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Matrix: Reloaded Explained
The essay
Selected reader comments

Matrix: Revolutions Explained
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Welcome, Humans !

06 Aug, 2009 | Brian

Alternate titles for this article: Monkeys On Parade!, The Nose Knows: Snouts in the Spiritual Community.

Taking a break from my cruel treatment of old B.P. to inspect a spongy, brain-like crumb [PDF] from EcoWorldly.com, which seems to be a limb of Green Options Media, who are dutifully Empowering Sustainable Choices for us all.

I am always very excited and happy to see research results like these, because it makes dualistic philosophies that much more unsustainable. Said another way, I get my ego stroked because I am right, which is a sensation I seek out with laser-focused determination. The laughable juxtaposition here is that I am ego-boosted to be classified as an animal. That's what this research really says. Elephants aren't revealed to be more like us. Rather, we are revealed to be among a class of creatures that also includes elephants. It's regarding this point that I think the article goes astray.

Don't misunderstand me: I love science, and I appreciate this research. But we have two separate parts here. FACT - Elephants, apes, dolphins, and humans recognize themselves. SPECULATION - They have "higher" mental functions that allow them to do so, i.e., self-awareness. Lumped in with self-awareness (a concept that I do not think holds up quite so well under scrutiny as people would prefer to believe) are empathy and altruism. This speculation won't withstand much attention, or at least it shouldn't; it wrongly confuses similarity with capability.

Before I go further, I will provide a quick primer on scientific methodology, which these good researchers undoubtedly followed. You see, first we get evidence and then we speculate on what the evidence may mean. The real report in this article is the FACT portion, the gathered evidence. This is the part I like. Good show, elephants! (And good show, Plotnik, de Waal, and Reiss.) The rest is hasty pot-stirring to see if any remotely-plausible ideas gurgle up to the surface. Plotnik et al. may not even be very concerned about the (scientific) hypotheses others concoct using their research. I don't know. It's good stuff any way you slice it.

So back to speculation. What I dislike about the way it's put in the article - and it isn't all that different in the abstract - is that it employs the concept of "higher" and "lower" brain functions. What does that mean? What is a "higher" function? Maybe they mean that it is more sophisticated, more complex, although I find that too to be meaninglessly imprecise. It is strange to give qualitative labels to a thing just because it's there. I wouldn't call a tail a "higher" organ, even though it opens functional doors that are shut to me.

It is the same with mental machinery. There are many (many!) specialized systems in the mind, quite like mental organs, and they operate in various combinations to produce emergent results. Some species have mental organs that others don't, like one for decoupled imagination and one for representing what others perceive. Look at the list of creatures under discussion. There are apes (social), elephants (social), dolphins (social), and humans (hypersocial). Decoupled representations (e.g., empathic reactions) are highly beneficial to social animals, and that is what is observed here. What would be a shock is if a crocodile had any sense of looking at itself in a mirror. It would not be shocking because crocs are dumb, or are restricted to "lower" mental functions. It would be shocking because crocodiles have no need for empathy, and have only a very meager need to care about what other creatures perceive, for example "Can that delicious-looking deer see me?" The mental organs they don't require never materialized.

It is similarity we see when we look at the elephants' reaction, not complexity. The gated progress charted by the researchers show gates of likeness. It shows how other social animals have developed the same mental organs. We (the socialites) depend greatly on social success, and social success depends greatly on awareness of what others in the group think and feel, in general, and about us in particular. We imagine all the time how others see us, so the mirror image fits easily into our way of thinking.

This isn't information about elephants. It's information about us, about how wrong we usually are about our place in the world.