2005 : WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE IS TRUE EVEN THOUGH YOU CANNOT PROVE IT?

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Senior Consultant (& former Ed-in-Chief & Publishing Director) at New Scientist; Author, After the Ice: Life, Death, and Geopolitics in the New Arctic
Editor-in-Chief, New Scientist

Strangely, I believe that cockroaches are conscious. That is probably an unappealing thought to anyone who switches on a kitchen light in the middle of the night and finds a family of roaches running for cover. But it's really shorthand for saying that I believe that many quite simple animals are conscious, including more attractive beasts like bees and butterflies.

I can't prove that they are, but I think in principle it will be provable one day and there's a lot to be gained about thinking about the worlds of these relatively simple creatures, both intellectually—and even poetically. I don't mean that they are conscious in even remotely the same way as humans are; if that we were true the world would be a boring place. Rather the world is full of many overlapping alien consciousnesses.

Why do I think they might be multiple forms of conscious out there? Before becoming a journalist I spent 10 years and a couple of post-doctoral fellowships getting inside the sensory worlds of a variety of insects, including bees and cockroaches. I was inspired by A Picture Book of Invisible Worlds, a slim out-of-print volume by Jakob von Uexkull (1864-1944). 

The same book had also inspired Niko Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz, the Nobel Prize winners who founded the field of ethology (animal behaviour). Von Uexkull studied the phenomenal world of animals, what he called their "umwelt", the worlds around animals as they themselves perceive them. Everything that an animals senses means something to it, for it has evolved to fit and create its world. Study of animals and their sensory worlds have now morphed into the field of sensory ecology, or on a wilder path, the newer science of biosemiotics.

I studied time studying how honey bees could find their way around my laboratory room (they had learnt to fly in through a small opening in the window) and find a hidden source of sugar. Bees could learn all about the pattern of key features in the room and would show they were confused if objects were moved around when they were out of the room. They were also easily distracted by certain kinds of patterns, particularly ones with lots of points and lines that had very abstract similarities to the patterns on flowers, as well as by floral scents, and by sudden movements that signalled danger. In contrast, when they were busy gorging on the sugar almost nothing could distract them, making it possible for myself to paint a little number on their backs so I distinguish individual bees.

To make sense of this ever changing behaviour, with its shifting focus of attention, I always found it simplest to figure out what was happening by imagining the sensory world of the bee, with its eye extraordinarily sensitive to flicker and colours we can't see, as a "visual screen" in the same way I can sit back and "see" my own visual screen of everything happening around me, with sights and sounds coming in and out of prominence. The objects in the bees world have significances or "meaning" quite different from our own, which is why its attention is drawn to things we would barely perceive.

That's what I mean by consciousness—the feeling of "seeing" the world and its associations. For the bee, it is the feeling of being a bee. I don't mean that a bee is self-conscious or spends time thinking about itself. But of course the problem of why the bee has its own "feeling" is the same incomprehensible "hard problem" of why the activity of our nervous system gives rise to our own "feelings".

But at least the bee's world is very visual and capable of being imagined. Some creatures live in sensory worlds that are much harder to access. Spiders that hunt at night live in a world dominated by the detection of faint vibration and of the tiniest flows of air that allow them to see fly passing by in pitch darkness. Sensory hairs that cover their body give them a sensitivity to touch far more finely grained than we can possibly feel through our own skin.

To think this way about simple creatures is not to fall into the anthropomorphic fallacy. Bees and spiders live in their own world in which I don't see human-like motives. Rather it is a kind of panpsychism, which I am quite happy to sign up to, at least until we know a lot more about the origin of consciousness. That may take me out of the company of quite a few scientists who would prefer to believe that a bee with a brain of only a million neurones must surely be a collection of instinctive reactions with some simple switching mechanism between then, rather have some central representation of what is going on that might be called consciousness. But it leaves me in the company of poets who wonder at the world of even lowly creatures.

"In this falling rain, 
where are you off to
snail?"

wrote the haiku poet Issa.

And as for the cockroaches, they are a little more human than the spiders. Like the owners of the New York apartments who detest them, they suffer from stress and can die from it, even without injury. They are also hierarchical and know their little territories well. When they are running for it, think twice before crushing out another world.