An iceberg universe

Image by Uwe Kils Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Image by Uwe Kils

Fat little fingers hold up the toy as she peers at her reflection, laughing at herself. That she is, at two years old, very self-aware is evident in the way she plays with her own and her family’s reflections in the big, night-darkened windows. It is evident too in her naming of people and creatures, differentiating them from herself and recognising their unique individuality. She has already learned who to turn to at any given moment to have her needs and desires met and twists her father round her tiny finger with no more than a smile. She knows her own mind, there is a real and distinct personality and a playful sense of humour developing and showing in her offering and withholding of kisses and objects… and in the very definite ‘no’ with which she has established both her right and her ability to make her own choices.

She kisses her reflection and passes the little toy mirror to her father, quite obviously expecting him to look. I wonder… does she think her image will still be there for him to see? Or does she realise that he will only see his own reflection?

Her language skills are still too limited to discuss such a complex concept, so the question goes unasked, but it is interesting and delightful to watch her emerge from the cocoon of babyhood and become a person. This infant Eve, whose hair matches my own baby locks perfectly and whose look of mischief mirrors certain treasured photographs and her big sister’s mischief, is bidding fair to become a force to be reckoned with. Watching her and sensing the dancing echoes of the future, I am glad I only had sons to raise…

But it left me wondering… when do humans become conscious of selfhood? How do we know? We can see and measure certain reactions… like the recognition of the distinction between object and reflection, for example. We can put an age to various calibrated steps that show self-awareness. But I got stuck on the word ‘show‘…

Just because we cannot find an understandable way to measure a demonstrable self-awareness, does that really mean that there is none? A coma patient, locked in an unmoving body may be unable to communicate the activity of the mind, yet we are beginning to realise that often that mind is active and conscious. Like the case of Rom Houben, and, for a time, my own son. It is only now that our technology allows us to see and confirm this… it is no new phenomenon, only our methods are new.

The mirror test is the standard for assessing the awareness of the self. Very few other creatures have passed this test. Magpies pass it and are accredited with self awareness, even though they do not actually possess the bit of brain where it was supposed to reside… the neocortex. Dogs, on the other hand, fail and have officially no self-awareness. I and millions of dog lovers would strongly disagree. So would my dog.

She is not officially self-aware. But she does understand a ‘foreign’ language… mine… and chooses whether or not she wants to do as she is asked. She creates games and remembers them and expects you to do so as well. She has distinct tastes and preferences, feels and expresses emotion, including empathy, understands people very well and can communicate her needs and desires quite effectively. But her prime mode of communication is subtle and non-verbal, including everything from pointing with her eyes, to the rate of breath, her stance and facial expressions. But she has no self-consciousness… according to a vision-based test on a species for whom smell and hearing are the primary senses and far more acute than our own.

Maybe the tests we created half a century ago, when our view of the world and its creatures was somewhat different and rather more limited, need to be reassessed…

Perhaps the definition itself is vague… or flawed… or just plain wrong…

How do we know that a newborn baby is not aware of its own being? Because it doesn’t have the tools to define and demonstrate that awareness in a manner we can understand? Because we can’t measure it? Is that really a sound basis for such a judgement?

If we were to accept that a thing cannot exist because we cannot see, measure or replicate it, then we would live in a poor universe indeed. Can we measure hope? Quantify empathy or dissect kindness? They are just as abstract as self-awareness yet their results in the world are just as concrete.

We live in an iceberg universe, where most of our home, and even our understanding of ourselves, is still hidden from our view. In evolutionary terms, we are little more than babes… exploring a room where the cupboards are too high for our infant hands to reach or our eyes to see.

I would like to think we can preserve a childlike sense of wonder at the magic and mystery we encounter every day without giving it a single thought… and see what still waits, unknown and undiscovered, beneath the surface of our current knowledge as an adventure to be embraced. If the library of creation is written in a language we cannot yet understand, the inability to comprehend should not make us dismiss what we find there as being without value or existence… it should only encourage us to learn how to read.

24 thoughts on “An iceberg universe

  1. I think the view that animals have no self awareness is a bit outdated. Our cats certainly do have an awareness and are able to communicate with us in their way. It all boils down to the awareness of the person who is interacting with the cat or baby or other person, doesn’t it?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. If you can remember a time before you learned to speak, but you remember — even something small — you already knew you were one and she and he were others. That is the fundamental recognition from which real thought begins, the sense that I am me and you are you. But it continues when we realize that we are all one and the same.

    And yes: I was in a coma for several days post heart surgery and my brain was VERY busy nor was pain absent. I could hear, too.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. At the beginning of your post, you could have been talking about our great granddaughter. At just one-year-old, she is who we miss most at the moment, as watching her discover the world was wonderful…

    Like

  4. If I found an entire library written in a foreign/alien language you can bet your bottom dollar the first thing I’d be looking for is that ‘Rosetta stone’! 😀

    Like

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