The power of symbolic thought

One of the things I’ve pondered a few times on this blog is our ability to recognize another intelligence, such as an extraterrestrial intelligence.  On the face of it, this seems straightforward.  Do they form societies, use technology, manipulate their environment, and overall show signs of intelligence?

Except an alien intelligence may be so different from us that their versions of these things might not resemble ours in any recognizable fashion.  On top of that, there is the issue that non-human animals probably don’t recognize just how superior humans are to them in terms of intelligence.  The evidence for that intelligence is simply too far out of range of their models of the world.  Our vehicles probably look like a type of animal to them, our buildings like natural structures, etc.

If we run into a species far more intelligent than us, it seems like there could be a danger that we wouldn’t even recognize what we were seeing.  Their technologies might seem like natural phenomena to us, just as ours do to Earth animals.  We may simply be too far out of our depth to recognize what we’re seeing.

Unless there is some distinctive trait that separates what we consider to be intelligence from what we don’t.  People have proposed a number of traits over the years: tool use, societies, morality, theory of mind, etc.  The problem is that there are non-human animals that have these traits to one degree or another.  The difference between us and them in terms of these attributes appear to be in extent rather than a sharp categorical break.

Except, perhaps, for abstract or symbolic thought.  If there is one thing that humans have that non-human animals don’t, it’s the ability to think it terms of symbols.  What’s a symbol?  A word is a symbol.  When we look at, say, the color red and call it “red”, we’re using a sound to symbolize a sensory perception.

But our ability to use symbols goes well beyond this.  We can use symbols for other symbols, or for collections of symbols, and we can do so in a nested fashion, and even recursively to any arbitrary extent we need to.  Consider the word “democracy”, which symbolizes a large multi-layered collection of symbols, which eventually map to a wide variety of social activities.

The ability to think symbolically is what allows our species to operate far beyond our original evolutionary niche.  It’s what allows a hominid species that came into being on the African savanna to conquer the world, travel to the moon, and send probes throughout the solar system, to understand general relativity, quantum mechanics, and the big bang.

Image credit: Mysid via Wikipedia.
Image credit: Mysid via Wikipedia.

If you think about it, we can’t understand any of these things the way we understand walking around the block.  Walking around the block is something we can experience directly, viscerally, general relativity isn’t.  We can only understand those things using mathematics, itself a logical collection of symbols, or using metaphors that eventually relate to things we can understand directly, such as a large stretched fabric with a heavy ball on it to symbolize how gravity works.

Image credit: Prof saxx via Wikipedia
Image credit: Prof saxx via Wikipedia

Symbolic thinking may well be the secret sauce of sapience, of human level intelligence.  I’m not aware of any evidence for it in animals, except in the most primitive manner such as distinctive monkey screeches to warn of particular types of predators.  Even among archaic humans there is scant evidence for it.  It’s only with the rise of homo sapiens (technically homo sapien sapiens) that we start to see pervasive evidence of it, with things such as ceremonial burials, cave paintings, non-utilitarian jewelry, and similar artifacts.  Evolutionarily, it’s a very recent development.

And yet, within 100,000-200,000 years of its rise, a blip in geological time, it’s given rise to a civilization powerful enough to alter the climate of the planet.  One that, if it can avoid destroying itself, may eventually conquer the solar system and even some day reach the stars.

So recognizing an extraterrestrial intelligence may simply be a matter of recognizing symbolic thought.

Of course, we can’t rule out that there may be higher forms of cognition to come, that symbolic thought might only be a stepping stone to something even more sophisticated.  But if so, symbolic thought should enable us to recognize it, and model it, as we always do, into terms we can understand, that is, in terms of what a hominid that evolved on the African savanna can understand.

But the fact that we do have to map everything into our original niche might also signal the possibility of profound species level biases or blind spots.  There may be things that an alien that evolved in, say, a gas cloud can understand directly that we can’t, and vice-versa.  But if both of us have symbolic thought, we may still be able to understand each other’s unique insights abstractly, that is, symbolically, even if we can’t do so viscerally.

What do you think?  Does symbolic thought have the pivotal role I’m seeing?  Or are there other attributes we could use to recognize a coequal or superior intelligence?

28 thoughts on “The power of symbolic thought

  1. Fantastic post! I have a lot of unfinished thoughts on this topic, but I’ll try to be brief.

    1) If the species we encounter just has a more complex and advanced version of what we already have in terms of symbolic representation, then sure – I agree with with Steve that we should be able to see it and adapt to it to a reasonable degree.


    2) All of our symbols are bound to our senses, and so if an alien species of even a similar level of intelligence has senses other than sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell, we wouldn’t be able to access whatever symbols they might create out of those other senses (the way we create our linguistic symbols out of sight, sound, and touch). We couldn’t even imagine what we’d be missing, because our imaginations just deal with ghost memories of what we can sense, so we’d just miss it entirely.

    3) Alternatively, something “higher” might be /so/ abstract or so intuitive that we won’t be able to break it down into symbols and steps – either something we’d see in terms of divine or mystical vision (which we’d tend to count as belief or magic, but not knowledge – unless you’re Plotinus, but that’s another conversation), or like animal instinct, which we also don’t consider knowledge because it’s not consciously controlled (which I’m not sure is a fair assessment).

    4) I have a thought about perfect pitch and tone-deafness and talent and learning that I can’t put in to words (ironically). I can’t decide if it fits into (or totally undermines) the constructs 1, 2, or 3 of this post. This is the most unfinished of my unfinished thoughts.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Michelle. Excellent comment as well.

      On 2), I think that’s an insightful observation. If a species can perceive magnetic fields, as some Earth species appear to be able to do, they may have language elements referring to it which we’d have difficulty comprehending. It would be like trying to explain yellow to someone born blind. You could tell them that it’s the color of sunshine or something, which they might be able to map to the feel of sunlight on their skin, but that’s about as close as they could get to the fundamental experience. Even more difficult might be if they could manipulate those magnetic fields as a form of communication.

      On the other hand, the power of symbolic thought is that while we couldn’t viscerally know any of these things, we might be able to know them abstractly. The blind person can understand the concept of yellow by mapping it to the senses that they do have, even if they can never experience yellow itself. And communication by magnetic field would be a form of radio. So, although we couldn’t directly experience it, we might still be able to recognize and communicate with them.

      Still, you may be right than an alien with radically different senses might well present daunting challenges to our ability to recognize and communicate with them.

      3) reminds me of Clarke’s law: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. If we ran into a species 100 million years more advanced than us, they may seem indistinguishable from gods.

      On 4), I know the feeling. I often have similar ones. Sometimes it takes me weeks or months of pondering before I find a way to articulate it.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. The power of symbols and abstraction is that it does allow us to talk about things that we can’t experience directly. It’s how we understand radio waves, gravitational waves, and objects like black holes and subatomic particles that nobody has ever seen directly. We may struggle with these concepts (not everyone is Albert Einstein!) but in principle symbolic thought is a key to unlocking them.


          1. I would hope that the skills of abstraction would transfer, I think there’s a difference between using our own symbolic thought to grasp that which we cannot experience directly, and recognizing (and appreciating) a thought process or intelligence built upon or from (or dependent upon) those things we cannot experience directly. Even the other universes we imagine, the dragons, the fairies, the God – all of them look like something we’ve seen before, or at least are defined by us in terms we’ve seen/sensed before, no matter how creatively we recombine the shapes and colors. We translate these abstract concepts to ourselves in a lot of ways. There is a difference I think is between grasping new /things/ that are beyond us and recognizing (or communicating with) a new way of /thinking/ that is beyond us. But it’s a difficult thing to talk about, as the difference is more or less in the realm of the unknown unknowns.

            Liked by 1 person

          2. Just to add: I’m hedging not because I think we couldn’t overcome these difficulties, but because I think overcoming them requires that we be open to possibilities beyond what we might recognize easily or that we could reasonably anticipate. I do agree that once we get past an initially seemingly impossible hurdle, symbolic language may be the key to bridging the gap – but I don’t know that it’s an open-enough sign-post.

            Liked by 1 person

    2. I agree. We have to be open to encountering something that our current symbolic toolset (mathematics, logic, etc) isn’t equipped to map to our intuitions. When we encounter something like that, we may have to expand frameworks or develop new ones. I think of Newton developing calculus in order to calculate gravitational interactions.

      We also have to be open to the possibility that there may be some things we may never be able to directly get at. No one really understands the quantum wave function collapse, despite the fact that we can model the wave itself and the collapses en masse, but not any one single collapse. (Even calling it a “collapse” can be controversial.) It may be that it’s something that we’ll always have to work around. The same may be true for first person subjective experience. We may be able to objectively understand everything around it, but not the primal reality itself.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “One of the things I’ve pondered a few times on this blog is our ability to recognize another intelligence, such as an extraterrestrial intelligence.” – What, you’ve got alien followers?! I always wondered about that Steve Morris. 😉


    1. Hariod, I’ve warned you about this line of reasoning, but you insist on persisting. Consequently, expect an imminent visit from the men in black (even though you’re in the UK and not under their jurisdiction) 😎

      Liked by 1 person

        1. You don’t fool me with all your denim, Morris, and hiding your webbed hands behind your back! Anyway, I’ve summoned Wyrd from Mars on the promise of a crate of beer, and he’s got a bigger exterminator than you:


  3. Your post was stimulating, thank you!
    With the comments, further thought bubbles through:
    Vague notions of ‘Human ability to speak of the non-existent’ (raised by your humorous comments on the MIB and “Wyrd from Mars”) is perhaps the real distinguisher or key to the ‘symbolic thought’ you talk of. Those primitive cave paintings were representations of real things. Arguably ‘abstract’, certainly, but did the mind that painted them know this? I am dubious. Instead, I think it’s the deliberate and conscious act of talking of the non-real, non-physical, and being able to refer to things for which there is no point of attachment outside of the human mind that is the true make-or-break criterion.
    This leads me to the thought that one might search for ‘other intelligences’ via their communication of non-existent things (this could be a statue of some ‘fictional being’ – though if they were already physically alien to us, we’d have little means of distinguishing those from what might be akin to their own ‘cave paintings’, but that’s a different discussion thread).
    I am enjoying this Friday afternoon musing… I look forward to your feedback 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Tom. Thoughtful comment, as always.

      I think you’re talking about fiction, which I understand to be a very recent development, at least in the fashion of being open that it is fiction. Ancient peoples told fictional stories all the time of course, but the dividing line for them between real and fiction was a hazy one. In other words, they didn’t didn’t necessarily consciously perceive that they were telling made up stories.

      It seems like fiction, whether intentional or not, or whether honest or not, is a side effect of symbolic thinking. But I agree that the line between what we call symbolic thinking and symbolic thinking that happens subconsciously is a hazy one. In truth, if you adopt a physicalist conception of the mind, all thinking is symbolic. It’s just a matter of whether or not we’re consciously manipulating the symbols.

      I used red as an example in the post, but in reality, while the experience of red is a primal one for us, it itself is actually a symbol our brain constructs to represent certain range of wavelengths of light. But that mapping takes place far below our conscious level, and it seems like any animal with a certain minimal level of sophistication does it.

      But when we see red, and give it the name “red”, that is happening consciously. We might be so used to doing it by now that it’s on the fringe of consciousness, but it’s still something we do within our conscious domain. We had to learn it. A Facebook commenter pointed out that some apes learn rudimentary sign language, so simple symbol to perception mapping is not quite the dividing line (although only very intelligent animals get this far).

      The actual dividing line, I suspect, is that we can use symbols for symbols, for collections of symbols, or for patterns of symbols. We can nest these arbitrarily and recursively. That is the ability that seems beyond any other animal.

      SETI folks often talk about trying to establish communications using mathematically unique patterns of signals. If someone on the other side can respond in kind, that’s probably a good indicator that they have symbolic thought of the required caliber.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. My previous research on the evolution of intelligent life has focused on the ability to make and use tools. Several animals on Earth are known to do this, including crows, dolphins, and octopi. But I think you might be on to something here. At the very least we might be able to say that after tool making, the use of symbols might be the next step in the development of intelligent life.


    1. Tool use was the dividing line for a long time until people started discovering cases like the ones you mention. I know Jane Goodall’s discovery of gorillas using sticks as tools was a revelation for a lot of scientists. Interestingly, even crafted tool use is very ancient in humans, going back 2 million years.

      One thing pondering this is causing me to reconsider is when language might have arisen. I previously saw it as very ancient, developing gradually over hundreds of thousands of years. I still think it’s possible that simple proto-language developed over that period, but complex syntax probably required full scale symbolic thinking, and the evidence might be that it only comes into being with homo sapiens, although there may have been glimmers of it with neanderthals. In fact, the adaptive advantage of language might have been what drove the evolution of symbolic thought.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. “If we run into a species far more intelligent than us, it seems like there could be a danger that we wouldn’t even recognize what we were seeing.” is not our problem. Our problem would be whether they could recognize us as intelligent beings. From what we do to one another and have done to soil our own environment, they may consider us a mindless, virulent life-form that should be sterilized.


    1. Possibly, but that assumes they’d have values that we’d regard as enlightened. Their version of the highest values might be all about dominance. If so, they might admire us, right before they move in and take over. Hopefully, if they’re out there, they’re no long interested in terrestrial real estate.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Our brains have evolved to help us survive in our own environment, not to reveal the truth. These are two different things. Presumably the same applies to the evolution of an alien species. Consequently, I have no confidence that either species will be able to e find a common yard stick with which to make comparisons.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can understand that concern. Certainly it’s possible that our visceral environments might have no overlap, making it difficult for us to understand each other’s world.

      Still, no matter how different our respective environments, they would still both be in the same universe, and therefore subject to the same laws of physics. If so, shouldn’t we have a reasonable hope of being able to find some common points of reference, at least at an intellectual level if not a visceral one?


    1. Definitely agree about the evolution of symbolic thinking. It appears to have evolved on the African savanna. But the fact that it allows people to survive in deserts, on or under the sea, Antarctica, or in space, appears to demonstrate that it does give us abilities outside of its original environment.

      Of course, the farther away we move from the African savanna, the more out of our element we are, the greater the chance that the metaphors and frameworks we use to translate things to our savanna hominid sensibilities may fail us. Still, we’ve gone places that someone in 100,000 BC could never have conceived of.

      On evolution, perhaps, but unless the laws of physics change over cosmic distances, I tend to think evolution will work in distant locations. (Although the alternative solutions evolved in an alien ecosystem could challenge our definitions of what life is.) The question is how far away the closest extraterrestrial life is, and how much farther the closest intelligent life. My suspicion is that life in and of itself isn’t that far away, but intelligent life may be millions, possibility even billions of light years away, so far that we may never have a chance to encounter it before the expansion of the universe moves it forever out of our reach.

      Liked by 1 person

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