Descartes and Animals: What if they also think?
“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.”
by Don Hamilton
It was the middle of the night when their howling woke us. Yips, cries, howls, excited barks—sounds that some find disconcerting, but that I love. Sounds of joy, aliveness, uncontrolled and uncontrollable wildness. On this night, however, Kathleen and I sat bolt upright in bed. Where are Farley Mo and Zuffa? Kathleen and her cats had just recently moved from a city lot in Seattle to this outpost in Northern New Mexico, on the edge of the real world—the wilderness—with coyotes, hawks, owls, bobcats, lynx, and mountain lions, any one of which would love to eat a cat for dinner.
Sometimes those exuberant coyote cries mean they’ve just killed their next meal, and these coyotes sounded about fifty yards behind the house. We weren’t sure how well these city cats understood the risks they faced here in the wild. So we jumped out of bed, ran outside, and called the cats. Zuffa showed up rather quickly, but we saw no sign of Farley Mo. We headed towards where we heard the coyotes, but saw no cat, no coyotes, and fortunately, no blood or other signs of a kill.
Back at the house, Zuffa sat calmly on the deck. “Farley,” we called, but no sign, no answer. “Zuffa, where’s Farley Mo,” I asked. Zuffa looked casually towards his left, towards the east end of the deck. Was that an intentional look, I wondered, but then dismissed the thought. “FARLEY. . . . FARLEY MO!” we cried. Kathleen was beside herself. I did have an instinctual belief in the cats’ inherent understanding of the prey-predator relationship, since cats walk both sides of that line, but still I was worried.
“Zuffa,” I asked again, “where is Farley Mo?” Zuffa looked at me and calmly walked to the end of the deck and sat down, looking towards the clump of oaks just off the end of the deck. I walked over by Zuffa and called Farley Mo again, and here he came, calmly walking out of the oaks. Of course! I realized. Of course Farley had been in the oaks, either in a tree or ready to climb if needed. Of course he knew what to do. And, of course, Zuffa not only knew exactly where Farley was, but he also had answered me clearly, each time I had asked. First, with a look that would have sufficed if I had given him the credit he deserved, that he was not only conscious and aware, but also quite able to receive and give communication. And secondly—probably with the cat’s version of rolling his eyes at my human flaw, my inability to communicate as well as my human conceit—he used a clearer indication, perhaps as we might with a child, by walking to the end of the deck.
With humiliation and gratitude, I thanked Zuffa and apologized for not “listening” to his first answer. And I filed this alongside my other encounters with cat intelligence. For this was not my first encounter, not by a long shot—though it was one of the more profound, more clear examples of communication in both directions. I had long known that cats were conscious, thinking, emotional beings, yet I still fell into our species’ trap, the trap which I learned through my “scientific” education as a veterinarian. Even though I had inklings of cat consciousness prior to and during veterinary school, the Cartesian animals-as-instinctual-beings-only model settled deeply into my brain, and I can easily slip back into that mode whenever I drop out of conscious living.
René Descartes, whose most famous quote is, “I think, therefore I am,” also stated that animals acted merely by instinct, and that even their cries during vivisection came as reflexes rather than from pain as humans experience. This was a ghastly error that reverberates even today in animal research, as experiments worldwide subject millions of animals to terrible pain in the name of science. But that’s another story.
Descartes arguably gifted humankind greatly, as his rational thinking turned a corner and led us into scientific thinking and experimentation. His reasoning presaged the scientific method and logical approaches to the rational sciences. This opened the doors for tremendous gains in understanding our world; this understanding underpins all modern science, and even all western thought. It comes at a price, though, for the shift has been complete. In developing our logical sides, we’ve abandoned intuitive understandings; we now relate to our world completely differently than we did for countless millennia prior to Descartes—basically since humans first began to walk this earth. Descartes did not initiate this shift, which had been evolving for a few thousand years, but his reasoning provided the tipping point. Prior to him, rational thought occurred mostly within a context of intuitive consciousness.
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.
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.
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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