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Does Self-Awareness Exist In Animals?

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Whether or not self-awareness exists in animals has been a debate so thoroughly entrenched in human thought and philosophical discussion for so long that even Descartes himself weighed in on the matter: “Descartes attached great weight…[to] the doctrine that brute animals are mere machines or automata, devoid not only of reason, but of any kind of consciousness, which is stated briefly in the ‘Discours de la Méthode,’ and more fully in the ‘Réponses aux Quatrièmes Objections,’” (Huxley 216). You can see the repercussions of those long-held debates in every-day conversation: you will often hear people say “Animals are self-aware but only some of them, namely dolphins, primates, and elephants—none else.” Marc Bekoff affirms that “There are…longheld and polarized views about the degree of self-awareness in animals. Some people believe that only great apes have ‘rich’ notions of self.” (255) Some will even go so far as to say “it is methodologically too difficult to address this question because animal (like human) minds are subjective and private” (Bekoff 255). Just like I have no way of knowing if the blue you see is the same blue as I see, so it is difficult for us to know if human sense of self is the same as it is for animals. That methodological difficulty has significant consequences for science, biology, and human interaction with animals because, consequently, they “do not attribute any sense of self to animals other than humans” (Bekoff 255). If animals have no sense of self, then how do we know if they feel or remember pain? How do we know if they feel love or hate? How do we know if their behavior is planned or reactionary? All of those questions define not only how we treat animals, but how we fit into nature’s web in relation to them.

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What I will show in this paper is that a large number of animals (more so than just primates and humans) do in fact possess self-awareness just as we do; doing so requires two things: first, we must needs examine the ideas of self-awareness and, by implication, self. Process philosophy is a great resource in that regard and will aid in framing those concepts in a way that lends itself to our examination of animal self-awareness. Second, we will use the aforementioned analyzed concepts and apply them to “non-autonomous” animals to see that they, too, possess self-awareness.

Now, while the information that I will provide will be compelling evidence for self-awareness in animals, Donald Griffin points out that “No single piece of evidence provides a ‘smoking gun’ of totally perfect proof of consciousness” (220). Of course, science isn’t in the business of “perfect proof” as all previous findings are subject to supersession, but the deeper problem lies within self-awareness itself.

In order to adequately assess if animals possess self-awareness, it is necessary to look at the idea of the self and define it in decisive and pragmatic terms that will allow us to better examine self-awareness in application to the examination of nonhuman animal behavior.

Bekoff describes self-awareness as “‘rich’ notions of self — knowing who they are and/or having a ‘theory of mind’, which means being able to infer the states of minds of others” (255). We will come back to that definition in application to animal behavior, but we must first examine the idea of “self,” for if self-awareness’ definition is to have “’rich’ notions of self”, then it would be valuable to examine the concept of self, independent of the awareness of it.

Process philosophy will aid us in our dissection of the various parts of Bekoff’s statement. The first arduous task at hand is to definitively conquer the all too prevalent notion of “self,” an elusive harlot lying in wait to deceive the hearts and minds of men. Upon close examination of this pervasive, virtually all-consuming, notion of “self” we find such glaring logical absurdities in the face of objective modern science that its permeation of Western culture is almost sickening. Rescher points out that

The self, or ego, has always been a stumbling block for Western philosophy because personhood resists accommodation within its favored framework of substance ontology. It is somewhere between difficult and infeasible to come to satisfying terms with the idea that ‘the self’ is a thing (substance), and that whatever takes place in ‘my mind’ and ‘my thoughts’ is a matter of the activity of a substantial item…[such as] a physical brain or a somehow substantial mind. (Rescher 105)

Why is it so difficult to come to terms with self as a thing as Rescher states? Well, with most things (assuming, for arguments sake, that there is such a thing as things), you can normally observe them wholly existent unto themselves (a waste basket or table for example) such that if you were to “snatch away the entire universe” that it would continue to exist without the need of an observer. Conversely, the “self” provides us no such outlet. Hume provides insight into one of the fundamental paradoxes of self: “From what [experimental] impression could this idea [of self] be derived?… When I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other…. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception” (sect. VI). The “manifest contradiction and absurdity” (Hume sect. VI) with self is that one cannot prove the existence of self through objective scientific observation; if “I” seek to observe my “self,” I have already concluded that I am a “self” capable of observing. And, as any scientist would agree, if the method of experimentation forces the confirmation of the initial hypothesis without any room for alternative, then the study is bias. Therefore, if science purports to require objective evidence, the search for self is a notion that simply cannot provide such.

To find an alternative to the classic (fallible) notion of self, we can turn once again to Hume: “When I turn my reflection on myself, I never can perceive this self without some one or more perceptions; nor can I ever perceive any thing but the perceptions. It is the composition of these, therefore, which forms the self” (Appendix).

If “self” is a composition of perceptions, then an animal (humans included) that is capable of perceiving its perceptions would be, by Bekoff’s definition, self-aware (we will examine the idea of animal perception of their perceptions subsequent to the analysis of Bekoff’s definition of self-awareness). That perception, I believe, is selfsame with the notion of “knowing who they are” (255), considering who we are could very well be seen as a collection of processual perception-experiences. Therefore, if “‘rich’ notions of self” (255) are simply “knowing” (understanding) the collection of one’s perceptions that make up who one is, then the only remaining aspect of Bekoff’s definition of self-awareness that requires analysis is “being able to infer the states of minds of others” or “a ‘theory of mind’” (255). In Bekoff’s article, he later explains that wolves (among other animals) have been observed to exhibit behavior suggesting inference of others’ states of mind (and thus their possession of self-awareness): “Wolves engage in coordinated hunts and rear their young communally. Analyses of the behaviour patterns of individual wolves during these (and other) activities show that they have at least some awareness of what they are doing, what others are doing, and where each is located spatially” (255). Therefore, by that portion of Bekoff’s definition wolves too would be self-aware.

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