Can a humanoid creature develop language and human like communication whilst lacking a sense of existing and being alive or would they just act as ants?

The goal of the question:

I'd prefer if the those populations lacking sense of self meet with humans and they were able to communicate.

Specific Requirements:

The setting has no magic. Any time period is acceptable, and thus tech level is irrelevant.

Real world examples?

I know that some involuntary things can be read as body language, but they are not developed, they are automatic and robotic. Like facial expressions, and eye movement. I would prefer a voluntary or intelligently developed language, rather than an instinctive one.

Is there any real life examples of something similar? Maybe brain dead or brain damaged people who can talk or people who act as artificial intelligence more than actual people??

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I find this question quite confusing. Through the ages various pockets of civilisation have done heinous acts without really needing to justify it because it was just the natural thing to do, for themselves. And I can't really see why you'd claim self-annihilation is the ultimately moral thing to do. For most religions and beliefs, basically "not getting in the way" isn't the best behaviour but actually acting to improve the world. There are few fringe cults and beliefs where more or less the very existence of the individual is seen as a burden. $\endgroup$
    – VLAZ
    Jan 4 at 14:53
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ I have the impression you are asking more for a philosophical speculation than for a worldbuilding problem. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Jan 4 at 14:54
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @VLAZ: Monks (in general) are not clergy. Becoming a monk and becoming a priest are very different vocations. The Orthodox do have monastic clergy (= "hieromonks"); don't know about Catholics: but only very few of our monks are even interested in functioning as clergy. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jan 4 at 18:12
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I think the underlying problem here is that both the terms language and sense of self are ambiguous. you mention ants, yet i could argue ants HAVE a language, a chemical language of pheromones used for, you guessed it: communicating. On the other side, i could argue that this cat sitting next to me as im writing this is or is not self aware, is she? I dont know, maybe, maybe not, depends on how self aware is defined. This question really cant be properly answered without you defining your definition of those things. $\endgroup$
    – Topcode
    Jan 4 at 19:17
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I'm sorry, how are your hypothetical creatures different from a web server, for example? A web server most definitely does not have a sense of self, and yet it is able to respond to queries formulated in a suitable language, in this case, the Hypertext Transfer Protocol. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jan 5 at 0:19

I don't believe so

While it's possible for language to develop without the concept of personal ownership (there's no concept or word for "that's mine"), I find it incredible that language could develop without the concept of "me."

Indeed, the only way I can imagine a creature without a sense of self is for that creature to have no reaction to its environment. Consider a bacteria or a virus. If the environment becomes adverse (say, pour alcohol onto the bacteria, killing it), the bacteria (insofar as I know, to be fair, I'm not a medical specialist) doesn't shy away from the threat of the alcohol. It just dies.

Compare this to a monkey, or a dog, or even a worm, where the creature reacts to its environment. If you poke at a worm, it tries to move away. Despite having no sapience at all, it is sentient enough to have a sense of "self."

Therefore, I believe it is impossible for communication (even in its most rudimentary form) to develop (i.e, "language") without the concept of self. The idea of "I don't want that to happen to me" always develops (insofar as we know from Earth evolution) before the ability to express the idea.

And just to make my point...

Let's assume a creature without a sense of self could speak. Let's ask it some questions.

  • "Does that hurt?"

No answer, the creature has no way of knowing if you're referring to yourself, itself, or another creature. Indeed, without a concept of self, it has no concept of of the Other, either. It stares at you, not knowing what you're referring to. Unless it's actually experiencing pain, then it might say "yes," but it's unlikely since it can't know who's experiencing the pain you're talking about.

  • "Did I hurt you?"

No answer, the creature doesn't understand the pronouns "I" or "you" and so has no perspective concerning the point of reference. Frankly, without a sense of self, the creature has no way of thinking, "I'm in pain." All it can do is say, "Pain!" because, without a sense of self, it wouldn't understand the concept of "there is pain" because that embodies pain as an independent object. No sense of self, no independent objects, either. If the creature can comprehend the idea of "this rock, here," then it must comprehend "I" as well.

I think. This is a pretty alien point of view. But I don't believe it's possible. The capacity to discuss things would be so limited that it's hard to believe language could develop in the first place.

  • $\begingroup$ Ugh, we can certainly make machines which react to external stimuli and we are pretty sure that they don't have a sense of self. And we can make machines which respond to input statements made in a suitable language, again with no sense of self. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jan 5 at 0:19
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP You're assuming that imposing a language that already includes a sense of self by people who already have a sense of self on a machine exemplifies a solution to the problem. Simply put, machines don't think, didn't evolve, and didn't create any of the languages they use. I therefore don't think that's a valid example. $\endgroup$ Jan 5 at 0:27
  • $\begingroup$ The question does not require any of those attributes. All it requires is creatures with no sense of self using language. (And I made a comment asking the OP what exactly they mean by language; specifically, if any symbolic communication system is good enough, then bees and web servers qualify. If recursive syntax is required, then a C compiler qualifies. If the capacity to express linguistic reflection is required, then humans are at present the only example, and we do have a sense or self.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jan 5 at 0:31
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @AlexP I'm taking the OP at their word: "Can a human or humanoid creature develop language and human like communication whilst lacking a sense of existing and being alive?" That doesn't encompass bees or computers. (This question doesn't even make sense in the context you just suggested. As I said, computers can't create their own languages from nothing. They can only do what someone has told them to do. From that perspective, the only practical answer is, "No, such a creature must depend on someone else for language, and that someone will have a sense of self." But the answer is still "no.") $\endgroup$ Jan 5 at 0:37
  • $\begingroup$ Facebook had an attempt at an AI that could learn to negotiate on their own. Then they had some instances learning by negotiating among themselves. The language should supposedly be English, but the AI mangled the grammar so much that it almost created a very hilarious language in the process. More on this at towardsdatascience.com/… - and this might someday be a start on selfless beings developing language :D $\endgroup$ Jan 5 at 14:06

The fact that house cat's meow is evidence that language skills can develop without human intelligence. Domestic Cats are unusual among felines in that they are very vocal, with most other wild cats being nearly silent and when they do make noises, have a lot less range of sounds compared to your cat. Most wild cats are solitary and not social creatures. The exception, lions, rely more on body language for communication among the pride. House Cat's meows, and the tonal inflections of them (there's a difference in a cat that is responding to it's tail being stepped on to a cat that would like some food please) is thought to have been developed because they associate with humans, which like most primates, use vocal communication more than body language to talk to others... house cats made up a language for dealing with a unique living situation of pestering those hairless apes that think they run the show around here.

Not to leave Man's Best Friend out of the picture, but domestic dogs have a greater intelligence level than wolves, which already use vocalization to communicate, with some body language. Domestic dogs were offshoots of wolves that chose to work with humans due to similar hunting techniques (persistant pack hunting). While different breeds of dogs will have different levels of intelligence, almost all can recognize their own name and will look to the person who said it. Among one of the more intelligent breeds, a mature Golden Retriever has a language understanding on par with three year old human, and although dogs lack the physical vocal cords to reproduce sounds, Goldies can recognize and react to human verbal cues with a high degree of understanding. Think of it as how a word in English may be highly offensive, but a similar sounding word in another language is pretty mild. For example, both English and German have a word using the same letters in the same order and make the same sound ("Mist") but they don't mean even remotely the same thing (Mist in English is atmospheric parciptation characterized by tiny drops of water. Mist in German refers to animal excriment, often used as ferterlizer.). Or even in different dialects in the same language. American English and British English both use "Fanny" to discuss a particular body part, but the American usage is a rather tame , if not silly reference to one's buttocks... the British consider it a very offensive term for a women's genitalia.

In fact, the reasons why cats and dogs fight like... well... themselves is because both also rely on body language mixed with verbal languages... while they have very similar symbolic body language cues, they often mean totally different things in cat and dog. A cat getting low to the ground with it's tail up and making a hissing sound is a defensive response to try and get an aggressor to back off... but to a dog, it's similar to a stance they use to say "I want to play" and a defensive back off always has a growl... a light breathy sound in this position is closer to a playful pant.

That all said, there are no known members of the animal kingdom that can parse a complex linguistic statment aproaching that of human. Humans can better parse smaller changes in sounds than they can allow for highly complex instructions and there is no known equal to us. The closest percieved intelligence are modern computers, and it's widely acknowledge that even then, computers are way too literal minded to be intelligent.

  • $\begingroup$ The author doesn't ask about sapience though, he wants to remove self-awareness, not intelligence. $\endgroup$ Jan 4 at 15:38
  • $\begingroup$ Just a note: Humans are indeed able to recognize subtle phonetic differences between phonemes, but this is in no way, shape or form a precondition for language. Some languages have a larger inventory of phonemes, others are happy with a very small inventory. In fact, human language can be (and is) represented by the dits and deets of Morse code, showing that two contrasting phonemes are all that's needed. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jan 5 at 0:23
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP: Yes, my greater grasp of language parsing was in understanding how the subtle changes in sound and order can change the information that is parsed. I shouldn't have to ask any reader here what the difference in instructions of "take the ball to him" and "take him to the ball" would result in, but for even the most intelligent animals, this is a rather difficult concept to grasp (not impossible.).+ $\endgroup$
    – hszmv
    Jan 5 at 12:41
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP: Even Koko the Gorilla, noted for being able to communicate using American Sign Language once stated she believed gorillas were smarter than humans because she figured out how to talk to us... even though she only achieved that because we taught her sign language in the first place. $\endgroup$
    – hszmv
    Jan 5 at 12:43