Animal Sentience: An Interdisciplinary Journal on Animal Feeling

Commentary Type

Invited Commentary


Woodruff (2017) claims to have identified the neural correlates of phenomenal consciousness (“p-consciousness”) in fishes, and argues that these neurological data, along with behavioral evidence, suggest that teleost fishes are in all probability sentient organisms. Woodruff’s case may be strengthened by challenging key assumptions behind a common criticism of accounts such as his: that fishes cannot be p-conscious because they lack the cortical structures necessary for p-consciousness. A more serious objection to Woodruff’s proposal would be that his evidence for p-consciousness establishes only that fishes are “access-conscious” (“a-conscious”), where a-conscious states are cognitive representations that are made available to cognitive processing. This criticism calls into question his inference from certain cognitive states to the presence of p-consciousness, and may have significant implications for the moral standing of fishes and their treatment in fish welfare policy, since p-consciousness, but not a-consciousness alone, is typically thought to ground moral standing. I conclude that this criticism does not raise a decisive objection to Woodruff’s argument, or to its usefulness for ethics and policy.

Author Biography

Irina Mikhalevich, Assistant Professor at the Department of Philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology, does research on the philosophy of animal cognition, which lies at the intersection of the philosophy of science, philosophy of mind, philosophy of biology, and value theory.