A general epistemology of cognition and consciousness V.13.0
Why do we not understand consciousness?
Astronomers can look thirteen billion years into the past and find evidence that supports theories about how the universe evolved. Physicists make precise predictions about quantum electrodynamics and general relativity that have been repeatedly confirmed by experiment. In the last fifty years advances in electrophysiology, molecular biology and computational neuroscience have produced new predictive theories about how our brains respond to stimuli. But we do not understand the nature of everyday experience.
Some neuroscientists and philosophers predict that we will never be able to explain how our mind is integrated with our brain or why we subjectively experience sensations. But everything we do know including our intimate and intense experiences with each other, our precise ways of navigating and manipulating the environment, our understanding of evolution, physics, chemistry, biology and our own physiology, we only know because we are conscious.
Then why is there no consensus on a definition of consciousness? Currently there are about seven billion reporting experts on subjective experience in the world. The fact that even those who study the mind and brain cannot agree upon a basic description of our collective cognitive existence testifies to the enigmatic solitude of consciousness. On a fundamental level we are mysteries to each other.
Neuroscientists will continue to make more precise predictions about cognition and consciousness with the reductive analysis of neural systems. When I read neuroscience literature I ask a few basic questions. Is there a common framework that ties this evidence and theory with other theories of cognition? How can this evidence be understood in the larger contexts of the body, the species and the environment? Can we find common frameworks in those contexts?
Consciousness does not exist independent of a totalized context of species and biomes evolving in nature. The functions of cognition in the largest sense may be determined by its contexts in the largest sense. We may begin to understand the functions of consciousness to the degree that we understand it in context with nature and the social processes that enable it.
In order to hypothesize cognitive functions from its contexts I will use systems theory and non-equilibrium thermodynamics as a means of synthesizing contexts. I will describe one possible interpretation of cognitive functions in an attempt to synthesize recent theoretical approaches in physics and neuroscience within systems theory.
The purpose of a general epistemology of cognition is to outline a theoretical foundation for a standard model of cognition that would be compatible with the standard model of particle physics. My hypothesis of one possible set of functions of cognition is based in part on Quantum Bayesianism (Qbism), a foundational interpretation of the standard model of particle physics. Qbism is a hypothesis to solve the measurement problem of quantum physics by proposing that the probabilities derived from experimental inference are subjective artifacts of human perception and action in constant interaction with the environment but are not objective properties of the environment. Basing both standard models of particle physics and cognition on a relational interpretation of derived probabilities may help to advance theories for both cognition and physics.
Contexts of cognition
What are the totalized contexts of cognition, how do quantum fields, thermodynamics and classical mechanics interact to produce the genetic, metabolic and physiological processes that facilitate cognition? How are those processes integrated in the evolutionary, developmental and social contexts of cognition?
Our body, brain and mind are the products of natural selection, they are the adaptations of our species to environmental conditions. Those evolving fundamental conditions set the parameters of our physiological and cognitive adaptations. Our conscious cognition of fundamental conditions is a subset of cognition which is a subset of our adaptation to an evolving environment.
The existence of a species is dependent upon its successful coevolution with other species in a biome of relatively consistent environmental conditions. The existence of an individual organism depends upon the previous successful conception, development, adaptation, reproduction and the eventual death of all of its ancestors and its survival depends upon a cooperative family or community within a biome of coevolving species. The consciousness of an individual originates within that community and it is sustained within the community's culture. Our conscious cognition of those fundamental social conditions is a subset of our adaptation to an evolving species.
The scientific process of proposing a hypothesis, testing predictions, evaluating results and reformulating theories has produced a set of fine regularities that help us define specific and fundamental conditions. Theories have to make testable predictions that can be replicated in order to continually refine and advance our knowledge of patterns of regularities in the environment. The physical and temporal variables within experiments are necessarily limited by the physical and temporal exigencies of human perceptual phenomenology and correlated extrapolations from technologies that extend our perception.
If theories are applied as laws of nature beyond that frame of variables that assumes the results of experiments could be replicated in any temporal context and across all scales of space. We may act with these assumptions but that conflicts with any interpretation of spacetime in Einstein's general theory of relativity. The results of evidence based scientific process within that framework is therefore limited to producing a gradually increasing probability of accuracy in defining only subset processes. The regularities of microstates and subsystems cannot be extrapolated to laws of the universe.(Smolin)
But hypotheses can also be developed using systems theory and the non-equilibrium thermodynamics of a closed system model of the universe. The statistical thermodynamics of that model can be applied to all macrostates over time and therefor can be used to form hypotheses of a dynamic whole system with open subsystems that can be tested within larger subsystem processes.
Biomes, species and organisms are defined in systems theory as open systems within a closed system universe, a framework that integrates thermodynamics, information theory and evolutionary theory. The fundamental evolutionary process is the constant non-equilibrium change from low entropy to a relatively higher entropy state because the second law of thermodynamics states that the total entropy of a closed system can only increase over time. Biological open systems paradoxically conform to the second law of thermodynamics by using free energy (energy in the environment available to perform thermodynamic work) to decrease entropy within their boundary and increase entropy outside their boundary. In terms of information theory entropy is a relational artifact (information of possible external states) of biological open systems persisting as counter-evolutionary adaptations to an expanding universe.
The non-equilibrium evolution to a generally higher entropy state includes areas of relatively constant temperature and pressure where available free energy drives autocatalytic chemical processes to form cycles of complex molecular bonds. The bonds of these molecules become irreversible only if free energy and basic elements are available to produce a dissipative thermodynamic system.(England) Autocatalytic cycles that can use available elements and free energy most efficiently and outcompete other processes are naturally selected to persist. The irreversible molecular bonds produced by these dissipative cycles may be the basis of perception, memory, genetic replication and the biological reduction of entropy.
The most efficient dissipative cycles evolved to replicate themselves and formed prokaryotic organisms. Evolving prokaryotes used free energy to symbiotically incorporate other prokaryotes or archaea within themselves to form eukaryotic cells. Eukaryotes form cooperative relationships with other eukaryotes and prokaryotes and some groups of cells create boundaries and enclose themselves to form multicelled organisms. This symbiosis of prokaryotes and eukaryotes forms evolving open systems that use free energy to lower entropy as complex eukaryotic organisms with emergent levels of genetically reproducing species.
Species and their organisms are maintained over time in a condition of relative homeostasis due to dissipative molecular processes that balance internal consistency and reduce entropy. Those metabolic and neurologic processes maintain homeostasis by adjusting internal states to external conditions with sensory information and that can be modeled by Bayesian statistical inference. A prior probability distribution of information about the environment determined by genetic and epigenetic conditioning is factored with a likelihood function determined by current sensory evidence to produce a posterior probability distribution or an updated working hypothesis of the world.(Friston)
Fundamental and cognitive bias
Homeostasis is the physiological basis of emotion, the natural biological response to immediate or potential disruption of internal consistency. Every physiological variable in the body has a normative set point, e.g. the normal body temperature of humans is 98.6 F. When one or more physiological variables are deviated away from their normative values by intrinsic or extrinsic processes then related physiological variables within that subsystem alter their normative set points to compensate and maintain homeostasis. Related systems in the body then alter their normative set points to compensate and maintain homeostasis.
The whole body effect of that interactive and dynamic process is emotion. Physiological emotional process is unconscious but it is subjectively experienced as instinct subconsciously and as feeling consciously. When an organism is ill or threatened by something in the environment subconscious or conscious emotion signals the initiation of a survival response and the restoration and maintenance of homeostasis. Anxiety is the demand for certainty exceeding the supply. Emotion in that sense necessarily grounds all cognitive processes in biologic value, prioritizes cognitive attention, motivates action and gives memories a dynamic valence.(Damasio)
We tend to think of emotion as an epiphenomenal process in the sense that our brain and body somehow construct emotion. We construct categories and interpretations of emotions from our memories and our cultural conditioning but the homeodynamic source of emotion is our core physiological integrity and health. Homeostasis is an example of top-down causation and a refutation of bottom up determinism because it uses cybernetic feedback mechanisms to achieve a higher level process goal of maintaining relative macrostate equilibrium.(Ellis) The macrostate homeodynamic process determines changes within its microstates therefor emotion has emergent causal power.
If homeostasis is the distributed organizing principle of organic open systems then emotion constructs our body, our cognition and our consciousness. The fundamental emotional bias of homeostasis is the constant subconscious feeling of the need to establish and re-balance internal consistency as well as a sense of agency that can maintain that internal stability. This emotional bias shapes the nature of our perceptions, memories, motivations and actions so our conception of reality is structured by this homeodynamic drive to survive.
But the intrinsic emotional bias for certainty has to be counterbalanced by a natural cognitive bias in an organism's sensory processes to perceive variant events that are relevant to the organisms wellbeing. Motor and sensory processes have a cognitive novelty bias that prioritizes variant events or the absence of predicted invariance by evaluating percepts with the embodied syntax of procedural motor memories of past events. Those variant percepts are then evaluated by a homeodynamic syntax to determine if they are vital to the organism's status.
The primary emotional demand for constancy conditions the prior beliefs of Bayesian inferential process with a bias for regularity. The cognitive bias for detecting novel and vital events insures that organisms at least factor that emotional bias with relevant evidence of likelihoods from the environment in order to produce updated adaptive beliefs about the environment. But the cognitive bias is secondary to and in service of the fundamental survival requirement of homeostasis. All novel or unpredicted percepts are evaluated by a homeodynamic syntax to determine which factors in the environment need to be attended to in order to maintain homeostasis.
This Bayesian inferential relationship of biased prior beliefs with our experience of novel or random events is repeated within the history of human culture and it evolved into the scientific method. We emerged from prehistory, as from the womb, with the predilection to believe that the world revolves around us and with a desire for the world to be orderly. We unconsciously test that world in our waking state and when it does not conform to our biased predictions then we become conscious of change and we either alter our theories of the world or we act to change the world to conform to our beliefs. The scientific method established the testing of hypotheses as a conscious and social act. That rapidly increased the spread of adaptive beliefs and technologies but the fundamental bias for certainty remains.
Our cultural conception of reality is based on the testable macro-state mechanics of Newtonian physics. With that foundation we assume that locality and causality are universal across scales of space to reinforce our belief that space and matter are predictable and fundamental. The molecular realities of quantum superposition and entanglement are not perceptible to us because of the temporal and physical scale of molecular change. Our cognitive bias for the detection of novel and vital events originates within molecular perceptual processes that only register quantum decoherence so our experience of reality is described by classical mechanics. That is inevitable because as organic macro-states we can only perceive or in fact embody order with the statistical regularities of our relative size.
"The laws of physics and physical chemistry are inaccurate within a probable relative error of the order of 1/ √ n, where n is the number of molecules that co-operate to bring about that law –to produce its validity within such regions of space or time (or both) that matter, for some considerations or for some particular experiment. You see from this again that an organism must have a comparatively gross structure in order to enjoy the benefit of fairly accurate laws, both for its internal life and for its interplay with the external world. For otherwise the number of co-operating particles would be too small, the ‘law’ too inaccurate. The particularly exigent demand is the square root. For though a million is a reasonably large number, an accuracy of just 1 in 1,000 is not overwhelmingly good, if a thing claims the dignity of being a ‘Law of Nature’." What is Life? Erwin SchrödingerIf the regularities of matter and space that we perceive are only emergent manifestations of quantum processes then time must be fundamental to the emergence of Newtonian mechanics from quantum fields. Therefore time and uncertainty are fundamental for thermodynamic macrostates that depend on the organic reduction of entropy to survive in an environment of increasing entropy.
We try to understand our consciousness based on beliefs that are conditioned by the maintenance of homeostasis and our emotional demand for certainty. We act on the assumption that we exist in an environment where the laws of nature are constant and those laws define predictable processes. Religious and scientific endeavors express our collective and individual demand for certainty by constantly striving to find and elucidate timeless laws and truths. We implicitly reaffirm those truths for each other when we interact because those assumptions are embedded within our language and technology. When we do act we impose our demand for certainty upon the world and we create regularity to suit our emotional bias. But artistic endeavors, the cognitive bias for novelty and our ravenous appetite for new information are evidence that we have evolved within an environment of increasing entropy where irregular and random processes exist in combination with regular and predictable processes.
The fundamental emotional bias for certainty also leads us to believe that we are physiologically and cognitively autonomous because a sense of complete agency protects us from being overwhelmed by uncertainty. We do have degrees of freedom to act within non-equilibrium thermodynamics by manipulating the regularities of Newtonian mechanics with probabilistic predictive inference. The feeling of agency comes from the sense that we can react effectively to inner states and change our environment, acting in emotion. When we create change that enhances our belief that we have complete autonomy. But we are also constrained by the biological imperative to conform to species homeostasis as our consciousness originates and is sustained within a symbiotic web of social cooperation, language and culture.
It is in our fundamental nature to act on the beliefs that the laws of nature are fixed and predictable and that we are fully autonomous beings. These two beliefs contradict each other because if the laws of nature are constant then the future is entirely determined by the past and we have no freedom to act autonomously. But nature is not entirely predictable while we do have a limited capacity to act autonomously. Our cognitive contradictions reflect the adaptive advantage of limiting our overall conscious awareness of uncertainty in order to deliberately plan actions beyond instinctive reactions. We cannot consciously perceive the nature of our mind much less the totalized fundamental processes of nature because our homeodynamic bias structures consciousness to facilitate the focused goal-directed actions required to impose regularities on our environment to insure that we have the free energy in nutrients for cellular respiration in the future. Consciousness must ignore all of the uncertainties outside of that narrow focus in order for the organism to act in the environment, reproduce and maintain species homeostasis.
The ability to create effective predictions for planned actions is enabled by the capacity to cognitively manipulate models of learned regularities with an embodied tool use syntax. That subjectively seems to create a boundless imagination that we use to impose order in the environment. But in order to constantly maintain homeostasis our homeodynamic bias simultaneously requires a broader unconscious cognition of our body in relation to the certainties and uncertainties in the environment which remains opaque to us. Consciousness is a powerful and crucial subset of our total cognition and it is limited by a necessary division of cognitive labor and the adaptive advantages of extended temporal planning of actions. Our theories and beliefs about ourselves and our environment are constructed by the imperative to resist disorder and constrained by the simultaneous advantage of acting as if the world was ordered.
We act consciously and unconsciously on the false belief that the laws of nature are fixed and predictable but we act to make that belief true. We have succeeded in temporarily transforming our chaotic environment into a more predictable and comfortable cultural configuration space with the technological products of active scientific inference. Human consciousness is built upon a powerful subconscious Newtonian hack of non-equilibrium thermodynamics that gives us collective agency without complete comprehension. The conundrums of the mind/body problem, the hard problem of consciousness, the nature of free will and the measurement problem of quantum physics are the cognitive costs of the delusions of technological consciousness and civilization. The growing environmental costs of civilization should make us question the unconscious premises of our conscious decisions.
If we can infer all of the properties and effects of homeodynamic bias then we can begin to factor that in the formation of hypotheses about consciousness, cognition, ourselves and our environment to more accurately reflect fundamental processes and our full relation with nature.
A theory of knowledge
Premise 1: Time is relational and local but real and fundamental for all organic open systems within a closed system universe. The second law of thermodynamics implies an irreversible arrow of time and change. The laws of nature are not fixed, they evolve. (Smolin)
Hypothesis: Organic open systems depend on the biological reduction of entropy and the maintenance of homeostasis to survive in an environment of increasing entropy. If time is fundamental and the laws of nature are not fixed then mediating uncertainty is the fundamental challenge of maintaining homeostasis. The probabilities of uncertainty are both the problem organic open systems must solve and the means to solve that problem.
Premise 2: Organic open systems use probabilistic cognitive processes that can be modeled by Bayesian inference to maintain homeostasis within non-equilibrium thermodynamics. A prior probability distribution determined by genetic and epigenetic conditioning is factored with a likelihood function determined by current sensory evidence to produce a posterior probability distribution or an updated working hypothesis of the world. (Friston)
Premise 3: The distributed homeostatic bias and survival requirement of organic open systems is the necessity for the constant re-balancing of internal constancy and the agency to maintain that internal stability. Emotion is the unified physiological and cognitive expression of that homeodynamic process. (Damasio)
Hypothesis: Homeostasis is the distributed organizing principle of organic open systems in the non-equilibrium thermodynamics of a closed system universe. The macrostate homeodynamic process determines changes within it's microstates therefor emotion has emergent causal power. Emotion as the expression of homeodynamic process structures our species, our body, our cognition and our consciousness.
Hypothesis: Homeostatic bias structures consciousness to facilitate action in the environment. In order to obtain free energy and maintain homeostasis organisms act on the false beliefs that space and matter are fundamental and the laws of nature are fixed. Humans use those false beliefs to limit our awareness of uncertainties and then to model and plan actions to instantiate those beliefs within our immediate environment and make them temporarily real. We can impose order on a disordered environment but we cannot consciously perceive the totalized fundamental processes of nature.
Fixed implicit memory is the expression of genetically replicated irreversible molecular processes. Working memory is the expression of temporary molecular processes produced by the perceptual inference of irregularity in the environment. Dynamic implicit memory is the expression of epigenetic molecular bonds that represent learned patterns of processes in the environment.
Waking primary consciousness is awareness of homeodynamically vital unpredicted percepts within working memory (likelihoods) inferentially factored with dynamic implicit memory (priors). The adaptive products of that hierarchical Bayesian synthesis are subjective experience and optimized predictions of the immediate future. The accumulated prediction errors of waking consciousness are inferentially consolidated during sleep which reduces entropy in the organism and represents updated patterns and models of the environment in dynamic implicit memory.
The consolidation in dynamic implicit memory of regularized symbolic absential objects and an embodied procedural syntax for tool use are the necessary precursors for language and an extended human social consciousness. Humans use language to manipulate symbolic objects and model planned actions on extended temporal scales beyond the instinctual reactions of primary consciousness. Language mediates social homeostasis and offloads adaptive regularities of semantic objects and embodied tool use syntax into the social environment. Culture is the social process of instantiating those adaptive regularities into the physical environment as technology which reduces entropy within the species.
The cognitive task of all biological organisms is the maintenance of internal homeostasis within a physical environment of increasing entropy evolving in time that is a mixture of predicted, unpredicted and unpredictable random processes. In order to maintain homeostasis waking vertebrates must solve two fundamentally different problems simultaneously: maintain the integrity of the body internally and act in the environment to obtain the free energy in nutrients required by cellular respiration and the reduction of entropy.
As elements of a species organisms also have the cognitive task of adaptation to social homeostasis and the facilitation of reproduction within a social environment evolving in time that is a mixture of predicted, unpredicted and unpredictable processes.
If adaptation to unpredicted processes is conscious and adaptation to predicted processes is unconscious then biological organisms have interoceptive cognition, interoceptive consciousness, exteroceptive cognition and exteroceptive consciousness. Social cognition and social consciousness are subsets of exteroceptive cognition. Humans have all those types of cognition along with an extended social consciousness.
A. Interoceptive cognition is the expression of the organism’s processing of predicted percepts in the body. It is the parallel processing of expected visceral processes interpreted by a homeodynamic syntax within implicit memory. Interoceptive cognition is unconscious although it is experienced by interoceptive consciousness proprioceptively.
B. Interoceptive consciousness is adaptation to unpredicted percepts in the body. It is awareness of homeodynamically vital visceral percepts, inferential factoring of the percepts in the Bayesian networks between working memory and dynamic implicit memory, prediction, action and learning from reaction. Interoceptive consciousness is active when a physiological imbalance determines that a change in cognitive attention and action is required in order to maintain homeostasis.
C. Exteroceptive cognition is the expression of an organism’s processing of predicted percepts in the environment. It is the parallel processing of sensory and motor reactions interpreted by an embodied syntax of learned procedural memories within implicit memory. Exteroceptive cognition is unconscious although it is experienced by exteroceptive consciousness proprioceptively.
D. Exteroceptive consciousness is the adaptation to uncertainty and increasing entropy in the environment. It is awareness of unexpected homeodynamically evaluated percepts, inferential factoring of the percepts in the Bayesian memory networks, prediction, action and learning from reaction. Exteroceptive consciousness is active when a homeodynamic evaluation of percepts determines that a change in cognitive attention and action is required in order to maintain homeostasis.
C. Social cognition is the individual expression of the processing of predictable interpersonal percepts. It is parallel processing of learned social responses interpreted by a social syntax of procedural memories within implicit memory. Social cognition is unconscious although it is experienced by social consciousness proprioceptively.
D. Social consciousness is individual adaptation to the species adaptations to increasing entropy. It is the cognition of socially modified adaptive behavior that requires communication or cooperation between individuals at any level. It is awareness of unpredicted homeodynamically vital social percepts, inferential factoring of the percepts in Bayesian memory networks, prediction, action and learning from reaction. It is driven by the emotional response to immediate or potential social disruption of homeostasis or a hormonally induced homeodynamic imbalance in the organism naturally selected to provoke and reward instinctual procreative, parental and subsistence co-behavior. Social consciousness is active when emotion determines that a change in cognitive attention and action is required in order to maintain social homeostasis.
Ontogeny of cognition
The precursors of working memory and implicit memory develop in utero in the inferential relationship that is the origin of both sleep and cognition. The fetal working memory factors unpredicted interoceptive percepts with fixed implicit memory, the molecular bonds of genetic information that guide natal development. This creates a homeodynamic syntax in dynamic implicit memory of learned homeodynamic and autonomic processes.
As the organism grows and is exposed to exteroceptive percepts the accumulated prediction errors of sensory and motor inferential process in working memory are used in slow wave and REM sleep networks to inferentially consolidate representations into an embodied syntax of adaptive procedural memories within dynamic implicit memory. In organisms with extended consciousness this is subjectively experienced as dreaming; a self disoriented in place and time (because there is no external sensory input) within a virtual reality of re-consolidating memories.
Primary consciousness is initiated upon waking by synchronizing exteroceptive sensory and motor processes with the Bayesian networks between working memory and dynamic implicit memory. That facilitates the simultaneous adaptation to predicted percepts with the embodied syntax of unconscious procedural memory and to homeodynamically vital unpredicted percepts in working memory factored with dynamic intrinsic memory. The constant testing of biased prior beliefs with vital unpredicted percepts forms a coherent subjective self process that is both the world as the organism experiences it and the predictions that they act on. Immediate feedback from actions effectively enables real time learning and adaptation within working memory. In organisms with extended consciousness that synthesis is subjectively experienced as a self acting within a virtual reality of memory but oriented to place and time with the serial ability remember past scenarios or to attend and act on sensory input.
Evolution of human extended consciousness
As brain size increased the limited pelvic opening required by bipedalism enforced premature birth and neotenous child rearing. The neotenous infant required constant protection and attention, only possible within a cooperative social system.
The neotenous infant’s sensory and motor interaction with the environment is primed by fetal cognition of maternal speech to predict patterns of vocalizations. These patterns are given value by the child's projection of intentionality and reproduced by mimesis. When left alone the child rapidly learns that their survival is dependant upon something that can potentially be absent and their vocalization can result in maternal attention. Motor development thus becomes dedicated in part to the manipulation of vocalization and the child begins to form cognitive absential objects.
The sleeping child gradually consolidates regularized representations of absential objects and the regularities of embodied syntax for tool (toy) use into dynamic implicit memory. As those two parallel but separate abilities develop the waking infant begins to use tool use syntax within the inferential networks of memory to construct abstract ideas and scenarios with cognitive objects. Playing and learning with objects in the environment is mirrored internally by using tool use syntax to play with cognitive objects. That is the process that the child uses to create a model of a selfobject acting within a virtual reality of memory that is based on the external model of the parent, the primal absential object.
The child gradually internalizes the parental model until it is incorporated into the child’s homeostatic state and it then symbolically represents the child’s subjective sense of identity and agency. The perception of self and the perception of time are mutually interdependent artifacts of this virtual subjective self. The greater the contents of memory the greater the potential expanse of virtual time and thus the greater the sense of self. Infants have the proto-conscious element of internal inferential potential in utero but lack the memories of environmental engagement to construct a narrative self. The expanded sense of self and time enables the child to begin to model and plan actions and that increases the adaptive use of learned responses.
The use of embodied syntax to manipulate cognitive objects opens up a vast playground of imagination beyond the creation of a symbolic subjective self. Because the subjective self was originally constructed from an absential object the child intuits subjectivity in other significant interpersonal objects. Then the child can imagine itself as an object within interpersonal environments and constructs a personality within that relational social context. The child also learns to form complex recursive associations and categories of symbolic objects that become semantic objects which they can also manipulate with embodied syntax.
Neoteny is required for extended social consciousness because developmental plasticity enables embodied tool use syntax to be directly integrated with motor procedural memory for speech. That becomes the subconscious shared social substrate for language acquisition. As the child develops a vocabulary of symbolic objects the integration of embodied syntax in language also serves as an internal substrate for the construction of abstract ideas and a narrative self within an internal virtual reality of memory. The natal developmental synthesis of social and cognitive applications of embodied tool use syntax with symbolic objects becomes the autocatalytic engine of dynamic human consciousness, language, culture and technology.
The adaptive advantage of consciousness
An environment with the fundamental property of increasing entropy presents particular challenges, particular opportunities, and particular constraints for organisms. The challenges are the unpredictable and debilitating effects of increasing entropy. The opportunities are the possible actions enabled by effective predictive inference within non-equilibrium thermodynamics. The constraint is the biological imperative for individuals to conform to social homeostasis and the species level adaptations to increasing entropy. Consciousness is an adaptation to increasing entropy that uses the opportunities of action to mediate the challenges of unpredictability within the constraints of species homeostasis.
Consciousness is awareness of homeodynamically vital unpredicted percepts factored with memory within an integrated self process. Awareness disengaged from memory does not integrate the self processes with the body or environment, the synthesis of awareness with memory is required for consciousness.
Animal primary consciousness is awareness of vital unpredicted percepts factored with implicit memories of predicted experience. Primary consciousness serves to promote and maintain homeostasis within the individual and the species by channeling unpredicted percepts with possible threats to homeostasis into the Bayesian networks of memory to be factored with learned responses from prior experiences. That forms predictions of optimal actions. Predictions are enacted and feedback from actions is cycled through evaluation to learn from feedback. All of those processes require the transmission of information over time. Primary consciousness mediates uncertainty by using an internal virtual reality of learned adaptive memories to improve responses to unpredicted threats and to act in the environment.
Human social consciousness is animal consciousness integrated and extended into a narrative self process created with socially constructed language. Extended consciousness improves the individual's adaptation by channeling an individual’s awareness of unpredicted percepts into a 100,000 year old shared virtual linguistic reality of semantic objects and constantly updating adaptive memories. This enables the ability to model and plan actions on extended temporal scales. Shared cultural narratives of trusted predictions become instantiated and embodied in the manufacture and use of tools so parallel processing of predicted percepts for the individual is offloaded within technology. This frees up the individual’s cognitive resources to be in a constant cooperative and corrective cycle with their culture and that enables the chain of reciprocal learning that improves individual adaptation and reduces entropy within the species.
Extended consciousness is subjectively experienced as the maintenance of an ordered present that recursively attempts to create a reality of an ordered future with a narrative of optimized predictions. If an organism of a species is homeodynamically motivated to maintain internal order and it has the ability to create relatively accurate predictions within non-equilibrium thermodynamics and it is integrated in a social body that cooperates to instantiate adaptive predictions in technology then that organism and species will temporarily impose order on a disordered environment. That has been the radically adaptive strategy that has allowed Homo sapiens to thrive and reduce entropy within the species.
Problems and Implications
The view that emerges from this theory of cognition is deflationary regarding consciousness but inflationary for emotion. It is a deflationary view of consciousness because it assigns our conscious cognition a specific role of enabling instinctual reactions and planned actions informed by memory within the limitations imposed by a cognitive division of labor. Consciousness is a Newtonian mechanism for navigating a non-equilibrium quantum world without comprehension but with agency to build upon molecular entropy reducing mechanisms. It narrows our awareness of the environment to a manageable configuration space with defined variables and then we project ourselves into the future with extended predictions refined by algorithms learned from past actions.
This theory is an inflationary view of emotion because it gives an emergent causal power to the homeodynamic mechanisms of biological open systems. Emotion is the totalized physiological expression of homeodynamic process and the reduction of entropy in the individual. Every percept and thought is homeodynamically evaluated relative to our physiological integrity and the result of that evaluation is experienced viscerally in subjective consciousness. Experience is subtly infused with this subjective quality of emotion by necessity because it is the means by which consciousness is biased to maintain our physiological integrity. Without that subjectivity our mind would be a poor guide for our actions and health.
But paradoxically consciousness is also subjectively distanced from our emotions in the process of using our memories to improve our predictions and actions. Consciousness separates mind from the embodied source of emotions as we form a cognitive model of the body interacting with the environment based on past experience. The model is then compared to the results of actions to continually update the model and improve future predictions. The model (our conscious experience) has to be differentiated from the results of the action (sensory and emotive evidence of the body) to continually learn about our relationship with a dynamic environment and successfully interact with it. The mind is not simply of the body or of the world, it is the relational process of a biological open system persisting in an expanding universe.
Both the hard problem of consciousness and the mind/body problem are the product of that adaptive differentiation of a relational mind and emotive body. Our ability to simplify non-equilibrium processes into cognitive objects in a configuration space in order to model ourselves in the environment allows us to benefit from our individual and cultural memories. The cost of that benefit is a subjective distance of emotion from our conscious experience despite emotion's emergent causal power.
But the distance of feeling from our conscious experience also gives us a chance to not react impulsively and thus be responsible for our actions with negative will. In that sense "free will" consists of two components. The first is the emergent causal potential to act in emotion and cause change in our environment with agency. The second component is the ability to model possible actions and consider consequences of alternative actions instead of reacting on impulse. If both components are engaged then we have a constrained and negative will and we are responsible for our actions.
Emotion is the global motivating force driving an organism’s internal dynamics and external actions. If we accept that view that would appear to make emotion a deterministic factor in a limited future. However, the environment that we project ourselves into is not a limited Newtonian configuration space, it is a dynamic non-equilibrium chaotic process with infinite possible configurations. Our emotional motivations are only limited by the range of options that we have learned from past experience and the ability to model many possible actions. The limitations of learned responses then becomes the constraint that paradoxically liberates consciousness from the tyranny of infinite choices.
If we are finally able to agree on a description of consciousness our minds will still remain mysterious to each other. We communicate with language structured by the common mechanical syntax of bodies moving through space. We also communicate with subconscious emotional cues from the homeodynamic syntax of our physiological state. In face to face interactions we have access to a level of each other's emotional state ("body language") that we cannot directly access ourselves.
But the subjective nature of experience is a private ship drifting in a proprioceptive current of social forces whose only constancy is our point of view. Our consciousness necessarily limits our awareness of each other in order to act effectively so when we presume to know someone we cease to be aware of their complexity and fluid nature.
That persistent fact rises above all knowledge about ourselves and the world. What we do not know is infinitely greater than what we know and no matter how much we learn that ratio does not fundamentally change. What determines our fate is not what we know but what we do not know.
The Newtonian paradigm has given humans collective agency to survive and thrive within our environment but at the cost of an entirely rational enchantment and wonder in the mysteries that surround us. Boredom and alienation are rational reactions within the walls of social configuration spaces that exploit cultural biases. But boredom and alienation are irrational beyond those walls.
If we are to survive the fouling of our nest we must first be re-enchanted in each other and the world. That does not mean abandoning the technical advances of the Newtonian paradigm or limiting our search for knowledge. On the contrary, learning how Newtonian methods break apart whole systems without awareness of synthesis shows us the limitations of those methods and will open up new paradigms of knowledge and adaptations to nature. The scientific method enables us to manipulate nature at the cost of alienation from nature. A post-Newtonian and post-cartesian paradigm must reintegrate us with nature.
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Friston, K., Pezzulo, G., Rigoli, F. (2015). Active Inference, Homeostatic Regulation and Adaptive Behavioural Control. Progress In Neurobiology. 134, 17-35.
Fuchs, C., Mermin, N., Schack, R., (2014). An Introduction to Qbism with an Application to the Locality of Quantum Mechanics. American Journal of Physics, 82(8), 749-754.
Prigogine, I., Stengers, I. (1996). The End Of Certainty. The Free Press.
Schrödinger, E. (1944). What Is Life. Cambridge University Press.
Schulz, K. (2010). Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error. Ecco.
Smolin, L. (2006). The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science and What Comes Next. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Smolin, L. (2014). Time Reborn: from the Crisis of Physics to the Future of the Universe. Penguin Books.
Wiener, N. (1950). The Human Use of Human Beings. Houghton Mifflin.
Also influenced by the theories of Terrence Deacon, Daniel Dennett, Gerald Edelman, Stuart Kauffman, Lynn Margulis, Iain McGilchrist, Nicholas Schiff, Michael Tomasello, Zoltan Torey and E. O. Wilson.