It happened again, this morning. My cat Max taught me that what conservative scientists’ call the “hard problem” of consciousness is not that. It’s a hard problem of accepting what cats already know. They don’t even bother thinking about it.
by David Stone
A simple lesson in what cats know without using any of the five senses
Saturday morning, wind is whipping snow outside, and we’re sitting together, waiting for my wife to come home. Max has mellowed out on my lap, forcing me to give up any pretense of work.
Then, suddenly, he perks up. His head snaps to attention. I don’t hear or see anything, but I know what got into him because I’ve seen it many times before. After a few seconds, he leaps up and runs across our apartment, leaping across furniture and a countertop. He’s waiting when my wife walks in the door.
This may not sound like much, but think about it. How did he know she was on her way down the hall? He doesn’t do that when anyone else passes, and they go by all day long and overnight.
She wasn’t talking, humming or singing. Scientists desperate to save the old-fashioned idea that consciousness happens only inside our skulls would insist on a physical explanation, something picked up by Max’s senses. But that’s silly.
Smell’s the only sense available at that distance, and if you want to tell my wife Max could pick her scent out through multitudes of others, under doors or through walls, you tell her.
The “hard problem” of consciousness
The “hard problem” of consciousness is the question of how physical processes in the brain give rise to subjective experiences. In other words, it’s the question of how something that is fundamentally mechanical can produce something as seemingly non-mechanical as conscious experience.
What Cats Know: History at home
While I’ve seen this many times with Max, there’s a history that taught us that cats know things we don’t. Check that. We’re so bought into a controlling narrative, we don’t want to know because it overthrows convention completely.
The situation was different, the first time. That is, our cat George knew when I was coming home. He was in the habit of greeting me at the elevator, jumping up for a kiss on his forehead, crying with joy — or maybe relief.
When he knew I was coming, usually around ten minutes ahead of time, about when I got off the subway and started walking, he raised such a ruckus, we first tried tricking him.
With my job in sales leading to unpredictable hours, I usually called before leaving my office. You know, like, “Need anything from the store?” The trip took about 45 minutes, and we figured George was timing from my call to a predictable arrival. That’s a hefty achievement on its own, for what we think we know about cats, but what else was there? Why did he start raising hell at the door ten minutes before I got there?
Can you outsmart a cat?
So, outsmarting him, I abandoned the call home. Maybe we’d email if necessary, but no more calls. But we were wrong. Somehow, he still knew when I was nearly home and showed it, acting out at the door.
As a little riff, he’d look at my wife like he thought she was crazy. She wasn’t. He was just smarter. Eventually, she gave up, accepting that he just knew, and every night, I’d get off the elevator and find him waiting. George would yelp, jump up and get his kiss on his head.
Have cats taught you? One taught a person you might know about
James Herriot, the Yorkshire veterinarian, author of All Creatures Great and Small wrote rarely about cats, but what he did write was fascinating.
Memorable was a cat who came to town meetings and sat, paying attention, in the back of the room. He always showed up. How he knew a meeting was scheduled and why he was interested, nobody knows. But there was one cat more interesting and, for the vet, frustrating.
This cat lived in a field behind Herriot’s home. She would wait behind a fence for him to bring her food but would, otherwise, have nothing to do with him. He couldn’t pet or play with her. Nothing.
Then, one day, he found her waiting outside his door — with her kittens. She and they were sick, and she brought them along for a vet visit. Herriot, thrilled at making contact, treated them back to health, but then, something unexpected happened.
The mother cat walked back to the field, her kittens behind her, and she never again let Herriot come near her.
That cat taught a lesson
The lesson wasn’t personal, but here again, it shows some insight into dissolving the “hard problem” of consciousness. That is, consciousness is not hard but a universal feature of nature. It’s at the core of everything.
But without making that argument, ask yourself how this cat knew Herriot was a vet that could take care of her and her kittens. How did she know she could trust him with her life? None of the conventional answers work; so, there must be more. It was not anything in her mind or her physical senses.
In the end, it’s consciousness informing anyone, anything that will listen.
Other ways we know brains aren’t necessary
Some quick nonhuman answers…
- Slime molds don’t have brains at all, but they solve problems.
- Some birds are known to fly and catch prey without ever seeing their parent or any other bird do it.
- Some trees in forests recognize their offspring and favor them among others when transferring nutrients through complex roots and fungus networks.
Fascinating as these facts are, the most mindboggling fact is that brains have nothing to do with any of these. Apart from universal consciousness, there is no other viable explanation, but cats already know that. That’s what they taught us.
What have they or other animals taught you?
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