Symbols of Self
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Trouble in Heaven
And on Earth
The Method
The Fall
Symbols of Self
Hard Problems
Flesh of the Gods
Free Will
Ever Beginning
Never Ending

Chapter 21

This above all: to thine own self be true, 

and it must follow, as the night the day,

thou canst not then be false to any man.

                                                                                    Shakespeare, Hamlet

The rushing sound stopped. I wasn't sure if it was the shower that stopped or my pesky encounter with God. Then I saw her body again with the sunlight halo emanating from her. I was entranced by this earthly seraphim, before I realized that she had launched into her most important explanation. I replayed the last sentence and a half in my mind to catch up.

"In order to understand self-consciousness, you have to understand how we became aware of self. I have already mentioned the proprioceptive, or 'pro-system', which is essentially a self-sensing system. The pro-system is not our only sensory system, but it is a fundamental one, and one whose importance has been overlooked. Vision, hearing, smell, taste and part of touch, all tell you something about what's 'out there', away from you. But the proprioceptive part of the touch system might as well be a sixth sense. It tells you where you are. And what you're doing. What position are you in? Is part of you moving? Are your muscles tensed and ready to act? This pro-system tells you about 'self.'"

"How does that connect with what's unique about humans?"

"For centuries we have tried to understand what sets humans apart from other animals. Many suggestions have been proffered. Perhaps our belief in God, or our ability to reason. But who knows what animals really believe or know? Sometimes we could interpret how they act as reasonable, for example, when a dog saves a lifelong human friend. This act is not only logical, it is loyal. Animals seem to act charitably at times. Maybe they believe in God. They don't tell us. That brings us to language.

"Humans have language. But it sets us apart from other animals only by a matter of degree. Birds talk. Elephants talk. Dolphins and whales talk. Even bees communicate. Our language is orders of magnitude richer in detail and abstraction."

"Can't something quantitatively different by orders of magnitude appear qualitatively different?" I asked.

"Yes, but when that happens we effectively create a new process. With this new process, we can imagine all sorts of abstract notions about things that are not as obvious as a rock on the ground or food in the trees."

She had referred to this earlier. Mindy thought that, among other things, one way to characterize the differences between humans and other animals was our unlimited ability to symbolize.

"It requires a symbolizing ability to take one word or image, and make it stand for some concrete thing found in nature. It takes a further symbolizing capability to make a word stand for some idea, like an electron, not so easily apparent in our immediate environment; not to mention even more abstract concepts such as love, grace, and beauty. And that's another thing. Aesthetics. We don't know if animals appreciate beauty in their own way. But we know that decorating ourselves with jewelry, costumes, and cosmetics makes us almost unique among animals. Drawing pictures or making statuettes is also unique to us humans. So art, which requires symbolic thinking, sets us apart. Furthermore, all that abstraction capability is necessary for coming up with concepts of God and an invisible world, which comprise religion, and the elegant and methodical analyses which give us the detailed reasoning of math and science."

"So, really, what you are saying is that symbolism underlies the two great paradigms of human thinking; religion and science?"

"Absolutely." She responded immediately.

"So how do self awareness and symbolic thinking connect?" I asked.

"The various qualities which we think of as uniquely human, derive from these two capabilities. And one of these capabilities derives from the other. Can you guess which?"

My momentary silence did not slow her.

"The ability of unlimited symbolization was only possible after we developed self-awareness. Consider this. Our brain constantly makes associations, a chair with sitting, a smile with happiness, and so on. The physical basis of such associations is nerve to nerve connections. These connections can be weak or strong but how we understand the universe is based upon how our nerves link different sensory input and concepts together.

"Our concept of self, the inside world, must initially be made from input of the pro-system. However, this same pro-system is also the first neural system upon which we model the outside world. So each of our concepts about the outside world has to funnel through the same system used to perceive the inside world, the self concept."

"It's like the metaphysical dictum of the macrocosm mirroring the microcosm." I remembered from my years of training. "Anyway, so the Pro-system is part of understanding both the world outside and the self?" I concluded.

"Yes, this places the neurological self concept in a position to function as central switchboard. Through this switchboard, any of our concepts can be associated with any other concept, no matter how loosely related they previously would have been."

"You're not talking about my conscious concept of self right now, your talking about some neurological representation of self in the brain."

"Correct. We'll get to your personal impression of self, and subjective versus objective later. Right now I'm making the point that those animals with a highly developed pro-system had the necessary equipment to develop an extensive neural concept of self. Once developed, the nerves serving the self concept were in a unique position to shortcut an association between any two ideas. The potential for symbolization, which is letting one thing stand for another, became unlimited by this association shortcut."

"That's awesome." I made the connection. I hoped she had the details worked out but it suddenly clicked in my head. "OK. OK. So why did this 'self switchboard' only happen for us, if all animals use the pro-system to model the world?"

"We needed a critical mass of self input and complexity of concepts. The animals that have emphasized thinking as their selective advantage have a dramatically enlarged pro-system. There's a theory advanced by Povinelli, that the great apes developed their pro-system disproportionately because they were such large tree dwellers.[22] The danger and complexity of movement for tree dwellers increases exponentially as their weight goes up. Thus, the great apes naturally have developed highly advanced proprioceptive systems and we know that the great apes are the only animals with a rudimentary sense of self."

"All right." I asked. "So as the concept of self became prominent, our ancestors could make associations that were never before possible. New ideas popped into their brains. Did that push language beyond the basic chimp communication?"

"I believe so. New ideas required more detailed expression. Then our mouths and voice boxes had to change. And they did. The archeological evidence shows that.

"Having many concepts and the language to express them, the race was on. Once somebody else comes up with an idea, if she can explain it to you, then you don't have to develop it yourself. Ideas have their own sort of evolution. Those with the qualities which lead to spreading themselves far and wide, to the type of people who tend to spread ideas far and wide, are more successful in the natural selection of ideas. Our brains could be looked upon as merely the culture media for them to grow on.

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