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A Philosophy for the Science of Animal Consciousness

By: Walter Veit(Author), Nicola S Clayton(Foreword By)
144 pages, 3 b/w illustrations
Publisher: Routledge
A Philosophy for the Science of Animal Consciousness
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  • A Philosophy for the Science of Animal Consciousness ISBN: 9781032343617 Paperback Jun 2023 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 1 week
  • A Philosophy for the Science of Animal Consciousness ISBN: 9781032343600 Hardback Jun 2023 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 1 week
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About this book

This book attempts to advance Donald Griffin's vision of the "final, crowning chapter of the Darwinian revolution" by developing a philosophy for the science of animal consciousness. It advocates a Darwinian bottom-up approach that treats consciousness as a complex, evolved, and multidimensional phenomenon in nature rather than a mysterious all-or-nothing property immune to the tools of science and restricted to a single species.

The so-called emergence of a science of consciousness in the 1990s has at best been a science of human consciousness. This book aims to advance a true Darwinian science of consciousness in which its evolutionary origin, function, and phylogenetic diversity are moved from the field's periphery to its very centre, thus enabling us to integrate consciousness into an evolutionary view of life. Accordingly, this book has two objectives: (i) to argue for the need and possibility of an evolutionary bottom-up approach that addresses the problem of consciousness in terms of the evolutionary origins of a new ecological lifestyle that made consciousness worth having and (ii) to articulate a thesis and beginnings of a theory of the place of consciousness as a complex evolved phenomenon in nature that can help us to answer the question of what it is like to be a bat, an octopus, or a crow.

A Philosophy for the Science of Animal Consciousness will appeal to researchers and advanced students interested in advancing our understanding of animal minds as well as anyone with a keen interest in how we can develop a science of animal consciousness.


Foreword Nicola S. Clayton

1. A Darwinian Philosophy for the Science of Consciousness
2. The Explanandum: Animal Consciousness and Phenomenological Complexity
3. The Origins of Consciousness or the War of the Five Dimensions
4. Pathological Complexity and the Dawn of Subjectivity
5. Pathological Complexity meets Phenomenological Complexity
6. The Final, Crowning Chapter of the Darwinian Revolution

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Challenging, thought-provoking, but worthwhile
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 7 Dec 2023 Written for Paperback

    The nature of consciousness is one of the hardest problems in biology. What exactly is it? Where did it come from? And are non-human animals conscious? Philosophers and scientists range from ascribing consciousness to all life (biopsychism), or even all matter (panpsychism), to attributing it exclusively to humans. Seemingly beyond the purview of empirical science due to its subjective nature, there is a lack of "intuitively attractive solutions" (p. xiii). In the opinion of Walter Veit, an assistant professor in philosophy, that just will not do. In this slim but advanced-level book, he outlines a mightily interesting thesis of how consciousness could have gradually evolved, which aspect of it likely appeared first, and why we urgently need to step away from taking human consciousness as our yardstick.

    Before we delve in, I note that several parts of this book have been previously published as articles and are here extended and improved upon. Given the above-mentioned wild sweep of alternative views, it might help to start by situating Veit's ideas amidst his peers. I am doing this with the caveat that my background is in evolutionary biology, not philosophy, so bear with me while I try not to make a hash of this. First, Veit is a materialist: consciousness is a neurological phenomenon explainable in terms of biological matter. Second, he is a gradualist: consciousness did not appear suddenly but evolved gradually. As with other biological phenomena, we should expect "gradation and variation of it across the tree of life" (p. 24).

    How does Veit go about his mission to give an evolutionary account of the origins of consciousness? For consciousness to evolve by natural selection, it had to be a trait worth having. Veit argues that "the function of consciousness is to enable the agent to respond to pathological complexity" (p. 2). I admit that I struggled with the term "pathological complexity" as I find neither the term nor the link he makes between health and consciousness intuitive. Veit immediately admits this. Equally adequate and less confusing would be the term "life history complexity". That is a term I can work with. Life history theory studies how organisms deal with the trade-off between growth and reproduction. There are many different solutions to staying in the game of life by achieving reproductive success, which explains the mind-boggling diversity of life history strategies.

    Having answered the question of what consciousness is for (to deal with life history complexity), you may well ask: when did life history become so complex? Veit argues that this happened during the Cambrian explosion. This resulted in a computational explosion in life history choices, creating strong selective pressures for the evolution of consciousness. Note that, as opposed to some others, he veers away from positioning it much earlier in time and granting consciousness to single-celled organisms.

    Okay, we have a "why" and we have a "when", but we have so far skirted the "what". What is consciousness exactly? Though Veit does not attempt the impossible by trying to define it, he does emphasize throughout that the human subjective experience cannot be our yardstick. For too long, research on animal consciousness has been held back by a top-down approach that asks how human-like other minds are. Instead, he advocates a bottom-up approach. Frans de Waal has elsewhere compared consciousness to an onion, consisting of layers. Veit here runs with that metaphor and takes a "reverse-engineering approach [that asks] for the most minimal form of consciousness" (p. 42). For this, he elaborates on the 2020 paper "Dimensions of Animal Consciousness" by Birch et al. who propose five aspects. Though we could argue endlessly about the exact number and kinds of dimensions, Veit thinks that there is nothing to be gained by trying to pin this down now. This is just a starting point for much-needed empirical work and can be refined later.

    A large chunk of the book explains these five aspects and starts peeling back the layers, discarding them in sequence until there is only one left. The one-sentence summary of this is that he considers diachronic experience (integrastion of experience across time), synchronic experience (experience of a single self), self-consciousness, and conscious sensory experience to be later add-ons to a core built on evaluative experience.

    The payoff, especially for a biologist such as myself, comes in the chapter where Veit reverses his reverse engineering, as it were. He returns to the discarded dimensions to see if there are animal groups that possess only some of them. This shows how, starting with just evaluative experience, sensory experience could quickly have evolved as an enrichment of evaluation. Selfhood could in turn have evolved as an enrichment of sensory experience. An evolutionary perspective can answer other puzzling observations. Take, for instance, the striking difference between the life histories of insect larvae and adults. The former focus on survival and are sensitive to pain, the latter focus on reproduction and seem unbothered by loss of limbs and other gruesome injuries. An evolutionary perspective is also compatible with the loss of certain aspects of consciousness with time. What ultimately counts for an organism is the adaptive value; there is no march of progress here towards human-style consciousness.

    The above is but a quick-and-dirty summary. I have skimmed over many subtleties, objections, and responses to these. Hopefully, however, it gives you an idea of whether this is a book worth pursuing. A word of advice: do not let its 122 pages fool you, this is a slim but dense volume and is squarely aimed at advanced-level students in philosophy, psychology, and cognitive sciences. In earlier reviews I described Godfrey-Smith's Metazoa as a step up from Other Minds. This book in turn is a step up from Metazoa. If terms such as phenomenology or valence are not part of your daily vocabulary, you might find this work challenging. Despite the jargon, it is written with flair. It is also very clearly structured. Each chapter, and the book as a whole, outline what will be discussed, discuss it, and then summarise what has just been discussed. Furthermore, I appreciate that Veit remains humble and tones down the ambition of this project. This book is not intended to rule out other theories on the origins of consciousness. Rather, it seeks "to undermine an almost certain confidence seen in parts of the field" (p. 52) either that we have it all figured out, or that we can proceed no further figuring it out. A fresh take on consciousness, Veit offers an actionable way forward to cracking this nut and has written a challenging, thought-provoking, and worthwhile book.
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Walter Veit is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Bristol. His interests stretch widely across science and philosophy, but they are primarily located at the intersection of the biological, social, and mind sciences in addition to empirically informed philosophy and ethics.

By: Walter Veit(Author), Nicola S Clayton(Foreword By)
144 pages, 3 b/w illustrations
Publisher: Routledge
Media reviews

"In A Philosophy for the Science of Animal Consciousness, Walter Veit argues for a more thoroughly Darwinian approach to understanding how consciousness has come into existence, and in which beings it is to be found. By shifting the focus away from human consciousness, he helps us to understand the diversity of forms of consciousness that exist in other animals."
– Peter Singer, Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics, Princeton University

"The a priori position that human consciousness differs from that in other animals has become hard to defend. In an eye-opening account, Walter Veit explains why. As a true philosopher, he delves into both the richness and ambiguity of the concept of consciousness."
– Frans de Waal, C. H. Candler Professor of Psychology, Emory University

"Walter Veit takes a deep historically- and empirically-informed look at the origins of cognitive ethology and re-centers the field on Donald Griffin's original idea that it's consciousness in animals that really matters. He tackles the question of how to fit an account of consciousness into the life histories of individual animals, using a Darwinian framework that emphasizes the variety and adaptive radiation of forms and functions of consciousness in the evolutionary tree."
– Colin Allen, Distinguished Professor, University of Pittsburgh

"Some think that explaining consciousness is beyond the scope of evolutionary theory. Undeterred, Walter Veit rolls up his sleeves and gets on with the task. Drawing on the latest work in evolutionary biology, cognitive ethology, and neuroeconomics, he reverse engineers consciousness, distinguishing its different dimensions and components and identifying its roots in an ancient evaluative system which evolved to manage the complex action-selection problems faced by early forms of animal life. This is a pioneering and important book, which is informed throughout by an awareness of the rich diversity of animal life and experience. It will challenge your view of consciousness and transform your attitude to your fellow creatures."
– Keith Frankish, Honorary Professor, Department of Philosophy, University of Sheffield

"Walter Veit has written a very thoughtful and thought-provoking philosophical exploration of the evolutionary origins of consciousness. He aims to bring us closer to a true biological science of animal consciousness, what Donald R. Griffin, the founder of the field of Cognitive Ethology, termed the "crowning chapter of the Darwinian revolution." That chapter is to be written by studying the mental experiences of animals in their daily lives and natural worlds. Veit's work exhibits the fruitfulness of the growing collaborations between philosophers and scientists of animal behavior to the clear benefit of both. He gives serious consideration to the problem of consciousness and the evolution of forms of consciousness, integrating the work of many disciplines and delineating the likely functional significance of consciousness and its varieties in different species. Veit offers persuasive arguments and examples that evaluative consciousness lies at the core of the phenomenon of consciousness, though leaving enough to argue about and discuss fruitfully as to other characteristics that may be strong contenders for that role. His work is a significant contribution to the field and well worth delving into."
– Carolyn A. Ristau

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