Self-Awareness

Earlier this evening Jasmine walked past the washroom cabinet that was sitting on the floor, waiting to be mounted on the wall in the washroom. As she went by she paused to look at herself in the mirror for a moment or two before moving on.

This got me thinking about the mirror test and how it was abused by some of my instructors during my undergraduate. The basic idea of the mirror test is that if an animal is self conscious or self-aware, then it will understand that the reflection is actually them, not another animal. To test this, they place a mark on the animal while it is asleep; when it wakes up they show it the mirror and if they touch the mark (on their own body, not the mirror) then they have understood that the image is a representation of their own body (otherwise they would not have touched the mark on their own body)… thus indicating that they understand the difference between themselves and others.

I have a problem with this. I would argue that understanding the difference between self and other is a basic response shown by the simplest of organisms – even individual cells have “internal” and “external” environments that they modulate with membranes, walls, and intercellular communication. The fact that they communicate between cells at all indicates self awareness to some extent to me.

Anyway, the reason I actually bring this up is not because it is fundamentally flawed (though I have since discovered that the wikipedia article talks about some of it’s flaws). The reason I say that it was being abused by my instructors is because they violated some pretty basic philosophies of science with the way that they talked about it. Things like “Dogs are not self-aware. They don’t pass the mirror test.”

Uhm, no.

Lets review some basic philosophy of science.**
1) I have an idea or question (what is the stuff in the cylinder that rests on the table?!?)
2) I form a hypothesis (Maybe it’s salt!)
3) I make predictions (If it’s salt, it will taste salty.)
4) I test my hypothesis (OM NOM)
5) I get results (was it salty?)
6) I interpret the results (it was salty = it’s probably salt. It wasn’t salty = maybe it’s not salt.)

**This example is ripped off from an anecdote of a friend teaching her daughter scientific method. Yes, I am indeed implying that the instructor I’m bitching about is stupider than a toddler.

The problem I have with statements like “They don’t pass the mirror test, therefore, they are not self aware.” is that lack of evidence does not prove anything. There is no PROVING in science to begin with. There is “supporting” and “not supporting”. If the test does not provide evidence to support that my friend’s golden retriever is self-aware, that does not mean that the golden retriever is not self-aware; ALL it means is that the test did not provide evidence to suggest that it is self aware. The stuff on the table didn’t taste salty; that doesn’t mean it’s not salt – it means we don’t have evidence that it IS salt. Maybe you have a cold, and everything tastes like cotton and snot.

Anyway /rant.

Sometimes it amuses me that things like that can still irritate me years later. But seriously, dude, that’s just stupid. I had trouble in classes where I felt the instructor was teaching things that are incorrect. There are too many students (myself included sometimes) who will just trust what the instructor is saying because they must know… that’s why they are the instructor, and we are the students. There’s a certain amount of respect and trust in the teacher-student relationship, and I feel that blatant blatant mistakes are just… well, I felt a bit betrayed (as well as appalled), yeh know? I suppose it was all for the best. Instructors like that one are probably the ones that turned me into a jaded critical thinker. I appreciate the “critical thinker” part.

Leave a Reply