Self-awareness. It’s something we humans take for granted — knowing we are superior to every other creature we will encounter. It gives us the right to destroy any living thing in our path, whether for personal enjoyment, sustenance, or profit. But are we really any more self-aware than other great apes or even a dog? Is it possible for a being to have a greater level of sentience than us?
First let us think about what defines self-awareness. For us arrogant humans to retain our superiority, we need to carefully select criterion that differentiate us from all other living things. One test for the conventional definition of self-awareness is whether a being can recognize itself in a mirror. This doesn’t appear to be a good test to use if we want to single ourselves out due to the vast number of animals that are believed to posses such an ability. Even dolphins make faces in mirrors.
Language and thought — surely our defining characteristics. No other animal of any kind has the ability to communicate using a complex, high-level language that utilizes grammar. Though still debated, it’s hard to refute the eerie humanity in great apes communicating via American Sign Language. We might still be able to sleep at night secure in our superiority if these apes did not go a step further and teach the language to their children when left in the wild who could then come back and fully communicate with the experimenters. It is not even partially understood whether language is the precursor to thought or vice versa. Whether other animals have the ability to think is beyond our testing capability at this time, so an argument in either direction is difficult to make.
How about our capacity for higher-order emotions such as shame? Humans don’t appear to exhibit any higher-order emotional awareness until they are two years of age. Other animals aren’t capable of emotions like shame, are they? It would appear so. In experiments, one ape even displays the same body language as a child would when experiencing shame. When it got the wrong answer to a very difficult test and received negative feedback, the ape’s shoulders drooped, its arm came up to cover its face, and it looked down at the ground.
So far I have only outlined the aspects that do not separate us from many members of the animal kingdom. There has been no originality on my part, just a repetition the results of old scientific experiments. Now let’s simply define self-awareness as knowing exactly what we are. It seems when we do this our criterion is incredibly simple, yet so strict not one species on planet earth qualifies as aware. What are humans? We are, as far as all physical evidence and scientific understanding, a neural network that is attached to a number of life-sustaining, input, and output devices that allow it to communicate and interact with the physical world. Do we understand this even slightly more than animals? Not to any degree. Yet in the past hundred thousand years, how have we learned of our nature? Cultural evolution — the collective knowledge passed down through hundreds of generations. We finally have a loose understand of what we are from chopping each other up and removing pieces to see what still functions. Just six thousand years ago we thought that “we” were that red pumping organ in the chest. It would appear, without a doubt, that humans have no clue what we are except through tens of thousands of years of experimentation — experimental surgery and eventually positron-emission scanning.
This opens a very intriguing likelihood: the possiblity for a being to exist at a higher level of sentience than we humans. What if these beings visited? They were born understanding what they were, how neural networks operate, and where their center of thought is located within their bodies. Would we be lower life forms to them? Certainly so. Would those higher beings be justified in exterminating us at a whim, as we are nothing more than an inferior species that spent thousands of years mutilating ourselves just to understand how we operate? Much more so than we are justified in killing animals — for any purpose.