Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis
Woman in bedroom terrified by big spider crawling over her bed
Woman in bedroom terrified by big spider crawling over her bed

Should Spider Dreaming Really Give Us “Ethical Pause”?

The incidental discovery of REM sleep in spiders is morphing into vast claims that we have “urgent and inexorable ethical obligations” to them and other life forms

Anyone familiar with the current “animal consciousness” scene might have seen this one coming. At The Scientist, we learned earlier this month that animals dream, according to researcher David M. Peña-Guzmán. Recently, it was spiders that were found to dream. Therefore, it is now implied, human and animal consciousness do not differ very much:

In When Animals Dream, I argue that the mere fact that animals dream poses a formidable challenge to that bastion of traditionalism that is the human-animal divide, raising provocative ethical questions about the status of animals as moral subjects toward whom we have urgent and inexorable ethical obligations. This fact also frustrates the common view that only humans are “cognitively free” because only we can liberate ourselves from our immediate surroundings through acts of imagination, while the rest of the animals remain forever trapped in the here and now. The dreams of other species elegantly refute this claim by suggesting that non-human life forms also stage mental escapes from reality during sleep, fleeing from the physical world that surrounds them and charging into an imaginary world of subjective make-believe.

David M. Peña-Guzmán, “Opinion: Animal Dreaming Should Give Us Ethical Pause” at The Scientist (August 15, 2022)

This “spiders dream” project morphs effortlessly into denigrating the significance of being human and of human ethical choices.

To be clear, the researchers are not demonstrating consciousness — in the human sense — in plants or spiders. Philosophers admit that they don’t know what human consciousness“ even is. Rather, what it means to be conscious is changing so as to include plants and spiders. And probably, soon enough, electrons.

As noted earlier, when discussing recent claims for consciousness in plants, panpsychism is rapidly overtaking materialism in science. Were that not so, we would not be reading such reflections in a mainstream science publication. And we are.

What it means: The “ethical pause” for spiders, in a time-limited world, encroaches on the time allowed for an “ethical pause” for starving or oppressed humans. It may not be an intended consequence but it is a natural one.

Naturalists ( often called “materialists”) believe that nature is all there is. Human consciousness presents a problem for them. They have long tried to show that human consciousness is an illusion. But that approach didn’t really work because the obvious question is, whose illusion is it?

Panpsychism offers a different vision that erases the significance of being human: Every living entity (and possibly even every non-living entity) is “conscious.” But the term is still undefined… And if it were defined in these quarters, it would be defined in such a way as to pretend to incorporate human consciousness without really doing so.

In the real world, anyone familiar with dogs will know that they dream now and then. Sometimes, they move their limbs as if in a chase. So, most likely, they dream of their daily activities, certainly not of things they would never think of during waking hours.

Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor points out that if spiders lso dream, they dream — as we might expect — of catching flies. This sort of observation, he notes, goes back to the philosopher Aristotle 2500 years ago. It is not some grand new discovery that blurs the distinction between humans and, say, spiders.

Insect paleontologist Gunter Bechly takes the alternative view that the lack of a neocortex means that spiders can’t dream. That’s a very traditional approach for a scientist to take. Maybe right, maybe wrong, but researchable.

Talk of “ethical pause” for spider “imagination” or plant “consciousness,” by contrast, undermines the significance of human consciousness without really providing new insights into the basic questions.

Here’s an excerpt from Peña-Guzmán’s new book, When Animals Dream: The Hidden World of Animal Consciousness (2022).

You may also wish to read: Yes, plants may be conscious too, says researcher. Paco Calvo has authored many papers in respected journals; his view is another instance of panpsychism overtaking materialism in science. It’s not so much that consciousness in plants is being demonstrated as that what it means to be conscious is changing so as to include plants.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she has published two books on the topic: Faith@Science and By Design or by Chance? She has written for publications such as The Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail, and Canadian Living. She is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul. She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Should Spider Dreaming Really Give Us “Ethical Pause”?