February 2007

A number of times in my replies to your letters I have mentioned that I consider personal revelation to be irrefutable (but only personally compelling) evidence for the existence of a deity. That is, if there was an all-powerful deity, that deity could reveal itself to an individual in such a way that the individual would have no choice but to be convinced that the deity existed. The rest of us might think that this individual was deluded or even simply mistaken, but for the individual the evidence would be insurmountable.

I’ve taken a bit of heat for this, both because there are ways an apparent revelation could occur without the existence of a deity (which is true and is why such a thing is only personally compelling) and, I think, because some atheists (and agnostics) don’t like the fact that there is potentially an unassailable arguments for the existence of god.

Well, over the weekend it occurred to me that the existence of a deity is not the only thing for which personally compelling proof through personal revelation is possible. It seems to me that self awareness fits into the same mold.

For example, I know that I am self aware. I know that others say that they are self aware, but I have to take their word for it. There are experiments that can be conducted to show if something — a chimp, for example — has characteristics in common with self-aware creatures, but such tests can never be definitive. Why? Because there is no direct test for self awareness (or, if there is, I sure can’t think of one). If we could build a robot that passed every test for self awareness, would we have proven it was self aware? No. At best, we could prove that it was functionally self aware.

Could a future test be designed to check if something is self aware? I don’t see how. I could scan my brain and try to locate the part that shows me experiencing self awareness, but how would I test whether this test was definitive? I could check for this activity in the brain of another human, but such a check is only meaningful if I assume a priori that other humans are self aware. Even if I make this assumption, all I have done is made a test for whether a human is self aware, and I’m not sure how I’d go about testing my procedure further since there is seemingly no way to identify non-self-aware humans to use as counter examples.. But even if I got the test to work definitively on humans, how would I know if it applied to chimps? And it definitely wouldn’t apply to a robot, an alien, or something else far from human.

Unless I’m missing something, it seems to me that self awareness, like personal revelation of a deity, is something we just have to trust people on.

Posted on February 20, 2007 at 6:58 pm by ideclare · Permalink
In: Essay

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