Interpreting Sentience: Scientific Skepticism Vs. Common Sense

Envision a famous sculpture–say, Michelangelo’s Statue of David. Let your mind’s eye focus on it for a moment (or just look above). Impressive specimen, you might think. Now imagine a skeptic coming along and arguing that you weren’t really seeing what you thought you were seeing: the image of a man.  We couldn’t be totally sure, the skeptic would say, that the statue represents a real live human being. Granted, a lot of evidence suggests that it represents a human being (such as the fact that it looks exactly like one!). But consider a few points: it’s seventeen feet tall, made of marble, and only shaped in a general resemblance of a human being–a resemblance that could, after all, be coincidental. None of these characteristics, the careful skeptic would argue, proves that Michelangelo intended it to reflect a human form.

Scholars are skeptics, and their cautious and systematic doubt–the kind that questions the representation of David–is prevalent in animal studies. A recent case in point is F. Bailey Norwood’s and Jayson L. Lusk’s Compassion by the Pound: The Economics of Farm Animal Welfare. Norwood and Lusk are accomplished, well-respected agricultural economists. Their book is generally superb. However, a compelling chapter on the sentience of farm animals stopped me in my tracks, reminding me how scholarly caution–usually an admirable quality–can lead to conclusions that are not only obviously wrong, but supportive of proof that’s empirically unachievable.

The chapter in question–”Animal Qualia: Investigating Animal Sentience”–summarizes an incredible hit list of peer-reviewed studies confirming animal sentience, emotionalism, and intelligence. We learn that cows “can not only solve simple problems but they become excited when a solution is found,” that pigs recognize as many as 30 of their peers, that after years of absence “a cow can still recognize up to 50 cattle and ten human faces,” that “pigs resemble humans to such a large extent that the heart valves from pigs can be transplanted into humans,” that chickens often behave “much like Pavlov’s dog,” that “unlike human infants, baby chicks will search for an object they have seen being hidden behind a screen,” and that pigs, which can predict what another pig thinks and sees, “are as smart as dogs.” It’s a spellbinding summary of sentience, and it’s hard to imagine an omnivore reading this chapter and not thinking seriously about becoming a herbivore.

Until the chapter’s conclusion. It’s then that that authors’ counterproductive skepticism kicks in, caution emerges, and a spade, all of a sudden, is no longer a spade. While there are “many reasons to support the idea of animal sentience,” there are, somewhat out of nowhere, “some reasons to cast doubt on the idea.” Despite the overwhelming, and often poignant, evidence that animal sentience is undeniable, the authors write that there is “a fair possibility that animals can feel pain.” A fair possibility? Even more befuddling, the authors conclude that, “it seems reasonable that this pain should be given some consideration.” Seems? Some? Where are these buffers coming from?  What am I missing here? What’s most troubling to me about this two-page dance around the evidence is that the conclusion could have been reduced to a few choice words: stop eating animal products.

But, as an academic, I’m well aware that that’s not how we academics roll. We tread lightly; we complicate; we question, object, challenge; we never jump to conclusions; we deliberate; we don’t like bumper-sticker length conclusions. These tendencies, however, can backfire. Specifically, at the threshold of common sense, they turn a statue of a beautiful human being into a pile of marble and a beautiful, sentient, non-human being into a falsely justifiable dinner option.





About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

18 Responses to Interpreting Sentience: Scientific Skepticism Vs. Common Sense

  1. BlessUsAll says:

    “Falsely justifiable dinner option” is precisely what the winner of The News York Times essay contest on “why it’s ethical to eat meat” will be presenting. (The deadline for entries is today.)

    These two ag economists appear to be passing a mighty hot potato, don’t they?

    They can no more deal with the undeniable fact of nonhuman sentience than can the editors of World Watch magazine accept that when 51% of climate change is caused by the livestock industry, as was proved in its Nov/Dec 2009 report by Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang, it’s time to go vegan. Way past time.

    Yesterday I went on a voyage in Jonathan Balcombe’s The Exultant Ark: A Pictorial Tour of Animal Pleasure. In his introduction, Balcombe gives three primary arguments and hypotheses supporting his case that nonhumans feel not only pain, but also pleasure. He also details the prejudices that prevent scientists and others from admitting as much. “In fact,” he writes, “farmed animals have been well studied, and none of the biases we commonly hold against them stand up to scrutiny.” He then gives examples.

    Later in the intro, Balcombe suggests that as we gaze at the photos of animals playing and foraging and eating and touching and courting and comforting and loving one another, we “[r]eflect on the significance of the fact that animals also experience good feelings. And the next time you see a crow or a cat or a lizard, stop and watch. Try to imagine their experience.”

    Imagination. That’s what Norwood and Lusk lack. Common-sense imagination.

  2. I’ve never understood this reluctance to recognize that animals feel pain. Accidentally step on a cat or dog’s paw and they’ll let you know right away what they’re feeling.

    • CQ says:

      I know what you mean, havegonevegan. Recently I ran across a Humane Spot essay on denial, which includes an explanation of the reluctance you describe:

      “The moment we want to believe something, we suddenly see all the arguments for it and become blind to the arguments against it.” ~ George Bernard Shaw

  3. JL says:

    The statue of David shares many features in common with humans. We could list them all: it has hands, legs (and exactly two!), etc. But, that doesn’t make the statue truly human.

    Likewise, an animal has many features that suggest sentience. But that doesn’t necessarily make it so – any more than does the fact that David has hands make the statue a real human.

  4. cobalamin says:

    Isn’t skepticism common sense?

    In my opinion, a lot of individuals confuse skepticism(positive) with judgmental egoism(negative). I believe that judgmental egoism is what has been driving human evolution. Explains why the majority of the population always need to prove themselves to the world.

    Very positive extraordinary findings come from skepticism.

    • CQ says:

      I like the point you raise, cobalamin.

      In thinking it through, here’s how I might say it: How one uses the word “skeptical” depends upon whether one is skeptical of the status quo, which often contains not much truth and isn’t interested in progress, — or skeptical of a new, progressive idea that closer approximates truth but isn’t recognizable to the masses. James meant the latter. Maybe a better word would be “cynical” or “scoffing” or “contempuous”? Words are so subjective, aren’t they? 🙂

      • cobalamin says:

        Hahaha! They sure are!

        I enjoyed what James wrote. Exquisitely written article.

        Thank you for putting it in that perspective since I didn’t completely understand what the word skepticism meant. By reading the definition of skepticism more thoroughly in a dictionary and reading your explaination; I understand being skeptical as a partial positive quality when used correctly however it seems like anyone, including those two boneheads, can be skeptical but at the same time, not everyone has the will power and mind energy to go in search for the truth. Its seems natural for these sheeple that lack these positive qualities and/or energies to simply deny the truth and follow the herd. Or maybe I’m being cynical? 😉

  5. CQ says:

    Hahaha! I think you understand the word’s meanings and the people’s motives all too well! 🙂

    • CQ says:

      The above comment is intended as a reply to cobalamin, by the way….

      • cobalamin says:

        Hahahaha. 🙂

        I’ve been busy lately. I really like what you wrote in the previous message and been meaning to get around to replying to your message.

        1) one is skeptical of the status quo, which often contains not much truth and isn’t interested in progress.

        Basically 99% of the population. From observing human behavior, I find that everyone does everything backwards in the sense that they prefer manipulating everything without taking into account the consequences of their actions instead of finding the truth. It seems like the majority of the human brains out in the world are in serious retardation.

        2) skeptical of a new, progressive idea that closer approximates truth but isn’t recognizable to the masses.

        This is me except the skeptical part. The Genius mentality. I find that the truth always goes against what has been taught to be “truth” for many years and when the real truth goes against the false truth, nobody accepts the real truth. Like how everyone believed that the Sun revolved around the earth and when Galileo said that the Earth actually revolves around the Sun, everyone takes him as crazy. This proves that human evolution hasn’t changed in million of years and that the majority of humans are predictable.

        I look back at Geniuses like Nikola Tesla, not einstein, that were very self-less towards humanity and at the end of it all, they got the short hand of the stick.


        As much as I understand what skeptical means, it doesn’t apply to me as I thought it did.

        I did a Google search for “skeptical definition” and got two definition’s.

        “1. Not easily convinced; having doubts or reservations.”
        “2. Relating to the theory that certain knowledge is impossible.”

        (1) I’m not easily convinced with which information I read however I don’t have doubts towards the information that I am reading; I am more perceptive towards the information instead of being judgmental towards the information.

        (2) I believe that all knowledge is attainable when a certain perception is applied and is either completely true which is rare to find; or its partly true and missing pieces of the puzzle, this is the majority of the information.

        I find that skeptics are xNTJ’s, they doubt the information, then act judgmental towards it and are lazy to find the truth because of their conforming selfish attitude. They may be intelligent because they have a compendium of information from Geniuses in their brain however Its merely regurgitating information to seem “extraordinary”.

        or the problem is the lack of carnivores to weed out these individuals through natural selection? 😀

      • CQ says:

        No button to click underneath your most recent thoughtful reply (below), cobalamin, and access is denied to your wordpress blog. I’d like to ask a couple questions privately, so if you’re inclined, please email me via the contact button on my website. Meanwhile, I’m going to do some digging on Tesla, with whom I’m only semi-familiar. 🙂

  6. Anne B says:

    I completely disagree that this conclusion is the result of skepticism. I say that mainly because of Occam’s razor. What’s more likely? 1) Animals that are genetically related to humans, who have similar nervous system structures and similar mechanisms of nerve and endocrine signaling, exhibit behavoirs (and nerve and endocrine signals) consistent with pain, pleasure, and other emotions BUT DONT ACTUALLY EXPERIENCE those things. OR 2) Animals experience what they appear to experience. Option 1 requires us to fabricate some alternative explanation for the screaming of an injured animal or the jumping of a joyful one. Usually the fabricated explanation is “instinct,” which is a wholly unsatisfying argument because, as Balcombe argues, humans have many instinctive behavoirs that are nonetheless invested with pain, pleasure, and other emotions. To argue that instinctive behavoirs are accompanied with emotion in humans but not in any other animals is completely disingenuous.
    The simplest explanation is usually correct. Given the preponderance of evidence of animal sentience, it is only logical to conclude that animals are sentient. To fail to draw that conclusion is not the result of skepticism. It is the result of bias.

    • CQ says:

      That’s an excellent observation. Yes, built-in bias. Bias that is prejudiced against animals (that is, prejudges them) based on what has been drummed into us for eons: animals aren’t like us. Except, of course, when it’s beneficial to us to say they *are* like us (in research labs, for example).

      • Anne B says:

        Vivisectionists have to play both sides of that coin, actually. It’s ethical to do the invasive experiment because animals are *not* like humans, but the data is valuable because animals *are* like humans.

  7. CQ says:

    Thanks for pointing out that double-sided coin, which I forgot to mention. I scrambled through until I finally found, in Chapter 13, page 49, the quote your statement reminded me of:

    Ask the experimenters why they experiment on animals, and the answer is: “Because the animals are like us.” Ask the experimenters why it is morally okay to experiment on animals, and the answer is: “Because the animals are not like us.” Animal experimentation rests on a logical contradiction. ~ Charles R. Magel (1920- ) American emeritus professor of philosophy and ethics

  8. Cameron says:

    Having done the work, the scientist still needs to raise funds. So s/he begs that there is still more work to be done, even if it is apparent that there is not. Perhaps it reflects how the industry is funded?

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