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Awareness Communicated

The Language Tower

Language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the while we long to move the stars to pity,

Gustave Flaubert

There are many ways to talk about the world, which leads to a framework that some people call poetic naturalism. 'Naturalism' claims that there is just one world, the natural world including how the universe moves and evolves. 'Poetic' reminds us that there is more than one way of talking about the world. We find it natural to use a vocabulary of 'causes' and 'reasons why' things happen, but those ideas aren't part of how nature works at its deepest levels. They are emergent phenomena, part of how we describe our everyday world. The difference between the everyday and deeper descriptions arises from the arrow of time, the distinction between past and future that can ultimately be traced to the special state in which our universe began near the Big Bang.

As we move closer and closer to a true understanding of the world; we must be willing to accept uncertainty and incomplete knowledge, and always be ready to update our beliefs as new evidence comes in. We learn that our best approach to describing the universe is not a single unified story but an interconnected series of models appropriate at different levels. Each model has a domain in which it is applicable, and the ideas that appear as essential parts of each story have every right to be thought of as 'real'. The real task of language is to assemble an interlocking set of descriptions, based on some fundamental ideas, that fit together to form a stable scope of belief.

In Cosmology I tried to write about the world as it actually is: the fundamental laws of nature, including 'Quantum Field Theory', the basic language in which modern physics is written. We must begin to find the clarity that is included in what is called the 'Standard Model' the enormously successful inventory of the particles and forces that make up you, me, the sun, the moon, the stars, and everything we have ever seen, touched or tasted in our lives. There is much that we don't know about how the world works, but we have extremely good reason to think that the Standard Model is the correct description of nature in its domain of applicability. The domain is wide enough to immediately exclude a number of provocative phenomena: from telekinesis and astrology to life after death.

With some laws of physics in hand, there was still much work to be done in connecting these deeper principles to the richness of the world around us. In Reality I tried to demonstrate that the emergence of complex structures isn't a strange phenomenon in tension with the general tendency of the universe toward greater disorder; it is a natural consequence of that tendency. In the right circumstances, matter self-organizes into intricate configurations, capable of capturing and using information from their environments. The culmination of this process is life itself. The more we learn about the basic workings of life, the more we appreciate how they are in harmony with the fundamental principles governing the universe as a whole. Life is a process, not a substance, and it is necessarily temporary. In Machine I tried to establish that we humans are not the reason for the existence of the universe, but our ability for self-awareness and reflection makes us special within it.

Next we arrived at the puzzle of Consciousness where we leap from naturalism to physicalism. Modern neuroscience has made giant strides in understanding how thought actually works inside our brains, where there is little question that our personal experiences have definite correlates in physical processes. We can even begin to see how this remarkable ability evolved over time, and what kinds of abilities are crucial to achieving consciousness. The most difficult problem is a philosophical one: how is it even possible that inner experience, the uniquely experiential aboutness of our lives inside our heads, can be reduced to mere matter in motion? Poetic naturalism suggests that we should think of 'inner experience' as part of the way of talking about what is happening in our brains. But ways of talking can be very real, even when it comes to our ability to make free choices as rational beings.

Finally we are forced to confront the hardest problem of all, that of how to construct meaning and value in the cosmos without transcendent purpose. A common charge against naturalism is that such a task is simply impossible: without something beyond the physical world to guide us , there is no reason to live at all, and certainly no reason to live one way rather than another. Some naturalists respond by agreeing, and getting on with their lives; others react strongly the other way, by arguing that values can be determined scientifically just as much as the age of the universe can be. Poetic naturalism strikes a middle ground, accepting that values are human constructs, but denying that they are either illusory or meaningless. All of us have cares and desires, whether given to us by evolution, our upbringing, or our environment. The task before us id to reconcile those cares and desires within ourselves, and amongst one another. The meaning that we find in life is not transcendent, but it is no less meaninful for that.

It seems that the human mind evolved from primitive cognitive communities in the ancestral culture, the interconnected and distributed activity of many brains, rather than from the development of a complex language module within an individual brain then went on to create cultures.  The formation of human cognitive communities seems to have been caused by a relatively simple expansion of what is called the "Executive Brain" with a corresponding change in developmental plasticity. The form that human consciousness took was fixed by the demands of this adaptation.  The nature of our awareness has produced culture mongers, driven to seek refuge and solace in community.  The evolutionary origins of language are tied to the early emergence of knowledge, feeling and memory networks, all of which form the cognitive heart of culture.  Language evolved under conditions that favored those hominids that could make their shared cognitive networks more and more precise.  The first priority was to bond as a group, to learn to share attention and set up the social patterns that would sustain such sharing and bonding in the species.  

Language is not an isolated module; it is embedded in a wider set of instincts for culture and blended into the cognitive system as a whole.  Human ancestors could not have evolved an ability to generate language unless they had already connected with one another in simple communities of mind.  The relationship between consciousness and culture is a reciprocal one.  Enculturation dominates human cognition, necessitating the early differentiation of working memory into multiple fields of awareness, as well as linking of its powers of recall to the appropriate cultural subroutines.  From observing the limitations of wild-reared apes and feral children, we know that if these are not programmed into the brain early enough, the system will be impossible to train.  

A key step in the process is the interlinking of the infant’s attention system with those of other people – the development of interaction through the channels of eye contact, voice, touch, building from the early mutual imitations of parent and infant, through elaborate exchanges of facial expressions, voice and gesture, to play-acting and games.  A hierarchy of habits for shared noticing, caring, feeling, and remembering are cultivated in this way preparing the way for more ambitious forays into the wider culture.  If the child learns to read these signals, evaluate them, and respond to them, it can learn to navigate the cultural labyrinth and in turn become a cultural guide later in life for someone else.  This training is all domain-general – virtually any cognitive module can be recruited in it.  But without it, children will not aquire language normally nor achieve fully human consciousness later in life.  

Human cultural evolution in the form of collective mentality could not have progressed far without some means of dividing working memory into different streams of awareness such as self and other, and past and present.  Successful pedagogy in particular requires a multilayered system of mutual cognitive control if teacher and learner are to keep track.  Skills manifested among early hominids – such as tool manufacture, spear throwing, or group coordination for big-game hunting – attest to the development of a capacity to switch between sub-regions of awareness and, if required to parallel process, compartmentalize their conscious mental activities and run them simultaneously.  This adaptation is typical of our human cognitive style, and language in particular is highly dependent on it. The key to such multifocal, multilayered consciousness was management by the executive system.  Modern symbolic technology capitalized on this capacity and radically transformed our knowledge networks in the process.  Thanks to those changes we can now play faster and more complex games in awareness.  

Mimetic Theory

Mimetic TheoryThe first human-like culture emerged with a new species, homo, just over two million years ago – a culture equipped with mimetic expressive skills.  Mimesis took the primate mind a step further in the direction of improved social coordination and collective cognition.  The group was primary, thus having an accurate sensitivity to group feelings was a survival related skill.  Mimesis is the result of evolving better conscious control over action and is epitomized by four uniquely human abilities: mime, imitation, skill, and gesture.  The most basic of these is mime – the imaginative reenactment of an event, exemplified by the pretend play of children, and extending ubiquitously into adult social life in many forms of role-playing.  Precise imitation can be seen as an attempt to replicate an event that has some instrumental purpose, requiring the imitator to understand the other person’s objective – for example, a child can mime spear sharpening long before it can actually copy it with understanding.  Skill is closely related to mime and imitation and results from rehearsal, systematic improvement, and the chaining of mimetic acts into hierarchies.  Whether we are learning to weave, make tools, or cook food, we must learn a set of basic action sequences, generalize them, and rehearse them until they become second nature.  Gesture is a natural derivative of the first three and is usually defined as an explicitly communicative or intentional act.  

Mimetic capacity produces a layer of cultural interaction based on conventional, expressive non-verbal actions such as eye contact, facial expressions, poses, body language, self-decoration, gesticulation, and tones of voice.  Mimetic culture is the world that children first encounter, and the level on which we assume a basic tribal identity and become conscious ourselves in reference to our primary social group.  It evokes and enforces patterns of consensual action – identification, role playing, and social organization function by mimetic actions, as part of the group theatrical production that we call social life.   The emergence of mimesis was our first step toward evolving an effective distributed knowledge network, which could coordinate the actions of groups of people.  Mimesis is logically prior to language – it is basic to all education and training, and mimetic gesture, at its most advanced, is a direct precursor to grammar.  The phonology of speech is, in fact, a hierarchy assembled from tiny “articulatory” gestural components.    Without mimetic capacity such a hierarchy could not be assembled.  However, mimesis was a self-sufficient cultural adaptation in itself.  Its vestiges persist today as the unspoken foundation of all cultures.  

The underlying cognitive basis for mimesis is an integrative capacity that can bring the body’s various motor systems under unified command.  This requires a centralized brain map, a virtual space where the actor can review and modify every action in imagination – a “model of models,” an image of self-in-world.  The existence of such a controller is evidenced by dancers, actors, and athletes who have to bring their entire voluntary musculature under unified control in their performances, rehearsing a scenario and reviewing their efforts again and again until they meet their criteria for success.  

It seems that the hominid’s break with their primate past came from a newly evolved capacity to direct their attention inward, away from the external world and toward their own actions.  This overall form of body awareness, born of the need to refine actions, was the first rung on a distinctively human ladder of consciousness.  Physically, it could be accounted for by brain changes including an expanding prefrontal cortex, the seat of the executive suite.  In humans this radiates greater control over the many brain areas that regulate action than it does in apes and monkeys.  

Kinematic imagination is a product of such processing.  This is what enables us to envision our body in action and is the cognitive basis for varying and refining any action.  The sequence for doing this is the same basic process of intermediate-term governance: generate the intended action, observe its consequences, remember them, and review the original action pattern in imagination to, in turn, generate the action again.  This kind of action is a human specialty, and the switch in consciousness processing that enabled the envisioning of the self-in-its-environment generated among groups of the species the complex theater of convention, without languages or symbols, that formed the universal mimetic framework for human life.   

Thought and Symbol

A second transition started with the arrival of Homo sapiens about a half million years ago and culminated in the evolution of our Thought and Symbolsubspecies Homo sapiens sapiens about 125,000 years ago.  During this time the brain and the vocal tract underwent a huge change, and human material culture showed signs of accelerated innovation.  This was the era that saw development of spoken language, which produced oral culture and was, until very recently, the universal form of human culture.   Language is a collective product that must have evolved as a group adaptation, in the context of mimetic expressive culture.  Like mimesis, language proceeds from outside to inside, and children must master its public forms before internalizing its use.  It also imposes conformity and welds a group of people into a cohesive entity.  Its arrival, however, set off a whole new level of cognitive-cultural interaction.  

It is no accident that verbal reportability--the capacity to put a thought into words--is considered a key criteria for conscious perception. We do not usually conclude that someone is aware of a piece of information unless she can, at least in part, formulate it with language (assuming. of course, that she is not paralyzed, aphasic, or too young to speak). In humans, the "verbal formulator" that allows us to express the contents of our mind is an essential component that can be deployed only when we are conscious.

I do not mean, of course, that we can always accurately exprress our conscious thoughts with total accuracy. Consciousness overflows language: we perceive vastly more than we can describe. The fullness of our experience of a painting, a gorgeous sunset over the Grand Canyon, or the changing expressions of a baby's face eludes exhaustive verbal description--which probably contributes in no small part to the fascination that they exert. Nevertheless, and virtually by definition, whatever we are aware of can be at least partially framed in a linguistic format. Language provides a catagorical and syntactic formulation of conscious thoughts that jointly lets us structure our mental world and share it with other human minds.

Sharing information with others is the reason that our brain finds it advantageous to abstract from the details of our present sensations and create a "conscious" brief. Our brain drastically compresses the information to a condensed set of symbols that are assembled into short strings, which are then sent over the social network. It would actually be pointless to transmit to others a precise mental image of what I see from my own point of view; what others want is not a detailed description of the world as I see it, but a summary of the aspects that are likely to be true from my interlocutor's viewpoint; a multisensory, viewer-invariant, and durable synthesis of the environment. In humans, at least, consciousness seems to condense information into a brief summary of the main points that other minds are likely to find useful.

Scientists have come to the understanding that in fully self aware human beings there is a set of neural structures uniquely adapted to the representation of our social knowledge. We use the same database to encode our self-knowledge and to accumulate information about others. These brain networks build a mental image of our own self as a peculiar character sitting next to others in a mental database of our social acquaintances.

The neural underpinnings of our own identity are built up in a rather indirect manner. We spend our life monitoring our behavior as well as that of others, and our statistical brain constantly draws inferences about what it observes, literally "making up its mind" as it proceeds. Learning who we are is a statistical deduction from observation. Having spent a lifetime with ourselves, we reach a view of our own character, knowledge, and confidence that is only a bit more refined than our view of other people's personalities. Furthermore, our brain does enjoy privileged access to some of its inner workings.

Introspection makes our conscious motives and strategies transparent to us, while we have no sure means of deciphering them in others. Yet we never genuinely know our true selves. We remain largely ignorant of the actual unconscious determinants of our behavior, and therefore we cannot accurately predict what our behavior will be in circumstances beyond the sfety zone of our past experiences. The Socratic motto "Know Thyself," when applied to the minute details of our behavior, remains an inaccessable ideal. Our "self" is just a database that gets filled in through our social experiences, in the same format with which we attempt to understand other minds, and therefore it is just as likely to include glaring gaps, misunderstandings, and delusions.

Modern culture runs on language and symbols like economies run on money.  Language is usually equated with full consciousness, and the notion of fully human consciousness is inconceivable without language.  Putting events into words, for example, seems to sharpen awareness of the events.  However, words are but the cognitive surface, the form of language, and open to many interpretations, and in the kind of cognitive games we play, language regularly proves inadequate to the task of capturing what it is supposed to capture.  When language stays close to its original adaptive surface, its bread and butter functions, it is more successful.   This inadequacy, and our ability to perceive it as such, is in fact a tip-off to the engine of thought process that stands outside any symbolic product of the cultural system and evaluates its success.  Thought happens without language – language is a child of thought, its amplifier and mediator, invented to serve thought, but never functions as inspiration, interpreter, or final judge.  The region of mind that evaluates symbolic expressions is different from, and much more powerful than, the reach of any consensual expressive system. I will try to describe the evolutionary strategy whereby humankind has progressively offloaded as much cognitive storage as it can to the “cultural attic” to be retrieved when required.  Language itself is a secondary level of storage in this system, unable to be replicated without using other culturally stored information.  As the physical environment generates the complexities that our visual equipment receives, the communication environment is the storehouse of what the brain must learn.  The brain needs to have the innate capacity to find, filter, and remember the essential features of that environment.   

The grammars that have evolved in language seem to have emerged from the episodic cognition that is our mammalian inheritance.  At the earliest times languages were tied to the representation of concrete events and episodes – and this deep cognitive dependency of language is reflected in the relationship between language and metaphor.  The universal elements of language, the set of linguistic conventions that appears in all languages, are shaped by their mimetic origins.  The brain’s language instinct, insofar as there is one, is a domain-general one for mimesis and collectivity.  This is impelled by a deep drive for conceptual clarification.   Individual brains do not have to have a simulacrum of language built in.  If language emerges at group level, brains need only to adapt as parts of a distributed web.  Customs, languages and codes are distributed across many individuals and a multitude of external devices that constitute our material culture.  Cultures and their brains have advanced by interlocking with with each other.  Language can be evolved and replicated only by means of this piggybacking strategy.

Societies with two kinds of people, of greatly differing language capabilities, may have existed during the evolution of language. As each new variant gene arose, conferring some improvement in language ability, the carriers of the gene would leave more descendants. In human molecular biology, a protein transcription factor FOXP2 is encoded from the Forkhead Box P2 gene region located on chromosome 7. The transcriptional targets of FOXP2 range from many areas inside the brain. More specifically, FOXP2 transcribes regions in the human basal ganglia and inferior frontal cortex, which are crucial for brain maturation, lung development, and speech and language development. FOXP2 is also the primary gene that separates Homo sapiens from chimpanzees by the substitution of two amino acids, Threonine to Asparagine and Asparagine to Serine. The substitutions occurred as a result of the separate evolutionary lineages between humans and chimpanzees.When the last of these genes--perhaps FOXP2--swept through the ancestral human population, the modern faculty of language was attained. 

Symbols of all kinds are the playthings of an intelligence – fantastically clever, irrational, manipulative, and largely inarticulate. – that lives deep inside each of us.  As with other mammals, this intelligence is what makes meaning of our conscious experience of the world.  But it cannot symbolize without access to culture.  The relationship between this intelligence and cultural symbolic systems is a sort of boxing match – a state of tension that determines the quality of our uniquely human modes of consciousness. Our consciousness resides in the intermediate-term governance of mind, but it also runs an elaborate cultural machine from which it draws its very particular notions of selfhood.  The cultural matrix with which the individual awareness engages is the product of generations of human conscious activity.  The patterns of culture form the mazes we must penetrate.  These patterns are as real as the physical interactions of migrating birds.  They also dominate the cognitive universe that defines what “reality” is.  

In a book called “A Mind So Rare” Merlin Donald used the analogy of money-laundering to describe the mediation of language between thought and symbolic expression.  He used a young child’s communicative learning to illustrate the process in operation: a child loops a thought into primitive symbolic form, produces an external utterance or gesture, evaluates the feedback obtained, modifies the expression, and continues until “clarity” ensues in the networks that produced the idea. The process of self-clarification and verification is not unique to humans, but the loop through a collective cognitive process is.  Our semantic beast within employs the public loop to evaluate its own expressive performances.  The key difference between us and other primates is that our mental networks have become much better equipped to understand and navigate the idea-laundering environment – that is, our expanded capacity for intermediate-term governance that guides all our adventures with culture, including language itself.  

So how do words function in this scheme of things.  Every word is a cultural invention and individuals must learn the consensual maps that every culture uses to graft word forms onto meanings.  The roots of the invention of words lie in the theater of mimesis, the driving force behind that invention is the need to make the vagaries of mimetic expression less ambiguous.  And vocalization offers an additional and concurrent channel to the visual ones of gesture, pointing, and gaze.   Archaic hominids would never have heard anything like a word or a sentence, but, say, in teaching tool making teachers would have included prosodic cues as well as visual ones to direct their students’ attention to certain points in the sequences.  In the transition to language, those prosodic cues would have developed from utterances that were shorthand for whole chunks of meaning (like infants’ use of a single word to express what might be a comment or a want) to labels and sequences specifying relationships more and more precisely – the rise of elementary grammar.  

The demands that this kind of semantic differentiation made on conscious capacity were huge – at all stages of development.  Language came late in our evolution, coinciding with the last great expansion of the hominid brain, and increasing its executive requirements massively: a  greatly extended and differentiated working memory; a capacity for multifocal attention; lifelong plasticity; huge expansion of long-term memory capable of storing and instantly retrieving thousands of neural word systems; a greatly increased space devoted to semantic representation accompanying the refinements of language capacity. Access to language changed the nature of conscious experience itself – words and sentences clarify the experienced world, placating the semantic beast within, and driving it, conjointly with other conscious beings, to seek greater clarity in culture.  A common language allows us to share mind by defining a common representational framework – a stock exchange of mind where ideas and impressions can be traded, tested, and recombined at will.

Language gives us a cognitive zooming facility with which we can alter at will the scale of an experience and conduct evaluation review of our cognitive realm, with enormously increased powers of abstraction.  In oral culture the main by-product of this capacity is story.  Stories are the imaginative fodder of self-identity, morality, class, and status.  They can become so influential and deeply rooted in culture’s daily operation that they assume a special cognitive status, that of myth.   Narrative traditions have become a governing force in human thought, and the collective leap into the narrative domain has in itself expanded human conscious capacity.  Words and grammars are the entry-level skills without which such traditions cannot exist, but once acquired become secondary to the stories themselves.  Stories and myths can completely reshape our mental semantic space, leading to a consensual definition of a shared virtual reality that is the core of oral culture.  In traditional societies power lies with language and the common cultural myths it generates.  

Oral-mythic culture has generated linguistic invention at a frantic pace as migrating groups of humans have spun off, through language and its mimetic foundations, their own versions of the system.  The creative drive of this process can be illustrated by the huge Indo-European group of languages, spoken by over a billion people today, which can be traced to a single common tongue that existed less than 8,000 years ago.  When oral cultures first appeared, they constituted a revolutionary force.  Their oral and mimetic traditions generated thousands of fully developed mythic civilizations, effecting a transformation of human culture in less than 100,000 years.  The influence of such traditions continues to be strongly felt in today’s world. Collectivity has become the essence of human reality, giving our minds a corporate dimension.  Our cultures invade us and set our agendas – once we have internalized their symbolic conventions, we can never be truly alone in semantic space.  Culture influences what moves us, what we look for and how we think for as long as we live.  Collectivity of mind is what constructs and maintains the vast distributed mental network that is manifested in culture’s institutions, organizations and workings.  And though the creative spark of cognition depends on the individual mind, creativity and its successful incorporation within culture depends both on how talent is defined and what value is assigned to it by a culture.  

This process has generated the complex web of habits, customs, and beliefs that define human culture, much of which, as with the products of individual cognition, has become automatized.  However, the essence of human mentality is to harness itself to the collective organizing energy of culture – humans seek culture as birds seek air.  With culture we have broken out of the isolation of individual mind.  But with our interlinked nervous systems, newly powerful in their electronic extensions, we are now playing cultural games that are challenging the supremacy of the natural world, subjecting our brains to forces that are far beyond our control.  

Symbolic Technologies

Symbol TechnologyThe third transition in consciousness began about forty thousand years ago and involved a revolution in the technology of symbols, leading to the employment of a large number of external devices to store and retrieve memory in the form of human cultural language.  Enculturation now has a formative influence on how a human mind develops.  The most striking example is that of the effects of literacy.  Literacy skills change the functional organization of the brain and deeply influence how individuals and communities of literate individuals do their cognitive work.  To become fully literate, the individual must acquire a host of neural demons that are completely absent from someone who lacks literacy training.  The complexity elaborates if you consider the case of multilingual individuals, or those schooled in the symbolic literacy of technical, mathematical, scientific or musical fields.  The demons of literacy reside in networks that are a cultural add-on to the normal pre-literate state of the brain.  Like the demons of speech, they make great initial demands on conscious processing, but eventually become automatic.  Literacy is neither natural nor universal, yet the children of all human cultures can become literate if given a chance.  

Literacy skills are a response to the invention of external symbols.  Internal symbols such as the words of spoken language are stored in the brain.  The same words typed on a sheet of paper become external symbols stored on the printed page.  Symbolic technology is the enterprise of manufacturing and crafting external symbolic artifacts and devices, designed specifically to help us think, remember and represent reality.  Symbolic technologies liberate consciousness from the limitations of the brain’s biological memory systems --  they complete the great hominid escape from the nervous system. Preliterate cultures have only two means of constructing cultural memory – narrative and mimesis.  These traditions can be mainned across the generations only by rigorous social enforcement.  When external symbols first appeared, they probably had little impact initially – their cognitive potential could only be realized with massive social change.  The first major systems of writing and counting consolidated very old ideas and customs rather than generated radically new ones.  

Art, inscribed tokens for tracking trade goods, and symbolic technologies for navigation, construction, and measurement are examples of the various forms of external storage manifested over some thirty thousand years.  Some of these came together in the great classical civilizations, which also produced evidence of literary work.  Urban society could not have progressed without the massive use of such symbolic storage.  These technologies may have developed from the inventions of single minds, but their full exploitation came about only through collective enterprise – a collective awareness of the tools and the procedural habits to use them effectively. The origination of symbolic technology comes from the interface between the conscious mind and symbolic environment, a two-way influence – thinker to symbol – and an open-ended process that carry on over generations, enabling human culture to conquer time and space, with its intellectual adventures permanently preserved for anyone with the codes to decipher them.  Combined, conscious mind and symbolic technology generate a powerful chemistry and all the innovations in culture have arisen from the coincidence of mind and symbol that enables what was previously unthinkable to be thought.  

Consciousness operates with external memory entities like books, computers, bulletin boards, etc which are outside the brain but available to consciousness.  The existence of these things has transformed the relationship of consciousness to its representations.  We can store and arrange ideas in the external memory field where they can be examined, classified, assembled into complex arguments, played with, and crafted much more easily than in biological memory. This external field creates a mirror world for consciousness.  The interface is the vivid conscious core – the immediacy of level 1 and 2 awareness.  Surrounding that inside the brain is the level 3 intermediate awareness and governance, more enduring and layered, which draws on the long-term memory system in the background as needed.  A symbolic device like a book or a computer offers an external memory field and links to the permanent external storage system created by symbolic culture.  An encounter with this device means that awareness is juxtaposed between two storage systems, one internal and biological, and the other external and technological.  Thinking links these two simultaneous locations, and the same bob-and-weave boxing match that takes place between consciousness and spoken language is played out with external symbols.  

The external storage system far exceeds the capacity of the internal storage system, changing the total storage capacity for humans, both as individuals and as a species.  The mirror system that enables us to have sharper and more durable mental representations also changes the power of the conscious mind, allowing it to reflect on thought itself, evolving longer and more abstract procedures.  This leads to qualitative changes on what we can achieve with limited mental resources, again both as individuals and as a species. The fact that conscious states can be imposed from external symbols allows for the programming of experience – something modern cultures have taken to in manufacturing the virtual realities of print and moving storage.  It is a power that can lead to the scripting of individual awareness, a power that can both enhance and manipulate thought. For the literate perceiver, external symbols are translated into physiological events in the brain.  Thus, the external memory field becomes a fast channel from the cultural universe to the control networks of the mind, a kind of cultural Trojan Horse into the brain, a device that can play our cognitive instrument.   

Through the external memory field, symbolic devices can display much of what was previously undisplayable – ideas, theories, plans, imaginary events – to be processed as we please or, as is the modern condition, as culture’s cognitive engineers design.  A proscenium arch, a large-screen monitor, a television network can coordinate experience on a scale previously impossible to contemplate.  Indeed in an urban environment virtually every thought or action is framed by external symbolic devices, from the in-your-face such as advertising, traffic signs, clocks, and calendars, to the abstract and distant but nevertheless omnipresent such as taxation legislation.  Many people live our their working lives as servants of the global storage system or as organizers or interpreters of the symbolic environment.   Human consciousness has evolved through three distinct layers of cultural representations – the mimetic, the linguistic, and the external.  Each layer has magnified the effect of the previous one, and increased the number and variety of conscious modes.  The human relationship with culture has given us a uniquely hybrid awareness, and additional channels for transmitting cultural influence.  

This multilayered framework for modern consciousness can be conceived of as a set of concentric rings.  At the center is the episodic core that we share with all the primates --  binding, short-term memory, and immediate term governance.  Outside that is the mimetic layer, the theatrical domain of human life – attitudes, gestures, postures, and unspoken nuances – where the basic rules governing communication and expression are set out.  The linguistic layer is a precise and efficient system for encoding knowledge through countless stories, myths, and traditions.  The external layer is an even more precise collective system for formulating and displaying knowledge.   The nature and range of human conscious experience now depends on the unpredictable chemistry of brain and culture – and a mind isolated from culture is deprived of the outer layers of awareness.  We depend heavily on culture for our development as conscious beings.  Through this connection, we have acquired an awareness autonomous from the innately physical.  On its own the human brain is an inarticulate, undifferentiated beast like any other.  Joined to a community of its fellows, it has a remarkable capacity to create a community of mind, acquiring symbolizing powers and able to vastly expand the range of its own awareness.  The triumph of consciousness lies in this conquering of the automaton, in the escape from the isolated mind.  

The Road to Reason

The Greeks were among the first recorded thinkers to begin setting aside myths and traditions in their search for the origin of all things.Thinker Among their leading thinkers, the conviction evolved that the universe, rather than being chaotic and unknowable, was a "kosmos" (the Greek word for an ordered whole) and that through reason the mind could understand the innermost mysteries of creation. The conviction that the universe is built from a few basic principles that the mind can grasp is one of the greatest ideas in human history. It is central to the evolution of what has come to be known as western civilization.

Like the origin of life, the explanation of this idea around the sixth century B.C.E. is a mystery, lost in the bubbling variations of history. The idea did not appear to originate on the mainland of Greece, which was convulsed by outside invaders. Instead it surfaced in Ionia, a string of Greek colonies along the shores of Asia Minor across the Aegean Sea from the mainland. If history operates according to the rules of unified selection, then this idea arose through the complex evolutionary process of variation and selection. In this process, the fundamental form of the synaptic code, operating in the minds of individuals, interacts with the contingencies of chance, circumstances, and design. Just as the rise of the mammals depended on the fortuitous extinction of the dinosaur, the rise of Western thought was was a fortunate accident and might not have happened at all, or at least might have followed a significantly different path.

What were the variations present in the Ionian culture of that era from which the notion of an ordered universe might have been selected? Ionia was swept by the currents of the rich Mediterranean world without being dominated by any one civilization. The cultures of Europe, Asia, and Africa had made fragmentary advances in both speculative philosophy and mathematics. The prosperous Ionian polises or city-states had evolved a system of government based on the rule of law rather than the caprices of the gods. The Ionian city-states did not have a strong priestly class that discouraged the disemination of knowledge because it sought a monopoly on wisdom. And it was chiefly the Ionian Greeks who stumbled upon another of the human race's greatest inventions: the phonetic alphabet.

The term "phonetic" honors the seafaring Phoenicians, whose alphabet the Ionian Greeks borrowed. The Greeks made a momentous modification, however, by taking five Phoenician consonants for which there were no equivalents in spoken Greek and converting them to the vowels a,e,i,o, and u. These five vowels (along with two others the Greeks added) plus the Phoenician consonants constituted mankind's first fully phonetic alphabet. It could unambiguously translate spoken language into written form using a limited number of vowels and consonants (26 later reduced to 24).

This highly absract system has been followed by all other major European languages and is strikingly different from languages such as Chinese that are more pictographic and may have thousands of symbols. Human language, as we haave seen, is one of the most powerfully synaptic subcodes, and the Greek alphabet, which breaks down the infinite diversity of language into a few vowels and consonants, not only served as a vehicle for widespread literacy among the citizens of Ionia, it was also a compelling model for those early Ionian thinkers who sought to reduce the diversity of the world to a few basic principles, an alphabet of nature.

The first of the Ionian Greek thinkers was Thales of Miletus, who flourished around 585 B.C.E. Thales and those who followed him were materialists. They looked for the unifying principles of nature among various kinds of matter, earth, air, fire, and water. This was a radical break from the traditional cosmic explanations of the ancient world, which usually focused on myths, superstitions, the will of gods, or other supernatural causes. The poetry of Homer was an example of traditional explanation. The philosophers debated the nature of the fundamental substance. Anaximenes, also of Miletus, argued that the substance was air. Hereclitus of Ephesus said it was fire. Empedocles, a citizen of a Greek colony in Sicily, chose pluralism and taught that the fundamental elements were, water, air, fire, and earth.

Leucippus of Miletus, the founder of the atomist school, took a different approach. He and his disciple, Democritus of Abdera, contended that there were an infinite number of units that they called "atoms" (Greek for indivisible). These atoms, which were too small to see, were thought to be the fundamental units of matter. They had many different sizes and shapes. As they moved through the void, they combined and recombined into the shapes of the various objects we see. Reality, said Democritus, consisted of atoms and void. Inspired by the atomists and later philosophers who were influenced by them, the Roman poet Lucretius would write in his great work, On the Nature of Things, of a universe created by atoms falling and sometimes swerving in the void. The Greek agenda or program was to apply the rational spirit, using the tools of logic and mathematics, to every field of knowledge and every aspect of human existence. This rationalization of human life, with varying degrees of success, has proceeded rapidly since the Renaissance and is the hallmark of modern civilization.

We live and work by the clock, am instrument that rationalizes time. By applying the rational spirit to tools, we have created technology. By applying it to trade, we have created economics. By applying it to goverment and large organizations, we have created the bureaucratic style of management and the ubiquitous administrative state. By applying it to number, quantity and space, we have vastly expanded the domain and power of mathematics. By applying it to the natural world, we have created modern science. By applying it to logic, we have created new forms of reasoning that transcend the syllogism. Among these improvements is the scientific method, a momentous advance in inductive reasoning. Scientists test hypotheses in controlled esperiments that can be duplicated and confirmed--or falsified--by anyone who wishes to make the effort. The emblem of our rational age is the supreme logic machine: the computer.

Now What?

Now Where?We've never needed progress in science more than we need it right now.  And we've also never been in a position to deploy it properly in the way that we can today. We're on the verge of amazing events in many fields, and yet it sometimes seems that we'd have to go back hundreds, 300 years, before the Enlightenment, to find a time when we battled progress, when we fought about these things more vigorously, on more fronts, than we do now. People wrap themselves in their beliefs, and they do it so tightly that you can't set them free. Not even the truth will set them free. And, listen, everyone's entitled to their opinion; they're even entitled to their opinion about progress. But you know what you're not entitled to? You're not entitled to your own facts.

The fanatics that are driving me crazy these days aren't actually fanatics at all. They are thoughtful people, educated people, decent people; but I am disturbed by them. But now, let's be honest. We're at a point in this world where we don't have the same relationship to progress that we used to. We talk about it ambivalently. We talk about it in ironic terms with little quotes around it: "progress." Okay, there are reasons for that, and I think we know what those reasons are. We've lost faith in institutions, in authority, and sometimes in science itself, and there's no reason we shouldn't have. You can just say a few names and people will understand. Chernobyl, Bhopal, Challenger, Vioxx, weapons of mass destruction, hanging chads. There are questions and problems with the people we used to believe were always right, so be skeptical. Ask questions, demand proof, demand evidence. Don't take anything for granted. But here's the thing: When you get proof, you need to accept the proof, and we're not that good at doing that.

We seem now to be in an epidemic of fear like one I've never seen and hope never to see again. Now, we love to wrap ourselves in lies. We take our vitamins every morning. Maybe some Echinacea, a little antioxidant to get you going. We do it because half of Americans do every day. They take the stuff, and they take alternative medicines, and it doesn't matter how often we find out that they're useless. The data says it all the time. Why do we do that? We hate Big Pharma. We hate Big Government. We don't trust the Man. And we shouldn't: our health care system sucks. It's cruel to millions of people. It's absolutely astonishingly cold and soul-bending to those of us who can even afford it. So we run away from it, and where do we run? We leap into the arms of the Big Placebo and Fox News.

Now, the most mindless epidemic we're in the middle of right now is this absurd battle between proponents of genetically engineered food and the organic elite. It's an idiotic debate. It has to stop. It's a debate about words, about metaphors. It's ideology, it's not science. Every single thing we eat, every grain of rice, every sprig of parsley, every Brussels sprout has been modified by man. You know, there weren't tangerines in the garden of Eden. There wasn't any cantaloupe. There weren't Christmas trees or tooth fairies. We made it all. We made it over the last 11,000 years. And some of it worked, and some of it didn't. We got rid of the stuff that didn't. Now we can do it in a more precise way -- and there are risks, absolutely -- but we can put something like vitamin A into rice, and that stuff can help millions of people, millions of people, prolong their lives. You don't want to do that?

We object to genetically engineered food. Why do we do that? Well, the things I constantly hear are: Too many chemicals, pesticides, hormones, monoculture, we don't want giant fields of the same thing, that's wrong. We don't want companies patenting life. We don't want companies owning seeds. Yes, you're right. Let's fix it. It's true, we've got a huge food problem, but this isn't science. This has nothing to do with science. It's law, it's morality, it's patent stuff. You know science isn't a company. It's not a country. It's not even an idea; it's a process. It's a process, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, but the idea that we should not allow science to do its job because we're afraid, is really very deadening, and it's preventing millions of people from prospering. Genetically engineered food. We don't want to encourage people to eat that rotten stuff, like cassava for instance. Cassava's something that half a billion people eat. It's kind of like a potato. It's just a bunch of calories. It sucks. It doesn't have nutrients, it doesn't have protein, and scientists are engineering all of that into it right now. Why are we fighting it? Because we don't want to move genes around? This is about moving genes around. It's not about chemicals. It's not about our ridiculous passion for hormones, our insistence on having bigger food, better food, singular food. This isn't about Rice Krispies, this is about keeping people alive, and it's about time we started to understand what that means. If we don't, if we continue to act the way we're acting, we're guilty of something that I don't think we want to be guilty of: high-tech colonialism. There's no other way to describe what's going on here. It's selfish, it's ugly, it's beneath us, and we really have to stop it.

Top of Page

Musings Index

Another 9/11 Anniversary


How Did Here Get Here?

Chase's 7th Birthday

The Fabric of Reality

A Clockwork Orange

Epistomology Strand

The Grand Inquisitor

Consumerism Versus Genocide

Art for Art's Sake

Edvard Munch

Vasili Kandinsky

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Piet Mondrian

Kasemir Malevich

Rene Magritte

Salvador Dali

Evolutionary Strand

Information Theory Strand

Traversable Wormholes

Awareness Communicated

The Mother Singularity

Mimetic Theory

The Standard Model

Thought and Symbol

The Schwarzschild Radius

Symbolic Technologies

Dark Things

Fukuyama on Transhumanism

Are We There Yet?

A Transhumanist Manifesto

The Arrows of Time

A Quantum Telescope


The Road to Reason

Persistence of Memes

Now What?

Instantiated Consciousness


Evolution of God


The Rise of Yahweh

Semitic Origins


Galileo's Commandment

The Relevancy of Science

The Bible

The Quran

Marketing God

Adam and Eve

Cain and Abel

Noah and the Ark

Procreation Management

Machining a New Soul

The Human Codon Alphabet

Symbiotic Colony

The Moist Robot

Bottom Up Genealogy

The Genetic Revolution

The Nanotechnology Revolution

The Robotic Revolution

Universal Information Processing

Memetic Matryoshka

Holonomic Brain Theory

Introduction to Wetware

Seeing in a Quantum World

Thinking In the Quantum World

What's the Matter?

Post Primordial Nucleosynthesis

The CNO Cycle

The Genesis Stone


Chemistry to Biochemistry



Biochemistry to Neurobiology

Molecular History

Under the Tree of Life

Matter Conclusion


A Mind in a Cloud


From the Other Side

Marcel Duchamp

Pablo Picasso

Echos of Ray Bradbury



Formative Books

Herculaneum's Library

Roman Public Libraries



Religious Pluralism


Diagnostic Irregularities

Quantum Decohesion

Quantum Free Will

Three Wise Men

Pattern Recognition