Aren't only humans self aware?

Other animals recognize both themselves and others as individuals. Animals clearly remember both their own and everyone else's place in the social hierarchy. They use language to express abstract concepts. They remember which individuals in their community are their friends. They pass on cultural information from one generation to the next. And they mourn their dead.

In spite of all this, the evidence which finally convinces most skeptics is the mirror experiment. This test involves placing a mirror in front of an animal, and checking if the animal realizes he is looking at a reflection of himself. Various animals, such as dolphins, chimpanzees, and some birds pass the mirror test. They go to great lengths to maneuver in front of the mirror so as to closely examine parts of their bodies which they normally can not see.

It should be pointed out that although passing the mirror test indicates self awareness, failing the mirror test does not indicate a lack of self awareness. For example, there were several cases where I passed in front of a wall sized mirror, and did not recognize my own reflection for the first minute or two. I initially just thought that it was an interesting coincidence that someone else was wearing the same clothes as me. Nevertheless, this does not imply that I lacked self awareness during these few minutes. It is possible for some animals to lack the insight to ever be able to pass the mirror test, and yet be completely self aware.

There are still some people who feel uncomfortable accepting self awareness in other animals. This should not be surprising when considered in historical context. During the era of Descartes (the philosopher who is famous for claiming that animals do not feel pain), both Descartes and many of his contemporaries believed that African blacks did not possess self awareness, or even the ability to feel pain or suffering.

Descartes' argument was that only beings with a soul can possess consciousness or feel pain. Furthermore, he argued that the ultimate test for if someone possesses a soul is whether or not they have the capacity for rational thought. He also argued that the ultimate test for the capacity for rational thought is whether or not an individual had the potential to understand a written language. The widely accepted belief at the time was that black people did not have the mental capacity to learn to read or write. (Although some African blacks had been writing in Arabic centuries earlier, this fact was unknown to the Europeans at the time.) Therefore, Descartes and many of his contemporaries concluded that black people did not possess a soul, were not the descendants of Adam and Eve, and did not have the capacity to feel pain, suffering, love, or a desire to live.

It is difficult for us today to imagine how otherwise intelligent people can actually hold such views, yet this was once a dominant belief of educated people. Future generations may react in similar revulsion when learning about the way in which our present society views the mental abilities of animals.


Follow up questions:

What evidence is there that other animals can make moral decisions?

Don't only humans have the ability to use language and understand abstract concepts?

Don't only humans have the ability to pass on cultural information from one generation to the next?

Don't only humans understand the concept of death?

Don't only humans have the ability to enter social contracts?

Don't only humans have the ability to use tools?

How do you know that other animals can feel pain?

Where in the animal kingdom does consciousness begin?


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