The Subjective Is Objective

Section 1

By David Olivier


1. Opposing Certainties

My assertion that our current physics is unable to account for sentience may come as a surprise to some. Indeed, my position is at odds with that of quite a few philosophers, and particularly of several antispeciesist philosophers. Peter Singer, for example, spends eight pages in Animal Liberation3 countering the Cartesian position according to which animals are entirely unsentient and feel nothing at all. Singer advances several arguments, all of a scientific nature, without ever mentioning any problem about the scientific status of sentience itself. His arguments concern the behaviour of animals, the presence of nervous tissue and the evolutionary relevance of pain. It's on the same basis that he argues against sentience in plants4. One also often finds mentioned the presence in this or that animal of certain chemical substances, such as endorphins mentioned by Joan Dunayer in her article "Fish: Sensitivity Beyond the Captor's Grasp"5. Following my experience, antispeciesist activists quite generally tend to believe that the scientific status of pain and sentience is unproblematic and that our inability, for example, to determine whether or not an ant can suffer is only the result of a lack of attention on the part of scientists to the issue.

This attitude sharply contrasts with a view very frequently shared precisely by persons with a scientific background and who claim to speak for a certain rationalism. Their tendency is instead to declare the question whether or not a given animal is sentient as meaningless. Erwin Schrödinger, one of the founders of quantum mechanics, expressed this idea - that he didn't share - very clearly, in the answer he imagines a "rationalist" would give to the question "what kind of material process is directly linked to consciousness"6:

A rationalist may be inclined to deal curtly with this question, roughly as follows. From our own experience, and as regards the higher animals from analogy, consciousness is linked up with certain kinds of events in organized, living matter, namely, with certain nervous functions. How far back or 'down' in the animal kingdom there is still some sort of consciousness, and what it may be like in its early stages, are gratuitous speculations, questions that cannot be answered and which ought to be left to idle dreamers. It is still more gratuitous to indulge in thoughts about whether perhaps other events as well, events in inorganic matter, let alone all material events, are in some way or other associated with consciousness. All this is pure fantasy, as irrefutable as it is unprovable, and thus of no value for knowledge.

Mind and Matter, ch. 1

This position, which claims to be "rationalist"7 discards as meaningless the issue of animal sentience (consciousness). It does accept, however, without qualifications that "we" are sentient - "we" being human beings. It treats our own sentience as an empirical fact, one that is part of the reality of the world; one that is furthermore linked some way to "nervous functions", in other words to ordinary observable physical events. But outside of the human species - and of a few "higher" animals - the status of sentience changes radically. For "lower" animals and inanimate objects, the claim is not that they lack sentience; rather, it is that in their case the issue of sentience is meaningless. It is no longer, in their case, in the realm of facts.

These two parties have in common that they see the issue of the scientific status of animal sentience as a unproblematic: the pro-animal philosophers because they believe that it has essentially been solved; the "rationalists" because they regard it instead as meaningless. I wish to call in question these two calm certainties; and in particular, that of "my side", of those who struggle for the respect of the interests of animals. Indeed, the opposing position, that dominates among scientists, is not without reasons; and to dialogue with these scientists, and with our society as a whole which trusts these scientists, and to answer their arguments with sincere and convincing counter-arguments, we must recognize these reasons. More broadly, reality belongs to us as much as to anyone; we must not allow that in the name of science, that is in the name of reality, the existence or relevance of animal sentience be denied. We must thus understand the real difficulties there are for making place for sentience in the scientific point of view, and start looking for ways to solve them.

This question has direct practical consequences regarding the interests of non human animals. Florence Burgat has described8 the tendency among researchers of the INRA (French national institute for agricultural research) in charge of the issue of animal well-being to view the object of their study as a non-issue reflecting mere "social pressure", that is a fantasy of the ill-informed members of the public (ill-informed because out of lack of scientific vision they take seriously the idea that animals may have an authentic well-being). Their studies will consequently aim at contenting this social pressure for as low a cost as possible. The well-being of animals will be measured by their health, a criterion seen instead as "objective" and itself measured in terms such as rates of weigh gain and other such data very much in harmony with the interests of the tradesmen, interests that are for their part seen as very real. When scientists have the mission of studying what is, and they believe that animal suffering is not, or that - equivalently, in their minds - that the question of animal suffering is meaningless, any serious social consideration of animal interests is impossible.

3. Animal Liberation, 2nd edition, 1990, ch. 1.

4. Animal Liberation, p. 352.

5. Joan Dunayer, «Les poissons: une sensibilité hors de portée du pêcheur», Cahiers antispécistes n°1, octobre 1991.

6. Erwin Schrödinger, L'Esprit et la Matière, trad. Michel Bitbol, Seuil, 1990, p. 154; original en anglais Mind and Matter, 1958.

7. Contrairement à ce que suggère cette citation, il n'est pas clair que Schrödinger lui-même endosse le caractère rationaliste de cette position, qui n'est, je l'ai dit, pas la sienne. Il y a peut-être là une question de traduction. Je n'ai pas l'original en anglais, mais dans une traduction allemande (lien périmé) le mot correspondant est Verstandesmensch - qui signifie plutôt «esprit positif».

8. Florence Burgat avec la collaboration de Robert Dantzer, dir., Les animaux d'élevage ont-ils droit au bien-être?, Paris, INRA Éditions, 2001.