How did living creatures start to make sense of themselves, their environment, and ultimately their place in the Universe? Here I try to describe the evolution of the extraction of meaning, the capacity of a mind to understand and evaluate its world.
In my recent blogs (about the origin of our sense for truth and our inclination for deception), I talked about how living creatures extract meaning from the surrounding environment. I explained that, as simper cognitive systems get more complex through time, thanks to evolution through natural selection, their capacity to extract meaning grows, and how the striving for truth and the tendency to deception are related with this process.
As I wrote the blogs, I realised that I was building on an idea that is not all that simple. I tried to explain the each step in few words, just enough to give a context to the origin of truth and deception. In doing that, some of the logic progression might have got lost, and since the evolution of the capacity for meaning is a deep topic in itself, I thought to resume it here.
In a broad sense, it's a nerdy way to say "making sense of something", or "understanding" -- but in a subtle way.
When we talk about understanding, we think of an explicit learning process, more or less formalized. Can be either studying a book or learning by trial and error, or imitation. Once something is understood, it can be used, manipulated, explained, possibly employed in novel ways that were initially unknown.
The concept of "meaning extraction" is more akin to a possibly unconscious process, which consists in the evaluation of an observed external (or internal) fact. The term "evaluation" is crucial: the meaning we talk about is a mental construct that synthesises what value the observed fact has for the observer. It could be ranked, in order of preference, with other extracted meanings -- if the creature needs to chose one of them -- but the actual value might not be clear to the creature extracting it. In fact, part of evolution consists in evaluating the extracted meanings more accurately than other creatures -- the ones better assessing their value having greater survival chances.
The pyramid shows a set of layers of meaning extraction. Each layer builds on the previous, which is more primitive and presumably more ancient in the history of evolution.
Minds / brains at this level are able to extract the meaning of the difference between the self and something else. We might argue that this is the origin, or the smallest quantity possible, of self-conscience.
More sophisticate creatures could have more meanings for the non-self category, for example, minimally, food and predator, and then, later in time, competitor, mate, school (of fishes like me) and so on. The width of this level might be fairly large, but creatures stuck here will only be able to give a meaning to themselves and something else. Also, the meaning could be given a value, as in "food -> good for me", and "predator -> bad for me", and the evaluation could become also quite sophisticated, for example: "food far, food near -> better", or "predator small, predator big -> worse".
Indeed, the creation of meaning, at this level, is mostly directed at an immediate evaluation of the observed fact.
However, not all meanings need to be given a value. It's possible that a meaning is extracted by these simple creatures, but the evolution had not yet burned an evaluation in their circuitry. A new swimming thing comes about -- every creature at this level would extract "new swimming fish", but some might wire it with "bad, just in case", others, like sharks, "worth a bite", and others yet could just register it but not have any default evaluation ready.
The creatures extracting some meaning without evaluation will sooner or later evolve a circuitry to deal with it. Now, they can add the operator "maybe" to the extraction of meaning. So, they will be able to conceive "food", "predator", but also "maybe food" and "maybe predator". The "maybe" here will give them an advantage, as their body will prepare to react to food or predators, without spending all the necessary energy to move or flee immediately.
At this level, the creature starts to think about its own thought -- I am using the word thought very loosely, in place of the more wordy cognitive processes.
As natural selection presses on, the creatures that have better "maybes" survive. At some point, the competition gets harsher, and being right most of the times on the "maybe" doesn't cut it any more. Now, in order to survive, the creatures must act on the intensity of that "maybe" .
The brain starts to feedback the result of the first meaning extraction into a secondary extraction of meaning. The "maybe not-self" gets evaluated again, and the creature thinks "how much is that maybe good", "how much do I risk thinking this is not a predator".
Obviously, they don't really think that, but those creatures that perceive a "maybe predator" around, and start to move slowly away, instead of just being cautious or burning all the energy just in case, have an advantage -- and similarly for the "maybe food" decision.
Level 4: Future potentiality
The creatures at the third stage can only evaluate the current situation. They can "think" on this lines:
A thing is far and approaching; maybe is a predator -- and the more probable, the more I start moving away.
At some point, the categories must have become so many to allow for a little advance planning: creatures choosing better spots where to rest, near to food but away from predators, had a certain edge: natural selection was favouring those who got their hideout right.
The creatures must have added the category "hideout" to their meanings. The circuitry to evaluate the degree of potentiality was already there, so they started to think "maybe hideout", and like before, evolution selected those that got the "maybe" better. But this time, the quality of the "maybe" doesn't manifest immediately; the effect of the decision can be fully appreciated after hours, or days.
Creatures at level 3 might have been just instinctively selecting their hideouts for hundred million years, with natural selection burning in them a circuitry to extract increasingly better hideouts, but at some point, the things must have become so complex that being actually able to "see the future" became a clear advantage.
At this point, rather than burning in the image of the perfect hideout, natural selection burned the ability to evaluate memories. "Yesterday, a place like that was good. This is maybe similar. Let's go here".
Once obtained this ability, the creatures would then use the existing circuitry to evaluate the potential meaning of the memories. The with that in place, the above meaning could immediately become (without another evolutionary step) "Yesterday, a place like that was good. This is maybe similar. Let's go here, maybe. Or maybe there!".
Now the creature can (and will) extract and evaluate the meaning of the potential future. This the origin of fantasy.
It must have been long before this further level was developed: probably, even modern fishes have a rudimentary "fantasy", or the ability to evaluate a potential, not-yet-manifest situation based on their memories.
But at a certain point, a creature able to extract a meaning from the fantasy itself must have emerged. While, at level 4, the creatures are evaluating alternatives based on their memories, this new creature evaluates how the evaluation fared, and behaves accordingly.
Creatures at level four just think flatly about their memories, no matter how broad and sophisticated their evaluations become. For example, this would still be a level 4 process:
A) Yesterday, a place like this was good. Two days ago, a place like that was bad. This new one is 70% "maybe" like yesterday and 30% "maybe" like two days ago, the other one there is more 40% "maybe" like yesterday and 60% "maybe" like two days ago. Let's go for the first place.
With evolutionary pressure on creatures able of such sophisticate evaluations, at a certain point, one new circuitry must have been added; the one able to extract this meaning:
B) my plan at point A didn't work out as I expected. I might need to review the "maybes" there.
And the same circuitry can evaluate the the meaning of the potential future:
C) my plan at point A might not work out as I expected. I might need another plan.
Up to level 3, the mental processes involved might be almost automatic, but level 4 causes an explosion of the potential complexity of the mental processes. Evolutionary pressure will reward the creatures that can perform finer and finer evaluations based on their "fantasy", and at a point some meaning extraction can be so sophisticated to be actually performed consistently, or even verbally, like in the case of Koko, the talking gorilla, which I described in my previous blog.
I suspect that the fifth level is proper of the Homo species, still missing in the other primates. We can extract a meaning out of the fantasy we play in our mind. We can send forth endless fantasies in the potential environment of our mind, see how they act out, and let them die in place of us.
With the Neanderthals around, there must have not been much choice, but evolve a sixth level of meaning extraction: the meaning created by explicit introspection. The creatures at this level are able to look into themselves, and consciously work on their constructs (memories, fantasies, ideas) to refine and improve them.
At level 6 we can think (now properly said):
This idea din't work perfectly, but I can change this detail, and it will be better.
At level 5, we could only evaluate different alternatives of possible future outcomes starting from past experiences, but at some point, the evaluation must have started to include potentials that never happened. The reasoning C at previous point (I might need another plan) must have been the base, on which to insert, first, memories, and then, completely new concepts.
Once the ability to work with the "never happened" was burned in, we could finally deal with paradoxes, or conflicting ideas.
This gave us the ability of introspection, the conscious (not necessarily, but possibly verbal) ability to extract a meaning from the current configuration of multiple constructs in our own mind. At this level, we became able to think about our ideas, compare them, weight them, intermix them and select them consciously.
At level 5, we were able to send our ideas out in the landscape of our mind in order to die in our place; at level 6, we became able to let two ideas fight each other, to win, lose, or even reach an agreement.
I have not researched the topic enough to be sure that the sixth level requires a separate and novel circuitry supporting the thought processes, as in the other cases. I cannot exclude the possibility that the circuitry at the fifth level is enough to start introspection, However, conscious introspection is at least a further logic step that require a far different mental process than the automatic, or even an consciously assisted projection of fantasies in the future. To use an engineering metaphor, if not new hardware, this level requires at least a new operating system, and so, we'll tentatively keep it separate.
Possibly. I don't know, and probably no human can. If there is another level of meaning extraction, it's as inaccessible to us as our ability for introspection is inaccessible to a creature at level 4. Sure, since level 5 we're able to extrapolate and gaze into the meaning of infinity, but the existence of level 6 suggests that there are orders of infinities in the business of meaning extraction, and even the mere ability of transcendent thought is not enough to deal with the full structure of the self -- that requires introspection, or the ability to treat the self (our own mind) as a new entity from which to extract a meaning.