The price we pay

We watched the documentary Horizon: The Secret You yesterday which seeks answers to the question how we know who we are and touches on concepts like the soul. In the documentary (6:40) they present the mirror self recognition test which can be used to identify self-awareness that apparently leads to what is known as the mirror stage of infants. The differences between the children in various age groups is really amazing to watch.

It is argued that self-awareness is a requirement for humans to be able to think about ourselves in the past, present and potential future. “The price we pay for being aware of our existence is having to confront the inevitability of our own individual demise. Death awareness is the price we pay for self awareness”.

I am struggling with this concept. I can see that we need to be self aware to recognize the potential of death for each individuum. But would humans or any living creature without self awareness have emotions such as grief? If one does not know who oneself is, how can one know who someone else is? Isn’t recognition of someone else a requirement for grief? Let’s face it: people die every day all over the world, but the collective human population is not grieving those deaths. I don’t have the same emotional reaction to some random persons death compared to the death of my children. I am not saying that we are non-sympathetic and do not feel for others and tragedies they might face, but it certainly is a different feeling than grief. Each individual is only grieving loved ones that have special meaning to them, i.e. they have to be aware of themselves and the loved ones. Without self awareness we should hence not be able to experience grief, right?

But at the same time I believe that animals have been observed to grieve. Keep in mind that only chimpanzees, orang-utans and humans have passed this test to conclusively state that they are self aware (“being conscious of oneself as an individual”). We all have heard the stories of dogs for example who died after their owner died. Or elephants who seem to grieve the loss of a pack member or dolphins who do not leave a dead animal behind. Wouldn’t all these actions require an awareness of the other animal as an individual or is it simply an instinct to protect pack members?

Help break the silence!

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