Ray Argues for Animal Consciousness Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Contrary to René Descartes and other thinkers, natural historian, philosopher, and theologian John Ray argued that animals indeed are conscious beings.

Summary of Event

John Ray’s reaction to the denial of consciousness in animals by René Descartes’s Descartes, René theory of animal automatism must be viewed in the context of the differences between the philosophies of Ray and Descartes. Descartes had several reasons to deny consciousness in animals. First, he started with a definition of the soul that entailed a strict mind-body dualism. Matter, extended substance, was fundamentally different and separate from soul, or thinking substance. Moreover, the properties of matter explained the phenomena of life in all organisms, including humans. [kw]Ray Argues for Animal Consciousness (1693) [kw]Consciousness, Ray Argues for Animal (1693) [kw]Animal Consciousness, Ray Argues for (1693) Biology;1693: Ray Argues for Animal Consciousness[3020] Philosophy;1693: Ray Argues for Animal Consciousness[3020] Religion and theology;1693: Ray Argues for Animal Consciousness[3020] England;1693: Ray Argues for Animal Consciousness[3020] Consciousness, animal Ray, John Ray, John Descartes, René More, Henry Malebranche, Nicolas

It is in part 5 of Discours de la méthode (1637; Discourse on Method Discourse on Method (Descartes) , 1649) that Descartes formally denies that animals have consciousness. He argues that whereas the presence of a soul is not necessary for life, it is necessary for consciousness, that is, the soul is necessary for the awareness of sensation. It is also by possession of the soul that human beings have the capacity to reason. Thus, consciousness in animals would entail the presence of a soul with its capacity to reason, a presence that would be the case for all animals, including oysters, worms, and sponges—an idea Descartes found ridiculous. Philosophy;England

In addition to this deductive argument, Descartes proposed two tests to distinguish human beings from mere machines, or automatons. According to the language test, machines cannot express thoughts or intentions through language (through speech or sign). For example, Descartes dismissed the mimicking of language by the parrot, who seems to “speak,” because its words do not originate from its own mental state or from its own thoughts; its words were not meant to communicate, as do the words of humans. The parrot, then, merely mimics, and is therefore an automaton.

The second test, the action test, claims that although machines can do some things as well or even better than humans, they nevertheless would fail at others, therefore proving they cannot “adjust” their actions according to what they know. Descartes believed that this fact proved that the machine did not act through understanding, but only through the composition of its internal “physical” or “mechanical” structures.

In a 1649 letter to Henry More, More, Henry cited by Ray in his Synopsis animalium quadrupedum et serpentini generis Synopsis animalium quadrupedum et serpentini generis (Ray) (1693; synopsis of the types of quadrupedal animals and serpents), Descartes wrote that the action test was the main reason to reject animal thought. By these two arguments, Descartes concluded that animals are not rational and that their behavior is analogous to that of a clock (a mechanism).

Ray’s beliefs in the matter fall squarely within the natural theology tradition. He believed that the role of God in nature could not simply be to form matter, divide it into parts, and apply laws of nature, as Descartes had thought. The works of nature were too complicated to come from natural law alone; they required design. Ray devoted The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of Creation Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of Creation, The (Ray) (1691) to an exposition of God’s fitting of the various means in nature to their ends. In the work, Ray presented illustrations showing animal behavior that was thought-based. He used the example of a dog who, arriving at a fork in the road before his keeper, waited to see which road the keeper chose before proceeding himself. In another example, a dog, wanting to jump onto a high table, used a chair as a step. In yet another example, Ray illustrated the case of birds who kept track of their young so that no chick would be missed in feeding, a feat Ray asserted could not be performed by a machine. In Synopsis, he described how blind beggars were helped by dogs and how horses performed various tricks. In Wisdom of God, Ray argued that God had made creatures so that they could enjoy life. That is, one of God’s purposes for creating the “lesser” beings included experiences that required consciousness.

Ray rejected Descartes’s views on the soul and accepted the traditional Aristotelian doctrine of three souls to account for life: the vegetative soul for nutrition and growth, the sensitive soul for sensation and movements, and the rational soul for reasoning, present in humans. Ray believed that animals had a sensitive soul, that they were fully conscious of sensations, and that the sensitive soul was not material. Furthermore, he asserted that he would rather attribute low-grade reason to animals than have them considered simply machines or automatons. The possession of an immaterial soul did not entail immortality for animals, however. Descartes had explicitly rejected the Aristotelian conception of the soul and had perhaps been driven to develop his concept of soul in reaction to it.

Ray provided a list of reasons to support consciousness in animals. One, he observed that people sympathize with the pain and suffering of animals. Two, he invoked Proverbs 10:12, in which God instructed people to be kind to animals, an admonition that would not make sense, he insisted, if animals were only machines. Third, Ray suggested that God would not make animals mere machines solely to mock the actions of human beings.

In Synopsis Ray argued that if consciousness in animals were a property of matter, then why not also reason? Reason and perception (cognition) were separate, he said, and sensation was separate from intelligence and reason. Thus, animals could have true sensation without having reason or intelligence. He also pointed out that animals and humans share similar nerves, bones, muscles, and so forth, and that similar causes of actions should entail similar results. In contrast, Descartes believed that all these “parts” simply operated mechanically. Biology;animal consciousness


John Ray’s views on the soul formed only one part of his rejection of René Descartes’s philosophical system. He also rejected Descartes’s denial of final causes and his cosmological and ontological proofs for the existence of God, based as they were on innate ideas, as Ray put it. In short, Ray rejected Descartes’s rationalism.

Descartes’s theory of animal automatism contradicted what most likely was common to the human experience of animals, and the shortcomings of his particular arguments have been exposed. In so doing, Descartes seemed forced to argue that the apparent experience of sensation in animals was analogous to the mechanical contrivances that imitated the living. In contrast, Ray emphasized experience, both in finding evidence for God’s existence and in providing several pages of descriptions of intelligent behavior in various animals in Wisdom of God.

Ray shared his approach to nature with other English scientists and philosophers of his time, notably Robert Boyle Boyle, Robert , who had written a tract on final causes in nature. Moreover, Ray’s views tended toward vitalism, insisting that life was caused by immaterial souls, and he clearly attacked mechanism and materialism, both of which he associated with Descartes’s philosophy. While Descartes’s views created quite a furor, he, too, had defenders, such as Nicolas Malebranche, Malebranche, Nicolas who argued that animals did not sense pain because God would be unjust if he let innocents (animals) suffer. One story tells of how, after Malebranche kicked a pregnant dog (which had then cried out in pain) to “prove” his point, he replied to the reproaches of a bystander who witnessed the incident by saying that the dog did not feel the kick.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Graukroger, Stephen. Descartes: An Intellectual Biography. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1995. A thorough treatment of the development of Descartes’s ideas. Useful for understanding his views on dualism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kinghorn, A. M. “’In Doubt to Deem Himself a God, or Beast.’” Journal of European Studies 21 (1991): 129-144. A brief history of the philosophical problem of animal automatism, starting with the ideas of Descartes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Newman, Lex. “Unmasking Descartes’s Case for the Bete Machine Doctrine.” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 31 (2001): 389-426. A technical analysis of Descartes’s arguments denying consciousness to animals and a critique of several interpretations of his position.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Radner, Daisie, and Michael Radner. Animal Consciousness. New York: Prometheus Books, 1989. The authors present Descartes’s views and seventeenth century responses, with the author’s critique of the validity of the arguments. The second half of the book treats contemporary theories.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Raven, Charles E. John Ray, Naturalist: His Life and Works. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1950. Still the only book-length biography of Ray, useful for descriptions of his works, though outdated methodologically. Emphasizes Ray’s natural theology.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Walker, Stephen. Animal Thought. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983. Walker provides a history of the problem of animal thought and covers late twentieth century research in animal psychology.

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