Re: thought-experiment

Len Piotrowski (
Fri, 13 Sep 1996 13:59:29 GMT

In article <> Elazar Harel <> writes:


>Couldn't sleep last night...

>I was wondering if there is any information on thoughts/research done on
>something along the line of the following thought-experiment:

>1. A few test-tube human babies are created, born and left to be raised
>on their own on another planet with similar conditions to Earth. They
>have enough air, food and shelter to survive but have no contact with
>any human beings from Earth. Now that they are mature adults:

>a) What types of communication skills will they develop?

Have you seen that movie starring Jody Foster as a feral child? All known
cases of human children growing up in the wild beyond the influence of a
human, social group, fail to develop language on their own, and after their
return to human society, apparently are beyond a crucial age to fully develop
language skills. The implication of all this is that human children need a
human society and culture to develop language and be integrated into a culture.

>b) Will they be distinguishable from other primates?

They would still be humans physically. Behavior is problematic. They wouldn't
revert, or de-evolve into sub-humans, if that's what your question is asking.

>c) Will they be self-conscious? if so, how will we be able to know that
>(assuming that we can observe them)?

Helen Keller makes an interesting observation about self-consciousness ("The
World I Live In," Chapter XI, _Before the Soul Dawn_):

"Since I had no power of thought, I did not compare one mental state
with another. So I was not conscious of any change or process going on in
my brain when my teacher began to instruct me. I merely felt keen delight in
obtaining more easily what I wanted by means of the finger motions she taught
me. I thought only of objects, and only objects I wanted. It was the turning
of the freezer on a larger scale. [a reference to feeling the cranking of the
old style ice cream maker] When I learned the meaning of "I" and "me" and
found that I was something, I began to think. Then consciousness first existed
for me. Thus it was not the sense of touch that brought me knowledge. It was
the awakening of my soul that first rendered my senses their value, their
cognizance of objects, names, qualities, and properties. Thought made me
conscious of love, joy, and all the emotions. I was eager to know, then to
understand, afterward to reflect on what I knew and understood, and the blind
impetus, which had before driven me hither and thither at the dictates of my
sensations, vanished forever."

Without the dialogic interaction of the "teacher" this revelation of
self-consciousness wouldn't have happened. But what also seems necessary is a
capacity for self-reflection, the ability to distinguish between "I" and "me."
Thus several crucial aspects seem necessary to this event: the capacity
to symbolize, self-reflection, social interaction, and the ability to assume
the place of the other and realize they understand what you are trying to
"say" (meaningful symbolic communication). Your Robinson Crusoe babies would
be hard put to create these properties from whole cloth all on their own.

>d) After several generations are born from these Homo-Sapiens, will they
>develop languages, writing, humor, conscience, morals, philosophy,
>technology? Will they develop differently and come up with completely
>different paradigms that our civilization didn't come up with?

That's problematic. In a garden of Eden and given all of time and enough
variation to work with, perhaps they could develop a form of culture, that is,
if they hadn't evolved before that. It would likely mirror the general trends
from the history of our own earthly cultures. But by that evidence alone it
should also be quite unique.

>f) What if these humans do not develop such skills? Would that alter
>our judgement of other animals in terms of their development
>capabilities? In other words, is it possible that the initial human
>self-consciousness on Earth was accidental (or implanted from the
>outside) and that other animals are capable of developing that too under
>the right circumstances?

I don't think it would alter our ideas about other animals. It would certainly
alter our ideas about being human. There are many who already attribute
consciousness to other animals. In fact, in terms of kinds of reactivity
states, human consciousness may be considered just another kind of

>e) Would such an experiment alter our belief/disbelief/definition of the
>existence of a human soul?

Probably, for those with a vested interest in that kind of ideology.
Discovering actual life on Mars would probably be just as devastating to
certain world views. However, views about the nature of culture and
consciousness have no necessary relationship to any particular set of cultural
values. Given that, an experiment such as this, even if only a
thought-experiment, is carried out in a culturally contingent context, and
thus subject to the constraints and influence of the greater society in which
it's found.

Thanks for an interesting and refreshing set of questions!