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The Dallas Examined Life Philosophy Group Message Board › Types/Degrees of Self-Awareness & How to Test For Them

Types/Degrees of Self-Awareness & How to Test For Them

user 10963465
Group Organizer
Mesquite, TX
Post #: 108
For me, this has been a topic of interest for quite some time. It is obvious that some things are self aware. Obviously we are and there is evidence that many animals such as dolphins, elephants and some apes are certainly self aware. However, the tests themselves are limited because they only look at a narrow slice of what self awareness could be and how it presents itself.

The most common tests is the mirror test. They place an animal in front of a mirror, then put a dab of paint or a sticker or something onto their body in a place that they could only see in the mirror. If they inspect themselves in the mirror and then try to do something about that spot, then they obviously are aware that the reflection they are seeing is themselves. However, this is limiting for several reasons:
1. It relies on visual perception. Some animals may have experiences dominated by other senses such as hearing or smell. You could not do this test on blind animals.
2. It relies on the assumption that self-awareness will always produce self-interest, which may not be the case. A bear may recognize it's own reflection in the water and ignore it so he can get at the fish.

Now, that being said, there are a few things to keep in mind.
1. We are only aware of ourselves through our senses. This means we're limited to testing for self awareness through the engaging of senses such as sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. But there are limitations with each of these, unfortunately sight is still the most reliable.
2. There are potentially several behaviors that the self aware animal might exhibit towards themselves.

When it comes to senses, taste and touch are a tough one. I doubt they would be any good for reliable self awareness tests although it might be possible to do some interesting studies with local anesthesia to determine the perception of limb "ownership" despite not being able to receive data from said limb. We can recognize legs as our own even if we cannot feel anything below our waste. I would imagine tests could be devised to determine if other animals could do the same or similar cognitive tasks. Although I'm not sure how such an experiment might be structured.

Smell wouldn't work at all because of the way it works. Olfactory receptors are destroyed when they sense are particular smell. This results in an effect where the "fox can't smell his own hole". Since we cannot smell ourselves, I doubt that animals with smell-dominated sense experience could be tested properly.

Sound is also another tough one. If you record your own voice and play it back, it sounds different. We can usually still recognize our own voices, even if we also recognize that it sounds strange. This may be due to the content... remembering that we said that exact same phrase at some point and perhaps recognizing other features in pitch and tonality (even if they sound shifted). Certain reactions (or the lack thereof) to one's own sounds might be an indicator of self awareness.

Sight is the easy one. Mirror test. But it may need to be modified.

Now, as far as behavior goes, there is obviously self-interest and inspection. However, that isn't the best indicator of self awareness. For example, a dog might treat the "other dog" in the mirror as another dog, barking and trying to play or it might ignore it altogether. At which point, it would be necessary to determine if the dog is actually even considering the mirror. For instance, if the dog is trained with hand signals to perform certain tasks one could stand in such a way that the dog can only see you through the mirror, not directly. If the dog responds to your reflection but not his own, he may be aware that it is his own reflection but just not care.

Furthermore, there may be other behaviors that something self aware might exhibit in response to self perception. We might even find intermittent and/or incomplete self awareness.

Another interesting thing worth pointing out is that there may be certain requisite conditions for self awareness which could be more easily tested for. If you think about it like an obstacle course, there are several hurdles over which something must be able to rise before getting to the finish line... no shortcuts allowed. For instance, Jim brought up in a previous discussion that having a perception of other "minds" might be necessary for awareness of one's own mind. There is research, for instance, that monkeys tend to expect people to behave rationally. Whether they are self aware or not is another question, but at least they are other aware to a degree which may allow for at least rudimentary self awareness. Basically perception of other may be a necessary, but not sufficient condition for self awareness.

I'm approaching this mostly as a problem solving exercise using the various philosophies of self to at least narrow down the problem and suggest particular solutions. Interestingly, there's also the added nuance of having to think within the bounds of the ethical treatment of animals for such testing. We might be able to tell if something is self aware through torture... but that would hardly be an acceptable solution to the problem.
A former member
Post #: 6
I subscribe to the notion that basically every living thing has some form of self-awareness, even though the type of "self" and "awareness" may be beyond our comprehension. If it is capable of feeding itself, avoiding danger, and reproduction, it strikes me there must be some kind of self-awareness. Even bacteria avoid toxins placed on one side of a petri dish. Is this deliberate or instinctual? Well, who can say for sure. But even if we assume it is just instinctual, what does the instinct for self-preservation refer to if not to the organism itself?

Monkeys have always failed the mirror test, as far as I know, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they're not self-aware. It may just mean they don't understand the concept of mirrors. Let's say they react with aggression when they see their reflection. But can we supposed then (to borrow your example) that they react with aggression when they see their own reflection in a calm pond? Not likely. Maybe they've come to expect to see their reflection in a pond, but not a vertical highly reflective surface like a mirror.

Also, if a plant can seek out water with its roots and grow towards light, then it must have some kind of concept of "self" in relation to sources of water and light, even if it is nothing at all like our sense of "self."

Of course, I think the real question here is one of consciousness. A bacterium may be self-aware in that it avoids things that would kill it, but I would doubt it is consciouss in any sense that we are.

This is an interesting topic. I enjoy animal science.
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