William H. Calvin
UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON
SEATTLE, WASHINGTON 98195-1800 USA
This page is at http://WilliamCalvin.com/bk3/bk3day11.htm
|The River That Flows Uphill (Sierra Club Books 1987) is my river diary of a two-week whitewater trip through the bottom of the Grand Canyon, discussing everything from the Big Bang to the Big Brain. It became a bestseller in German translation in 1995.||AVAILABILITY limited; the US edition is now out of print. There are German and Dutch translations in print.
The River That Flows Uphill|
A Journey from the Big Bang
to the Big Brain
Copyright 1986 by William H. Calvin.
You may download this for personal reading but may not redistribute or archive without permission (exception: teachers should feel free to print out a chapter and photocopy it for students).
As an evolutionist I am familiar with that vast sprawling emergent, the universe, and its even more fantastic shadow, life.
......LOREN EISELEY, The Night Country, 1971
At breakfast, Michelle DuBois told of her great discovery last night before I had a chance to tell them of mine. "You know, the other night, before I fell asleep, I looked at the stars for a long time. It was just incredibly clear out, except for one long, thin cloud. Then last night, when I looked at the stars again, there was that cloud again. The same funny, long transparent cloud. In the same place. Now, I thought, how can that be?"
"And then it dawned on me," Michelle said, knocking her head with her hand, "that's not a cloud, that is the goddamned Milky Way galaxy. I must not have seen it for, well, more than ten years, living in the Boston suburbs." And it seems as if half of our breakfast companions have had the same experience on this trip, seeing the Milky Way and not recognizing it at first. Now, no Anasazi would forget the Milky Way. One can lose touch with elementary things appallingly easily. We're getting closer to our roots, but it's hard -- I still haven't felt tuned in to the ways that our ancestors thought. I'd still like to be able to see things through their eyes. I can, of course, imagine being a hunter, hauling home the bacon, but life then was surely much more than just that.
But the problem is speed. The brain enlarged mainly during the last 2 million years -- unbelievably rapidly by the standards of natural selection, getting up into the speed range closer to artificial selection. No doubt bigger-is-smarter-is-better could have done the job, eventually. But is there a fast track such as throwing that worked the gearwheels of evolution much faster than that, giving us a big head start on improving language and sequential reasoning skills?
Thinking our way to success just doesn't have any of the hallmarks of speed. It doesn't work dramatically better in small, isolated groups exposed to the selection cycles of winter every year and to ice ages every 100,000 years. Thought, and the cultural improvements that go with it, seem to flourish best in situations involving agriculture, cities, educational systems. Those aren't as likely to be found out on the life-is-hard fringes of the population -- they flourish in the parts of the world where making a living is somewhat easier, where the population density is higher, where the rumor mill can pass around ideas more easily. Big central populations may be good setups for rapid cultural evolution, but for biological evolution they spell slowdown -- no isolation, no small numbers, no repeated do-or-die waves of selection as on the frontiers.
And however useful culture was, it was biological evolution that had to enlarge the brain very rapidly. Our intuitions about cultural evolution just don't carry over to biological evolution very often.
To what do we owe such an appreciation of music? Music certainly reminds me of language -- the same time-sequence elements, with their order all important, with certain underlying patterns repeating and elaborating like the rhythms of poetry. Is music like the hexagonal beehives, one of the consequences of our time-sequencing machinery settling into patterns? Does our language cortex have even more temporal-patterning machinery than it needs for mere spoken language, with music plumbing those depths of our ability to perceive and remember elaborate patterns of time sequence?
When our memories are stirred by the first few bars of a piece of music, we start anticipating the next notes and predicting what's coming. You get a nice feeling from predicting the future like that (provided someone doesn't play the wrong note and sour things). Just as you get a nice feeling when you successfully predict the future in other ways, such as when you let go of a rock at the right time, knowing that it's going to hit the target this time.
And if there are universal rhythms, surely they are due to inborn properties of our brains. Just as deep grammar is, according to Chomsky's comparative study of languages around the world. Some music ought to resonate with the brain's natural rhythms. Resonant rhythms, I should trademark it now. I can hardly wait for composers to start mining the neurophysiological literature for leads to catchy tunes.
The morality of music is faithfulness to the immutable laws of musical gravity (the laws by which melody tends to fall and progressions sink to resolution and rest) and faithfulness to the particular work's emotional energy; that is, the power and thrust of an ascending scale, a blast of trumpets, a crash of drums, a flute note. Great music pushes upward, soars, sinks, fights, and at last gives in or fails or wins or accepts, in sorrow or triumph, with a comic burp, or in some other of its infinite ways. Its devices are inexhaustible, vastly beyond capture in any theory of composition....Is music another emergent property of our highly developed time-sequencing abilities? Did it come directly from sequencing -- could a child raised without learning any language still appreciate music nonetheless? Or is music dependent upon language, with its more elementary dependence on sequencing abilities? I don't know. But I think we've become Homo seriatim.
......JOHN GARDNER, On Moral Fiction, 1978.
Music is the effort we make to explain to ourselves how our brains work. We listen to Bach transfixed because this is listening to a human mind.
......LEWIS THOMAS, The Medusa and the Snail, 1979.
There emerges from this view of our brain, with its relentless reorganization and enlargement for ever more precise pitchers, some glimpses of the neural foundations on which we construct our utterances and think our thoughts. The brain may have begun precisely uncocking the elbow while hammering nuts in the tropics. Overextended on the ice age frontiers, however, our ancestors staved off starvation according to their inborn throwing abilities. Those with bigger and better-organized brains survived with the aid of the Law of Large Numbers; eventually even their babies came to instinctively hammer and throw.
From such an evolutionary ratchet jacking up brain size, there arose unbidden our own brain of unbounded potential. From basketball to tennis, this mosaic brain expresses its ancient pleasure in precisely timing a sequence. Transcending its origins, our brain can now create novel sequences using grammar and music. Blind to our foundations, we nonetheless created poetry and reason; with a clearer footing, we can perhaps contemplate how our enlarged consciousness evolved and is evolving.
The animal, by and large, seeks to satisfy his immediate hunger and his reproductive instincts. Man, as his vocabulary and memory extend, becomes apperceptive rather than plain perceptive. He envisages what is out of sight, or an hour off, or a year away.... As Hallowell has so ably pointed out..., the concept of self emerges. The "I" can think of "me." It is here, in intimate association with language, that the quantum jump is glimpsed.
......LOREN EISELEY, 1967.
One can find a shady spot and settle down with a good book. Or join the five-mile "death march" to Mooney Falls high up in the canyon; as Fritz said, "it's just run up, look around, and run right back down again." That scared off all but two runners. We made lunch even before eating breakfast this morning, and have sandwiches and fruit in our day packs; we carry loaded water bottles of lemonade, as one can't drink the water.
The other big problem, not unrelated to the first, is that the canyon is full of false trails. One thus gets to relive how someone else got lost. Since some of the dead-end trails go up three stories of rock before turning around, it wears one down.
We have found an island retreat in the middle of the creek, cooled by the waters flowing by on both sides, shaded by the trees growing there. This little riparian resort is surrounded by the desert of the lower Canyon, sun-baked, lizard-explored, studded with cactus and ocotillo. Everyone seems to have brought a book with their lunch, but no one is reading. They're either arguing about consciousness or looking at the landscape while keeping an ear cocked.
Ah, a cloud drifts across the sun. Too small to hold much promise of a cool afternoon, but enough to instantly drop the temperature nicely. The sun is not quite overhead here in the weeks near the summer solstice, but it is only about 14° off. And that is hot. You can see why the serious hiking season down here is every season but summer.
There is something soothing about having water flow past me and tumble over a small waterfall not far away, with the breeze wafting back a suggestion of spray with its coolness. I just sit and watch the travertine build up, ever so slowly, in the midst of a few green leaves against a background of red and gray rock.
When I saw any external object, my consciousness that I was seeing it would remain between me and it, enclosing it in a slender, incorporeal outline which prevented me from ever coming directly in contact with the material form.NEUROBIOLOGISTS CALMLY DISCUSSING CONSCIOUSNESS? I can hardly believe my ears, but some of my fellow neurobiologists are actually having a civil conversation about consciousness. Another sign that the Canyon has had a mellowing effect on us. This subject ordinarily evokes turned backs, people making for the door. Or vehement verbal rejection, reminiscent of Schopenhauer's describing Hegel as "scribbling nonsense and dispensing hollow verbiage that fundamentally and forever rots people's brains."
.,..... MARCEL PROUST, Swann's Way.
Subjective conscious mind is an analog of what is called the real world. It is built up with a vocabulary or lexical field whose terms are all metaphors or analogs of behavior in the physical world. Its reality is of the same order as mathematics. It allows us to shortcut behavioral processes and arrive at more adequate decisions. Like mathematics, it is an operator rather than a thing or repository. And it is intimately bound up with volition and decision.
......the psychologist JULIAN JAYNES, 1976.
The most important problem which our conscious knowledge should enable us to solve is the anticipation of future events, so that we may arrange our present affairs in accordance with such anticipation.
......the 19th century physicist HEINRICH HERTZ
Ever notice how those commentaries on consciousness in The New York Review of Books tend to involve books written by eminent physicists, critiqued by Nobel-Prize-winning molecular biologists, neither of whom seem to know anything more about consciousness than that gleaned from their own introspection? Brain researchers -- like professors of chemistry and economics -- usually keep quiet about consciousness, and for good reason. But physicists and DNA experts are somehow assumed to have a leg up on the subject -- and the brain researchers have, admittedly, left the field open to them. Why?
Now neurobiologists are people who haven't always been neurobiologists. And most of them got into the field because they share the natural urge to understand our Minds. They come with questions such as: What is Consciousness? Is there a Higher Consciousness? What is Meaning? What does it mean to Think? How do I form Beliefs, a Will to do something? Is there a Soul? Is there anything more to it than Materialism? How do I really Know something? What about Intent and Motive, the Self, the Ego? Is there room for Dualism?
It seems obvious that our sensations such as touch and color must be different from our thoughts and feelings, our memories and dreams, our imaginings and insights. We form intentions to do something, our acts are usually voluntary -- we think. And so, quite aside from any religious notions of a material body and an immaterial soul that somehow escapes the laws of physics, many people distinguish between mind and brain. But is Mind and Brain a distinction without a difference?
These are, of course, the bread-and-butter questions of philosophy, and while I suppose there are a few people who start out with computers and then move on to the biological "computers" without pondering some of them, such questions are typically how people get interested in the subject of brains. So what goes wrong? Why are hard-core neurobiologists so unlikely to ever mention such Words again, some of us even avoiding "the mind"?
It isn't that we have a superior substitute, and it certainly isn't the reductionism-holism business (think what a great coup it would be for a reductionist to reduce consciousness to a neural circuit!). It is mainly from despair, considering such virtually unanswerable questions to be a waste of time in comparison to a host of more approachable problems. Or coming to see them as meaningless distinctions, prescientific questions posed the wrong way, questions that aren't heuristic -- they don't take you forward. Sometimes when one does get an answer out of a neuroscientist, it's a narrow answer. Ask neurologists about consciousness and you'll get a working definition of coma. Ask them about higher consciousness and they'll define it by an ability to paraphrase proverbs (patients with frontal-lobe damage often cannot explain what is meant by "people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones"). Pragmatic, important, sometimes life-saving distinctions -- but not, I suspect, what most people hoped for.
It all reminds one of behavioral psychology's complete denial of consciousness. And of John Dewey's observation that philosophy progresses not by solving problems but by abandoning them.
The reasons for bypassing the philosophical questions do have something of the quality of the I-have-better-things-to-do excuses that one finds for not cleaning out the basement. We neuroscientists are periodically taken to task for our negligence by writers like Arthur Koestler and E. F. Schumacher, who think we're being unscientific by ignoring the obvious. Even Annie Dillard chides certain scientists for trying "to make a virtue of ignorance by denying that anything else exists." Touché.
To classify consciousness as the action of organic machinery is in no way to underestimate its power. In Sir Charles Sherrington's splendid metaphor, the brain is an "enchanted loom where millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern." Since the mind recreates reality from the abstractions of sense impressions, it can equally well simulate reality by recall and fantasy. The brain invents stories and runs imagined and remembered events back and forth through time.THE LIZARDS ARE DOING PUSHUPS AGAIN. This happens mainly when they encounter another lizard. Then they chase one another around the river rocks. One small lizard crawled down my arm and ran across my book. Was it curiosity, or just because I was in his accustomed path? He did seem to stop and ponder his decision before taking that path. Does that mean he's conscious?
......the sociobiologist EDWARD O. WILSON, On Human Nature, 1978
Ah, well, basement-cleaning time. Can one say anything useful about the neurobiology of consciousness? Consciousness isn't all of mental life, as a lot of things go on of which we're unaware -- not just autonomic things like regulating the body temperature and blood pressure, but also subconscious thinking and reasoning. As when we come up with an answer -- such as "This is heavier than that" -- but cannot give the reasons for our answer. Learning is a poor definition of consciousness, and there is also no use in lumping into consciousness the various template-like cognitive processes that we use in matching up a stimulus configuration with a memory schema. Our inner state not only involves mental representations of objects and concepts -- those schemata of our memory -- but the ability to play games with them: to mentally see an object, turn it around, mentally prod it. To string schemata together into stories.
The neurologist's definition of consciousness really isn't just non-unconsciousness, though awareness and alertness play a major role in it. Neurologists think of consciousness as the human ability to respond to one's environment in an organized manner. This isn't a bad definition, if we accept it as only the ground floor. However, neurologists, neurosurgeons, anesthesiologists, and others who regularly deal with the disturbances of consciousness distinguish a continuum of levels of alertness and the ability to be aroused into a higher condition of alertness. Drowsiness is the state characterized by ready arousal, verbal responses, fending-off movements to painful stimuli such as a pinch or pinprick. In stupor, painful stimuli don't really arouse the patient fully; he doesn't moan and groan, but still has purposeful fending-off movements. Light coma means no arousal, and only primitive and disorganized movements to painful stimuli; even those movements are lost in a deep coma. In mammals there is even a seat for this type of consciousness -- not the pineal gland, as Descartes imagined, but the reticular formation of the brainstem; the clusters of giant nerve cells found in the locus coeruleus are particularly important in waking us up. If someone is in a coma and we've ruled out such common causes as drug overdoses with standard blood tests, it is usually due to damage to the brainstem. And that's usually due to not wearing one's seat belt, an incredible stupidity.
Well, I suppose that a healthy plant could be said to be in a light coma if your time scale for a response encompassed days of growth, and an amoeba could similarly be said to have attained stupor -- but that really doesn't get us anywhere. Levels of alertness are not really levels of consciousness, in the way we intuitively use the latter word.
Beyond irritability and alertness lies self-awareness, in the philosophers' scheme of things. We are aware of an intention to act before acting; electrophysiologists have shown, however, that the brain's electrical activity starts changing more than one-third of a second before we report being aware of our intention to act. This, of course, raises the question: if conscious control of one's body is not movement initiation, then what is it? The ability to veto an act before actually carrying it out?
Self-awareness also involves imagination or foresight. I'm inclined to substitute "scenario" or "simulation" ability, as I think that such dry-run simulation inside the brain, choosing between alternative scenarios, is the important quality that goes beyond mere alterations in alertness to the immediate environment.
We have an ability to run through a motion with our muscles detached from the circuit, then run through it again for real, the muscles actually carrying out the commands. We can let our simulation run through the past and future, trying different scenarios and judging which is most advantageous -- it allows us to respond in advance to probable future environments, to imagine an accidental rockfall loosened by a climber above us and to therefore stay out of his fall line.
But is that qualitatively any different than what the lizard did, in deciding to investigate my book rather than take a path around my feet? I don't know how much simulation ability lizards have, but animals do differ in their responses to situations that evolution hasn't prepared them for, such as a collar and leash: dogs often hang their leashes up on an obstruction. They just keep lunging forward instead of backtracking to free themselves; chimps would figure it out, so we are tempted to say that they have more "insight."
Animals studied by Americans rush about frantically, with an incredible display of hustle and pep, and at last achieve the desired result by chance. Animals observed by Germans sit still and think, and at last evolve the solution out of their inner consciousness.One might say that the lizard doesn't look very far into the future, that its behavior is just the result of a motor-pattern generator for foraging, not conscious choice. We, on the other hand, can look months ahead in our simulations -- but, as Michelle pointed out, so can horses. She said that her family finally figured out why one of their horses always failed to grow a thick winter coat; every year, Bumper had to be provided with a blanket when it got cold. In the autumn, they always left the barn lights on until mid-evening because the boys had a lot of afterschool activities. The artificially long day evidently confused the horse by removing the cue -- the shortening period of daylight -- that she used to start growing her winter coat, evolution never having prepared horses for the difference between sunlight and artificial light. Michelle's other horse seems to have been able to use other cues as well, such as air temperature, since he grew a winter coat despite the artificially long days. Now, a timer switch on the barn lights avoids the need for Bumper's winter blanket.
......BERTRAND RUSSELL, 1927
Good old melatonin, one built-in way of physiologically guessing the future by using the nocturnal secretions of the pineal gland. Apparently the increasing amounts of this hormone released each night (light inhibits its release from the pineal) as the nights lengthen serves as the internal calendar signal for "winter's coming" in many animals. Decreasing amounts each week similarly signal spring; that's probably what turns on the mating seasons of the Abert squirrel in March (a different sensitivity setting turns on the Kaibab squirrel in June instead). I suppose that consciousness tends to suggest simulating less predictable scenarios than the seasons, and using higher parts of the brain to do it, but who is to draw the line? If a scenario for the future is part of your definition of non-trivial consciousness, you can make a case that Descartes was right after all, that the pineal is one seat of consciousness. At least in Michelle's horse.
The first sign that a baby is going to be a human being and not a noisy pet comes when he begins naming the world and demanding the stories that connect its parts. Once he knows the first of these he will instruct his teddy bear, enforce his world view on victims in the sandlot, tell himself stories of what he is doing as he plays and forecast stories of what he will do when he grows up. He will keep track of the actions of others and relate deviations to the person in charge. He will want a story at bedtime.BUT WE MAKE UP STORIES, with ourselves as the central character, and I'm not sure that lizards and horses are likely to bother with that level of abstraction; they probably just "feel like doing" something and do it. Our ability to tell a silent narrative about the future is the key to the modern conception of consciousness.
Nothing passes but the mind grabs it and looks for a way to fit it into a story, or into a variety of possible scripts...
.......the writer KATHRYN MORTON, 1984
Our lives are ceaselessly intertwined with narrative, with the stories that we tell and hear told, those we dream or imagine or would like to tell, all of which are reworked in that story of our own lives that we narrate to ourselves in an episodic, sometimes semiconscious, but virtually uninterrupted monologue. We live immersed in narrative, recounting and reassessing the meaning of our past actions, anticipating the outcome of our future projects, situating ourselves at the intersection of several stories not yet completed.
.......the writer PETER BROOKS, 1985
There is often a leap of faith which accompanies this conception, concluding that our fancy human verbal language is therefore essential to consciousness. People too readily forget the silent movies. Or playing charades. Stories can be told without words or even word concepts; certainly getting up and going somewhere, bringing back something, and eating it -- things like that were around long before language, long before humans. Words are often much more powerful concepts, however, and so elaborate scenarios can often be expressed succinctly, encapsulated by a pregnant word schema such as "the run-around." But language per se may not add much more to narrative consciousness than the sound track added to the silent movie, simply building atop a story-telling technique of more ancient design.
It's for such reasons that I cannot get very excited about theories which posit that humans were lacking in this self-narrative ability until just a few thousand years ago, less than a millennium before the Greek philosophers. Instead, so the theory goes, self-admonitions were heard as auditory hallucinations, and therefore people thought that the gods were speaking to them. The psychologist Julian Jaynes calls this the bicameral mind, and sees it as an intermediate stage before the development of modern consciousness with its narrator.
That is to say, I'm inclined not to believe it on neurophysiological grounds -- yet he may be right for the wrong reasons. I think it likely that many people said they heard voices speaking to them, and that this indeed had an important influence on our culture. There is a certain percentage of people who hear voices. Some are temporal-lobe epileptics, some are schizophrenics, some have temporal-lobe tumors (which were common in tuberculosis, back in the good old days). Others are apparently normal people; for example, a substantial percentage of children are reported to hold conversations with imaginary playmates. Training may well bring out the phenomenon; the voice may not speak spontaneously but rather be brought on by certain mental states, such as meditating on a scene, perhaps an idol in a grotto.
Leaders of primitive societies had an especially good motive for saying that they had heard voices: it lent authority. An Anasazi shaman, for example, had the problem of instilling in his people a sense of direction, togetherness, and destiny (Why? Because it works -- groups with such cohesion survive better). Yet a shaman is also a long-time everyday member of a small group of people, in which everyone knows each other quite well, complete with little foibles and pretenses. For such a person to episodically get unquestioning obedience from such a group can be quite a feat -- and a shaman could pull it off, probably by creating a distance between his ordinary self and his role as a spokesman for something bigger than himself. And a distance between himself and the others, so that they wouldn't argue quite so readily.
The most natural way to create both kinds of distancing would be to report hearing voices commanding you (whether or not you actually do -- as I say, the result's the thing). Given the percentage of people who hear voices anyway, this probably got started because some shamans actually did hear voices, were very persuasive, helped their people through hard times or a battle, and thus started a tradition. Other shamans probably imitated it or trained themselves to hear voices. And people tend to imitate their leaders, so I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of people besides shamans reported that they heard voices, social conformity being what it is. If that's true, then the course of our cultural development may well have been influenced by this tradition of reporting conversations with the gods. And given the way that fads come and go, there may well have been "historical stages" in the phenomenon that appear in the literature and myths.
But self-narratives emerging as some sort of biological stage all mixed up with the right brain talking to the left brain but interpreted as an external voice -- no, I can't buy it; it's not impossible but it's not necessary on the basis of what we know about evolution and brains.
As masters of illusion, specialists in the evolving art of social control, [shamans] held exalted positions. It could not be otherwise. As equals, they could never have done what they had to do, indoctrinate people for survival in groups, devise and implant the shared memories that would make for widening allegiances, common causes, communities solid enough to endure generation after generation.... The ceremonial life promoted, not inquiry, but unbending belief and obedience.... To obtain obedience it helps if shamans...can create a distance between themselves and the rest of the group.... One must appear and remain extraordinary (by no means an easy task when one is a long-time member of a small group), look different with the aid of masks... and sound different, using antique words and phrases, reminders of ancestors and a remote past, and special intonations conveying authority, fervor, inspiration.But I think Jaynes is right about his main point, that at some cultural stage, metaphor flowered and people began seeing themselves as the narrators of their own personal story. The question is when this happened. Jaynes says 3,000 years ago, based on his analysis of the western literary tradition. "The characters in the Iliad do not sit down and think out that to do. They have no conscious minds such as we say we have, and certainly no introspections." That changes in the Odyssey, and even more by the time of the Greek philosophers about 2,300 years ago. It might be nothing more than a change in literary style (one can argue that Jaynes' historical stages are just that), but the result was nonetheless impressive and important: the change from "we" to "I," from admonitions made by an inferred authority to an ethical self who has to make one's own decisions, who is an actor in one's own life's story.
......JOHN E. PFEIFFER, The Creative Explosion, 1982
"So the old style was -- if we ignore hallucinations for a moment -- like an authoritarian religion or social caste, where you have little autonomy," said Ben, trying to rephrase it all. "Maybe like today, when people try to lose themselves in a team sport, take on a group identity, let a religious commune or an army take charge of their lives. And then there was a transition to a new style of the self as the narrator of a personal history contemplating alternate futures, deciding between alternatives. Right?"
"That's the general idea," I agreed. "There was a Freudian psychoanalyst who once called the self 'a milling crowd of self-narratives,' and that pretty well captures the essence."
"You know," volunteered Rosalie, "I can see the development of that even in religion. Take the whole concept of confession. It didn't exist until many centuries after Christ. Then you get Saint Augustine confessing to sodomy and poetry in the same breath. Even in the Catholic Church, going to confession was once an annual thing, then tended toward a weekly event -- at least if you lived in Boston! And the autonomous self is very important in confession -- you've got to have a lot of self-awareness to do it properly, a real sense of personal history, a sense of wrong choices made."
"Jaynes thinks that consciousness, and our concept of self, is a rapidly evolving thing," I reported. "He even thinks that it has changed in the last few centuries since Machiavelli and Shakespeare, believes that great changes will occur in several more centuries. And I tend to agree. But even if I were to accept Jaynes' notion about a hallucinatory bicameral mind of 3,000 years ago developing into the more modern narrator -- which I don't -- I'm left with wondering how much of the prior state of affairs was a consequence of agricultural civilizations starting 6,000 years ago and their high population densities. Did their hunter-gatherer ancestors have modern consciousness in Jaynes' sense? Did the civilized peoples then lose it slaving away in the fields, getting their brains baked? Only to regain the narrator when empires loosened up enough, and travel became freer? Maybe the storytelling tradition flourished as a consequence, and re-established the suppressed indigenous narrator of the hunter-gatherers. As far as I can see, all of his evidence is consistent with such an alternative explanation."
"What I find absurd," commented Rosalie, "is how, in only 700 years, one could get from Jaynes' pre-conscious being to the Greek philosophers. How much has our thinking changed in the 700 years since the Renaissance? I find it improbable that the Greeks accomplished such a quantum leap in only 700 years."
Of course, that implies that the natural selection enhancing language and consciousness may be far different than is usually supposed. Rather than shaping them through selection for their usefulness, we may have gotten them as gifts. Gifts that we're still trying to figure out how to operate.
Man might be described fairly adequately, if simply, as a two-legged paradox. He has never become accustomed to the tragic miracle of consciousness. Perhaps, as has been suggested, his species is not set, has not jelled, but is still in a state of becoming, bound by his physical memories to a past of struggle and survival, limited in his futures by the uneasiness of thought and consciousness.
......JOHN STEINBECK, Log from the Sea of Cortez, 1941
Somehow, the laws of thought must be the laws of things if we are going to attempt a science of reality. Thought and things are part of one evolving matrix, and cannot ultimately conflict.THE SCHEMA IS THE STARTING POINT for a discussion of scenario-type consciousness. A schema is like the round hole that you're supposed to fit the round peg into, rather than the proverbial square one; you can imagine a family of cookie-cutters being tried out on a Christmas cookie, seeing which one fits. The schemata-templates in the brain, always on the lookout for a passing pattern in the sensory input that matches one or another of them, are each an average of past experience with that pattern, not a specific instance of a past experience. We see something not so much by making a permanent record but by a back-and-forth process of matching the input pattern with candidate schemata.
......JOHN E. BOODIN, A Realistic Universe, 1931
Our memories are continually being altered, transformed, and distorted.
......the psychologist ELIZABETH LOFTUS, 1980
The mind itself is an art object. It is a Mondrian canvas onto whose homemade grids it fits its own preselected products. Our knowledge is contextual and only contextual. Ordering and invention coincide: we call their collaboration "knowledge." The mind is a blue guitar on which we improvise the song of the world.
......ANNIE DILLARD, Living by Fiction, 1982
Perfect fits aren't always required -- and that can produce some appalling consequences. One tends to fill in details that aren't there; they're in the stored schema so one perceives that they're present in reality (an imperfect star-shaped Christmas cookie may, for example, be seen as perfect unless one studies it closely). This poses a terrible problem when it comes to eyewitness testimony, since people really do tend to see what they expect to see. Thoreau said it well: "We hear and apprehend only what we already half know."
That's probably where the canals on Mars came from. The American astronomer Percival Lowell, who correctly predicted the existence of the theretofore unknown planet Pluto, sketched what he saw of Mars through the telescope he had built in 1888 on a hilltop down in Flagstaff (known locally as Mars Hill). Lowell drew a network of interlocking lines which suggested to him a network of canals of the kind that were very popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries before the railroads took over. They were just too regular to be natural. Hence there was not only life on Mars, but civilization!
Others looked through their telescopes to see these wonders and saw only a patchwork of features which, to them, looked nothing at all like canals. Did some people see things that others didn't, in the manner of visual illusions? The British astronomer Walter Maunder at the Greenwich observatory tried an experiment with a class of schoolboys at the beginning of the twentieth century, at the height of the canal craze. He made a series of drawings showing the main patterns of light and shade on Mars, but without the canals. He set them up at a distance from the class, so that they saw them about as large as the image of Mars appeared in the telescopes to the astronomers. Then he asked the schoolboys to draw them. Quite a few of them inserted canal-like features into their drawings. Arthur C. Clarke repeated the experiment with a group of schoolgirls in Sri Lanka seven decades later, and got the same result. In modern psychological terminology, we'd probably now say that Lowell and those schoolchildren were "filling in" according to a schema already in their heads. Different people do see different things.
We usually distinguish between schematic memories of overlearned things, such as familiar words, and the episodic memory of a unique happening. Granted, schemata are comprised of a number of episodes. But suppose you cannot keep the first episode separated in your memory from the developing schemata for the repeated occurrences? Recalling a memory, mulling it over, can constitute such a repeated occurrence. Alas.
A schema develops over time, from a series of experiences. It's the sensory equivalent of a motor skill. Episodic memory is the storage of a brief series of events, something like a strip of movie film. Naturally, schemata are built up of the average of a number of episodes. Unfortunately, the memory of the first episode can be blurred by somewhat similar repetitions (I can no longer remember the first time that I heard the word "runaround"). And there is now some evidence that even recalling the memory of the first episode constitutes a repeated experience, that the recalled memory modifies the stored memory. That wouldn't be a problem if we never made mistakes, or never filled-in things that weren't actually there. But we do, and so our memories are malleable.
Eyewitness testimony, as Elizabeth Loftus has shown, is often modified by previous retellings of the story: should a witness make a mistake in the third retelling, it may tend to be adopted as the true version in fourth and fifth retellings.
You can literally fool yourself. And of course skillful prompting during witness rehearsal before a courtroom appearance may tend to make you see things differently (and this need not be intentional-- simply showing a witness mug shots may make that witness, during subsequent questioning, substitute the face in a photo for the actual face they originally saw). Since you no longer have the correct memory stored to nag your conscience, you may make a very persuasive witness.
Theories that explain the mind in material terms will affect our concepts of praise, blame, and responsibility, profoundly changing the way we think of ourselves.
.......the philosopher PATRICA CHURCHLAND, 1984.
Objectivity does not mean detachment, it means respect; that is, the ability not to distort and to falsify things, persons, and oneself.
.......the psychoanalyst ERICH FROMM
Take a comb: there is a visual schema which represents a comb, all those teeth attached to a spine; indeed, because the comb may be seen from many different angles, the schemata must be able to recognize it as seen from on end and obliquely. There is the sensation of a comb running through your hair, and a quite separate sensation of a comb which you use to find it while rummaging through a pocket or purse. There is also an auditory schema that signals "comb" -- that characteristic sound of plucking the teeth of the comb. Then there is the characteristic smell of a comb. A chimpanzee could have all those schemata, if it were experienced with a comb, and it would probably associate them all, too. With language comes another schema, the tone-time pattern that monitors the sound of "comb" being pronounced. Finally, there is a motor template (to stretch the traditional schema concept a little) for producing the breathing-oral-laryngeal muscle sequence that ends up producing the sound "comb."
Asking where the concept "comb" is stored in the brain can thus become a little complicated; if a stroke patient cannot name a comb when shown a picture of it, you have to find out where along the line the message got lost. Let us assume the patient can match up pictures of combs, and can say "comb" if you ask him what "C-O-M-B" spells. If a stroke has severed the connections between visual and language cortex, the patient may have difficulty naming a picture of a comb, but will immediately name it if allowed to handle one. This is one of what are called the "disconnection syndromes." But they're not so simple. Since there are intact connections between visual and somatosensory cortex, and between somatosensory cortex and language cortex, some patients might eventually succeed by using the visual schema to trigger the somatosensory schema (of how the comb feels), and thus the language schema in this roundabout way.
Rosalie pointed out that such ingenious loops are one way in which patients like Howard's father eventually overcome their reading problems: since they can still recognize individual letters, they spell a word out loud to themselves: "C-A-T, why that's cat!", thus constructing a loop that actually goes out the mouth and back in through the ears. Hearing "C-A-T" triggers the word schema in language cortex, even though the direct connections from the visual cortex to the language cortex will no longer match up the visual three-letter group "CAT" with the word, because the nerve fibers have been severed. Eventually, such patients may speak silently, the muscle feedback from mouthing the word seemingly sufficient for them to identify the word. Such examples also show that we don't normally piece together a common word letter by letter, but instead have schemata that recognize multi-letter groups all at once.
There are lots of paths interconnecting all the schemata representing a common object; some paths are faster and more secure than others. Indeed, there might merely be a "comb committee" of all the varied sensory schemata of a comb, any one of which would set off the motor apparatus for pronouncing "comb." You have to allow that some higher-level concepts, say your associations with this particular book, won't be represented that securely, only by a loose web of connections, none effective alone. If you read this book ten times and describe it to fifty friends, it may come to have its very own special schema in your language cortex. But I suspect that most things are represented by loose committees with members from all over the brain, not by a specialist established by overlearning.
Consciousness is ever ready to explain anything we happen to find ourselves doing. The thief narratizes his act as due to poverty, the poet his as due to beauty, and the scientist his as due to truth, purpose and cause inextricably woven into the spatialization of behavior in consciousness.... A stray fact is narratized to fit with some other stray fact.... A cat is up a tree and we narratize the event into a picture of a dog chasing it there.WE STRING THINGS TOGETHER into scenarios. Consciousness seems like memory, in the sense that it allows one to call up a schema and "look at it." But consciousness usually does much more than that: it creates a string of schemata. And then a somewhat different string. It sees which is better, and perhaps stops there, or maybe keeps inventing and comparing a little longer. If we're talking about word schemata, that's how you can construct a short sentence in your head before uttering it. Sometimes we're aware of the picking and choosing process, as when I look at the river and think it is blue, switch to green, search my memory a little more, perhaps settle on blue-green or muddy, and then say: "It reminds me of the snotgreen sea, which was James Joyce's parody on Homer's wine-dark sea."
.......the psychologist JULIAN JAYNES, 1976
Having a companion fixes you in time and that the present, but when the quality of aloneness settles down, past, present, and future all flow together. A memory, a present event, and a forecast all equally present.
......the ex-science student JOHN STEINBECK, Travels with Charley, 1962
Consciousness is often very sequential: we literally create a stream of consciousness, piecing together elements from memory and fantasy, manufacturing a narrative, rejecting it as too fantastic (tasting a comb?), or playing around with it until it "makes sense". In dreams, our criteria for making sense are relaxed and so the narrative skips around, creating fantastic juxtapositions of impossible times, places and people.
But when awake, one does a good job of matching schemata to input patterns, and consciousness does a good job of weaving together past and present into a reasonable narrative. One can see this process fail in people who have lost their ability to create new memories, as in Korsakoff's syndrome. Ask them what they had for breakfast, and they'll invent something reasonable, not having successfully stored that information earlier in the day while actually eating breakfast (making up stories for such reasons is known as "confabulation" in neurology). These patients are probably unaware that they're doing this; they're simply filling holes in a sequence as best they can. Our stream of consciousness often fills in missing details, not unlike the way in which a visual schema fills in the missing spatial details of an imperfect cookie.
Our sequencing ability gives us the neural machinery to handle the words we hear, and those we choose to speak. The sequencer might also, independently, give us an enhanced ability to rehearse sequences, an ability to search through more possible candidate sequences, a longer attention span for planning before acting. Even if a human infant were raised by chimpanzees without sequential language and grammar, in some reverse-Washoe experiment (Washoe was one of the first chimp infants reared in a family of psychologists), the human neural sequencing machinery might still provide an expanded consciousness that was more capable of imagining scenarios -- perhaps even extended sequences of bluff and counterbluff (something which would be very handy in chimpanzee society!).
This notion of competing scenarios can, of course, take place on one level or several levels. An example of comparing scenarios on the same level would be comparing two different ways of catching a monkey, a frontal rush versus a flanking ambush. Between levels, you might compare an ambush scenario with an imagined scenario for how the monkey might react, which of two trees he might leap towards. If you've got the machinery to handle it, you could imagine a bluff, a counterbluff, a counter-counterbluff, and so on. We've got the ability to project many moves into the future, as you can see in planning chess strategy or labor negotiations.
Metaplanning would, I suppose, be the word for planning about planning. Is that, then, higher consciousness: your ability to watch yourself thinking about something else? Perhaps -- but again, I suspect that isn't quite what you may have had in mind. It may be that the higher-order schemata formed when summarizing and abstracting the lower-order schemata are rather hard to put into words; as the Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu said about the impossibility of communicating absolute knowledge, "If it could be talked about, everybody would have told their brother."
There the eye goes not,
Speech goes not, nor the mind.
We know not, we understand not
How one would teach it.
Consciousness will always be one degree above comprehensibility.
....... GOESTA CARL HENRIK EHRENSVARD, 1965
Fortune tellers (sometimes said to belong to the world's second-oldest profession) still successfully exploit the human obsession with forecasts. Our appetite for hearing a weather forecast three times a day back home can hardly be accounted for by their accuracy and usefulness. And, as Abby pointed out, there is astrology -- the notion that the configuration of the planets at the time of one's birth affects the course of one's life. Notwithstanding the fact that astrologers' predictions about personality, based on birth date and time, have been repeatedly shown to be no more correct than chance (picking a horoscope at random rather than yours), the newspapers still print more about astrology than science.
Schemata within the brain could serve as the physical basis of will. An organism can be guided in its actions by a feedback loop: a sequence of messages from the sense organs to the brain schemata back to the sense organs and so on around again until the schemata "satisfy" themselves that the correct action has been completed. The mind could be a republic of such schemata, programmed to compete among themselves for control of the decision centers, individually waxing or waning in power in response to the relative urgency of the physiological needs of the body.... Will might be the outcome of the competition, requiring the action of neither a "little man" nor any other external agent.... It is entirely possible that the will -- the soul, if you wish -- emerged through the evolution of physiological mechanisms. But, clearly, such mechanisms are far more complex than anything else on earth.THERE ARE A LOT OF REASONS WHY we attempt to separate mind from body. And scientists often try to adapt their ideas to popular notions. For example, the computer scientists are forever promoting the notion that the distinction between software and hardware is like that between mind and body. Neurophysiologists like Walter Freeman tend to reply that the computer as we know it is a hopelessly inadequate analogy in the first place: "Animals and children even more than adults ... behave in ways expressed by the colloquial insight that 'they have minds of their own'.... They exhibit traits of independence and self-directedness, which are to be expected and admired in any being that has a brain, but which are intolerable in a computer and causes it to be overhauled or discarded...."
......the biologist EDWARD O. WILSON, On Human Nature, 1978
A central aspect of consciousness is the ability to look ahead, the capability we call "foresight". It is the ability to plan, and in social terms to outline a scenario of what is likely going to happen, or what might happen, in social interactions that have not yet taken place.... It is a system whereby we improve our chances of doing those things that will represent our own best interests.... I suggest that "free will" is our apparent ability to choose and act upon whichever of those [scenarios] seem most useful or appropriate, and our insistence upon the idea that such choices are our own.
.......the biologist RICHARD D. ALEXANDER, Darwinism and Human Affairs, 1979
[Loren Eiseley] reveals himself as a man unusually well trained in the habit of prayer, by which I mean the habit of listening.... The serious aspect of prayer begins when we have got our begging over with and listen for the Voice of what I would call the Holy Spirit, though if others prefer to say the Voice of Oz or the Dreamer or Conscience, I shan't quarrel, so long as they don't call it the Voice of the Super-Ego, for that "entity" can only tell us what we know already, whereas the Voice I am talking about always says something new and unpredictable....
......W. H. AUDEN, 1970
The idea that psychological complexities can in principle be identified with the structure of a highly organized piece of matter, the human brain, is unappealing to many people. Something in their mental setup balks at the idea that the colorful, lovable experience of themselves and of other persons is translatable into the black and white drawing of a set of logical relations. They would rather leave the psyche unanalyzed and think of it as a separate substance that has a fleeting liaison with the body as long as it lives. This view is called animism when it is encountered by ethnologists in other societies. It is also the most widespread psychological theory in our own society.... It is important, however, to realize that the animistic heresy has been competing against the analytic tendency of science throughout the history of philosophy.
......the biophysicist VALENTINO BRAITENBERG, Gehirngespinste (The Texture of Brains), 1977
Our capacity for deceiving ourselves about the operation of our brain is almost limitless, mainly because what we can report is only a minute fraction of what goes on in our head. This is why much of philosophy has been barren for more than 2,000 years and is likely to remain so until philosophers learn to understand the language of information processing.
......the molecular biologist FRANCIS H.C. CRICK, 1979
We wish to be angels, not made out of meat.
......the neurophysiologist RODOLFO LLINAS, 1984
Consciousness seems to imply free will, individuality -- and with them, responsibility for one's actions. But one can have that without separating off "mind" as a separate entity from the brain. My conception of consciousness is that it is fundamentally the brain's ability to simulate the past and future, to make quality judgments about alternative scenarios, and thus pick and choose. Individuality arises so much because we each (identical twins excepted) have a unique collection of genes, but because everyone's life experiences are different; thus, each of us has a different collection of schemata, quality judgments, and so forth. We have made a series of conscious choices in the past, each of us differently.
Those aren't necessarily absolute quality judgments, only relative ones. Thus, a lack of imagination, or the lack of the requisite schemata to play games with, could make for poor scenarios -- and thus poor relative quality judgments, because one wouldn't wind up with very many candidate scenarios from which to choose. Or you might get stuck after imagining one scenario, unable to go on to imagining another because you were fixated on the first one, and so wind up doing the first thing that "came into your mind."
As Kenneth Craik once pointed out, a little initial confusion can even be helpful (so long as one eventually recognizes that the two things aren't identical) because it brings several schemata "to mind" (much as I try, it's sure hard not to use that word) and helps one to recognize analogies. That expands the number of schemata with which one can play scenario games.
But where (to recall the searching of Pirsig's Phaedrus) does quality arise? Although some quality judgments are probably inborn like the primate preference for the taste of fruit over the taste of zucchini -- we instinctively favor certain flavors -- they mainly come from our experience with the external world, the trial-and-error encounters of our lives so far. That experience may, however, be several times removed: we may reject a scenario for approaching the boss for a pay raise not because someone else tried it and was turned down, but because we've thought about a similar situation before and chose not to act it out then. That previous choice is still on file, and so thought becomes part of our experience, along with our actions and the direct evidence of our senses. Experience is not only what we have done, but what we have chosen not to do, having imagined a scenario and made a quality judgment about it.
One definition of an expert is a person who knows all the possible mistakes and how to avoid them. But when we say that someone is "wise," it's not usually because they've made every kind of mistake there is to make (and learned from them), but because they have stored up a lot of simulated scenarios, because their accumulated quality judgments (whether acted upon or not) have made them particularly effective in appraising a novel scenario and advising on a course of action.
The Quality which creates the world emerges as a relationship between man and his experience. He is a participant in the creation of all things. The measure of all things -- it fits.
...... ROBERT M. PIRSIG, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, 1974
A few aspects of selective attention are even understood at the level of single cell function. My Jerusalem friend Shaul Hochstein has, for example, shown that some nerve cells in the monkey's brain are "switch-hitters" (my phrase), able to register color better than line tilts when the monkey is rewarded for correct color choices, but the same cell becoming better at registering tilts (and less sensitive to color) when the desired tilt is rewarded instead. Thus some templates aren't fixed -- focussing one's attention on the color of an object rather than its orientation may actually assign more cells to the color task than usual. And assigning more cells is a way to make more precise discriminations, just as assigning more cells to a timing task is one way to improve pitching accuracy. This shows how selective attention, via controlling the assignment of sensory priorities to multipurpose cells, influences that to which we pay attention -- and how that influences how skillful we are at sensory and movement tasks.
But what determines whether I pay attention to the external world or, instead, spin a scenario inside my frontal lobes? Whether I remain fixated on my first trial scenario or spin another one? How do I hop around the memories of the candidate scenarios, seeing "how good they taste"? What is it that shifts my attention around like that -- now listening, now remembering, now spinning a scenario, now freeing me from it to spin another scenario, now deciding, then removing the inhibitions that disconnect my thoughts from my muscles and letting me act?
Alas, we imagine a conductor up on a podium, leading the orchestra. Or the switchboard operator, the executive presiding over the board meeting, the circusmaster running the three-ring circus. Like Descartes, we tend to see both an operator and something separate, operated upon -- but is that really necessary? The orchestra conductor really isn't playing a single note, only keeping them all coordinated; were the conductor to fall asleep, the orchestra would finish up the piece without his help, though perhaps without some of the sharp transitions and balancing of effects that the conductor helped achieve. Conductor/coordinators don't have to be single spotlit entities. Just as the frog heart creates a sharply rhythmic beat from the interactions of a lot of jittery cells, so may the brain's coordinator be the emergent property of a widespread committee.
Selective attention might simply be many processes going on simultaneously, each competing for access to the language mechanism (since we cannot say two things at once, this produces something of a bottleneck). In short, one might simply be going from parallel to serial: when we say that we can only think, or pay attention to, one thing at a time, it may just mean that we cannot express more than one thing at a time. Lots of things can happen simultaneously, but if they "want out" through our language system, they may have to jostle for access to it.
Yes, but some thoughts may be channeled more narrowly, Rosalie replied. The serial nature might be the important thing, not merely a bottleneck. Our sequential language system is often -- though not always -- an important part of how we think, as silent speech helps us frame propositions by using the powerful schemata of language. Even if we don't formulate a sentence, we're making a scenario, and that may require the same neural-sequencing machinery as we use to speak. So, to the extent that sequences are part of the three-ring circus, there might be some limitations on how many can go on at once. This is probably a matter of individual variation; some people can probably manage two simple sequences at once in their heads, just as some individuals can indeed rub their stomach and pat their head at the same time.
Sometimes, those background sequences take over consciousness in a big way. Is a hallucination a runaway thought that gets into one's sensory channels, seeming to arrive from the eyes or ears instead of from memory? There's another lizard trying to get around me, and he's doing pushups. Suppose he's hallucinating another lizard, or just seeing me and hoping I'll give way and move out of his path if he tries his usual bluff?
Rosalie suggests that I respond to him by getting down and doing some pushups myself. I get out of that by replying that, like Eiseley's spider not seeing things outside of spider world, the lizard probably thinks that I'm just a rock anyway.
The chief reason so many people are fleeing the cities at every opportunity to go tramping, canoeing, skiing into the wilds is that wilderness offers a taste of adventure, a chance for the rediscovery of our ancient, preagricultural, preindustrial freedom. Forest and desert, mountain and river, when ventured upon in primitive terms, allow us a sort of Proustian recapture, however superficial and brief, of the rich sensations of our former existence, our basic heritage of a million years of hunting, gathering, wandering.
......the novelist EDWARD ABBEY, Down the River, 1982
When one is hunting, the air has another, more exquisite feel as it glides over the skin or enters the lungs, the rocks acquire a more expressive physiognomy, and the vegetation becomes loaded with meaning. [The hunter] will instinctively shrink from being seen; he will perceive all his surroundings from the point of view of the animal, with the animal's peculiar attention to detail. This is what I call being within the countryside... Wind, light, temperature, ground contour, minerals, vegetation, all play a part; they are not simply there, as they are for the tourist or botanist, but rather they function, they act. And they do not function as they do in agriculture... but rather each intervenes in the drama of the hunt from within oneself.
.......JOSÉ ORTEGA Y GASSET, Meditations on Hunting, 1972
Everyone is talking together, comparing experiences. Various people have swum, stood under the falls, explored farther up-canyon. It seems that one has to ford the creek four times before getting to Beaver Falls, and then another three times to get up to Mooney Falls, an 11-mile round trip from the river. Fritz and her two followers did indeed run up and then right back down again, then jumped into the river near where we moored the boats for a cooling-off swim. But most people sat around, stayed wet, and enjoyed the setting. It seems that everyone's lunch was a soggy mess by the time they got around to extracting it from their plastic bags, having been jostled around on the hike up. The apples and oranges pulverized the soft sandwiches.
Do the reflexive structures and intellectual patterns and purpose which we find in art -- do these obtain elsewhere? Or do we merely make them up because our minds are uniquely adapted for making things up?Rosalie was asked how much progress she had made with the thin volume of Annie Dillard's essays that she'd carried along today. "Three pages," she replied. "We," she said, sweeping her arm to indicate a few more of us, "kept talking about consciousness. At one point, they even exorcised the mind from the brain."
This is an appalling possibility. If our minds are selected for inventing bits of order, then art's highest function is to shed light on the mind. And, terribly, any human artifact is the mind's own simulacrum. A play or a government, a canal or a culture, is a physical replica by means of which the mind duplicates its own structures unwittingly, as a strand of DNA replicates itself inside a banana leaf. And if this is true, and the natural world which churned out the mind is a wreck and a chaos, like a rock slide, then the mind is a marvelous monster indeed. And the work of art (in addition to being the least of our worries) is always a tour de force in which the mind displays abilities absurdly in excess of, or at least incidental to, their survival function. For the ability to conceive and execute murals and epic poems and symphonies and novels is a grotesque trick of tissue which sprang from the pot of the possible, like the grossly overdeveloped antlers of the extinct Irish elk....
By these lights, there is no order anywhere but in our brains, which are uniquely adapted for inventing it and for handling complex abstractions. These abilities have served us very well. The only significance and value which obtain anywhere are in the mind's discernment of these fictive qualities in its own manufactured models. We create value and locate it in our monstrously overdeveloped mental self-replication, our stuttering repetitions of our brains' own order, with which we have covered the gibbering earth.
This is the most dismal view -- of art and of everything else -- I can imagine. It must be admitted that one idea in this book is consistent with this view, and even points to it: the suggestion that... human significance is the only significance....
Do art's complex and balanced relationships among all parts, its purpose, significance, and harmony, exist in nature? Is nature whole, like a completed thought? Is history purposeful? Is the universe of matter significant? I am sorry; I do not know.
.......ANNIE DILLARD, Living by Fiction, 1982.
Now how was I supposed to answer the inevitable questions about consciousness after that introduction? I insisted that Rosalie summarize our discussion, since she had gotten us into this. She replied that since I wouldn't do pushups to test her theory about the lizards' pushups, the least I could do was to explain consciousness. So I explained about Eiseley's spider -- that in spider's world, Eiseley probably didn't exist. That the lizard similarly probably thought that I was a big rock. If I'd done pushups, I'd have created a psychologically scarred group of lizards that thought big rocks were alive, since they did pushups, and would starve because every time they encountered another rock in their search for food, they'd waste time demonstrating to it. The mental health of lizards didn't distract the group from consciousness for very long.
Rosalie started by saying that no one would buy her neurologist's definition of levels of consciousness -- that those were brainstem levels of consciousness, and that what most people meant by consciousness were, in effect, the diencephalic (thalamic and cortical) aspects of consciousness that regulated where we direct our attention. And she neatly summarized the arguments about scenarios for the future -- then told the group about Michelle's horse Bumper who seemed to favor Descartes' pineal gland as the seat of looking-into-the-future consciousness.
Of course, where she got into trouble was when she started to tell them about how one might explain many of the things ascribed to the mind -- individuality, free will, thinking, intentions, responsibility, motives -- simply on the basis of the brain's overdeveloped capacities for stringing together schemata into scenarios, for making quality judgments when comparing various scenarios, and then turning the body's inhibited muscles loose to act out the best scenario. People who aren't used to thinking in terms of schemata in the brain aren't going to accept strings of them as explanations for the varied, colorful, and willful experience of human consciousness. To perceive that argument, one needs the right building blocks of perception: including a schema for schemata! Not unreasonably, they balked.
Now it's hard to give a short explanation of schemata when everyone wants to ask a question or volunteer an opinion on consciousness, and some had not heard the earlier discussions about the "hawk templates" of the baby birds. And so we had a somewhat frustrating discussion on a different level, working from the top down instead of bottom up.
"Descartes sure did get us into trouble when he tried to reason out the basis of will," commented Rosalie. "The rigid categories of Aristotelian logic led him to see the controlled and the controller. And since he didn't have any notion of self-organizing systems or machine intelligence, he assumed that anything physical -- the body -- was controlled. Leaving the controller, the mind, as some separate entity."
"Didn't Descartes say that only humans had consciousness?", asked Abby.
"Descartes never would have said that if he'd owned a pet dog or cat," added Ben. "I think it's pretty obvious that my dog is conscious. Damn near reads my mind. And he sure knows about the future -- the day before I leave on a trip, he sulks around the house like a lost soul."
"Descartes and his followers," replied Rosalie, "were perfectly happy to grant consciousness to humans -- self-evident and all that -- but they wouldn't grant it to animals because animals couldn't tell us about it, nor could we measure it in some indirect way. But that created an artificial division between humans and the rest of the animals, one that probably doesn't exist in nature."
"I'll agree with you on that one," I said. "I'll concede a degree of consciousness to animals, especially for detecting and responding to the emotions of the people that feed them. I just don't want to assume that consciousness is separate in some way from the hardware of the brain, from things we can observe."
"Just why do you start off assuming that there is no separate mind -- soul, consciousness, whatever you want to call it?" Abby asked me.
"It's part of being a neurophysiologist for some of us," I tried to answer. "You avoid assuming anything more than you need to. I mean, how will you ever know that mind is something more than brain unless you do your best to prove that the brain's hardware can manage just fine by itself?"
"But we've seen a whole generation of behavioral psychologists," responded Abby, "who were so addicted to sticking to the observable that, if they had been physicists, would have discarded all of quantum mechanics because they couldn't describe the atom without making unmechanical assumptions. And very unphysical, fuzzy assumptions they were too, those principles of quantum mechanics. But the physicists who followed that path were very successful in explaining the world." She added triumphantly, "So why don't you just assume the mind exists and get on with it?"
"Rosalie," I pleaded, "you got me into this. You get me out of it."
"I can't help that you didn't do your pushups," she teased. I threatened her with a bailer bucket of water, but she knew me too well to flinch. "Just explain that there is an alternative to the amorphous mind floating around inside the head, tickling the brain cells."
"Oh, what's that?" asked Abby. "How do you get free will out of electrical and chemical parts, pushing one another around like the insides of a clock? Why do I choose to talk, rather than throwing a bucket of water at you instead? Did I slip a cog somewhere?"
"Explain!" added Mike, taking a lazy stroke on his right oar. "If we don't like your explanation, we won't even wait until sunrise, just a quick firing squad with eight loaded bailer buckets."
"If we think you're all wet," Marsha added, "we'll make sure you look it too."
"I shall have to speak metaphorically," I began sadistically, "about metaphors. And make analogies about analogs. Remember Heinrich Heine's romantic poem that starts 'Du bist wie eine blume'? That's 'You are like a flower' except it sounds better in German. Technically a simile, but never mind." Oops, the natives are getting restless with those buckets. "It ties the concept of a flower to that of a particular person. It doesn't say they're equal, the same in all respects, that the person has green leaves, for example. And there's another comparison, when I translated 'Du bist' as 'you are' -- they're not really equivalent, because the German 'du' carries the additional information that Heine is speaking to someone with whom he is on intimate terms. English doesn't have that familiar form of the verb."
"Now each of these words or concepts has a group of nerve cells in the brain that is on the lookout for it, that sort of springs into activity whenever it detects 'flower' or 'du bist' or whatever. That committee of neurons constitutes the schema, or template, or search image, or whatever you want to call it. And it can be put into activity in various ways -- when you look at a flower, certainly, but also when you just remember a flower. Fantasize a flower. Wish for a flower. There are schemata for all the words in our vocabularies, with ties between them when metaphors exist, or translations. And there are schemata for actions, like walking and running and rowing and standing under waterfalls."
But where shall wisdom be found?"So you can make a scenario out of schemata," volunteered Abby, "taking the schema for walking, combining it with the flower schema, and imagine walking over to pick a flower. Right?"
And where is the place of understanding?
......BOOK OF JOB
Can all the sky
Can all the World
Within my Brain-pan lie?
......THOMAS TRAHERNE (c.1636-1674)
"Exactly. And you can make an alternative scenario out of sitting still and continuing to read your book. Then you can compare the two, and decide which you'll do. A lot of the combinations of schemata are nonsense, such as this boat flying over to that mesquite tree. We edit those out, having some means of testing them against reality. We've never seen a rubber raft fly."
"Oh no?" interrupted Mike. "Just wait until Lava Falls."
"Some people apply this sort of reality testing to their daydreams more reliably than others," I chided, "but at night, we all dream of scenarios that are silly, impossible juxtapositions of people and places. The schemata themselves aren't usually crazy, it's just the way they're strung together. One schema calls up a related one, and that leads somewhere else, and so on it goes. The stream of consciousness. And unconsciousness, I might add."
"So that's the unconscious? All those scenarios not currently connected to language consciousness?", asked Rosalie in a bit of friendly prompting. I agreed, happily.
"How many schemata can you string together?", Ben asked.
"Well, it depends. If you want to keep them in the correct order, maybe half a dozen at a time. It's been said that when we begin to speak a sentence of more than a half-dozen words, we don't know what words will conclude the sentence. If you want to remember a longer string, you need to subdivide the string: make a higher-order schema out of a group of schemata and substitute it, to make room for more schemata in the string."
"And how many strings can you keep going at the same time?", asked Dan Richard from the other boat. "The most fascinating aspect of consciousness to me is the subconscious problem-solving that goes on as I go about something else. I think about what to buy Sue for her birthday, and I'm stumped. And then the answer pops into my mind when I'm eating dinner and talking about something unrelated."
"I don't know how many can be juggled in parallel. But the throwing theory suggests that you might have a lot of independent sequencers available in the brain, at least when they're not being forced to work in tandem for precision timing. Maybe only one can be connected to the language circuits at a time, but that's no reason other sequencers would need to stop making new arrangements of schemata," I replied.
"You know," began Ben, "that does sound a lot like dreaming. Those elaborate sequences that shift gradually into something quite different, hinging on some minor detail that brings forward a scene from some other story line. As if a second story had been running unseen."
"Exactly," I agreed, "I suspect dreaming is just the scenario-making machinery free-running, without the usual quality judgments that we use when awake, labeling something as ridiculous or incorrect. And in dreaming, the memory mechanisms are also altered, so that long-term memories aren't formed so readily from short-term memories. You really have to recall a dream after awakening -- go over it when finally awake -- to store a long-lasting memory of it. But except for those differences in judgment and memory, our dreaming may just be the scenario machinery being exercised, switching occasionally to another story running in another sequencer. Animals without such fancy scenario-making machinery might not dream in the same way that we do."
Abby was still dubious. She finally asked, "So the brain can create scenarios. But who decides between them? Where do those quality judgments come from?"
Making variations on a theme is really the crux of creativity.Rosalie answered. "Quality judgments come from your experiences in life -- which as a group are something unique, which only you have experienced in that combination. But thought is experience too -- if you once created a mental scenario, judged it unrealistic or another scenario better, then that judgment might still be on file, as part of your experience. You don't have to actually make every mistake in the book to become an expert -- you can just imagine them all! Quality's in your brain."
......DOUGLAS R. HOFSTADTER, 1985.
"How does this view differ from what the cognitive psychology types come up with?," asked Abby. "What do they call it? Cognitive science? I saw where someone called it a 'hallucinated subject,' introspection revisited. Isn't it just another version of the little person inside the head? Except that one little person recognizes symbols or situations, another runs the filing cabinet of memories, still another runs the muscles. And we're supposed to take it on faith that the mind emerges from this collection of dumb computers?"
"We neurobiologists want to know not only what the 'brain programs' are, but how the brain machinery operates them. The AI folk figure that if they can postulate a program that seems to do the trick, then they can build a hardware computer that will mimic the actions of the mind, running the same program using silicon chips rather than wet and unreliable nerve cells," I replied, pausing for a drink from my canteen.
"We neurobiologists work up from the bottom much of the time, trying to fathom the computation processes of the building blocks. We're constantly coping with parallel processing, a notion which is still novel in AI. I happen to think that the AI types are missing the boat, by trying to ignore the unreliable nature of the individual cells, the real brain's computing elements. Instead of trying to work around jittery cells by using reliable pigeonhole computers, unreliable cells should be seen as the essence of the brain's way of doing things, just as sex's institutionalized randomness is the essence of how evolution has done more and more elaborate things. But philosophically, both neurobiologists and the AI folk start from the premise that the mind can be explained, that it isn't beyond understanding. And most of us would assume that mind is going to emerge from a lucky combination of more elementary 'dumb' processes."
"Look, something I can't understand," began Steve, who had only been listening up until now, "is how you can get something as fancy as thought out of something as simple as strings of templates being compared. That's like saying that the human eye -- a damned fancy optical device, not to mention all the image processing that goes on in the retina -- was constructed only from differences in growth rates. It's just too fancy for something simple to have caused it. And so is the mind."
"I have the same trouble too, sometimes," I replied. "It's like saying that the speed differences between the Tortoise and the Hare created a fancy racetrack, grandstands, and popcorn machines. But our problem is that we just don't have much everyday experience with such things, we don't have analogies that spring to mind, that help us over the hurdles. We can't fathom the improbabilities caused by thousands of generations of selection shaping up our world. Biologists, psychologists, and computer scientists have more useful examples stored in their heads than most people have handy for comparisons, but they have trouble too."
"The key issue here is that old phrase: the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Consciousness is one of those things that emerges when you sum up all those nerve cells. It doesn't exist independently of the nerve cells. You can't pin consciousness down to any one nerve cell, you can't spotlight some identifiable piece of the puzzle and say: 'Here it is, folks, that's where consciousness lives, right in there.' Consciousness is more closely related to some things than others: it doesn't have much to do with the brain regions regulating the heart rate or the body temperature, and it has a lot to do with the sequencing mechanisms that string together the schemata. But it's really an emergent property, one of those unexpected sidesteps in evolution in which a novel combination of preexisting things turns out to be handy for something completely new."
This went back and forth, interrupted only by the minor rapid at Mile 164. The boatmen didn't even bother to unhitch the boats -- we just rode through it, lashed together, rippling over the waves. We had some diversions, such as discussions of ecology and holistic medicine, situations where you have to concern yourself with the good of the whole, preserve the interrelationships as well as the pieces. But we eventually came back to more cases in which the whole was greater than the sum of the pieces, creating some new unrelated property.
"I think that the problem is that most of us," Rosalie said, "myself included, just aren't used to thinking about problems where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Where something emerges from a merger. But surely they're all around us, if we'd just look and build up our vocabularies a little. Get the right schema!"
National Canyon was just ahead on the left bank. Mike and Fritz were uncoupling the two boats in preparation for maneuvering into the beach below the little rapid. So I proposed that we make a list of all the emergent properties we had seen on the river, starting with the birds. If people would just come and tell me when they thought of one, I'd write it down in the river diary.
You won't locate a traffic jam if you restrict your search to the insides of a single taxi.... A traffic jam is just not on the level of an individual car.... The nature of collective phenomena is that they are patterns composed of parts, and they in turn exert powerful influences on their parts, acting to keep them in line. Think of hurricanes, life, intelligence.
......the computer scientist DOUGLAS R. HOFSTADTER, Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern, 1985
In matters of visual form we sense that nature plays favorites. Among her darlings are spirals, meanders, branching patterns, and 120-degree joints. Those patterns recur again and again. Nature acts like a theatrical producer who brings on the same players each night in different costumes for different roles. The players perform a limited repertoire; pentagons make most of the flowers but none of the crystals; hexagons handle most of the repetitive two-dimensional patterns but never by themselves enclose three-dimensional space. On the other hand, the spiral is the height of versatility, playing roles in the replication of the smallest virus and in the arrangement of matter in the largest galaxy.
......the architect PETER S. STEVENS, Patterns in Nature, 1974
Various people came by after washing their dinner dishes by the river, while I was still working on my second helping. They had examples of emergent properties seen along the river, and so I juggled my notebook and dinner plate for a while. Here is our catalog of emergents:
Where the flow meets a solid surface, it slows down; indeed, the closer to the surface, the slower it gets until -- at the very interface -- nothing flows at all. That's why wind doesn't blow the dust off leaves -- or airplane wings -- in between rains. Even when we stick an oar into the water, the water molecules at the very surface of the oar don't flow. The gradual slowing near the surface creates tumbling, and so we see spiral eddies coming off the back edge of the oar.
The average eddy moves a distance about equal to its own diameter before it generates small eddies that move, more often than not, in the opposite direction. Those smaller eddies generate still smaller eddies and the process continues until all the energy dissipates as heat through molecular motion... thereby inspiring the beautifully apt verse of L.F. Richardson:
Big whirls have little whirls,
That feed on their velocity;
And little whirls have lesser whirls,
And so on to viscosity.
......quoted by PETER S. STEVENS, 1974
Albert Einstein once turned his mind to the problem of river meanders, that tendency of rivers to keep changing course rather than going straight down a hill. He concluded that it was just a fancy three-dimensional version of the same principles seen in ocean waves and back-eddies.
Snails get their shell shape from the same set of differences in growth rates. However, the helix of double-stranded DNA arises in another manner, not from growth rates; there is more than one way to make a spiral or a corkscrew. The astronomers are still trying to figure out spiral galaxies, those heavenly things that look like a galactic lawn sprinkler had spewed out stars as it twirled around.
Eventually there is so much resistance to water flow that the water is pushed over the top of the tangle instead of flowing through the openings between branches. But then the top starts building up too, forming a smooth level lip. From this simple process of precipitation in flowing water, a series of little dams are formed, creating the staircase of quiet pools that we all enjoyed today. Order arising out of chaos.
The stability of protein chains is especially important; like pretzels tacked together in the middle, they have a certain shape. Their shape is important for their nooks-and-crannies function as an enzyme. It is specialized for controlling a biological rate -- one rate in a whole family of rates -- in an interacting chemical process.
Stratified stability strikes again. And so, year after year, the rock is twirled around inside a hole that grows deeper and deeper. Eventually making a nice pothole. Smaller rocks or sand will collect in the hole between major floods, and thus trees and flowers may take root there for a while. They catch water during the rains, and so serve as a source of drinking water in times when the side streams dry up. In the Canyon, the potholes are sometimes marked on the hiking maps as a source of water for human travelers. The bighorn don't need maps.
Washboard roads are another manifestation of standing waves, the corrugations in the dirt road an outcome of a particular dirt consistency, the shock absorbers' and tire's resilience, and the typical speed of passing cars.
And order arises when volcanos blow their tops: when trees are blasted down, they lay in nice parallel rows, like matchsticks. The hills around Mount St. Helens look like disintegrating fragments of some giant wicker basket.
Einstein... held a long-term vision: There is nothing in the world except curved empty space. Geometry bent one way here describes gravitation. Rippled another way somewhere else it manifests all the qualities of an electromagnetic wave. Excited at still another place, the magic material that is space shows itself as a particle. There is nothing that is foreign and "physical" immersed in space.
......the physicist JOHN A. WHEELER
A major portion of the world's story appears to be that of fumbling little creatures of seeming no great potential, falling, like the helpless little girl Alice, down a rabbit hole or an unexpected crevice into some new and topsy-turvy realm.... The first land-walking fish was, by modern standards, an ungainly and inefficient vertebrate. Figuratively, he was a water failure who had managed to climb ashore on a continent where no vertebrates existed. In a time of crisis he had escaped his enemies.... The wet fish gasping in the harsh air on the shore, the warm-blooded mammal roving unchecked through the torpor of the reptilian night, the lizard-bird launching into a moment of ill-aimed flight, shatter all purely competitive assumptions.Just think of the advantage that the first warm-blooded mammal would have had at night, all the reptiles cooled down to somnolence and unable to defend themselves. And all because of an abnormally inefficient animal (by cold-blooded standards!) that wasted energy by metabolizing food when it wasn't needed for movement. But this kept body temperature up and so the animal was pleasantly surprised by all the sleepy prey he encountered, which more than made up for all the wasted energy. The next time that you hear an evolutionary argument based on efficiency, remember those profligate warm-blooded animals.
The same simple size principle (which lies at the core of what biologists call allometry) is found operating in many other ways in nature. For example, consider two schools of fish, one containing twice as many fish as the other but with the same average spacing between fish. Big fish intent upon a meal naturally approach the school from the side, and the school veers away from them. Only the fish on the outside of the school are likely to be caught. Thus, while more fish will be exposed in the larger school, the percentage of the fish population exposed to predation is smaller, simply because volume (proportional to the number of fish in a school) grows faster than surface area (number exposed to predators). The fish need not "know" allometric principles -- it's just that those fish that like lots of company will be more likely to live long enough to raise a family. Of course, the herds of animals that visit African waterholes had this schooling principle used against them by Homo erectus, who lobbed that pointed discus into their tightly-packed midst. Circumventing their circumference.
On the other hand, if you want to maximize transfer rates, keep the surface-to-volume ratio high by preferring small sizes. For example, to cook a steak quickly, cut it up into lots of small pieces which -- having a much greater surface area available for heat transfer -- can therefore heat up faster.
We are, you may have guessed, having steak tonight, everyone cooking their own. I just showed Marsha my mother's technique of first slicing her raw steak into thin strips, then cooking them separately. In a similar way, trees also increase their rate of photosynthesis by increasing their surface area via lots of thin flat structures called leaves rather than just doing their photosynthesis on the surfaces of their cylindrical branches (yes, that's why Mormon Tea doesn't have leaves -- the "bark" does the photosynthesis instead). Just another little rule from geometry with all sorts of implications for the sizes of things.
Think of the population as the area of a circle, of change occurring only around the perimeter of the circle: the circle's perimeter-to-area ratio behaves just like the sphere's surface-to-volume ratio, so that the percentage change you can make is inversely proportional to the diameter. Whenever the population grows four-fold, the perimeter where natural selection takes place only doubles, thus slowing the rate of evolution to half, everything else being equal. When a population grows to a hundred times its original size but change still takes place only at the boundary, its rate of evolution should drop to 10 percent of what it originally was. For example, the human population has increased a thousand times over what it was before agriculture, thus any gradual human evolution should have slowed to 3 percent of its rate only 10,000 years ago, simply from that population increase and this simple size principle. When the uplift of East Africa broke up the big lakes there into many smaller lakes, it prevented the fish from getting around as much as earlier. The cichlid fish species promptly subdivided into many separate species and each started evolving at a faster rate.
Success, at least as measured by numbers, thus tends to slow evolution down to a crawl. Of course, there are other influences on evolutionary rates as well -- such as the meteors that occasionally rock the boat.
The attainment of a new level of dimension is... a critical event in evolutionary history. I propose to call it evolutionary transcendence... to transcend is to go beyond the limits of, or to surpass the ordinary, accustomed, previously utilized well-trodden possibilities of a system.
......the theoretical biologist THEODOSIUS DOBZHANSKY, 1969
Natural selection could only have endowed savage man with a brain a few degrees superior to that of an ape, whereas he actually possesses one very little inferior to that of a philosopher.And sidesteps are also emergent properties, new uses for old things. They're what so many people have missed when they say that human brains just couldn't have resulted from natural selection. Of course, in a sense they're correct -- but evolutionary explanations encompass more than just adaptations. Natural selection shapes up the original skill, say throwing, but then jumps the track to something unexpected, say language. Natural selection again operates on this new track to shape up the emergent skill to something better than its crude beginnings, although natural selection itself really doesn't cause the sidestep-transcendence. It emerges, willy-nilly. Just as the lungfish invaded the land, as the feathered reptile invaded the air, our philosopher's brain has emerged by a self-organizing sidestep of evolutionary history, and invaded a new realm.
......ALFRED RUSSEL WALLACE (1823-1913)
Sidesteps are something like "jumps into hyperspace," as in the computer games in which one can escape from approaching rockets by pressing a panic button, causing one's warship to disappear from the screen and reappear at some other, randomly chosen place on the screen (not necessarily a safe place either -- sometimes the random jump is from the frying pan into the fire). There is natural selection before the jump and after the jump, but the jump itself is a discontinuity.
Are evolutionary sidesteps really steps to a random result, or are there principles governing sidesteps that we haven't discovered? Just as many mathematical principles break down at discontinuities, so our adaptationist reasoning cannot bridge a sidestep.
Indeed, there are emergents that make possible more emergents: the neurobiologist David G. King calls them metaptations (think "meta-adaptations" but, as Steve Gould and Elizabeth Vrba showed in their discussion of exaptation as a term to replace the misleading "preadaptation," the "ad-" is inappropriate because of the "toward" presumption).
What's a metaptation? It's an evolutionary change that opens up an entirely new set of evolutionary changes. Yes, it's a sidestep, an emergent, but a special kind, more fundamental in the long run than feathers leading to flight. Sex is a metaptation: by institutionalizing randomness rather than leaving it to chancy mutations, it opened up a whole series of other possible sidesteps. Gene duplication, then diversification, is a metaptation in my book.
And the invention of brains was another important metaptation: just as brains can add together "apples" and "oranges" to get the number of pieces of "fruit," so they can combine unlike behaviors to create novel behaviors. Brains add together behaviors, memories, and strategies far more readily than merely irritable cells can, and so brains have set into motion a whole series of evolutionary developments.
Applied to sequences, the Law of Large Numbers says that a lot of parallel sequencers, all trying to do the same job, ought to be able to produce more accurately timed sequences. That's handy for throwing. But maybe those separate sequencers are hitched up in tandem only on special occasions, and can each go their own ways in between the occasions that demand peak timing performance. What might emerge from lots of sequencers sitting around, amusing themselves by stringing together scenarios? Is this what we call consciousness? Did it emerge from just a lot of sequencers? Is human consciousness an order of magnitude more complex than that of animals, simply because we evolved so many sequencers on the way to becoming good throwers?
I got some requests from the after-dinner group to explain just what I meant by sequencers, and Rosalie provided the perfect example: the device that controls washing machine cycles. The schemata it sequences are all movements, called "Fill, Wash, Rinse, Empty, Spin, Pause." It can vary the duration of each cycle, can omit some if you like, perhaps repeat a rinse-empty sequence. The sequencers of the brain operate in fractions of a second rather than in minutes, but otherwise the principle is the same.
Suppose that we wanted, for some special occasions, a washing machine whose cycles lasted exactly ten minutes, right down to the split second. But that the available model of washing machine sometimes had an eight minute cycle, sometimes an eleven minute cycle -- was, in short, jittery. There is a clever, though extravagant, way around this problem. We could take a hundred jittery washing-machine controllers and run them all together with one washing machine (such as by triggering a cycle whenever half of the controllers had agreed that it was indeed time to start up). This "averaging" of the times in the hundred controllers will improve the timing precision by a factor of ten: if an individual controller jitters over a range of one minute, the tandem arrangement of controllers will jitter over only one-tenth of a minute. Want a hundredth-of-a-minute accuracy? Just use 10,000 controllers.
Now in between those very special occasions when you're feeling paranoid and want to wash your most delicate sweaters for exactly the time it says on the instructions, you'd have ninety-nine extra controllers that weren't really needed for anything. Suppose the schemata they could manipulate included sensory schemata such as books, flowers, boats, and boots, that they could try stringing them together along with "wash" and "spin" to create novel scenarios. But that there was a "realistic or not" censor that commented "washing boats is a common practice, but washing books has seldom happened in your life so far." Still, even if the scenarios from ninety-five of the idle controllers proved unrealistic, four might yield realistic scenarios, though each with a different "quality" score. Suppose that you might just pick the one with the highest quality score for your next act? Is that imagination?
More candidate scenarios can make for more "clever" animals. That's the sort of situation that throwing might have set up, simply via selecting for individuals that happened to have extra sequence controllers capable of being hitched up in tandem on special throwing occasions. Is that why humans have more consciousness than dogs? Or is there something more to it?
Nature is extravagant, as witness all those bear cubs that die or the millions of mosquito eggs laid just to get one to grow up to lay more eggs. There is nothing easier than making a few more nerve cells, once the factory is working; indeed, they're overproduced during gestation and extra ones killed off. For any situation requiring precision, swamping it by assigning massive numbers of imprecise nerve cells is often a viable solution.
There is something wonderful in the idea that man's brain is the greatest machine of all, imitating within its tiny network events happening in the most distant stars, predicting their appearances with accuracy, and finding in this power of successful prediction and communication the ultimate feature of consciousness.... Our thought, then, has objective validity because it is not fundamentally different from objective reality but is specially suited for imitating it....
......the physiologist KENNETH J. W. CRAIK, The Nature of Explanation, 1943.
Then I dreamed that ape neurons were ten times better at timing accuracy than they really are. That would have eliminated the need for a hundred-fold increase in sequencers in the human brain -- and with it, the big brain: apes could have been good throwers without it. No advanced consciousness emerging from redundant sequencers. While we'd have become fancy hunters, we'd still be no smarter than chimps, no more talkative, no better at planning. Because it isn't so much the fancy timing that we need for language and imagining scenarios, it's all those extra sequencers that the tandem method encourages. But only occasionally uses in tandem.
Thank goodness for noisy neurons. A little timing jitter was a good thing. There's a Noise Window in hominid evolution. No sidestep without enough noise. Not only are the more elaborate constructions of evolution based upon increased randomness via sex, but even the human brain may owe a recent debt to randomness. Subtitle: How I learned to love noise.