When writing about the mind and consciousness, and how it exists in material systems, many of us resort to functional hierarchies. (Mine typically start with physical interaction and work all the way up to self reflection.) Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam have a similar idea, and have written a whole book on it: Journey of the Mind: How Thinking Emerged from Chaos. Although they take the hierarchy up into culture.
Ogas and Gaddam start off by noting that a mind is not defined by any type of substance, but by activity. Their frequent analogy is a basketball game, which only exists when players are on the court and engaging in specific activities. Their definition of a mind is a physical system that converts sensations into action, taking input from the environment and then altering that environment for its own purposes. This is a pretty liberal definition of “mind”, largely equivalent, I think, to agency.
Using it, they consider the simplest minds to be molecule minds, such as the sensory-motor circuits that exist in unicellular organisms like archaea and bacteria. They then go up the chain to neuron minds, such as the ones found in jellyfish and worms. They consider insects such as flies particularly sophisticated versions of neuron minds.
But it’s with what they call module minds that they reach a stage that most of us would be more comfortable with the “mind” label. This starts with fish and goes up, with increasing sophistication, to chimpanzees. They give simple labels to the modules: How module for motor coordination, Where module for the location of things, What module for identification and discriminations, When module for time sequenced understanding, Why module for understanding causal relations, etc. They stay away from neuroanatomy, which makes the book a much easier read for anyone not interested in the neuroscience weeds.
But while O&G define “mind” as starting at the unicellular level, they’re much more selective with “consciousness”, adopting Stephen Grossberg’s ART (adaptive resonance theory) of consciousness.
The main thrust of ART is the idea of different representations resonating (as in neural oscillations) with each other, such as the representation of a top down expectation resonating with a representation from bottom up sensory input. Or representations from the What modules resonating with ones in the Where module. Consciousness happens when there is resonance among representations in a number of modules, that O&G call the “Consciousness Cartel”.
Grossberg isn’t as well known as many consciousness researchers, although he’s better known within neuroscience circles. He has a reputation for having pioneered many types of research long before others independently reached similar conclusions. The result is that ART seems to have a lot of similarities with global workspace, recurrent processing, and predictive coding theories, but with a different terminology. Although Grossberg gets into details of learning that I’m not sure the other theories touch on. He has his own book out, which I own but haven’t read yet.
For O&G, the next rung up on the mind latter is superminds, minds composed of module minds. Basically a supermind is a culture, a group of minds, that interact to form a functional system, like a tribe or nation. Which means that superminds compete with each other. Superminds, according to O&G, are enabled by language, which they characterize as “qualia sharing”, so they only see them existing among humans.
And superminds can have their own forms of resonance, and so their own form of consciousness. They contemplate that a supermind could be considered a type of god, but one in which we’re all part of. (Indeed, one thing we can say is true about historical gods, is that they were cultural forces, even if not cosmic ones.)
But O&G see the supermind having profound meaning for us. Human self awareness, they assert, only exists through interaction with the supermind, that is, through language. This has some resonance (no pun intended) with theories which take our model of self to be our model of other minds turned inward. But it seems like a much stronger thesis.
It’s a theory of human consciousness that reserves a special role for language. It puts language and culture at the center of human self awareness. O&G relate a common story of a ruler (Akbar, the Mughal emperor, in this version) who has children raised without any exposure to language. When brought to court after twelve years, the children display no signs of humanity, but act like beasts, and seem incapable of learning to be human.
O&G also discuss the famous mirror experiment to test self awareness in animals. Here they assert that a chimpanzee is self aware, but only while it’s looking at itself in the mirror. Remove the mirror, and it loses self awareness. So what then is the mirror humans use to retain self awareness? The supermind, enabled through language, reflects a sense of self back at us.
This is an interesting book, and I recommend it for anyone who finds these topics interesting. It’s a relatively easy read.
But I felt like the use of “mind” for unicellular agency was misleading. I think “agent” would have been a more accurate phrase. The supermind discussion was interesting, but it seems like the authors ignore clear signs of superminds (or at least proto-superminds) in other social animals, such as wolf packs, monkey troops, lion prides, ant colonies, and many other examples.
Certainly language enables far vaster and more intelligent superminds. And language, and more broadly symbolic thought, not to mention culture, are crucial aspects of human cognition. But again, this seems to ignore the continuity that exists between human self awareness and the simpler forms in other animals. Human self awareness is built on the self awareness shown in social mammals, which in turn is built on the simpler self awareness of other species. Characterizing it as something that only comes into existence with language is, I think, ignoring too much of what is known about animal cognition.
That said, the book is a fairly gentle introduction to Grossberg’s theory, and reading it reminded me that I still need to read his book. (Although I fear it won’t be nearly as easy a read.)
What do you think of the ideas of molecule minds, superminds, and language centered self awareness? Am I too dismissive of them? Or too accepting of the supermind concept?