How Mind Emerged from Matter
for excerpts - Deacon-IncompleteNature
Terrence W. Deacon
The Symbolic Species
As our species designation – sapiens - suggests, the defining attribute of human beings is an unparalleled cognitive ability. We think differently from all other creatures on earth, and we can share those thoughts with one another in ways that no other species even approaches. Hundreds of millions of years of evolution have produced hundreds of thousands of species with brains, and tens of thousands with complex behavioural, perceptual, and learning abilities. Only one of these has ever wondered about its place in the world, because only one evolved the ability to do so…We tell stories about our real experiences and invent stories about imagined ones, and we even make use of these stories to organise our lives. In a real sense, we live our lives in this shared virtual world.
The doorway into this virtual world was opened to us alone by the evolution of language, because language is not merely a mode of communication, it is also the outward expression of an unusual mode of thought - symbolic representation.
Without symbolisation the entire virtual world... is out of reach…The way that language represents objects, events, and relationships provides a uniquely powerful economy of reference.
Reference is not the difference between alarm calls and words. Both can refer to things in the world and both can refer to internal states, but there is a difference. This difference is the source of the most common misunderstanding about the nature of linguistic versus nonlinguistic communication. It is a difference in the kind of reference. We tend to confuse different forms of reference with one another or else dichotomize referential versus non-referential communication, instead of recognising that modes of reference may differ may depend on one another in complicated ways.
The Reference Problem
What is the difference between the way a word refers to things and the way a vervet monkey alarm call, a laugh, or a portrait can refer to something else? Word meaning has always fascinated people because it is at once so simple and yet so elusive in the way it works. On the surface it seems to be no more than mapping or pairing between one thing and another - a sound or conventional set of markings (the signifier) on the one hand, and an object, process, or state of things (the signified) on the other. How the thing signified is brought into correspondence with the signifier is thought to distinguish different forms of reference. The difference between words and other means of referring to things appears to be the arbitrarity and conventionality of the linguistic link. But the little further probing into these relationships demonstrates that there must be more to it.
A more complicated terminology is necessary, then, to differenciate betweeen the way thar words, as opposed to laughter and other non-language signs , refer to things. We need terms that cut beneath the word reference and from which word reference can be derived as a special case, since that is the way it evolved and the way it develops in each of us. Words are not just sounds, configurations of ink on paper, or light on a computer screen. What endows these otherwise inanimate things with the capacity to refer to other things is an interpretive process.
Ultimately, reference is not intrinsic to a word, sound, gesture, or hieroglyph; it is created by the nature of some response to it.
Reference derives from the process of generating some cognitive action, an interpretive response; and differences in interpretive responses not only can determine different references for the same sign, but can determine reference in different ways.
We can refer to such interpretive responses as interpretants (Peirce). In cognitive terms, an interpretant is what ever enables one to infer the reference from some sign or signs and their context. Peirce recognised that the interpretants can not only be of different degrees of complexity but they can also be of categorically different kinds as well; moreover, he did not confine his definition only to what goes on in the head.
Whatever process determines reference qualifies as an interpretant.
The assumption that a one-to-one mapping of words onto objects and vice versa is the basis for meaning and reference was made explicit in the work of the turn-of-the-century French linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. In his widely influential work on semiology (his term for the study of language), he argued that word meaning can be modelled by an element-by-element mapping between two planes of objects: from elements constituting the plane of signifiers (words) to elements on the plane of the signified (ideas, objects, events, etc., that word is refer to).
On this view, the mapping of vervet monkey alarm calls onto predators could be considered a signifier-signified relationship. But how accurate it does this model word-reference?
Although it is natural to imagine words as labels for objects, or mental images, or concepts, we can now see that such correspondences alone collapses a multileveled relationship into a single mapping relationship. It fails to distinguish between the rote understanding of words that my dog possesses and the semantic understanding of that in normal human speaker exhibits.
We also saw that the correspondence of words to reference is not enough to explain word meaning because the actual frequency of correlations between items on the two planes is extremely low. Instead, what I hope to show is that the relationship is the reverse of what we commonly imagined.
The correspondence between words and objects is a secondary relationship, subordinate to a web of associative relationships of a quite different sort, which even allows us reference to impossible things.
In order to be more specific about differences in referential form, philosophers and semoticians have often distinguished between different forms of referential relationships. Probably the most successful classification of representational relationships was provided by the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce.
As part of a larger scheme of semiotic relationships, he distinguished three categories of referential associations: icon, index, and symbol.
The key is the co-evolutionary perspective which recognises that the evolution of language took place neither inside nor outside brains, but at the interface where cultural evolutionary processes affect biological revolutionary processes.
The evolution of symbolic communication is special in this regard. It created a mode of extrabiological inheritance with a particularly powerful and complex character, and with a sort of autonomous life of its own.
It is for this reason that the co-evolutionary process has played such a major role in shaping human brains and minds. It is simply not possible to understand human anatomy, human biology, or human psychology without recognising that they have all been shaped by something that could best be described as an idea : the idea of symbolic reference.
Though symbolic thinking can be entirely personal and private, symbolic reference itself is intrinsically social. Not only do we individually gain access to this powerful mode of representation through interactions with other members of the society into which we are born, but symbols themselves can be traced to a social origin. Our uniquely human minds are, in a very concrete sense, the products of an unusual reproductive challenge that only a symbolic reference was able to address - a concrete internalisation of an ancient and persisting social evolutionary predicament that is uniquely human.