I have done a fair amount of thinking on this one and the more I debate it internally, the more I think that many animals have a sense of self in line with ours. Ours may be more advanced (if that's the right word) but denying other life a sentience OR sapeince is just plain religious - in fact, that's where the origins of this idea seem to come from.


Animals cannot communicate like human animals do - or at least, not in a way that we recognise as communication. Many forms of communication are threat warning based - and this is completely understandable; but there are more subtle things going on.


I'm aware this is getting dangerously "tree hugging" but I remain dispassionate in the sense that we need to examine the evidence and not worry about the consequences - that is for others to debate.


Cattle, for instance, appear to know they are about to be slaughtered - they appear have a sense that something is wrong at any rate. Does this mean they have a sapience? I don't know, but if they are self-aware, that is a pretty horrible thing to consider: unless, of course, we remind ourselves that as predatory mammals, nature designed us to kill them as part of a food chain.


Simple organisms seem to operate on instinct alone, but as soon as a life-form appears able to learn, then it probably has the ability to recognise (at some basic level) that it is alive.


Religion denies all animals that right and this proof would be something else to shoot it down with.

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We've been busy on our other little project but since neither of you guys seem to be around yet today I have time to respond to this. Yes I think many animals have a sense of self remarkably like our own.


Actually many animals have very complex forms of communication. This is not an area of expertise of mine, but I am quite sure some mammals like dolphins, whales, elephants and other primates have extensive repertoires of signals, perhaps with as many as 100 distinct signals for a variety of different threats, mating calls, locations of food sources, and other social cues, many of which we are probably only beginning to discover. Its a brand new field, but the realization that animals communicate socially on deep levels suggests that they realize that they are a member of a larger group, where they fit in within that larger group, and perhaps most remarkably, what their own abililities are relative to others.


Hopefully more people will begin to see the dissonance between a naturalistic understanding of the world and a supernaturalistic understanding. Which got me thinking:


What do we mean when we say someone has done something "bad"? Naturalistically, we would explain this by saying that they have had a problem with motivation, either going to extremes by either responding overwhelmingly or underwhelmingly to the expectations of the situation, i.e. having too strong a reaction or too weak, or else by some other aberration of mental processes, as in the activation of wrong (inappropriate) systems, etc. etc. But the religious response is... what? That a person is evil? Or has been infected with evil, like a devil possessing the body? These hardly even qualify as answers. Just something my head was spinning with this morning (perhaps overly active?).

So we need a proof... which is easier said than done.


(Memoryplex "theory" predicts that even with a definitive proof, some (many) people will refuse to believe this and others will sit up and claim they always knew it.)


Religion has always told us we are special - but if we can prove just ONE animal has a sense of self, that whole argument is buggered - well and truly. If we can show that many animals (mammals are the best bet, but birds appear well developed too) have a sense of self that cannot be ascribed to instinct, then a primary precursor to Christian and related beliefs is shot to hell.


Naturally, they will adapt - with the usual "Ah, but..." arguments, but this is nail in their coffin.


I guess what we need to define here is what is required to define "self" - like defining "life" this is trickier than it first appears, but I expect some psych specialist has (or would have) a stab at it.


* Instinct plays a part - in all creatures, even us - so we can include that (or at least, accept it).

* Self protection can be instinctive - as the Dodo showed us - or both as humans and other creatures show.

* The ability to adapt heuristically to a changing situation does not, necessarily apply - a computer can do that.

That said, I think a sense of self can exist in ANY organism capable of learning from experience - and if that's all it takes, the world is full of self-aware life.

I'm totally with you regarding the clarity of observation, and moving away from judgement such as bad, good, right, wrong and evil.  I'm wondering if these terms are really not useful, unless they are used in contents to subjugate and oppress others - which doesn't seem like a 'good' idea.  I much prefer a system where we are all equally considered - although I do doubt the ultimate possibility of this occurring and even if it is practical.

Hey Marc Draco,

How are things?


Personally I think some animals have a of sense of self.


If I ask myself, what is it that makes animals have a sense of self, using the following from Wikipedia:

"knowledge must be based on observable phenomena", my answer would be as follows:

For me, I see lots of behavioral similarities between us and them. Many animals share the same basic 5 senses. Our DNA and some other animals DNA is extremely similar. What goes on in our brains and in other animal brains is similar. So why not the 'sense of self' also.


So can I ask what it is that makes you think animals have a sense of self. Using the following criteria:

"knowledge must be based on observable phenomena"


Finally, if animals do have a 'sense of self', can there be degrees of 'sense of self'?

I don't think there can be varying degrees of 'sense of self'. 

Once you have the ability to realize you are what you are, that's it.(But I'm not 100% sure about this)


Hope to hear from you soon

HI Leveni,


I suspect there can be varying degrees of self-awareness, yes. Freud discussed ID, Ego and Superego which are essentially several levels of the same thing: each more complex than the others yet inextricably intertwined.


Our sense of self is based on our internal memoryplex - which is a collection of everything we consciously and unconsciously remember from all of our experiences: gathered from our five senses over the course of our life.

Part of that memoryplex is memetic by interpersonal communication - for example, "You are a child of God" or "You're just a highly evolved ape".

The complexity of our language (human, not English) is what gives us such a powerful sense of self. Yet our discoveries (such as quantum theory and space) would normally make us feel insignificant if we had the brain power to conceive of them.

As it is, evolution gifted us with a limited ability to accurately understand things much larger (or smaller) than we are - distances of more than a few miles for instance; a crowd of more than a few dozen people and so on. We are limited entirely by our senses but we have developed machines that allow us to see further than our brains have evolved to understand.

Animals have no such problem - their sense of self is entirely dependent on their sense memory. Higher primates, some birds and many mammals have the ability to communicate. Apes, for example, can even coordinate attacks. All these things rely on a sense of "self" acting as part of a greater whole. But the strength of that feeling is limited by the creature's capacity to understand what its senses are telling it.


I hope this clears it up a bit - it's early in the day for me still. ;-)

I went to an Imax show the other day, called Space, or something.  It was simply mind blowing.  Every time I come across this reminder of how small and minute we are, it blows me away.  I don't think anyone will ever get over the enormity of all things - in fact I don't even think it's comprehensible!  The whole all the grains of sand on earth are still less that all the stars and all that.... I just can't imagine that.  The Imax show went into a star system and just keep going and going, until it got to a star nursery and then panned back all the way to earth again - the amount of space and size of space is HUGE! LOL

Alice :)

When you say a sense of self are you talking about the ability to recognise themselves in a mirror?  As there are tests for this and different animals at different stages of development can recognise themselves in a mirror.  I figure they know what they are doing with these tests.  In that they are clear about what constitutes recognising the self.

Yes I'm very sceptical about people's understanding of animal's intelligence.  I can't see why humans think they are so god dam cleaver - like we are alien compared to animals - we are very similar and share much the same DNA.  Again I think our ability to communicate complex abstract ideas, really takes us away from reality sometimes.  Literally!  I'd really like to talk this through with some like minded atheists, as it's something that I've been bugged about for a while - but I'm surrounded by theists, apart from my 9 year old, who agrees with me that it doesn't make sense that there is a God.

I do think that animals can think and feel and have ideas and contemplate and even appreciate beauty in some form - I'm sure they have the same bio-chemistry as us, and can feel attachment to their babies and lust for a partner.

Why is it, that humans seem to think they have a greater sense than an animal.  We are animals.

Humans have evolved as omnivores and so it is natural and necessary for us to eat a varied diet of meat, fish, veg and so on.  I've read an interesting book called 'nutritional and physical degeneration' by Weston A Price.  He did a study in the 1930's of Indigenous groups and their Indigenous and westernized diets, and the consequences on their health and the health of their children.  He found that all groups had special foods.  Only one was vegetarian, and they in India ate raw and fermented dairy foods.  The rest of the groups ate all sorts of wonderful things like fish liver mixed with fish brains, eyes and oats stuffed in the head of the fish and baked.  Other special foods included fish eggs, cod liver, butter from cows eating fast growing green grass and the adrenal glands of the Caribou.  All of these foods turned out to have essential vitamins in them for each group - such as vitamin D, A, E and C from caribou adrenal glands for Eskimo groups who had little access to fresh fruit in winter snow.

My point here is that we have evolved to eat these foods - so we can't now get an abstract idea about caring for animals and go vegan - it's going to negatively effect our bio-chemistry and our ability to socialise and procreate.  Vegans have more heart attacks than others, have more infertility and miscarriages and have more mood disorders and mental health problems.

I've always found the best way to talk with Christians is to empathise with their faith.  Express my understanding about their need to have their faith, and then express appreciation for the value they get from their faith, and then say that I gain that same value from my understanding of Naturalism - it's great isn't it.  They usually want to leave at this point - I'm talking about the ones on my door step dressed smartly in black.  But I figure I might have rattled their cage enough to get them thinking.  And education really is their only hope.

Alice :)

wrong place

To me the animal sense of self is two-thirds of our minds. Paul MacLean's Triune Brain Theory describes humans as having three separately functioning brains, the reptile brain and limbic system are nonverbal and similar to what reptiles and other mammals have. Only the higher brain uses language. They're parallel processors, with separate perception and independently initiating action. When any two agree, we act. I've become accustomed to "listening" to my lower brains by paying attention to impulses, nonverbal memories, and images. (That doesn't mean I obey, just pay attention to what they want.)
that's really fascinating and I really would like to follow it up. Does Paul MacLean have a book?
Thanks - I'm very curious to hear more about it.




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