats loved to perch on top of the upper cabinets.

One day, I sat across this counter from Annelise, when, out of nowhere, here came Nikki, charging into the kitchen, up onto the countertop, and then she leapt up to the top of the upper cabinets. Except she missed. She apparently misjudged her jump and did not quite make the top, and then she fell back to the countertop unhurt, on her feet. At that, Annelise and I couldn’t help but burst out laughing. With Nikki’s reputation and the obvious bravado with which she had intended to take to the top in two bounds from the floor, we just looked at each other and howled.

Nikki took a quick look at me, then ran over to Annelise and smacked her on the arm before tearing off into the bedroom. And, of course, that pushed us over the top as we had to hold onto the counter to avoid falling off the stools in teary-eyed mirth.

And yet, here was another message from CAT, the collective being of cats with whom I have shared my life: We are conscious. We are sentient. We think, we know, we feel. We are like you. We think, therefore we are.

Nikki clearly was embarrassed, had her feelings hurt, or something similar, and she was offended at our laughter at her expense. Who wouldn’t be? Whether she knew it was because of her feisty spirit, and really in fondness for that feisty spirit, I don’t know. What I do know, what these animals have shown me, is that I can no longer pretend that they are unaware. I have no choice but to see them as equal to me: equally conscious, equally valuable, equally an expression of whatever magnificent force manifests this world.

I’ve since seen numerous cases wherein cats and dogs show discomfort when humans laugh at them. I can’t say it’s always stopped me from laughing at animals when their behavior appears funny, any more than always refraining from laughing at fellow humans, or even at myself. We all take ourselves much too seriously. But I can say that I now retain a sensitivity to animals’ feelings and attempt to judge when it’s OK to laugh and when it is better to restrain my mirth, as I would do with human friends.

I’ve learned so much from the animals with whom I’ve had the fortune to share this life. Their exuberance brings endless joy. Their general—but not complete—non-judgment about me remains a model I struggle to emulate. And it’s because I know they are sentient that their behavior glows so brightly, that their acceptance is all the more impressive. If they were the instinctive, animated machines whom Descartes described, who bear the brunt of human blundering via animal research, ecological wasting, abuse, and neglect, it would not mean so much. But to know that these animals think, perceive, and feel in ways that are so similar to me, brings me greater joy in my interactions with them while, at the same time, it pains me to know how they suffer at our hands. They give so much comfort to me, to so many in this modern world. We’re so estranged from anything natural—from nature. Carl Jung believed that nature could cure almost any of our ills, at least our mental and emotional ills. It’s certainly true for me. But most people haven’t the luxury to live as close to nature as I do.

Companion animals provide this link to nature, and in this their service is invaluable. Unfortunately, though, our conditioned perception of them as instinctual beings not only limits them—limits their lives and their freedoms—but it also limits the value we can gain from interacting with them. Becoming aware that these animals interact with me similarly to how I interact with them brings their gift to an entirely new and more profound level. I know it’s a privilege and a grace to share my life with them.

I used to see them as beneath me. Not in value and not even consciously, but subliminally I saw them as less complex, less aware. This belief that they only instinctually relate to their world conferred this perception on me. Our society imprints this belief in us all. Thankfully, interactions like the ones I have described have changed this. 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. We push ourselves and our entire world to the brink in this reflexive, instinctual drive for satiation. It’s beyond survival, it’s more like insanity in action as we career through life like bumper cars, bouncing off whatever is in our path. If we only realized how deeply these animals feel, what they know, we would act more respectfully towards them, we would treat them as we like to be treated. And we would likely obtain at least some of what we unconsciously seek. Unfortunately, though, unlike the bumper cars, where no one or no thing gets hurt, we hurt these beings around us, and in so doing, we hurt ourselves—since, as we slowly begin to relearn our lost understanding, we see that they and we are one.

Don Hamilton practices veterinary homeopathy and is the author of Homeopathic Care for Cats and Dogs: Small Doses for Small Animals.

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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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