On ‘Self Awareness’

It is often said that what makes humans different from many other animals (but, the controversy regarding Hauser notwithstanding, not all animals) is “self-awareness”.

Philosophers have debated what exactly this nebulous concept of ‘self-awareness’ is to a great degree, and I don’t intend to get into a detailed dissection and impress upon you an exact definition.  I’d rather unleash upon you my pet ideas about how humans came to possess it. I don’t mean this to be in any way scientific. It is merely a rather boring story.

Even cellular life has ‘pre-built’ mechanisms (i.e. not learned within the lifetime of an individual cell) to receive information from its outside world and act upon it. Dictystelium moves towards folic acid,  many eukaryotes can sense nutrient concentrations and change their metabolisms accordingly, and so on.  Here is a time-lapsed video (each frame is ten seconds apart in ‘real life’) I shot while an undergraduate that shows the movement:

So from very early times in the history of life on Earth, not only did organisms receive data about the world, but they have attempted to make sense of it and change their behavior accordingly.

This happens in a rather sophisticated fashion in mammals ~ we benefit from many different input mechanisms of our surroundings, and our previous exposures to stimuli leave traces (which we call memory).   Most mammals are also equipped with an innate theory of physics, we have certain expectations of things to withstand our weight, for things to fall a certain way, for water to flow, and so on. This is very useful as one can imagine ~  this will prevent unnecessary drowning,  deadly falls from trees, difficult jumps that might result in injury. On the upper side, to have a certain idea of where the movement is heading helps hunting moving things a great deal.

When it comes to humans, psychologists have a great amount of fun watching toddlers explore the world & develop their theories of how their physical surroundings work.

Just as mammals developed expectations of inanimate (as in, not alive) objects,  eventually we developed expectations of animate objects as well. The bear expects the fish to jump, many animals can distinguish between individuals in their family, and have some sense of whether they’re in a violent disposition or friendly disposition. Animals communicate to each other the location of predators and prey and so on. Predators can tell the wounded from the healthy.

Perhaps most importantly, all mammals have children,  and many take care of them, and take an interest in their survival. This is perhaps the single most beneficial aspect of being able to have an innate theory of living things ~ A lion mother, by instinct, has a model of how the cub will behave ~ she expects the cub to get hungry, can tell when they’re sick or thirsty, aims to teach hunting, and so on.

Humans, like many other social mammals, developed innate theories (i.e. models of behavior) of other humans, just as we have innate theories of rivers, rocks, and mountains. This helps keeping track of others in our tribes, and be attentive to their needs.

Self-awareness is simply our model of ourselves. This model is no different than our model of anyone else, except we strongly identify with it, and think of it as “ourselves” ~  in other words,  when you say “I”,  in fact you’re thinking about this model.  Part of this strong identification is realizing the “special” nature of this model – we can associate raw stimuli and emotions with this model to build subjective histories, whereas our stories about others do not benefit from direct feeling, even though they might show their emotions to us.

This creates a very interesting feedback loop. This argument should not be confused with its converse –  i.e. I’m not saying that your existence is an illusion.  One would still exist without having a model of their being ~ just like your cat would continue to exist without any representation of herself in her head.

Rather, I’m positing that,  the minute that the folic-acid sensing cell has a model of itself  just like it has of the folic acid, it becomes self-aware.

Yeast “reasons” with glucose levels. It has a certain expectation of immediate future depending on current status, and changes metabolism accordingly. We, on the other hand, one would hope, would reason with ourselves.

In a future post I’ll explain why I like this pet idea:  If self-awareness is merely an innate model of ones own self as opposed to Joe, then through self-examination, observation, and rational thought, one can improve this model – i.e. one can reach to a better understanding of self!  This I find to be a very optimistic place to be, not to mention it vindicates Socrates’s dictum (and a great many other philosophers..) of knowing yourself.


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