Consciousness Doesn’t Depend on Language

The contrast could not have been starker—here was one of the world’s most revered figures, His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, expressing his belief that all life is sentient, while I, as a card-carrying neuroscientist, presented the contemporary Western consensus that some animals might, perhaps, possibly, share the precious gift of sentience, of conscious experience, with humans.

The setting was a symposium between Buddhist monk-scholars and Western scientists in a Tibetan monastery in Southern India, fostering a dialogue in physics, biology, and brain science.

Buddhism has philosophical traditions reaching back to the fifth century B.C. It defines life as possessing heat (i.e., a metabolism) and sentience, that is, the ability to sense, to experience, and to act. According to its teachings, consciousness is accorded to all animals, large and small—human adults and fetuses, monkeys, dogs, fish, and even lowly cockroaches and mosquitoes. All of them can suffer; all their lives are precious.

THE MONK AND THE SCIENTIST: When he visited the Dalia Lama in India, neuroscientist Christof Koch (at the computer) realized the Tibetan Buddhist belief that all life is sentient was in harmony with his view that all mammals share the “gift” of conscious experience.Courtesy of the Mind-Life Institute

Compare this all-encompassing attitude of reverence to the historic view in the West. Abrahamic religions preach human exceptionalism—although animals have sensibilities, drives, and motivations and can act intelligently, they do not have an immortal soul that marks them as special, as able to be resurrected beyond history, in the Eschaton. On

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