“Are we to think that a being knowing itself must contain diversity, that self-knowledge can be affirmed only when some one phase of the self perceives other phases, and that therefore an absolutely simplex entity would be equally incapable of introversion and of self-awareness?
“No. A being that has no parts or phases may have this consciousness; in fact there would be no real self-knowing in an entity presented as knowing itself in virtue of being a compound—some single element in it perceiving other elements—as we may know our own form and entire bodily organism by sense perception: such knowing does not cover the whole field; the knowing element has not had the required cognizance at once of its associates and of itself; this is not the self-knower asked for; it is merely something that knows something else.” ~Plotinus
Plotinus is asking a common question that plagues philosophers and other even today. That simple question is this: How do we know ourselves? The typical answer is that we have two “selves”, and one knows the other. Some say it is the soul that is looking at the mind. Others say it is the subconscious mind observing the conscious mind. Either way, it is one part of us looking at another part. Plotinus is saying that if that is correct, then we really don’t know ourselves at all. We know the self that is observed by the “other”, but what of this other that is observing? Is that our true self? Are both the one observing and the one being observed our self? It does get confusing. If one part is always the observer, and the other part, the observed, then only the part that is observed is ever known. That part which observes is never known.
Another theory is that the observer is universal consciousness, while the observed is the individual mind or ego. This theory makes the most sense to me. The universal consciousness would naturally be able to observe the individual, but the individual would not be able to observe the all. It is much like saying God can know us even though we don’t really know much about God.
A Singular Being
Plotinus says that a simple being with a simplex nature can’t have one nature that observes the other. This means, according to most, that such beings cannot have any self-awareness. Plotinus disagrees with this. He says that even a simple creature that doesn’t have those two “selves” that can look at each other, can still be self-aware. Until recently, science denied this.
Science has always said that animals cannot have any self-awareness. They can feel pain, they can react to the world around them, but they are no aware. But in the last few decades, we have learned a lot about animals that is surprising these scientists. In terms of self-awareness, there have been several cases that have shown that animals do have it. At least some of the more advanced ones do.
In one case, an elephant is seen reacting to its reflection in a mirror. We laugh at dogs and cats that do this and think it is another animal they see in the mirror. That, however, is exactly what the scientists expect. An understanding that is is a reflection of themselves implies a degree of understanding what “self” is. You have to have some self-awareness to understand that what is in the mirror is yourself. The elephant that was observed reacted as expected, at first. He thought it was a different animal. But after some experimental movements and gestures, the elephant became aware that the reflection in the mirror copied his movements. It was clear that he soon realized it was himself, and lost interest. That is self-awareness.
While I haven’t heard a scientific opinion on this, it is my personal belief that an animal that clearly likes to have fun must have a certain degree of self-awareness. An animal might find that activity brings it joy, but without awareness, it could not understand that repeating the same activity would have the same result. Yet many examples of animals having fun are available.
In one that amazed many, a crow is seen enjoying sliding on a roof. The crow carries a jar lid to the top of the roof, jumps in it, then slides down. He repeats that activity several times.
He is having fun, he is aware of it. This one was also amazing because it demonstrated a crow using a tool: the jar lid. Until recently, using tools was supposed to be one of the things that separated man from animals. Now we are finding examples of animals using tools, do that idea must be rethought as well.
Another popular example shows a dog sliding on a hill. She carries the sled to the top of the hill, jumps on it, and slides down. Repeating the activity several times and is clearly enjoying it. She is aware that the activity is giving her joy. That is self-awareness.
In a similar activity with a dog, we see one that is having great fun with a machine that throws a tennis ball. This dog not only chases the mechanically thrown ball, but carries it back, drops it back in the machine, and jumps around in anticipation waiting for the machine to throw it again. This dog is not only reacting with joy to what has happened, but he is also reacting with joy to what he is expecting to happen in the future! That is definitely self-awareness, even if somewhat more limited than human self-awareness.
Self-Awareness in Plants
I guess the question that remains now is do plants have any self-awareness? Obviously, plants have a much lower level of consciousness than animals. That would imply that if they do have any self-awareness, it is much less than animals. But I don’t think we can rule it out entirely. Since one theory of self-awareness is that it is the universal consciousness that is observing the individual consciousness, that universal consciousness must be observing plants as well as humans and animals. And there is evidence that such limited self-awareness does exist. Recent studies have shown that when a tree is attacked by plant disease, it sends out a chemical warning to other trees in the area so they can build up their protection and avoid getting the same illness. Now it can be argued that it is simply a reaction by the plant with no actual awareness involved. But we don’t really know for sure. And all life is part of that one Universal Consciousness.