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David M. Peña-Guzmán: Imagination, consciousness and animal dreams

The dreams of animals raise exciting questions about consciousness and cognition, but they also raise urgent ones about ethics, since they make us reconsider how animals fit (or don’t fit) into our moral frameworks.

DAVID M. PENA-GUZMAN: There is an entry in Voltaire’s Dictionnaire Philosophique devoted to dreams… Voltaire attributes this aura of mystery that surrounds dreams to the fact that no one has successfully explained one of the most remarkable features of oneiric experiences, which is the strange mixture of activity and passivity that we experience in the face of our own nocturnal phantasms. Dreams do not come to us from some mysterious beyond; rather, they surge from the most intimate within. They surge from within ourselves…

Voltaire also understood that dreams are not the exclusive property of human beings since nonhuman animals also experience this paradoxical cocktail of activity and passivity whenever sleep exiles them from “the empire of the senses.” “The dog,” he writes, “is chasing in the dream, he barks, he pursues his prey, he is on the run.”

For him, the power of dreams is not that they crystallize what makes humans unique among animals, but that they put humans on the same plane with other species. Dreaming is not a faculty of the human. It is a faculty of the animal. This leads Voltaire to hurl a curious challenge to his readers. He writes, “Consider all of this and try to figure out what the animal composite is.” Put differently, think about how bizarre dreams are, ponder the fact that animals dream, and then try to figure out what it means to be an animal…

This is the challenge I take up in my book ‘When Animals Dream: The Hidden World of Animal Consciousness’, which takes a dive into the cognitive, psychological, and emotional lives of nonhuman animals by looking at the science and philosophy of animal dreams. Like Voltaire, I believe that attending to the dreams of other species can alter our perspective of the animal. Drawing from philosophy, comparative psychology, and neuroscience, I argue that plenty of animals re-enact scenes from waking life while asleep.

This includes not only mammals such as cats, rats, and elephants, but also multiple species of birds, fishes, and cephalopods. Indeed, recent findings indicate that dream experiences may even occur in critters with so-called “simple” nervous systems, such as bees and jumping spiders. My central insight is that these re-enactments can enrich, and even revolutionize, our understanding of the minds of other species. Above all, they call tell us things we didn’t previously know about their ability to sense, perceive, remember, and even imagine…

Focus for a moment on imagination. Do other animals imagine? How can we know? And what would it mean for us to accept that other animals have their own imaginary worlds that we perhaps cannot even fathom? Although there are many ways to think about imagination, one way to define it is as the act of making subjectively present something that is objectively absent…

Re-enactments should be understood as imaginings given that they hinge on the invention of objects of experience that have a purely subjective mode of existence. What’s more, I believe they are indicators of animal consciousness since they presuppose not only sentience (the capacity to sense and feel) but also subjectivity – the ability to see and experience the world from the standpoint of an “I”…

The dreams of animals raise exciting questions about consciousness and cognition, but they also raise urgent ones about ethics. Many professional animal ethicists have already argued that discoveries about the minds of animals have ethical repercussions since they make us reconsider how animals fit (or don’t fit) into our moral frameworks.

The more we learn about animal sentience, animal emotions, animal cognition, and animal consciousness, the harder it is to deny that animals deserve to be treated with care and respect and that they are entitled to what philosophers call “moral rights,” such as the right to life, the right to liberty, and the right to be taken into account. SOURCE…

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