The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

A Linguistic Origin

Several scientists believe that consciousness somehow owes its existence to the fact that humans evolved in a highly connected group, i.e. that it is related to the need to communicate with or differentiate from peers, i.e. it is closely related to language.

The Austrian philosopher Karl Popper thought that, phylogenetically speaking, consciousness emerged with the faculty of language, and, ontogenetically speaking, it emerges during growth with the faculty of language.

The US biologist George Herbert Mead believed that consciousness is a product of socialization among biological organisms. Language provides the medium for its emergence. The mind is socially constructed, society constitutes an individual as much as the individual constitutes society. According to Mead, the mind emerges through a process of internalization of the social process of communication, for example by reflecting to oneself the reaction of other individuals to one's gestures. The “minded” organism is capable of being an object of communication to itself. Gestures, which signal the existence of a symbol (and a meaning) that is being communicated (i.e., recalled in the other individual), constitute the building blocks of language.  "A symbol is the stimulus whose response is given in advance".  Meaning is defined by the relation between the gesture and the subsequent behavior of an organism as indicated to another organism by that gesture.  The mechanism of meaning is therefore present in the social act before the consciousness of it emerges.  Mead thinks that consciousness is not in the brain, but in the world. It refers to both the organism and the environment, and cannot be located simply in either.  What is in the brain is the process by which the self gains and loses consciousness (analogous to pulling down and raising a window shade).

The US computer scientist Michael Arbib argued that first language developed, as a tool to communicate with other members of the group in order to coordinate group action; then communication evolved beyond the individual-to-individual sphere into the self sphere.  

The British psychologist Nicholas Humphrey agrees that the function of consciousness is that of social interaction with other “consciousnesses”. Consciousness gives every human a privileged picture of her own self as a model for what it is like to be another human.  Consciousness provides humans with an explanatory model of their own behavior, and this skill is useful for survival: in a sense, the best psychologists are the best survivors. Humphrey speculates that, by exploring their own selves, humans gained the ability to understand other humans; and, by understanding their own minds, they understood the minds of the individuals they shared their life with.

The US anthropologist Terrence Deacon takes a "semiotic" approach to consciousness. He distinguishes three types of consciousness, based on the three types of signs: iconic, indexical and symbolic. The first two types of reference are supported by all nervous systems, therefore they may well be ubiquitous among animals. But symbolic reference is different because, in his view, it involves other individuals, it is a shared reference, it requires the capability to communicate with others. It is, therefore, exclusive to linguistic beings, i.e. to humans. Such symbolic reference includes the self: the self is a symbolic self. The symbolic self is not reducible to the iconic and indexical references. The self is not bounded within a body, it is one of those "shared" references.

 


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