GUEST ESSAY: Consciousness, animals and human responsibility

By Benjamin Jones

(This is a guest essay submitted to the Metaphysical Speculations Discussion Forum, where it was extensively reviewed and critically commented on by forum members. The opinions expressed in it are those of its author.)

Over the last few hundred years most scientists and philosophers have laboured under the conviction that consciousness is merely a by-product of unconscious matter—many have taken it even further and discredited the existence of consciousness altogether. Due to this belief in the fundamentality of matter we learned to implicitly rank consciousness in hierarchical levels based on the level of complexity of the physical structure within which we believe it to be housed. Humans, we believed, have the greatest level of consciousness. Animals less so—with smaller animals having the least—and the rest of nature, well, it’s all simply inanimate. This view of the world naturally leads to the disregard of animals and nature. I often reads things along the lines of, “ravens are very intelligent creatures you know,” or, “science has discovered that trees have intelligence,” or, “ground breaking discovery—squirrels have feelings!” The fact that we say these things as though they are new discoveries shows just how far we have detached ourselves from reality.

Recently I walked past a caged parrot in a garden. The cage was large as far as cages go. The bird had plenty of toys and ropes to swing around on. The owners, I’m sure, think it is a very lucky bird indeed. And yet it sounded like it was screaming. Not singing, or calling, but screaming. This bird was distressed, lonely and confused. This was self-evident to me (and also to my dog, it seemed).

How then, are the ‘owners’ of this bird oblivious to its suffering? Are they also unaware of its beauty, its innocence, its aliveness? Do they think it irrelevant that in the wild these birds are majestic, social, singing, playing, celebratory expressions of life? And even if they weren’t, how can we ever come to cage life?

​I wanted to free the parrot but was unable to get to it, and anyway it would have only died if I did. Perhaps that would be better: a few days of freedom over a lifetime of captivity.

That evening I was on Peta UK’s website and discovered that in 2017 alone over 9 million animals were used for the first time in experiments in the EU. A further 12.6 million were used to breed or simply wasted away in cages. How did humanity became so ignorant and dismissive of animals and nature? It is simple, we forgot our nature—which is intimately one with all things. Let me try to explain.

Modern human life has become a constant battle to keep out all that is potentially threatening or uncomfortable about nature. The conceptual mind has become our ruler, but it is merely a small part of our encasement and therefore can never touch the truth of life.

William Blake once wrote, “every bird that cuts the airy way, is an immense world of delight, encased by the five senses.” What is this ‘world of delight’ he speaks of? It must be beyond the five senses because otherwise it could not be ‘encased’ within them. It must be something shared by Blake and the bird because they are both present in the experience. And its ‘delight’ must be inherent within itself, not reliant on the world of the senses.

In religion its name (although misused over the centuries) is God, in spirituality its name is pure consciousness or something similar, in direct experience its name is joy, or freedom, or expansiveness, or love. It is not a special state to be reached but the underlying essence of every experience; the source and substance of the apparent ‘encasement.’

This ‘world of delight’ chooses to forget its unbound nature and becomes apparently encased within a finite experience—the five senses in this example. We could say that emotions, feelings, and conceptual thought also appear to encase it.

As human beings we have the potential, often unrealised, of experientially discovering this ‘world of delight’ as the very nature of experience. This can happen through enquiry, spiritual practice, or spontaneously. Indeed it also happens at many times throughout our lives in the form of happiness, joy, love, beauty, truth, or anytime we experience the gap between or the ground beneath thoughts and feelings.

There is nothing to suggest that animals don’t also have this potential, after all they are just as much an expression of this reality as we are. It seems self-evident, however, that their way of realising it is not through enquiry or exploration, but—as is also the case with humans—in the relaxation of aspects of the encasement which happens in the natural course of life; basically through the relaxation of the body-mind, which allows the peaceful delight at the source of experience to be recognised. On the flip side, when the body is hungry or in pain or in fear, the ‘world of delight’ is obscured by the tightening grip of the encasement.

Since we have this potential—the potential to discover our nature beyond the apparent encasement—and also, on a more everyday level, understand the necessity and ways of making this encased experience as pleasant and enjoyable as possible, we therefore have a great responsibility towards animals.

The most obvious responsibility we have, and one which everyone is capable of, is refraining from doing things which we know cause pain, discomfort, fear, confusion and anything else which makes the experience of this apparent encasement fraught with suffering and apparently absent of the ‘world of delight.’

Sadly, this is a responsibility which human’s have neglected. Whether this started with Christianity’s arrogant disregard for other beings, and whether it was accentuated by modern Materialism’s conviction that reality is fundamentally inanimate, is not clear to me. But this doesn’t excuse or fully explain human disregard, ignorance and sometimes downright maliciousness towards animals and nature in general. It goes much deeper than our past conditioning and worldviews. It stems from our lack of understanding of ourselves; it stems from being so obliviously confined within our own encasement that we forget our shared essence with all existence; we forget the ‘world of delight’ which life truly is.

We haven’t always been so separated from nature’s reality. For tens of thousands of years humans lived harmoniously, reverentially and inclusively with all around us. Pagans, native Indians, and many other ancestral cultures had a deep intuitive knowing of their inherent oneness with nature’s reality. They may have eaten animals but they did so with respect and reverence and therefore lived as a part of the great movement of life.

We learned to define ‘intelligence’ as ‘intellect’ and group this so-called intelligence in with levels of consciousness. The subsequent confusion leads us to believe and feel that anything which doesn’t have the faculty of conceptual thought is a lower level of consciousness.

Modern human life, on the other hand, has become a constant battle to keep out all that is potentially threatening or uncomfortable about nature. The conceptual mind has become our ruler and we therefore regurgitate old habits, ideas, paradigms and theories in the hope that it will bring ‘progress.’ But the conceptual mind is merely a small part of our encasement and therefore can never touch the truth of life; it can never provide us with the intuition and knowing which will end our abuse of animals and nature; it will never infuse the world with the ‘delight’ of its essence.

Along with the relegation and classification of consciousness on fundamental and relative levels respectively, we learned to define ‘intelligence’ as ‘intellect’ and group this so-called intelligence in with levels of consciousness. The subsequent confusion leads us to believe and feel that anything which doesn’t have the faculty of conceptual thought is less intelligent, and more subtly so, a lower level of consciousness.

If we take our own experience—instead of limited research and theoretical models which often bear little relation to experience—we can quite easily discredit the belief that consciousness or intelligence is based on conceptual thought. If you took away all conceptual thought from the experience of this moment would consciousness (the simple act of being aware) lessen? Quite clearly not. Now imagine or remember a fearful situation, in which thoughts are often greatly diminished or not present at all: what is left? Does the feeling of fear within the body disappear? What about if you were locked in a room for prolonged periods of time: would not being able to conceptualise your situation make it a desirable or neutral one?

Of course not! Granted, conceptual thought adds greatly to our suffering, fear and even physical pain, but it by no means makes up the totality of it. Those who are capable of caging birds must, on some level, believe that if they had the same intelligence and consciousness as the bird then they would be happy locked in a room for their whole life. They must, on some level, believe that the bird is less capable than they are of feeling emotion, physical discomfort, loneliness, despair, confusion, stress, claustrophobia and so on; they must, on some level, believe that these qualities of experience are reserved only for those who have conceptual thought and thus—in their view—more consciousness and intelligence.

This leads to my point: the responsibility we have towards animals and nature is not that of ‘learning’ new things about them, but of rediscovering what we have forgotten; it is not to do more and more research—which is often at the expense of animals and nature anyway—in order to create new theoretical models, gain limited knowledge and make ‘discoveries’ which common sense could have told us of in the first place; no, our responsibility lies not in separating and elevating ourselves even further from the reality of nature into conceptual thought and analysis; it lies, instead, in re-immersing ourselves in that reality, merging into it once again and reconnecting with our awe, reverence and intimate love for this great dance of intelligence.

Behind the veil of separation we have thrown over reality there is a great ‘world of delight.’ Why not let this be the basis of all our endeavours? Maybe then we’ll also become birds cutting the airy way, encased in the five senses but also intimately one with the infinite sky.

Copyright © 2020 by Benjamin Jones. Published with permission.


  1. Most excellent essay/ I thoroughly 'grooved' with it. High-Five Benjamin!

    Suggested correction: Unless I am mistaken, the word "not" should be edited out of "What about if you were locked in a room for prolonged periods of time: would not being able to conceptualize your situation make it a desirable or neutral one?" Either way, this comment may warrant deleting.

  2. I loved this Benjamin. You couldnt be more right!

  3. Very interesting when considered in conjunction with Benjamin's essay:
    Thanks to Justin Lohman for bringing my attention to this.

  4. To the forum members and essay readers, my apologies if I’m doing this wrong, I’m a knob when it comes to some of these social media products.

    Was trying to let you all know about Gary Yorofsky an animal rights activist and public speaker (currently retired). His material really ‘woke’ me up.

  5. What is most important about suffering is that it s something that occurs at the level of the individual mind. For this, it is irrelevant if the individual mind is ultimately real or just an alter, a manifestation of a universal or divine consciousness. This means that ethically speaking, we should avoid hurting other sentient beings, especially the ones that can be expected to feel pain, fear, sadness and discomfort, i.e. vertebrates and higher invertibrates such as squids. Arthur Schopenhauer acknowledged this through his vegetarianism. Nowadays we know that the production of eggs and milk are also accompanied in most cases with a large amount of suffering (of male chicks and calves, as well as of unproductive farm animals), which means the contemporary answer should be veganism. Gary Yourofsky may sometimes have forgotten that humans are sentient individuals too, but he certainly is right about veganism.

  6. Sensitive, insightful, uplifting, and vitally important essay. Thank you for it, Benjamin Jones, and thank you, Bernardo, for publishing it. Readers might also enjoy this synopsis of an earlier exploration of similar territory by a largely-forgotten thinker.

  7. Hi, i want to ask if animals feel pain like i feel my breathing when im not focused on it or how does it work, sorry if i missed the answer somewhere. Thx

  8. Hi Bernardo, I like your material, but are you going for the inter-species social tour?

    You advertise with a consciounsess-only perspective, while you do not elucidate:

    a) the internal structure of consciousness. Not of human, nor of other organisms. The primitive of universal mind does not derive or introduce any internal structure. You are reasoning in circles. Or am I mistaken? What is your solution to internal structure and dynamics of consciousness?

    b) (sexual) reproduction. Any serious theory of mind highlights this topic. Why don't you? How is sexual reproduction embedded in your theory? Why do people have sex – and not in terms of conservation of species, but in terms of 'experience', consciousness?

    c) internal phenomenal structure. Why use a quantum mechanical description as reality of a consciousness-only perspective? Fistly, you do not describe (phenomenal) sensory/psychosocial dynamics and how it could be related to the physical-reality framework? b) why use a quantum mechanical perspective in your consciousness-only model? Ilove physics. I love phenomenology of human experience. On the level of 'human experience' they have little to do with each other... ok. One is a measurement one is experience. A serious difference in quality. How do you unify?

    In quantum measurement 'experience' itself is not involved, merely a one scale of measurement. How do you fix terminology regarding interal strucrture? How do you elucidate structure of experience? Internal structure of consciousness?