The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

(Copyright © 2013 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
Inquire about purchasing the book | Table of Contents | Annotated Bibliography | Class on Nature of Mind

These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

The Prehistory Of Mind

The British archeologist Steven Mithen found evidence in ancient history that "cognitive fluidity" caused the modern mind to arise.

First came social intelligence, the ability to deal with other humans; then came natural-history intelligence, the ability to deal with the environment, and tool-using intelligence; last, language. Once the ability to fully connect all these faculties developed, the modern mind was born. Crucial for the development of the human mind was language. In particular, metaphor and analogy are the fundamental features that allowed the human mind to develop as it is.

Homo Sapiens Sapiens appeared 100,000 years ago and initially behaved like Neanderthals, showing little intelligence. Two momentous transformations in human behavior occurred with art and technology (60,000 years ago) and with farming (10,000 years ago).

In order to explain these breakthroughs, Mithen resorts to Jerry Fodor's modular model of the mind. Initially, human minds were dominated by a general-purpose form of intelligence. Then a module appeared that was specialized for socializing. The social-intelligence module was shared with other primates so it must have predated humans. Then other modules, each specific to one domain,  were born around the main general-purpose module. The modules evolved separately. Eventually, Mithen admits four types of intelligence (four modules in the mind): social, technical (tool-making, house building),  natural-history (e.g., animal behavior) and linguistic. These modules were not connected, these “intelligences” were not communicating.

Mithen can thus explain why there is no archeological evidence of social life when (judging from brain size) social intelligence must have been already quite developed: a cognitive barrier between social and technical intelligence made it impossible for humans to conceive of tools for social interaction. Originally, humans were hunters and gatherers (the transition to farming occurred in the Middle East only about 10,000 years ago). The hunter-gatherers of our pre-history were experts in many domains, but those different kinds of expertise did not mix, precisely because the minds of those humans could not mix different types of intelligence.

"Cognitive fluidity" (mixing different kinds of intelligence) changed that and caused the cultural explosion of art, technology, religion. Suddenly, humans acquired minds in which modules had been connected. For example, tools started being used to transform nature. Religion was a by-product of mixing these intelligences, because mixing intelligences one can produce supernatural beings.

Farming was also a product of cognitive fluidity and in turn caused a redefining of intelligences (emergence of new intelligences, disappearance of old ones).

The factor that contributed or caused cognitive fluidity may have been the dawning of consciousness. Self-awareness may have integrated intelligences that for thousands of years had been kept separate.

Mithen's evolutionary theory mirrors in many ways the theory of child development advanced by British psychologist Annette Karmiloff-Smith.

The US biologist Louis Liebenberg argues that our symbolic reasoning is the consequence of having to track game animals. Hunters had to anticipate and predict the moves of the animals that they were hunting. That was the beginning of scientific theorizing based on hypotheses. The hunter then has to simulate in his own mind what the animal will do, i.e. he needs to form a "theory of mind". Liebenberg thinks that hunting created the foundations for human cognitive skills that eventually led to scientific reasoning.

Back to the beginning of the chapter "A History of Consciousness" | Back to the index of all chapters