A Short Course on Biosemiotics: 3. The origin of mind

Alexei A. Sharov
Laboratory of Genetics
National Institute on Aging (NIA/NIH)
Baltimore, USA
Presented in the Embryo Physics Course, April 25, 2012


In contrast to the human standard for mind established by Turing, I search for a minimal mind, which is present in animals and even lower-level organisms. Mind is a tool for classification and modeling of objects. Its origin marks an evolutionary transition from protosemiotic agents, whose signs directly control actions, to eusemiotic agents, whose signs correspond to ideal objects. The hallmark of mind is a holistic perception of objects, which is not reducible to individual features or signals. Mind can support true intentionality of agents because goals become represented by classes or states of objects. Classification capacity of mind may have originated from the ability of organisms to classify states of their own body. Within primary modeling system, ideal objects are not connected with each other and often tailored for specific functions, whereas in the secondary modeling system, ideal objects are independent from functions and become interconnected via arbitrarily established links. Testing of models can be described by commuting diagrams that integrate measurements, model predictions, object tracking, and actions. Language, which is the tertiary modeling system, supports efficient communication of models between individuals.




3 responses to “A Short Course on Biosemiotics: 3. The origin of mind”

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  1. I will summarize my question during your lecture below.

    You seem to have notion (slide 30) of conscious/unconscious in a sense rational/irrational. It seems to be wrong.

    Let us consider for example visual conscious experience. It is not related to being rational/irrational, it is related to experience that we have. For example, your eyes are constantly moving, but this happens unconsciously and your 3D vision remains stable. This shows that the interaction of electromagnetic waves with the retina is not yet perception/conscious experience. What is on the retina constantly changes but you do not mention it. Your conscious visual experience remains stable.

    Another example that I like is pain. The difference with vision is that pain is not related to our senses, it is our internal feeling that is presumably related to some neuron spikes (for example phantom pain) but not all neuron spikes cause pain. The question is what is the difference. One can say that pain is some sort of classification in the brain but if it would be possible to convince patients that experienced pain is just a representation of pain, this would change the healthcare system drastically.

    Hence in my view, your hierarchy misses the distinction where unconscious process become conscious experience.

    Finally, I would like to be back to the comparison with physicalism. It seems that your system is compatible with it, I would say that you use another basis to represent the same subspace. Yet after all it seems to be possible to jump from the physicalism basis to your description and then back if necessary.

  2. Alexei Sharov says:

    Evgenii, thank you for your comments!
    (1) Consciousness was not my main topic, and I don’t claim that my interpretation is better than others. Consciousness seems to have multiple aspects and I have not seen a clear definition. So rational/irrational is just one of the aspects that I think is relevant, but if you would like to remove it, I will not argue.
    (2) Pain is a classification at the level of neurons, not brain. Thus most people cannot control it. But we also have a conscious representation of pain at the brain level. Thus we can think about pain without feeling it.
    (3) Physicalism includes physics as a language for description and modeling of reality as well as a conservative methodology, which claims that all alternative descriptions of reality are either wrong or can be reduced to physics. Biosemiotics is fully compatible with physics as a language for describing reality. However, it is fully incompatible with the methodology of physicalism.

  3. I agree that there is no standard definition of consciousness. Jeffrey Gray makes a comparison as follows. Imagine that ancient Greeks would need to define electricity scientifically. This definitely would not work. The same happens now with consciousness and modern science, as it cannot define yet what consciousness is.

    On the other hand, if to talk about empirical science, then it starts from researching a phenomenon. In this sense, it is enough to describe what are phenomena of conscious experience by showing on them.

    Pain, according to Jeffrey Gray, is one of such phenomena. After pain we can cognitively classify it but pain as such, in my view, is a separate phenomenon. I agree that pain somehow is related to neuron spikes but I would say that it is more than that.