The Invention of Tomorrow

This week I read (actually listened to) The Invention of Tomorrow: A Natural History of Foresight by Thomas Suddendorf, Jonathan Redshaw, and Adam Bulley. I was alerted to the existence of this book by Sean Carroll’s interview of Bulley on his podcast, which provides a good overview of their overall thesis.

People have long struggled to identify what, if anything, sets humans apart from other animals. Most things that have historically been focused on, such as reasoning ability, tool use, culture, war, symbolic communication, even agriculture, have been shown to exist to varying degrees in other species.

Strictly speaking, foresight isn’t that much different. Many animals are able to think ahead several seconds or even minutes into the future. But what seems to set humans apart is our ability to engage in far reaching mental time travel, to think of things that happened days, months, or years ago, and then to imagine what might happen equally far into the future.

There are animals that engage in behavior that seems to involve extensive forethought. Squirrels store nuts for the winter, beavers build dams, and bears fatten up to survive winter hibernation. But in these cases, there’s generally less there than we interpret.

Young squirrels, for instance, store nuts even if they’ve never encountered a winter or been around other squirrels to learn it. Compare this with a troop of monkeys who open peanuts with a particular tool and technique, which another troop of the same species living far away doesn’t use. In one case we have animals engaging in innate instinctive behavior, in another a learned cultural one. Storing nuts is what squirrels do, and they evolved to do it because it was adaptive, not because they individually learned to do it.

But even in relatively intelligent species, such as great apes, dolphins, or crows, the ability to plan and think through complex causal scenarios is limited compared to humans, even compared to very young children. And no non-human animal seems to have a developed concept of tomorrow, much less next season or next year. Animals generally can’t project far beyond the present moment. There seems to be a substantial gap here between humans and other species.

This gap famously led Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of natural selection, to doubt that the human mind could be explained by natural selection. Human intelligence, it seemed to him, and many others, was too advanced, far in excess for what was needed for survival. Of course, this overlooks the danger that other humans present to human survival, and the resulting evolutionary arms race that can happen even within a species. Human level intelligence, it seems, was mostly an adaptation for dealing with other humans.

(This does seem to highlight again just how unusual human intelligence is, along with the associated dexterity, reminding us that technological civilizations may be extremely rare in the universe. A conclusion that fits with the Fermi paradox.)

Charles Darwin, the other discoverer of natural selection, strongly disagreed with Wallace. Darwin’s take has aged far better as the seeming gap has been filled somewhat with the discovery of extinct human lineages such as Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis, Neanderthals, and many others. If these species were still around, our continuity with other primate species might seem more obvious. Their absence makes it look like humans are categorically distinct.

But even in earlier human species, it’s not clear how advanced their foresight capabilities might have been. Tool use becomes notably more sophisticated with Homo erectus a couple of million years ago, but erectus mostly used the same tools throughout their existence, with little signs of innovation over that time. It’s only with the more recent lineages in the last 100,000-200,000 years or so that we start to see a pattern of innovation and improvements.

A key question may be when language evolved, or at least language similar to how we use it today. We can see the earliest prototypes of language in monkeys who use specific cries to warn each other of different types of danger. But that’s a far cry from the rich hierarchical syntax that exists in all human languages.

The authors spend some time discussing the importance of symbolic thought, of using abstractions such as language, math, art, calendars, etc, to aid in remembering the past and planning for the future. But I’m not sure they emphasize enough just how pivotal this ability is. Imagine trying to remember your overall life if you didn’t have the concept of years and particular symbolic milestones, such as graduations, jobs, marriages, etc, to organize things around. You might be able to recall individual episodes, but organizing them in any coherent fashion seems dubious.

The concept of forethought also reminds me of my own compatibilist take on free will. I don’t think we have libertarian free will, a will that somehow transcends the laws of physics. But social responsibility still seems like a coherent and useful concept. And the capacity of forethought seems central to that view. I suspect our practical intuition of free will revolves around the capacity for foresight coupled with the freedom to make decisions based on it.

This fits when we remember who tends to be held responsible for their actions in society. Animals generally aren’t, because their foresight capabilities are limited. And young children usually aren’t because their own foresight is still developing; we increasingly add responsibilities as they get older. And the certifiably insane usually get a pass. The consequences are reserved for those who have some ability to understand them and can take them into account in their decision making.

So extended forethought, enabled and enhanced by symbolic thought and abstract reasoning, seems to be a major attribute that sets humanity apart. At least for now, until someone discovers some species somewhere that blurs even this distinction.

To be human seems to be to live as much in the past and future as in the present. It’s both a blessing and a curse, since non-human animals aren’t burdened with the worries about future events as we are, such the knowledge we all have of our own mortality. But of course, humans live far better, with much more control of our environment, thanks to that foresight.

What do you think? Do the authors get it right? What do you think about my view on the crucial importance of symbolic thought? Or the relation between foresight and free will?

58 thoughts on “The Invention of Tomorrow

  1. The psychological experiments on delayed gratification – the marshmallow test – all seem to indicate that humans develop the ability to envision the future at around age 3-4. So, even with the capacity to delay, the incentive must be learned. And without capacity – a dog or crow, say – no amount of training would build the circuits to instill the delaying behavior.

    Capacity + training. Sounds like the recipe for machine learning.

    Per evolution… Just this morning I was prompted to discuss the concept of how the discovery of fire and its ability to alter foods so as to release greater amounts of nutrients and energy in the guts of early hominids may have contributed to our much larger brains. Which, perhaps, might have allowed the learned ability to “save some room for later, Augustus.”

    Imagining the future, weighing risks, saving for a rainy day, risk-it-all on a throw of the dice — all reliant on memory capacity and the storage of scenarios, experienced or taught — all of which geared toward survival, the persistence of DNA — to which we all remain beholden.

    Fun stuff!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The authors explore in the book the various stages of foresight children achieve as they develop. Interestingly, while most 4 year-olds can use the word “tomorrow” correctly, they don’t always know how to use it. Although 4 tends to be when children really get going with mental time travel. It’s probably not an accident that kindergarten starts around age 5.

      On fire, one thing I learned in this book that was interesting. The name “Prometheus”, for the Greek god who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humanity, means “forethought”. Obviously for the Greeks who told those stories, fire was the original killer app for humanity. And they’re probably not wrong, for all the reasons you list. The authors point out that starting a fire, at least with only basic ingredients, is no easy task. (As anyone who’s ever tried learns pretty quickly.) It actually requires a lot of foresight.

      Definitely fun stuff!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I liked your post very much. It seems congruent with much of what I have been reading on tangential subjects. A couple of things I’d like to point out that might not exactly fit with the overall picture you presented: elephants and couch potatoes. As far as I understand, many elephants retain life-long memories, especially of those who have threatened or wronged them. As for couch potatoes, when you compare human foresight and hindsight to those of non-humans, it seems to me that you are comparing the pinnacle of humanity, our geniuses (or genii) and respected thinkers, to a supposed average group of animals and species. Perhaps we should consider our average (those within one sigma on our bell curve) couch potatoes, who really don’t possess much foresight or hindsight, who watch The Price is Right on the telly all day, who go drinking all night with the boys, or who taunt and make life miserable for those with more foresight and hindsight. I’m just saying, we might want to compare our average with non-human averages. I once read that the root cause of human civilization is not our brains but our opposable thumbs.

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    1. Thanks Mike!

      The memory of elephants is indeed remarkable. But their ability to use it seems limited. They can obviously remember someone from years ago, but there’s no evidence they know it was years ago, as opposed to last month or last week. In other words, they seem to be in the situation I described in the post, with access to various memories, but with no symbolic framework to organize them.

      Certainly humans vary a lot in terms of foresight. Some of it are capacity variation, although a good amount of it is just personal inclinations. But remember that a 5 year old displays causal reasoning that leaves even the most intelligent other animals behind. The brainiest chimpanzee is still far behind the stupidest human (at least in terms of mentally complete humans).

      Definitely when it comes to civilization, the hand is just as crucial as intelligence. A lot of people think dolphins, crows, or some other species might evolve intelligence if humans go extinct. But to replace us, a species would need a lot of dexterity. In terms of land animals, it’s hard to see that outside of primates.

      (That said, Vernor Vinge in A Fire Upon the Deep, has a dog like species where the packs form group minds, and so can coordinate their mouths and bodies to achieve similar dexterity. So we should be open to it happening in very different ways.)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Okay, this is officially spooky. Just minutes ago I bought a book of the title “The Invention of Yesterday”!

    As to your topic, clearly the ability to create false memories (imagination) and being able to label them as such is a survival tool extraordinaire. (Thanks, evolution!) Being able to remember which plants are toxic, which taste good, which must absolutely be cooked, etc. drove us to having memories going deeper into the past.

    Being able to scheme possible futures is also a very handy survival tool (example, the leopard in the tall grass) and its success led us to push that ability farther and farther into the future (example, should we migrate now or wait until the rainy season?)

    All of this, of course, assumes a mental structure that such abilities could be built upon. The two feed each other. One drives better and better mental abilities, and the better mental abilities drive deeper and deeper false memories. Note that it is critically important that we be able to tell the difference between our imaginings and actual memories, even though actual memories are malleable. Comedians tells us that we do not want to believe our own jokes, because in that way lies madness.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Invention of Yesterday looks interesting. I hadn’t seen today’s BookBub until after I’d posted. It sounds similar in scope to Sapiens. At $2, doesn’t seem like a bad bet.

      Definitely imagination and memory are two sides of the same coin. A lot of the same brain regions are activated. I think the best way to think of episodic memory is us imagining the past based on semantic knowledge. It’s why memory is so unreliable. I recently watched a movie scene I remembered from decades ago. It had grown in my imagination into something much more impressive than the actual clip. When I saw it, I was shocked at how limited it was.

      But what we typically call imagination amounts to simulating possible scenarios. Definitely if someone lost the ability to distinguish between that and imagining the past, we’d probably categorize that as insane.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. What do they speculate about how this developed?

    This may have much to do with Prefrontal Synthesis.

    It seems like sometime between 600KYA to 100KYA there may have been a number of mutations that controlled how the prefrontal cortex develops in humans. The effect was to slow the maturation of the PFC and enable a longer period for development in the cultural context.

    “Our research into evolutionary origin of modern imagination has been driven by the observation of a temporal limit for the development of a particular component of imagination. Modern children not exposed to recursive language in early childhood never acquire the type of active constructive imagination called Prefrontal Synthesis (PFS). Unlike vocabulary and grammar acquisition, which can be learned throughout one’s lifetime, there is a strong critical period for the development of PFS and individuals not exposed to recursive language in early childhood can never acquire PFS as adults. Their language will always lack understanding of spatial prepositions and recursion that depend on the PFS ability. In a similar manner, early hominins would not have been able to learn recursive language as adults and, therefore, would not be able to teach recursive language to their children.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. They do discuss, at a high level, the roles of the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, but not within the discussion of the evolution of foresight. That latter discussion is more focused on what the selection pressures might have looked like and evidence from archaeology. So no discussion of the prefrontal synthesis, or any other changes in neuroanatomy that might have been involved.

      The authors are more at the level of psychology than hardcore biology. I actually wouldn’t have minded if they’d gotten their hands dirty with some neuroscience, but obviously that’s coming from someone who’s fairly well read on it. But they kept it aimed squarely at a non-technical audience.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Interesting they didn’t go into it a bit more if for nothing more than explain alternative theories if they didn’t have their own. One implication of the theory is that many of our unique human capabilities might require cultural influences in order to develop properly. This might apply to foresight as well as other exercises in imagination. Certainly we know that the few children who have been mostly devoid of human contact in childhood never learn to properly speak a language. If the right stimuli are not present at the critical time period, the brain and its capabilities don’t reach what we regard as full human potential.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Yeah, when we study ontogeny, we learn that the line between nature and nurture is actually broad and blurry. We come out of the womb primed to learn things like language, but if we don’t get the right stimuli during critical periods, it won’t happen. Of course, even vision is subject to critical periods where the visual system has to learn how to see.

          What really surprised years ago was learning that the way joints form in fetuses depend on them moving around in the womb. (Animal fetuses who have that movement inhibit are born with deformities.) And the visual system depends on “test firing” from the developing retina to correctly wire up. So even many things in place at birth are dependent on the pre-birth environment.

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  5. I don’t have much to add other than I think we’ll know a lot more soonish. I saw a tweet about a paper that suggests the claustrum becomes involved (“lit up”) when a human or animal (mouse?) is performing a difficult task, as opposed to an easy task. I’m wondering if it may be involved in the foresight process.

    Also, I’m morally obligated to bring up AI. I was gonna say adding foresight may be the last step to getting general intelligence, but then I realized that ChatGTP already has a form of foresight. Just ask it what will happen if you let a bull (or moose?) loose in a ceramics store. The next step is to use that foresight in the evaluation of goals.

    hmmm … now I’m wondering about the connection between language and foresight. Language seems designed to describe the things that are happening now (eagle!), or happened, or could happen, or should happen. Jeff Hawkins (in 1000 Brains) talks about the context functions of areas for how we track objects in space (near to far, left to right), and also time. Maybe you can have a separate context area for future time and space, or just imaginary time and space.

    [ok, now my brain hurts]

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Most of what I’ve read about the evidence associated with the claustrum seems to indicate an inhibitory or governance role for it. There’s periodically speculation about complex functionality but I’m skeptical. We’re not talking about a region with a lot of substrate, so whatever its role, it’s likely a relatively simple one. (Key word here is “relatively” since nothing in the brain is really simple.) Of course, that doesn’t mean that role isn’t a crucial one.

      I’m not convinced that ChatGPT has foresight (or that it knows what a bull, ceramics, a store, or being let loose in one means). To see if it does have foresight, test it in the domain it performs in. Ask it a series of related questions, then ask it if it can anticipate the kind of question you’re likely to ask it next. When I tried it just now (asking it the color of a series of things where the most common answer is red), it took a long time to process the last question, then simply said it wasn’t able to anticipate what I might ask next.

      I do think there’s a crucial link between symbolic thought overall (including language) and extended foresight. You don’t need it to anticipate which path up a hill you’re about to climb is shorter, but I think you do to anticipate a hiking trip you might plan to take next month. But if all you have is language, it seems like there’s going to be a lot less going on there than meets the eye.


      1. Re: claustrum— I wasn’t suggesting the claustrum was the source of foresight, just that it may be involved. My current wager is that it is a mechanism used by the executive (pre-frontal) cortex, mostly targeting other cortical areas for inhibition.

        Re: ChatGPT — I did say a “form” of foresight. As is, ChatGPT lacks the mechanisms (unitrackers!) to learn new scenarios. It is stuck with the foresight extant in the current body of language, but that’s still something. If you include it with another system which is trying to decide if it’s ok to release the bull, it’s answer is still useful as foresight.

        [BTW, Your last question in the series of questions broke the sequence. Your sequence looks like A, B, C, X. Or maybe more like A1, A2, A3, X. I wonder if it would do better by asking “Considering this series of questions, but not including this question, what will I ask next.”]


        1. Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply you were suggesting that about the claustrum. Just making a comment about the speculation out there on it.

          For ChatGPT, I guess at some point it depends on what we mean by “foresight”. Characterizing its language resources as having foresight seems equivalent to characterizing the squirrel’s genes as having foresight. In both cases, we don’t have the system itself modeling a future outcome and then making decisions based on that modeling. (Of course, we could go down the rabbit holes of what a “model” or “decision” are.)

          [Possibly, but I’ve tried it in various ways, and given its flexibility in other areas, if I have to ask in just the right way, that doesn’t incline me to think there’s foresight in any meaningful sense happening.]


  6. Thanks Mike. Interesting. However, from my cursory review, it appears that some of the authors’ conclusions are based on evolutionary psychology although there seems to be some good old-fashioned archaeological analysis as well. I tend to take any arguments in the area of evolutionary psychology with a very large grain of salt—especially from those celebrity scientists we all know—one of whom wrote a blurb for this book. Some claims of evolutionary psychology are more speculation than science—speculation that I would describe as a form of confirmation bias. And there is a strong argument that evolutionary psychology simply cannot be done or cannot be done with the rigor of other scientific inquiries. See, for example, this piece by Dr. Subrena E. Smith (there’s a link in the article to the original paper): A different version of that type of critique appeared in Scientific American: But with that caveat I should repeat that my comment is based on a mere cursory review of the work and I do not mean to say that I think the all of authors’ conclusions are without merit. I just think there are some troublesome obstacles to this kind of science.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Matti.

      You made me look up the blurbs for the book. (I bought it purely on Carroll’s interview of Bulley.) I assume Steven Pinker is the celebrity scientist you meant? I actually don’t have the problems with Pinker that a lot of people do. Although I find him difficult to read at length, ironically given his reputation, because he tends to justify his points into the ground. Long after I’m convinced and ready to move on, he’s still providing example after example ad nauseum. It makes for tedious reading.

      The authors of the book do engage in some speculation, although they clearly label it as such, at one point saying something to the effect that a particular hypothesis is a just-so story so be cautious with it. But the discussions are at a very high level, so they end up avoiding many devils in the details. (Honestly, if I’d known just how high level the book was, I probably would have skipped it.)

      I do think the stark difficulties involved in evolutionary psychology have to be acknowledged. Distinguishing widespread cultural behavior from something innate is often extremely difficult. That said, history hasn’t been kind to most assertions of absolute unknowability, and a lot of the criticism of evo psych strikes me as ideological, driven by concerns about the ethical implications. Pinker makes the point that it’s a mistake to tie our ethics to scientific findings which can shift at any time on new evidence. I have to agree with that.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. And, to me, lot of evo psych itself strikes me as ideological, i.e., my claim of possible confirmation bias. All depends on whose ox is being gored, eh?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Definitely, and we always have to be on guard against fooling ourselves. In the end, it comes down to which models work well with the fewest assumptions. The fiercest arguments seem to happen when there’s no clear current winner.


          1. By the way, I cannot discern from my cursory review of the book whether or not the authors spend any time discussing the relation of “language” to the development of forethought—there’s no chapter heading devoted to it. Do they spend any time on that? That would interest me.


          2. They do have multiple discussions on language, although they’re relatively brief. One discussion, for instance, is about the ability to share mental scenarios, to share learning with each other, a big advantage for any species that can attain that ability. But with the brevity, I’d be nervous giving any assurances those sections would satisfy your interest.


  7. Interesting commentary, as usual. One of my favorite things to ponder is how, when, where and why this particular human (the who) trait came to be.
    Try this on: That which you ask about was a side effect, an “accident”. Yes, of the evolutionary process of survival toward species propagation.
    There was a particular individual (ape) who’s brain happened to mutate in such a way that he (yes, he) could calculate (do math) as to time & distance & velocity (I call it the Tom Brady effect). So because of this, he was able to kill from a distance (by throwing rocks). This allowed for the process of evolving from prey to predator. Said individual, call him Tom, became very popular with the females. Tom had A LOT of offspring. His tribe began to dominate.
    One day, when the days were long, the hunting party was above timberline pursuing the large antlered creatures. That day, there were fierce thunder storms. Before they saw it, they smelled it – cooked meat. They came upon a bar-b-q. A herd of elk had been caught in a lightning storm and were fried. Some of the carcasses were still on fire! The party gorged on the cooked meat. The fastest runner ran down the mountain to get the rest of the tribe, the women and children. They all feasted and carried some of the still smoldering meat down to a sheltered camp. This tribe had discovered fire.
    They grew stronger and smarter than all the other bands. Over the millennia, through the process of sexual selection – the naked ape – modern man emerged. (This event happened in the mountains of what is now France.)
    Yes, just speculating. 🙂 cheers

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Mark.

      There actually is a discussion in the book on the development of being able to kill from a distance, a capability that allows killing of animals without having to get to close, and possibly injured or killed by them. I do doubt it was one mutation though, but numerous ones across hundreds of thousands of years. But once someone stumbled on the capability, it would definitely have given them a survival and reproductive advantage.

      They don’t discuss it in this book, but I have read speculation before about how early humans probably did find animals who had died in forest fires and the like. They would have had to have been cooked just enough to be tasty but not so much that they weren’t just ashes. It’s plausible that those occasional finds gave them ideas about the benefits of capturing and then mastering fire. But we may never know how it actually happened, or even if it only happened one way and not several spread throughout the various populations over time.

      The evidence is pretty solid that anatomically modern Homo sapiens arose in Africa, and then spread out from there. Although they did interbreed with Neanderthals in the middle east and Europe and with Denisovans in Asia.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. With you interjecting the apparent importance of symbolic thought here we seem to be in relative agreement on what sets the human apart from other animals Mike. It makes perfect sense to me that developing more advanced languages would help such creatures develop more advanced modes of thought and thus behavior.

    What still seems a bit speculative to me is that other animals don’t have much of a conception of the future or the past. Even if squirrels tend to store nuts instinctively, why wouldn’t they also evolve to realize that their nut storing can be critically important for a future where food becomes scarce? Thus nut storing might not only be instinctive but also feel good to do presently by both providing hope and alleviating worry about the future. And even if experiments were to demonstrate that squirrels tend not to learn such simple lessons, could the same case be made for elephants? As I understand it they’re well known for having good memory even if they aren’t very lingual. Does the book provide good evidence to believe that non-human animals in general neither remember very much nor contemplate the extended implications of their behavior? I’d want strong evidence to believe something that unintuitive.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Eric,
      I’m sure saving nuts does feel good for a squirrel. But there’s no evidence that it feels good in any instrumental way for them, as something intermediate that gets them closer to a long term goal. Like sex, eating, or other impulses, from their perspective it feels good because it feels good.

      When it comes to other animals, there’s no direct evidence for what they can’t do. That’s not how it works. Instead, if they can conceive of the long term future then we should see some evidence for it in their behavior. But a lot of the evidence is similar to the squirrel nut saving. It can be explained with much simpler impulses.

      And many animals can be confused in ways that would be surprising if they understood the long term effects of what they were doing. For example, cuckoos lay their eggs in other bird’s nests. You’d think the bird would notice that the crying cuckoo chicks aren’t their offspring or even their species, but they don’t. They just mindlessly feed the chirping mouth in their nest, because that’s their instinct, and it’s what usually works.

      Of course, more intelligent species like chimpanzees, elephants, etc, can’t be fooled so easily. And elephants do have some forms of long term memory. These species also show intriguing signs of situational foresight, although their abilities are still limited compared to human children. And there’s no incontrovertible evidence it extends into days or longer.

      New evidence could change that at any time, something I’m sure many will insist on having faith in based on their intuitions.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Mike,
        This reminds me of discussions that we’d have years ago, with me for example ripping into Lisa Feldman Barrett’s theory of constructed emotion (which as I recall posits emotions to exist by means of language based associations), while you were far less dismissive. It seems like you were much less impressed with the cognitive function of non-human animals than I. So I guess we’re back to the same opposing intuitions here.

        In any case I think I do have some reasonable evidence that dogs both have extended memories of their past, as well as factor in such information regarding their futures. As I understand it they are often displeased about being take in for veterinarian treatment. Furthermore many owners find that when they use the term “vet”, their dogs associate this with previous times that the term was used where their pets would get taken in. Apparently their owners would notice them getting quite bummed out for using the term, presumably as a display of worry regarding what their dogs think might happen. This seems to illustrate both extended memory of the past (since it displays perhaps a year old recollection) and regarding some unknown prospect about returning in the future. How to you think the authors would dismiss this sort of evidence against their premise?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Eric,
          I can see why you’d like to characterize this as competing intuitions. But I and skeptical scientists are going by where the evidence is. As someone who’s had many pets over my life, I find the feeling that they have higher levels of cognition overwhelming. But I’ve learned not to trust my intuitions in this area.

          On dogs and vets, I think what you’re seeing is a learned association. No one denies animals, even relatively simple ones, have those. That doesn’t mean the dog has an episodic memory of that last vet visit. Only that it has certain negative associations with the sound “vet”.

          It is possible that dogs do have some degree of episodic memory (although that’s contentious). What they don’t have is the ability to put those episodes into any overall autobiographical framework. Consider what we’d expect to see if they could. We might expect them to use multi-day or even multi-week strategies. I don’t think there’s any evidence for that.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. It’s good to hear that our intuitions are about the same on this Mike. I guess the difference is that I tend to be quite skeptical of various positions held by distinguished soft scientists when they seem wrong to me, while you seem far more respectful and accepting of their expertise. So while I shake my head and challenge all manners of silliness as I see it, you’re not nearly as troubled even if you sometimes must sacrifice certain intuitions. It’s actually a great combination I think — I check the system and yourself, while you check me by displaying what’s been established in science so far.

            It seems to me that memory essentially exists as a highly condensed and abbreviated trace of a former conscious experience. Instead of the full contingent of neural firing as before, a tiny representation of it becomes combined with present firing. And often present firing invokes such a memory, as a given scent might do for example. Further I consider memory to be one of three forms of input to the conscious processor itself (which I call “thought”).

            From this basic platform I do presume that dogs remember various people, places, and yes events in their lives. Instead of the term “vet” itself causing a dog anguish given an overheard discussion, I’d say that this term invokes a bad memory which thus fills it with worry about potentially experiencing such an event again. Though scientists in general may deny that dogs are advanced enough for this, here they’re also denying a far more parsimonious account. If the human evolved from various other mammals then shouldn’t it function similarly to those mammals cognitively? Conversely if the human is cognitively unique then how might it have evolved to become such a creature? To me this second road seems both messy and unnecessary.

            Liked by 1 person

          2. Eric,
            I certainly won’t hesitate to criticize scientists or philosophers if what they’re saying doesn’t make empirical or logical sense. But not if all they’re doing is challenging my intuitions. The history of science is just one story after another of people having to give up such intuitions. It’s why arguments from intuition bear little weight for me, except when we’re specifically interested in those intuitions in an of themselves.

            On memory, just a reminder that there are unconscious memories.

            Certainly both humans and dogs are mammals, so we should expect some similarities. But it’s worth noting the differences. Humans have 16 billion neurons in their cortex and 86 billion overall in the brain. Dogs have ~0.8 billion in the cortex and 2.2 billion overall (depending on breed). Even taking into account body weight differences, that’s substantial. Assuming cognition is physical, it’s not unreasonable to expect the larger system to have additional capabilities. It’s also worth noting that a lot more of a dog’s brain is geared toward smell than ours, and a lot less toward vision.

            And remember, parsimony isn’t about what’s closest to our current biases, or assumptions we may relative to those biases. It’s about assumptions we make overall, including the ones that may be baked into those biases.

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          3. Mike,
            Implying that human cognition functions differently than other cognition, adds an inherent complexity to the field of psychology and soft science in general. Of course that may be how things are, though we shouldn’t presume this without exhausting various less complex proposals. Neuron counts alone should not mandate that human function is fundamentally different from bird function. Consider my own simple model regarding conscious function in general:

            First there’s a non-conscious brain that essentially functions algorithmically just as our computers do. So it thus accepts input information for algorithmic processing to animate various types of output function. While a non-conscious organism will essentially be like one of our robots, apparently that doesn’t provide enough flexibility for more open circumstances. Thus the brain evolved to create a purpose based computer to function in tandem, or consciousness itself. (As you know I suspect that the brain creates this by means of the right neuron produced electromagnetic radiation.) The following is a simple diagram that you or others might try to follow:

            Under the consciousness box there are lines that lead to three such forms of input, one such processor, and one such form of output. The sentience input essentially exists as the fuel which drives thought. This is theoretically all that’s good/bad to anything, anywhere, or intrinsic value. There’s also a senses input which is meant to be informational sans any value component (since value was just addressed). Then finally there is a memory component, and no I don’t mean anything implicit or procedural here. (I deal with the creation of that under the provided “learned line”.) Instead I mean explicit memory, or past consciousness that remains for present consideration, and regardless of how vague such an input happens to be.

            As I see it the conscious form of function would be quite crippled if it were purely instantaneous. Not only should humans, dogs, and birds function with such a temporal component, but I suspect that even flies have something more to their brain function than algorithm alone. And if so then I suspect that past experiences would in some sense come back for future conscious assessment given that those neural chains of firing should thus have more propensity to fire again. Thus an ability to learn from the past in a conscious sense, and fueled by hope and worry regarding what it foresees in at least some sense.

            Just as the simplifications of Newton helped physics become a hard science, it should take simple theory such as this for our still crippled mental and behavioral sciences to finally do what humanity needs them to. So perhaps we have strong intuitions that dogs actively consider their pasts to help them with their goals, because in their own way (rather than our way), that’s exactly what they do.

            Liked by 1 person

          4. Eric,
            Do you think observable behavior is irrelevant for cognition? If not, then the differences in behavioral capabilities between dogs and humans seem important. Dogs don’t talk, do math, or maintain calendars. They obviously have richer smell and audio sensoriums than we do, but reportedly more limited visual ones. And tests have been done to probe the limitations of their cognition. To argue that those differences exist with no difference in cognition seems like a much larger assumption, one that ignores the evidence we do have, or don’t have where we should have it.

            On your model, I’ve mentioned this before, but if your theory of consciousness has a component labeled “consciousness”, “qualia”, or “sentience”, then as far as I can see, you’re not done yet. Granted that’s coming from the perspective of a reductionist, but that’s my perspective.

            Liked by 1 person

          5. Mike,
            I did not argue that there is no difference in cognition between the human and the dog (or obviously the human and the fly). Of course I consider there to be such cognitive differences. But just as Newton joined the heavens and earth by means of a unified model (and thus physics became a “hard” form of science), I propose a very similar reduction from which to potentially get such a ball rolling for our soft mental and behavioral sciences. Here I propose the essential parameters by which evolved conscious beings function in general. Surely you can acknowledge that if such a model were experimentally verified well enough to become accepted by associated scientists, then psychology should begin to resemble physics under the rise of Newton? And as seen in physics, who knows what other forms of progress might thus be incited?

            On someone not being done yet if their theory of consciousness contains a box labeled “consciousness”, I believe that’s one of Dennett’s sayings. Furthermore it would be a great challenge, that is if I were presenting a theory of consciousness. Instead I present a theory of evolved brain function which includes a consciousness component. On a theory of consciousness however, as you know I stand with McFadden regarding the physics by which the brain gets this done. If you look closely in the diagram, I even referenced this with the inclusion of “possibly by means of electromagnetic radiation”. In any case McFadden’s theory complements mine since it corresponds with my perspective of how consciousness might have evolved by means of worldly stuff.

            Liked by 1 person

          6. Eric,
            I did get the phrase from Dennett, but it nicely expresses a conclusion reached in my earliest explorations of consciousness, that if a theory doesn’t at least attempt to reduce it to non-conscious components, it’s not explaining consciousness. Few theories actually make this cut.

            As we’ve discussed before, McFadden’s theory, in and of itself, doesn’t seem to do it. McFadden himself seems to acknowledge it, discussing other theories, such as global workspace, that might be needed for the actual dynamics. His theory itself seems more about the substrate. Even if it turns out EM fields (aside from the ones across the neural membrane) are functionally used by the brain, there’s no guarantee it correlates directly with consciousness. It might include a lot of non-conscious processing as well.

            Liked by 1 person

          7. Agreed Mike, my conception of brain function does not explain consciousness. This actually puts me in line with Newton once again since he had no idea what it is that explains gravity. And of course I actually do have a causal idea of what creates consciousness, though proposed by someone else. Thus here McFadden could be “the Einstein”. Furthermore given massive structural impediments in our soft sciences today, it might be that “an Einstein” would need to be overwhelmingly validated in order for an associated “Newton” to even be believed. This is why I’d like researchers to somehow induce EM fields with parameters similar to synchronous neuron firing, in someone’s head to see if that person notices anything phenomenally strange. If such experimentation were to strongly illustrate that consciousness exists by means of neuron produced EM fields, then it seems to me that a vast collection of magical and otherwise zany ideas would finally be ejected from science. Thus even in the troubled field of psychology, true progress might finally begin to occur as it becomes founded upon the same premise that economists have been using for a while, or utility. So if successful it could be that my proposal for testing McFadden’s theory would bring a paradigm shift that surpasses all others to date.

            Liked by 1 person

  9. I am in total agreement about the importance and role of foresight, and the fact that it is dramatically enhanced by symbolic thought / language. The only thing I’m suspicious about is the supposed time horizon limit on the ability of other animals, even primates. Humans always seem to be misunderestimating (that’s a George W Bush-ism) other animals.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can understand the suspicion about animal time horizons. Eric expressed a similar sentiment, which I just gave a lengthy response to. All I’ll say here is that our intuitions on this may be very powerful, but that doesn’t mean they’re right. We need evidence, and evidence is what’s currently lacking. That could change at any time, although I’d be surprised if it changed for more than the most intelligent animals.


      1. There is a long track record of otherwise intelligent humans saying things like, “only humans use tools,” “only humans have ‘Aha’ moments,” etc. And turning out to be wrong. That’s not strong evidence, but it is evidence.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Certainly, and as I noted in the post, animals do have forms of forethought. It’s just limited to from a few seconds to a few minutes into the future. It’s possible some of the more intelligent species can project further out, but the evidence on remains clouded and contested. So this isn’t a matter of them not having it at all, just of them not having it days, months, or years into the future.

          So it’s a matter of degree, with a possible categorical distinction on symbolic thought. Which I think fits with the evidential trends you’re noting.


      2. “We need evidence, and evidence is what’s currently lacking.”

        What is that evidence Mike? Is it self-report? A solipsist could make the same claim about other human beings by shear observation if there was no way to communicate. Without some kind of self-report, all of our conclusions about animals are shear conjecture and not science at all.

        I agree with Paul’s assessment that we let our own arrogance blind us and furthermore, your use of the word intuition is skewed. Your use is more closely aligned with prejudicial bias then a flash of inspiration or an “ah ha” moment. At least that’s how I see intuition.

        So to further clarify your own assessment; our prejudicial biases are very powerful, so powerful that if another person brings up a point that does not conform to that personal confirmation bias, it is rejected for that reason and that reason alone without further ado

        Liked by 1 person

        1. FC,
          I mentioned examples of the evidence in the post and in the thread, such as squirrels saving up for the winter not being something they learn, but do innately. A lot of seemingly foresight driven behavior is just something that evolved because it was adaptive. Some view it as evolution having foresight, but those are tricky waters inviting confusion.

          Another interesting example is that chimpanzees apparently don’t say goodbye (nonverbally) when they leave each other. They do greet each other when they’re reunited. But saying goodbye involves understanding that they’ll be separated for a while. And chimpanzees (along with bonobos) are pretty much our closest relatives.

          So no, not depending on self report here. We need self report to establish that a particular stimulus or behavior is dependent on conscious experience, which we can then look for in other species who can’t verbally report. But to establish foresight just requires observing behavior that requires it.

          “Your use is more closely aligned with prejudicial bias then a flash of inspiration or an “ah ha” moment.”

          So, if I say that the “ah ha” moment is a prejudicial bias that just happened to get validated by subsequent empirical observation or logical reasoning, what would you say I’m missing?


          1. “But to establish foresight just requires observing behavior that requires it.”

            Sure, but is not like Jim stated that if brains are about making predictions, then isn’t that the same as foresight? The ability to make predictions is foresight and surely, no species possesses our capacity. But to categorically assert that something as simple and benign as the scope of making predictions is a watershed discovery that sets us apart is dubious at best. That type of inference is not warranted, nor justified…….

            “Ah Ha” moments do not correspond to an already established prejudicial bias, they challenge them.

            A good example of an “ah ha” moment is the intuition that led John Nash to develop the Nash Equilibrium model for Game Theory. His modality challenged all of the long standing (prejudicially biased) models that had stood for decades. The Nash Equilibrium is now accepted, widely used, and incorporated into a wide range of disciplines, from economics to the social sciences.


          2. “But to categorically assert that something as simple and benign as the scope of making predictions is a watershed discovery that sets us apart is dubious at best.”

            It would be dubious. But it’s not the point of the book or anything I said. As I noted in the post, it’s a difference of degree, and, I think, of symbolic thought which enables much farther foresight than most animals.

            On Nash’s intuition, I think that’s judging it with 20/20 hindsight. It was basically a Type 1 conclusion based on all the training (biases) he had attained up to that point. And it turned out to be a good one. But there are legions of similar quick takes which are wrong. Having your intuition be based on expertise increases the chances it’ll be right, but doesn’t guarantee it. We tend to remember the hits and forget the misses.


          3. Your point is well made however, I recognize that your use of the term intuition as well as how other contributors use the term to be more closely aligned with prejudicial bias then a flash of inspiration that is based upon expertise. Intuition is rare whereas prejudicial conformation biases are the norm.

            Liked by 1 person

  10. Sounds really interesting. Kind of reminds me of Time Travel: A History, by James Gleick. It’s been a while since I read it, but as I recall Gleick argues that the introduction of time travel as a concept in Sci-Fi had ripple effects on society, and even people who hadn’t read or hear of H.G. Wells started thinking about and talking about time in a different way than they had before.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks. That’s interesting. I’ve read in other places that we definitely think of time in a very different manner than people centuries ago. A lot of it has been driven by the industrial revolution and the need to follow schedules much more closely than anyone prior to it ever had to do. It’s made us much more aware of time as a resource than people in most of history. (Supposedly no one back then spoke of “spending” time as we do today.)

      In that sense, the fact that we can even conceive of time as something that could be traveled across is relatively new. Time travel stories prior to the 19th century do exist, but they seem rare.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I just got a book Culture, Mind, and Brain and one of the section in it is about the co-evolution of culture, mind, and brain.

    It is probably nearly impossible to disconnect the three things with humans. Foresight doesn’t come without brain and mind but the human brain and mind doesn’t come without culture. I think perhaps the opposable thumb and tool use started us down the path that makes us different from other animals. But language and symbolic thinking were on that path perhaps arising as indirect results of tool use. Co-evolution might be best way to describe how these things connect.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Looks like an interesting book.

      I agree that being human is heavily tangled up with culture. One of the things the authors in the book I read talked about is that humans have an urge from very young to communicate with each other, a stronger urge than we apparently see even in our closest relatives.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Interesting post on an interesting subject. Just one comment
    Foresight is indeed a key feature that makes us recognizably human. But for this to happen, the performance of self-consciousness must be present also.
    We humans are self-conscious. Chimps are not. They only have a very limited capability of self-awareness. And that difference is key when looking at the performance of foresight which is about being able to imagine oneself in the future. Our human performance of foresight exists because we can represent ourselves as existing entities, because we are self-conscious. Foresight needs self-consciousness. I feel that both need to be considered together in primate evolution. The development of self-consciousness allowed foresight to bring in significant evolutionary advantages, which in turn favored the development of self-consciousness. A kind of positive feedback process that did not occur in the chimp lineage.
    This is in an ASSC25 poster presentation (

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think what sets humans apart is our psyche and the constant mental battle to achieve some type of homeostasis within ourselves. This would certainly be an artifact of self-awareness, especially when that self-awareness is acute. For other animals, survival and self-preservation is intrinsically linked to the physical realm whereas for humans, psychical self-preservation is as important if not more consequential to our survival and well being then just getting our next meal.

      An anorexic, a junkie or a religious zealot willing to die would be a good example of this need for psychical control……


    2. Do you have a definition for self-awareness?

      Fundamentally to almost any animal is a recognition of the boundaries of the body, its location in space, and an understanding of how to move in space. Is that not self-awareness? If you’re talking about awareness of awareness then only humans may be afflicted with that dubious capability.

      Foresight probably exists on a scale. I feel fairly certain my cat waits at a chipmunk hole because it has some ability to foresee that the chipmunk will appear. I may be anthropomorphizing but that’s what it looks like to me.


      1. Well stated Jim…… If we want to drill down to a single fundamental aspect that sets us apart from other animals it’s definitely “awareness of awareness”. All of the other characteristics including foresight are a matter of scope. And yes, “awareness of awareness” is an affliction, maybe even a downright pathology.🧐


    3. James hit on a point I would have responded with, that self awareness exists in degrees, from body awareness (widespread), to attentional awareness and affect awareness (seemingly more limited), to full on introspective awareness (probably only humans), which is what I take you to be referring to with self-consciousness.

      I agree with much of what you’re saying but I wonder about the ability of many animals to have foresight into the near future, such as a crow figuring out which tool it will need to get at a treat. Or some monkeys being able to assess how sure they are about knowing something when a treat is on the line.

      But when it comes to extended foresight, that seems to require symbolic thought, and that, I think, requires metacognitive self awareness. Certainly being able to use language to report on our own mental states requires it. And it makes sense that using abstract placeholders for other phenomena would as well.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. If brains are about making predictions, then isn’t that the same as foresight?

        It is all a matter of degree and I’m certainly not questioning the degree of foresight of humans far exceeds that of other animals.

        In Arthropod Brains the author recounts observing a wasp measuring its prey to know how big to dig a hole to bury. Instinctual? Maybe. Maybe not completely.

        “Based on this, locusts, grasshoppers, dragonflies and flies seem to use internal models of the surrounding world to tailor their actions adaptively to predict the imminent future. Honeybees and orb-weaving spiders appear to act towards a desired outcome of their respective constructions, and the genetically pre-programmed routines that govern these constructions are subordinate to achieving the desired goal. Jumping spiders seem to preplan their route to prey suggesting they recognize the spatial challenge and actions necessary to obtain prey. Bumblebees and ants utilize objects not encountered in the wild as types of tools to solve problems in a manner that suggests an awareness of the desired outcome. Here we speculate that it may be simpler, in terms of the required evolutionary changes, computation and neural architecture, for arthropods to recognize their goal and predict the outcomes of their actions towards that goal, rather than having a large number of pre-programmed behaviors necessary to account for their observed behavioral flexibility.”

        I think the problem is pointed out in the last sentence of the quote. Even if there are pre-programed behaviors, the behavior would not be successful for adaptation without tailoring it to predictions about the immediate future.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Certainly, as I noted with Paul, no one’s saying animals don’t have foresight into the immediate future. The issue is planning further out, and the mental toolkit we have to enable it.

          I’ve grown a bit leery of some of these conclusions about what’s happening in arthropods and other creatures. I got a lot of that when reading The Ancient Origins of Consciousness, but when I followed their citation trails and dug up some of the actual studies, the data was far more ambiguous than the interpretation later researchers took from it. I’m totally open to bees and similar creatures having those capabilities (they’re among the most intelligent insects), but I’ve been burned enough that I’m now more cautious. It all depends on whether the results hold up under attempts at replication and scrutiny.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. I’m a bit leery also of ascribing behaviors solely to instincts too. There might be spectrum where some behaviors are almost all instinctual, others are not at all instinctual, but a lot of stuff falls into the middle where instincts meld with varying degrees of cognitive skills to accomplish complex behaviors.

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  13. Metaphor. From Wikipedia’s article on George Lakoff:

    Metaphor has been seen within the Western scientific tradition as a purely linguistic construction. The essential thrust of Lakoff’s work has been the argument that metaphors are a primarily conceptual construction and are in fact central to the development of thought.

    In his words:

    “Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.”

    According to Lakoff, the development of thought has been the process of developing better metaphors. He also points out that the application of one domain of knowledge to another offers new perceptions and understandings.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This makes a lot of sense to me, particularly the paragraph that follows that quote.

      According to Lakoff, non-metaphorical thought is possible only when we talk about purely physical reality; the greater the level of abstraction, the more layers of metaphor are required to express it. People do not notice these metaphors for various reasons, including that some metaphors become ‘dead’ in the sense that we no longer recognize their origin. Another reason is that we just do not “see” what is “going on”.

      All of which fits with symbolic thought, since a metaphor is basically a symbol, particularly once we have forgotten its origin. We can’t think of anything outside of our immediate sensory experiences except through these metaphors. The very big (like the solar system, or even the state of Florida) and and the very small (atoms, etc) are impossible for us to grasp without them.


  14. I’m thinking along the lines that neither foresight or self-awareness are really more byproducts of other capabilities rather than unique in themselves.

    More basic probably is the expansion and management of short term memory which relates directly to a distinctive brain feature – the pre-frontal cortex and PFS. All brains predict and have primitive foresight but human brains can predict multiple steps ahead and hold in memory multiple steps forward and backward. It is how we understand recursion in language and may have originated with steps required to make tools. Tool making actually could be a useful proxy for measuring foresight capability.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Working memory is mentioned a couple of times in the book. If I recall correctly, although it’s difficult to ascertain, the working memory of chimpanzees is thought to be 2-3 items, less than the 5-7 usually cited for humans. It does make a difference in the complexity of causal scenarios that can be considered, and I would imagine in being able to use symbolic placeholders in those scenarios.

      Tool making is interesting. Apes and many other species can fashion simple tools (such as stripping leaves and twigs off a branch to make a stick useful for pulling food out of nest) which they immediately use. It’s when a tool can’t be completed in one short sitting, I think, that we really see how much foresight is happening. Stone tools made by early humans required a lot of planning and patience.

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