The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

(Copyright © 2013 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

The Origin of Communication

Where does language come from is a question that does not only apply to humans, but to all species, each species having its own "language".

One might as well ask the question, "Where do bee dances come from"? The bees are extremely good at providing details about the route and the location of food. They do so not with words but by dancing. The origins of bee dances are no less intriguing than the origins of human language.

The point is that most species develop a social life and the social life depends on a mechanism of communication, and in humans that mechanism is language. But language may be viewed as a particular case of a more general process of nature, the process by which several individuals become aggregated in a group.

There is a bond within the members of a species, regardless of whether they are cooperating or competing: they can communicate. A dog cannot communicate much to a cat. A lion cannot communicate with an ant. And the greatest expert in bees cannot communicate much with a bee. Communication between members of different species is close to impossible. But communication within members of a species is simple, immediate, natural, and, contrary to our beliefs, does not require any advanced skills. All birds communicate; all bees communicate. There is no reason to believe that humans would not communicate if they were not taught a specific language. They might, in fact, communicate better: hand gestures and facial expressions may be a more efficient means of communication among humans than words.

Again, this efficiency is independent of the motives: whether it is for cooperation or for aggression. We can communicate with other members of our species. When we communicate for cooperation, the communication can become very complex and sophisticated. We may communicate that a herd is moving east, that clouds are bringing rain, that the plains are flooded. A bee can communicate similar information to another bee. But an ant cannot communicate this kind of information to a fish and a fish cannot communicate it to a bird. Each species has developed a species-specific form of communication.

The origin of language is but a detail in a much more complex story, the story of how intra-species communication evolved. If all species come from a common ancestor, there must have been only one form of communication at the beginning. Among the many traits that evolved over the ages, intra-species communication is one that took the wildest turns. While the genetic repertoire of bees and flies may be very similar, their system of communication is quite different.

The fact that communication is different for each species may simply be due to the fact that each species has different kinds of senses, and communication has to be tailored to the available senses.

A reason for this social trait to exist could be both sexual reproduction and altruism.


The Origin of Cellular Communication

Even before social behavior was invented, there was a fundamental language of life. Living cells communicate all the time, even in the most primitive organisms: cell communication is the very essence of being alive.

There are obvious parallels between the language of words and the language of cellular chemicals. Two cells that exchange chemicals are doing just that: "talking" to each other, using chemicals instead of words. Those chemicals are bound in molecular structures just like the words of human language are bound in grammatical structures.

The forms of communication that do not involve chemical exchange still cause some chemical reaction. A bee that changes course or a human brain that learns something have undergone chemical change, that has triggered changes in their cognitive state.

From this point of view, there are at least three main levels of communication: a cellular level, in which living cells transmit information via chemical agents; a bodily level, in which living beings transmit information via “gestures”; and a verbal level, in which living beings transmit information via words.

Each level might simply be an evolution of the previous one.

At the same time, the Norwegian mathematician Nils Barricelli ("The Functioning of Intelligence Mechanisms Directing Biologic Evolution," 1985) warned that the kind of communication occurring at the cellular level is different from the kind of communication occurring among animals: "If humans, instead of transmitting to each other reprints and complicated explanations, developed the habit of transmitting computer programs allowing a computer-directed factory to construct the machine needed for a particular purpose, that would be the closest analogue to the communication methods among cells of various species."


Who Invented Language?

Linguists, geneticists and anthropologists have explored the genealogical tree of human languages to determine where human language was invented. Was it invented in one place and then spread around the globe (why then so many languages rather than just one?) or was it invented in different places around the same time? (What a coincidence that would be).

The meta-issue with this quest is the role of free will, i.e. whether we humans have free will and decide what happens to us. We often assume that somebody “invented” something and then everybody started using it. The truth could be humbler: all humans share pretty much the same brain, and that brain determines our behavior. We all sleep, we all care for our children, and we all avoid danger. Not because one human “invented” these behaviors, but because our brains are programmed to direct us to behave that way. Our free will (if indeed we have any) is limited to deciding which woman to marry, but the reason we want a wife is sex and children, a need that is programmed in our brain (and, of course, one could claim that the choice of the specific wife is also driven by our brain’s circuits).

In fact, we consider “sick” or “abnormal” any human being who does not love her/his children, any human who does not like sex, etc.

Asking who invented language could be like asking who invented sex or parenting. It may just come with the race. We humans may be programmed to communicate using the human language. It didn’t take a genius to invent language. We started speaking, worldwide, as soon as the conditions were there (as soon as we started living in groups, more and more heterogeneous groups, more and more collaborative groups).

The mystery may not be who invented language, but why we invented so many and so different languages. There are striking differences between Finnish and Chinese, even though those two peoples share pretty much the same brain. The effect of the environment on the specific language we start speaking must indeed be phenomenal.


What Are Jokes And Why Do We Make Them

Language developed because it had an evolutionary function. In other words, it helped us survive. For example, language enabled humans to exchange information about the environment. A member of a group can warn the member of another group about an impending danger or the source of water or the route taken by a predator.

This may be true, but it hardly explains the way we use language every day. When we write an essay, we may be matter of factual, but most of the day we are not. For example, we make jokes all the time. A human being who does not make jokes, or does not laugh at jokes made by others, is considered a case for a psychoanalyst. Jokes are an essential part of the use of language.

Nonetheless, jokes are a peculiar way to use language. We use words to express something that is not true, but could be true, and the brain somehow relates to this inconsistency and… we laugh.

There must be a reason why humans make jokes. There must be a reason why we use language to make jokes.

Upon closer inspection, we may not be so sure that the main function of language is communicating information about the environment.

If a tiger attacks you, i will not read you an essay on survival of the fittest: i will just scream, "Run!" We don't need the complex, sophisticated structure of language to "communicate" about the environment and us. If you are starving, I may just point to the refrigerator. For most practical purposes, street signs communicate information about locations better than geography books. It is at least debatable whether we need language to communicate information about the environment that is relevant to survival. We can express most or all of that information in very simple formats, often with just one word or even just a gesture.

On the other hand, if we want to make a joke, we need to master the whole power of the language. Every beginner in a foreign language knows that the hardest part is to understand jokes in that language, and the second hardest is making them. Joking does require the whole complex structure of language, and, at closer inspection, it is the only feature of human life that requires it.

Jokes are probably very important for our survival. A joke is a practice: we laugh because we realize that something terrible would happen in that circumstance: the logic of the world would be violated, or a practical disaster would occur. The situation is "funny" because it has to be avoided. Being funny helps remember that we should avoid it.

Joking may well be an important way to learn how to move in the environment without having to do it first person, without having to pay the consequences for a mistake.

In that case, it would be more than justified that our brain evolved a very sophisticated tool to make jokes: language.

Ultimately, language may have evolved to allow us to make more and more useful (funnier and funnier) jokes.



The British psychologist Richard Gregory has shown how language is but one particular type of "tool". The human race, in general, is capable of making and using tools, and language happens to be one of them.

Gregory claims that "tools are extensions of the limbs, the senses and mind." The fundamental difference between humans and apes is not in the (very small) anatomical differences but in language and tools. Man is both a tool-user and a tool-maker.

Gregory shows that there are "hand" tools (such as level, pick, axe, wheel, etc) and "mind" tools, which help measuring, calculating and thinking (such as language, writing, counting, computers, clocks).

Tools are extensions of the body. They help us perform actions that would be difficult for our arms and legs. Tools are also extensions of the mind. Writing extended our memory. We can make a note of something. So do photographs and recordings. This book extends my mind. It also extends your mind. Tools like books create a shared mind.

Gregory qualifies information as "potential intelligence" and behavior as "kinetic intelligence". Tools increase intelligence as they enable a new class of behavior. A tool "confers" intelligence to a user, meaning that it turns some potential intelligence into kinetic intelligence.

A person with a tool is a person with a potential intelligence to perform an action that without the tool would not be possible (or much more difficult).

Behavior is often just using that tool to perform that action. It may appear that intelligence is in your action, but, actually, intelligence is in the tool, not in your action. Or, better, they are two different types of intelligence.

And words are just one particular type of tool.

There is also a physical connection in our body between language and tool usage: the same hemisphere controls them both.


Tools as Intentionality

The US philosopher Daniel Dennett advanced a theory of language based on his theory of “intentionality” (the ability to refer to something). Basically, his idea is that different levels of intentionality correspond to different “kinds” of minds.

The “intentional stance” is the strategy of interpreting the behavior of something (a living or non-living thing) as if it were a rational agent whose actions are determined by its beliefs and desires. This is the stance that we adopt, for example, when dealing with ourselves and other humans: we assume that we and the others are rational agents whose actions are determined by our beliefs and desires.  Intentional systems are those to which the intentional stance can be applied, and they include artifacts such as thermostats and computers, as well as all living beings. For example, we can say that "This computer program wants me to input my name," or that "The tree bends south because it needs more light," (both "wants" and "needs" express desire).

The intentional stance makes the assumption that an intentional system has goals that it wants to achieve; that it uses its own beliefs to achieve its own goals, and that it is smart enough to use the right ones in the appropriate way.

It seems obvious that artifacts possess only "derived" intentionality, i.e. intentionality that was bestowed on them by their creators. A thermostat measures temperature because that is what the engineer designed it for. The same argument, though, applies to us: we are artifacts of nature and nature bestows on us intentionality. (The process of evolution created our minds to survive in an environment, which means that our mind is about the environment).

Dennett speculates that brains evolved from the slow internal communication systems of "sensitive" but not "sentient" beings when they became equipped with a much swifter communication agent (the electro-chemicals of neurotransmitters) in a much swifter communication medium (nerve fibers). Control was originally distributed around the organism in order to be able to react faster to external stimuli. The advent of fast electro-chemicals allowed control to become centralized, because now signals traveled at the speed of electricity. This also allowed control to become much more complex, as many more things could be done in a second.

"Evolution embodies information in every part of every organism". And that information is about the environment. A chameleon's skin, a bird's wings, and so forth, they all embody information about the medium in which their bodies live. This information does not need to be replicated in the brain as well. The organ already "knows" how to behave in the environment. Wisdom is not only in the brain; wisdom is also embodied in the rest of the body.  Dennett speculates that this "distributed wisdom" was not enough: a brain can supplement the crudeness, the slowness, and the limitations of the organs.  A brain can analyze the environment on a broader scale, can control movement in a much faster way and can predict behavior over a longer range.

As George Miller put it, animals are "informavores". Dennett believes in a distributed information-sucking system, each component of which is constantly fishing for information in the environment. They are all intentional systems, which get organized in a higher-level intentional system, with an "increasing power to produce future".

This idea, both evolutionarily and conceptually, can be expressed in a number of steps of intentionality, each of which yields a different kind of mind. First there were "Darwinian creatures", that were simply selected by trial and error on the merits of their bodies' ability to survive (all living organisms are Darwinian creatures). Then came "Skinnerian creatures", which were also capable of independent action and therefore could enhance their chances of survival by finding the best action (they are capable of learning from trial and error). The third stage of “mind, "Popperian creatures", were able to play an action internally in a simulated environment before they performed it in the real environment and could therefore reduce the chances of negative outcomes (information about the environment supplemented conditioning). Popperian creatures include most mammals and birds. They feel pain, but do not suffer, because they lack the ability to reflect on their sensations.

Humans are also "Gregorian creatures", capable of creating tools, and, in particular, of mastering the tool of language. Gregorian creatures benefit from technologies invented by other Gregorian creatures and transmitted by cultural heritage, unlike Popperian creatures that benefit only from what has been transmitted by genetic inheritance.

A key step in the evolution of “minds” was the transition from beings capable of an intentional stance towards others to beings capable of an intentional stance towards an intentional stance.  A first-order intentional system is only capable of an intentional stance towards others.  A second-order intentional system is also capable of an intentional stance towards an intentional stance.  It has beliefs as well as desires about beliefs and desires.  And so forth.  Higher-order intentional systems are capable of thoughts such as "I want you to believe that I know that you desire a vacation".

This was not yet conscious life because there are examples, both among humans and among other animals, of unaware higher-order intentionality.  For example, animals cheat on each other all the time, and cheating is possible only if you are capable of dealing with the other animal's intentional state (with the other animal's desires and beliefs), but Dennett does not think that animals are necessarily conscious. In other words, he thinks that one can be a psychologist without being a conscious being.

Dennett claims that our greater “intelligence” is due not to a larger brain but to the ability to "off load" as much as possible of our cognitive tasks into the environment. We construct "peripheral devices" in the environment to which those tasks can be delegated. We can do this because we are intentional: we can point to those things that we left in the environment. In this way the limitations of the brain do not matter anymore, as we have a potentially infinite area of cognitive processing. Most species rely on natural landmarks to find their way around and track food sources. But some species (at least us) have developed the skills to "create" their own landmark, and they can therefore store food for future use. They are capable of "labeling" the world that they inhabit. Individuals of those species alter the environment and then the altered environment alters their behavior.  They create a loop to their advantage. They program the environment to program them.

Species that store and use signs in the environment have an evolutionary advantage because they can "off-load" processing.  It is like "taking a note" that we can look up later, so we don't forget something. If you do not take a note, you may forget the whole thing.

Thanks to these artifacts, our mind can extend out into the environment. For example, the notepad becomes an extension to my memory.

These artifacts shape our environment. Our brains are semiotic devices that contain pointers and indices to the external world.


Tools Created the Brain

An even more radical theory of how important tools have been for human evolution was advanced by the British archeologist Timothy Taylor.

Humans are the weakest of the great apes. We cannot survive without clothes and houses. It seems irrational that the one ape that is so vulnerable ended up dominating every other species. In fact, humans should not have survived evolution at all because reproduction is so dangerous, complicated and (in the past) lethal (for both baby and mother), and then because children require so much attention and dedication lest they die of the silliest causes (compare with the cubs of other mammals that are self-sufficient within weeks if not days).

Taylor argues that technology is the solution to this apparent contradiction. Evolution is not only biological. The cultural-technological component is equally important, and it vastly favored humans over any other species. Technology is very much part of what we mean by "being human". Darwin's theory of evolution needs to be complemented with a story of how technology allowed humans to violate the very rules that Darwin found embedded in all other species. According to Darwin's blind algorithm of natural selection, humans should have gone extinct very quickly. Biological evolution (or, better, biological accident) accounts for humans developing the upright posture. That posture freed the hands, and allowed humans to make tools. That situation completely altered the normal course of biological evolution because, from that point on, technology introduced a parallel (non blind) algorithm. Humans started evolving not based on biological laws of evolution but based on technological factors. Taylor claims that "technology evolved us".

Taylor points out that humans seem to go against evolution: we are "biologically reduced". Our bodies have weakened since the Stone Age and keep weakening. We are less strong, less agile, less fast, etc than our prehistoric ancestors were. Something similar happens to wild animals when they get domesticated. By analogy, Taylor calls "self-domestication" the process by which humans got weaker while becoming more dependent on technology, i.e. while developing a smarter brain. This is another strange loop: it could be that brains got smarter as bodies got weaker, or it could be that bodies got weaker as brains got smarter. In fact, it is not even true that human brains got larger since prehistory: the human brain has shrunk by about 10% over the last ten thousand years. The Neanderthal man was not only stronger than Homo Sapiens, it also had a bigger brain and perhaps was in many ways smarter. But it was Homo Sapiens that survived, and went on to rule the planet. Taylor calls it "survival of the weakest". Taylor is convinced that tools, the great invention of Homo Sapiens, dramatically altered the terms of evolution.

This, however, leads to a vicious loop. Technology requires a smart brain to design it and build it; but a smart brain requires a lot of proteins which come from hunting, fire and cooking, which are made possible by technology. Therefore technology requires a brain that is made possible by technology. It is a "chicken and egg" kind of problem: one cannot exist without the other, but one must have come first.

Taylor argues that humans did not evolve the ability to make tools (which requires big brains which require tools) but tools caused humans to evolve that way. Chimps don't have big brains because they need the skull configured in such a way to allow for their powerful jaws. Having fire and tools, humans did not need those powerful features of the head and therefore lost them and therefore space was left over for a big brain to grow. He points out that there is a gap beween the date of the oldest chipped stone tool (2.5 million years ago) and the first hominids (2.3 million): 200 thousand years, a very long period of time.

However, there is a problem with big brains: they should be physically impossible. As a consequence of standing upright, bipedal beings have a smaller pelvis, and therefore a larger head for babies makes no sense. The chances of miscarriage increase dramatically. Therefore the babies with large heads should have been eliminated by natural selection. For a while our bipedal ancestors continued to have small heads, as one would expect, but then suddenly hominids began to develop large heads, and that sounds like a physical impossibility.


It gets worse. Human babies are incapable of walking upright for a long time. They are in fact incapable of doing most of the things required to survive. In a sense, all human babies are born prematurely, they are extra-uterine foetuses. In fact, the brain of human babies keeps developing at lightning speed during the first year (as opposed to the brain of the chimp, that is pretty much done and ready to go at birth).

Taylor concludes that something was needed to make all of this not only possible but inevitable. Females were the first tool-makers: the need for tools to carry plant food predates the need for hunting tools; and the need for carrying their babies around probably predates both. Bipedalism created the need for carrying babies and for carrying goods, a need that other apes solve by moving on all four. Women were constantly on the move and there were no kindergartens: they had to carry their babies with them all the time. In every single culture women have solved this problem in the same way: every single culture developed tools to carry babies (from a simple sling to the stroller). Hence the first tools were probably made by women who were the ones who had the mother of all problems to solve: protect your babies. Those first tools triggered the expansion of the human brain.

The brain of human babies is still so plastic that it can absorb whatever technology is available in a way that no other species can. Other species are condemned to use the brain they get at birth, whereas human children can adapt their brain to the civilization they find. Once invented, a tool can last forever, passed from one generation to the next simply by exposing the new-born babies to it.

Brain size started increasing, according to Taylor, after technology happened. And bodies started getting weaker because technology made it unnecessary to be strong and big. Taylor speculates that the rapid growth of the human brain was due to competition for technological supremacy. And it all started with the baby-carrying sling.

It is not intelligence that gave us tools because the earliest tools predate the rapid expansion of the brain that led to modern hominids. Brains began to grow in size after (not before) the first tools were invented. Tools made possible larger brains. Tools made possible intelligence.

Taylor also advances a theory about the first symbolic art: he thinks that ancient statuettes were the equivalent of today's mannequins in department stores (they were meant to exhibit clothes); and he thinks that cave paintings were meant to express the belief in divine creation, a rational consequence of knowing that someone makes something therefore someone must have made us. Whatever the original purpose, the beginning of symbolic art (40000 years ago) also marks the moment when human brains started "outsourcing" intelligence to our tools. Taylor claims that it also accounts for the reason that human brains have stopped expanding since that age: the need for brains decreases as technology gets smarter.

Technology has become the main driver of human evolution. We are our technology. Humans increasingly depend on technology. Technological change is accelerating. Eventually machines might get so smart that humans will not be able to comprehend them anymore. Ray Kurzweil termed it the "singularity". That singularity will allow humans to extend not only human intelligence but also the life expectancy of humans because it will overcome the material constraint of the human body in the form of artificial intelligences and avatars. Whether we will reach that singularity or not, Kurzweil starts the process leading to it from very recently. Taylor does something similar but places it at the very beginning of the evolution of Homo Sapiens: there would be no Homo Sapiens without that symbiosis between body and tools, between biology and technology. The life expectancy of Homo Sapiens would have been virtually zero because of the material limitations of the human body. The futuristic visions of people like Ray Kurzweil are actually naive: they assume that this will happen in the future, when in fact it has already happened, and it has always been the case. Both mentally and physically humans have been shaped by technology.


The Evolution of Technology

The US journalist Kevin Kelly points out that there is another evolution at work. Kelly draws drawing a parallel between organic life and the life of technology. More precisely, he compares the biosphere with the "technium", the set of all interconnected technologies collectively created by humans. He argues that the evolution of the technium is driven by forces that are similar to the ones that drive the evolution of life. He disagrees with Gould: biological evolution does have a direction. The direction is towards complexity. Kelly believes the same kind of law and direction is at work in the technium.

Technology is inevitable. Many inventions were "invented" at the same time by different people in different places: those people were just the practical vehicle that technology used to emerge; but it would have emerged anyway. Basically, technology parasites on human minds in order to survive, reproduce and evolve, just like memes do.

The supremacy of technology is becoming obvious: we depend on technology. Our extended phenotype (to use another biological concept) contains an increasing component of technology without which we would not survive.

However, the net effect of the growing complexity and diversity of technology is, in Kelly's opinion, positive. What technology "wants" is progress towards more and more freedom for us. The more technology we have, the more choices we have, and the more freedom we enjoy. Technology increases our free will. Technology, in fact, allows human genius to emerge and prosper. Without technology the human race would not have had Mozart and VanGogh.

Kelly even develops a sort of ethics for technology. A technology can never be bad just like an animal species cannot be bad: they are the product of evolution. It makes no sense to ask whether a species is good or bad. It makes no sense to ask whether a technology is good or bad. Kelly thinks that we have a duty to maximize technologies in society at large, i.e. to invent everything that can be invented, because technology gives us more freedom.


Semiotics: Signs and Messages

Semiotics provides a different perspective to study the nature and origin of language.

Semiotics, founded in the 1940s by the Danish linguist Louis Hjelmslev, had two important precursors in the US philosophers Charles Peirce  (whose writings were rediscovered only in the 1930s) and Charles Morris (who in 1938 had formalized a theory of signs).

Peirce reduced all human knowledge to the idea of “sign” and identified three different kinds of signs: the index (a sign which bears a causal relation with its referent); the icon (which bears a relation of similarity with its referent); and the symbol (whose relation with its referent is purely conventional). For example, the flag of a sporting team is a symbol, while a photograph of the team is an icon. Movies often make use of indexes: ashes burning in an ashtray mean that someone was recently in the room, and clouds looming on the horizon mean it is about to rain. Most of the words that we use are symbols, because they are conventional signs referring to objects.

Morris defined the disciplines that study language according to the roles played by signs. Syntax studies the relation between signs and signs (as in “the” is an article, “meaning” is a noun, “of” is a preposition, etc.). Semantics studies the relation between signs and objects (“Piero is a writer” means that somebody whose name is “Piero” writes books). Finally, Pragmatics studies the relation between signs, objects and users (the sentence “Piero is a writer” may have been uttered to correct somebody who said that Piero is a carpenter).

The Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure introduced the dualism of “signifier” (the word actually uttered) and the “signified” (the mental concept). ("Semiology" usually refers to the Saussure-an tradition, whereas "semiotics" refers to the Peirce-an tradition. Semiotics, as opposed to Semiology, is the study of all signs).

The Argentine semiotician Luis Prieto studied signs, in particular, as means of communication. For example, the Braille alphabet and traffic signs are signs used to communicate. A “code” is a set of symbols (the “alphabet”) and a set of rules (the “grammar”). The code relates a system of expressions to a set of contents. A “message” is a set of symbols of the alphabet that has been ordered according to the rules of the grammar. This is a powerful generalization: language turns out to be only a particular case of communication. A sentence can be reduced to a process of encoding (by the speaker) and decoding (by the listener).

The Hungarian linguist Thomas Sebeok views semiotics as a branch of communication theory that studies messages, whether emitted by objects (such as machines) or animals or humans. In agreement with René Thom, Sebeok thinks that human sign behavior has nothing special that can distinguish it from animal sign behavior or even from the behavior of inanimate matter.

The US linguist Merlin Donald speculated on how the human mind developed. He argued that at the beginning there was only episodic thinking: early hominids could only remember and think about episodes. Later, they learned how to communicate and then they learned how to build narratives. Symbolic thinking came last. Based on this scenario, the Danish semiotician Jesper Hoffmeyer drew his own conclusions: in the beginning there were stories, and then, little by little, individual words rose out of them. Which implies that language is fundamentally narrative in nature; that language is corporeal, has to do with motor-based behavior; and that the unit of communication among animals is the whole message, not the word.

Hoffmeyer introduced the concept of "semiosphere", the semiotic equivalent of the atmosphere and the biosphere that incorporates all forms of communication, from smells to waves: all signs of life. Every living organism must adapt to its semiosphere or die. At all levels, life must be viewed as a network of “sign processes”. The very reason for evolution is death: since organisms cannot survive in the physical sense they must survive in the semiotic sense, i.e. by making copies of themselves. "Heredity is semiotic survival".

Rene' Thom, the French mathematician who invented catastrophe theory, aimed to "geometrize thought and language". Thom was envisioning a Physics of meaning, of significant form, which he called "Semiophysics".

Following in this generalization of signs, James Fetzer (“Signs and Minds”, 1988) even argued in favor of extending Newell and Simon’s theory to signs: the mind not as a processor of symbols, but as a processor of signs.


Collective Cognition

What is, ultimately, the function of language? To communicate? To think? To remember? All of this and more. But, most likely, not only for the sake of the individual. Language's crucial function is to create a unit out of so many individuals. Once we learn to speak, we become part of something bigger than our selves. We inherit other people's memories (including the memories of people who have long been dead) and become capable of sharing our own memories with other people (even those who have not been born yet).

Thanks to language, the entire human race becomes one cognitive unit, with the ability to perceive, learn, remember, reason, and so forth. Language turns the minds of millions of individuals into gears at the service of one gigantic mind.

As the US neuroscientist Paul Churchland once pointed out, language creates a collective cognition, a collective memory and intelligence.


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