Does an elephant have a self?

We have much to learn about a grain of sand.  It has come from the material of stars recycled through 4.5 billion years of our planet’s formation.  If we ever gain a more complete understanding of a speck of sand, our knowledge of the universe will be changed irrevocably.  While waiting for this to happen, let us contemplate an elephant’s mind.

We agree that animals have senses like us, to see, hear, touch, taste, and so on.  What we are not ready to concede is that an elephant’s experience of existence can be even remotely like that of ours.  Yet qualia we regard as exclusively human are plausible in non-human mammals, and if so, an elephant can have a self.  There may be merit in this tenet of some ancient beliefs.  Elephants cry and exhibit grief in situations we regard as sad and are altruistic when they sense difficulty in their fellows.  Combined with sensitivity and an elephantine memory, their meticulous social order reflects intelligence. They use tools, learn to perform many tasks, undertake rituals when a fellow dies, and appear to linger and contemplate the bones of dead companions.

The great apes, whales and dolphins have similar behaviors, enabled perhaps, by the addition to an already sophisticated mammalian brain, of ‘mirror’ and ‘spindle cell’ neurons.  These brain cells appear to enable humans to read other minds and to sense the feelings, thinking and intentions of other people.  Like us, elephants, apes and dolphins know the emotional state and intention of their fellows.  It makes us wonder if an elephant ponders its self-esteem, or wishes it were someone or something else as we sometimes do.  As for humans, at what point in the development of a newborn can we say that self appears?  At what point, as dementia worsens, does the sufferer lose so much of his or her mind as to no longer have a self?  These questions lead to a view that self has a basic kernel to which can be added incremental layers of complexity and sophistication any of which can subsequently be lost.

Examining the self is akin to driving a car with one’s head under the bonnet to observe the engine.  Both are hazardous.  With the self, a prerequisite is to acknowledge the two rogue elephants in the room: Fear, and its companion, Greed.  The principles of fear and greed have operated from the beginning of life on earth, perhaps beginning with nucleotides attracting suitable additions and rejecting what is unsuitable to form the base pairs of DNA.  This may have gone on to a unicellular organism like amoeba, attracted to what it can engulf and derive energy from, and repelled by the noxious and toxic.  This phenomenon is in everything alive.  It defines us.  Indeed, we would not be here without the brain in which fear and greed form the kernel of self.   Survival is certainly not everything, but without survival there is nothing.

Self is a construct, a fabrication from many components.  Most of the time, the brain automatically creates self so well that this complex and fragile process is taken for granted.  Breathing and eating keep us alive.  Consciousness enables us to assess the environment and respond.  We depend on memory to remember who we are and what anything is.  Most of the time we believe we can direct our thoughts and actions, though in reality emotions impel us, often against our longer-term interests.  Some of us sense a vast unconscious giving rise to thoughts and actions; others see reality in the imaginary or spiritual.  Some of us think that our beliefs create our reality; others view their beliefs as absolute truths and ultimate realities.  Fear and greed ensure that many beliefs are rationalised into dogma and elevated to Truths. Whatever the view, we each have a self that is created throughout life, a self that can be damaged by other selves and disintegrate.

Like it or not, the self is physical.  Previously intangible and mysterious, each self is made of anatomical structures with physiological functions:  mundane mindless matter making marvellous minds.  It is early days but we are beginning to understand self not only as ideas but as proteins and chemicals; feedback loops and electrical circuits susceptible to the same physical forces as any biological process, subject to the push-and-pull of punish-and-reward mechanisms in the brain.  We also know of multiple selves in each person, arising from a brain more a corporation than an individual; where any one of many parts of the brain can hijack the self; and where processes in the Left and Right hemispheres produce different ‘opinions’ resulting in debates within the brain that thankfully are mostly resolved subconsciously.  The more we understand how the self works, the more we realise our ‘control’ is illusory.  It brings us back to the elephant.

The ancient story of the metaphorically blind men and the elephant remains useful.  A person without sight (insight) will grasp a part of the elephant (existence) and conclude that the elephant is like a rope when grasping the tail or that it is like a tree when hugging a leg.  This tree is so real to our senses that it causes us to struggle to understand David Hume who said we are not capable of fully understanding reality because we can only behold it with our limited senses.  Hume’s insight is that there can be no knowledge of anything beyond experience.  Instead, we cleverly construct reality with our imagination, using words to build monuments of belief that seduce and deceive us.

Scientific inventions extend our understanding of everything from the subatomic to the astronomical, and we use the knowledge to make our lives better (medicine) or worse (weapons).  Yet our brains remain much as they were before.  Bound to fear and greed, thinking is flawed.  Powerful emotions like outrage and empathy skew our judgment and the best intentions reap unintended consequences.  A neuroscientist does impressive work on mirror neurons and says this is what makes us human. A philosopher finds his impeccable logic leads him beyond Spinoza and Hume.  A politician declares his plan for the country, visionary.  Each grasps their perception of reality and extrapolates it to the whole.  We disagree what it means even when we grasp the same part of the elephant; if we hold the leg, we argue that it is a tree not a column.  We even become certain that the tree is an oak not an elm.  Only when we realise this is how we think, can we begin to understand Hume.

Is it possible in our age of narcissism to accept a self so uncertain and ephemeral?  Egocentricity compels us to survive even though logic and science refute self as the centre of everything.  It comes down to belief -  whether the body is all there is to a person, or that a spirit must infuse the body to make it whole, a view increasingly difficult to sustain.  We know thought arises several seconds before it enters consciousness, and that our emotional response to an image of a face forms in 0.1 second, too brief for us to get a conscious impression.  We also know that the emotional connection to another person is affected by something as simple as whether we are holding a warm or cold drink in our hand.  (A warm drink influences us to find the person warm and friendly; a cold drink can leave us cold.)

Such findings suggest that we have a mechanical and predictable self; a biological machine with psychological buttons that others will press.  Yet such a self can love, embellish, aspire, and build; combine with a self that broods, avenges and worships; and insist all the time that it is wholly autonomous and free.  A complex bundle of instincts akin to the gravity that tempers our desire to soar like a bird, self constantly seeks validation vital for its continued existence: that it is entitled, has rights, and is special.  Without this validation, self would be lost in the wilderness of existence.

Our anguish is the impossible task of reconciling the realisation that we are a mere speck in the universe, with a self that inevitably sees itself as the centre of everything.  We may think outside the box, but we cannot think outside the body.  We may not want to be, and we deny that we are, but we can only be self-centred, even narcissistic.  What will save us?  We could do worse than look to the elephant for the qualia we need more of:  Grace, humility, gratitude, and compassion.

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