In the last post exploring language and consciousness, I tried to argue that the human being is not just another animal programmed by evolution and layers of operant conditioning, but one that navigates within a world of symbolic meanings and modes of reference. The human creature would evolve to be part flesh-and-bone, part symbolic self. This is no small statement and needs a bit of explaining. I will try to do so here.
We can all agree that in both humans and animals, meaning is sometimes pre-specified by genetic endowment, such as in the case of pain, autonomic nervous system and immune-system responses, homeostatic regulating mechanisms, sexual arousal, cells that are pre-specified to detect certain wavelengths of light, neurons sensitive to visual-line detection, and so on. When we touch a hot stove, for example, heat sensitive nociceptors will trigger a reflex causing the hand to withdrawal. We do not need to learn what hot stoves mean. It is already pre-specified in our biological hardware. Meaning is in this case innate. Likewise, and once again common to both humans and other animals, we can, through operant conditioning, learn (either consciously or unconsciously) a new meaningful response. A thing has meaning in this case through its relationship with something else. A cat may learn, for example, that scratching a couch is shortly followed by its owner spraying it with cold water. The cold water is naturally unpleasant, and so it learns that scratching the couch is something to be avoided. A common example in humans is when we learn to avoid objects or situations that cause anxiety (since anxiety is unpleasant); the avoidance response is operantly reinforced. It is a learned behavior.
It is worth noting that as we progressed through our phylogenetic history, we would increasingly rely on our ability to adapt to present-day environments, which is in part why our species has done so well. This increased flexibly, including our larger capacity for widespread operant learning, was enabled in part by our having such a large abundance of tertiary, secondary, or associational neocortex in comparison to other animals. So while much of our lower-brain remains largely pre-specified, perhaps the most important legacy of the human animal is in the flexibility of our higher nervous systems. But this flexibility, in combination with the evolution of the prefrontal cortex (PFC), led to something else that would arguably belong to humans and humans alone. Like other animals, we were able to experience this world that we inhabit, but this new expansion of the nervous system would play a significant role in our being explicitly aware of said experiences. This is the birth of a self-conscious creature.
Sketching out the Evolution of Consciousness
I am going to present a brief overview of the evolution of consciousness espoused by the likes of Jacob Bronowski and Raymond Tallis. In their view, consciousness begins with the story of the hand. As we evolved toward bipedalism (walking on two legs), our hands were freed from the demands of locomotion, which allowed the hand to be shaped as a versatile explorer of space. With opposable thumbs the hand became the first proto-tool, allowing us to interact with the world, and indeed with our own bodies in ways that were previously unmatched in both intensity and degree. With opposability comes flexibility of action and response. It provides the organism with the potential for choice: of grip, orientation, forcefulness, and so on. At the same time, that choice is constrained by the various properties and shapes of the objects in the physical world, as explained by Tallis:
“We have what I have called ‘constrained manipulative indeterminacy’: the indeterminacy is not mere randomness and this, and the intimate choice it implies – the opposite of stereotyped, programmed movements – is, ultimately, the basis for the intuition of the agency of our own bodies and the intuition of our bodies as our own and, indeed, as ourselves, and hence of ourselves as agents (Aping Mankind, p. 217).”
We can observe the importance of the hand expressed in our neurobiology: there is more grey-matter dedicated to manipulating the hand than there is dedicated to the entire human torso. It is also curious to note that the evolutionary expansion of neocortex into the anterior frontal lobes allowed for even greater control of the hand. With secondary motor cortex came more complex planning of motor movement, until evolutionary expansion pushed further still, into the PFC that gave us the capacity for executive functioning and the intuitive sensation of agency, intentionality, and self-reflection. We became at this point self-aware, which would change the game entirely. Evolutionary psychology does not go this far in their story of man’s evolution. They stop “at the condition achieved by primates just before the first intuition ‘I am this’: before the blind forces of biology, and indeed physics, started the long slow unblinding that resulted in sighted [emphasis added] watchmakers such as ourselves uncovering and utilizing the blind forces of physics (Talis, Aping Mankind, p. 220).”
It is also worth mentioning that the first sign of symbolic communication was probably not language, but rather pointing. Pointing says: “I am seeing something from my first-person subjective perspective, and it is worth you having a look.” It involves the conscious intention of a first-person perceiver and their understanding that something can be perceived by others who we recognize as having their own minds. Chimpanzees use pointing as well, but only in an instrumental sense: to indicate something that they want. They do not seem to ‘get’ the symbolic action of pointing or that others may have hidden thoughts or intentions.
Only humans engage in true ‘symbolic’ behavior. Like other animals, meaning is sometimes pre-specified in the organism, or might be learned through operant conditioning, but symbolic behavior is something else entirely. In the case of the latter it is human beings that create the relationships between stimuli – we assign our own stimulus meanings. Consciousness and self-awareness are prerequisites to this symbolic form of thought, upon which we built language. Language, as we have discussed elsewhere, is both public and private; public in the sense that it represents arbitrary, mutually agreed upon labels capable of describing subjective first-person experiences, yet private in the sense that our thoughts (shaped by language) are ultimately our own (Malik, 2002). Language shapes the mind, deepens our capacity for self-reflective thought, and allows us to enter into a mode of being that is arguably impossible for other animals. With executive functioning and the capacity to reflect on both the past and anticipated future, we can not only understand that things are, but we also want to know why. This is one of the major capabilities separating us from other animals.
A Symbolic Creature
In summary, executive functioning and the capacity for self-reflection, aided by our culturally constructed symbolic mode of communication (i.e. language), has given us the ability to ask why, to anticipate cause and effect, to learn from the past and plan for the future. All of these things would have naturally aided our survival as a species, but these same capacities have also enabled us to ask ourselves some very unsettling questions: “Why do I exist? What is this life for? Is there any meaning or purpose? What values am I to live by?”
Evolution of course has no purpose or plan; nature selects for physical survival leading to reproduction; the natural world will have no higher meaning that will satisfy the psychological needs of the self-reflecting animal. If we stay true to reason, and follow this line of thinking to its natural conclusion, we come into painful conflict with the absurdity of our human condition. But we are not very rational when it comes to these matters – and for good reason. Self-awareness and reflection has undoubtedly helped us along the way, but it also led us into a blind alley. Acknowledging oneself as a symbolic animal is the ultimate contradiction that we must somehow learn to endure. How does the human being reconcile his/her being a symbolic animal with a name, beliefs, values, and aspirations, while nonetheless remaining caged within a physical body that he/she knows is destined to become food for worms? Ernest Becker outlines the tragedy of this problem as such:
“… the essence of man is really his paradoxical nature, the fact that he is half animal and half symbolic. … he is out of nature and hopelessly in it; he is dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill-marks to prove it. … Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever. It is a terrifying dilemma to be in and to have to live with. The lower animals are, of course, spared this painful contradiction, as they lack a symbolic identity and the self-consciousness that goes with it (Denial of Death, p. 26)
The problem here of a symbolic self, trapped within a physical body, parallels the problems related to absurdity and meaning. On one side is the animal, on the other, the symbolic self. We are the only animal that awkwardly asks whether life has meaning, is capable of discovering that indeed it does not, and the only creature able to understand that it all ends in death and decay; this is the painful price that we pay for self-awareness. And apparently it would be too much for us to bear. Throughout history, our species would deal with this problem by inventing meaning where there was none, and with denying or distracting ourselves from the reality of our inevitable confrontation with death. Successful strategies for doing so are employed by culture. We will explore this tract in the next post.