The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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

Co-Evolution Of Language And Consciousness

The British psychologist Euan MacPhail is another scholar who believes that consciousness comes from language, and therefore it is unique to humans.

"Association formation" is ubiquitous in vertebrates, and it forms the basis for every form of learning. But humans differ from animals in that humans are capable of language, humans possess an innate ability for acquiring language.

MacPhail relates this fact to memory structures, and he does so by unifying two findings about memory.

 On one hand, he thinks that humans are endowed with two parallel learning systems: a conscious (explicit) and an unconscious (implicit) system, corresponding to two memory systems, one unconscious and one conscious.  The unconscious learning system is the human analogue of an animal's associative learning system. While they are both present at all times, we cannot consciously recall episodes stored in unconscious memory, whereas we can consciously recall episodes stored in conscious memory.  Conscious memory develops with language, and that explains why we cannot recall episodes of our early life. 

On the other hand, conscious memory is an "autobiographical" memory in the sense that it develops as the concept of "self" develops. I can feel pain only after i have developed a concept of "i", only after i have come to realize that i am myself. What feels the pain is the network of neurons that constitutes the self.

By merging the two aspects of conscious memory, MacPhail reaches the conclusion that other animals only have the implicit (unconscious) kind of memory and learning, whereas humans developed also the explicit (conscious) kind, and the latter requires the development of the self.

The origin of consciousness is therefore predicated on the origin of the self. The self, in turn, is a by-product of "aboutness", which is a requirement and a by-product of language.

The association between a subject and a predicate in language is structurally different from the associations that animals are capable of. Animals can learn associations between stimuli, but cannot infer subject-predicate associations, and that is the prerequisite to acquiring a language.  Language allows humans to think in terms of "representations", of "aboutness", of the philosophical “intentionality” (from “intendo”, i.e. being able to refer to something else). Animals, who are not endowed with language, cannot grasp this "aboutness".  The "aboutness" relationship is the fundamental grammatical requirement for language. It is the ability to deal with "aboutness" that enables the formation of a concept of self. It is the concept of self that enables consciousness.  The ability to create relationships of "aboutness" mature in children and leads to a conception of the "non-self", which in turn is reflected in a conception of the "self". At this point conscious memory starts developing, and conscious recall is possible, and conscious life begins.  Consciousness is the consequence of the evolution of "aboutness".

Inasmuch as "aboutness" is the key to consciousness, Brentano was therefore correct: intentionality is the fundamental property of mind, that distinguishes it from matter.

MacPhail believes that language, the self and consciousness develop together in the infant, and this development somehow recapitulates the evolution of language in our species: we started to think when we acquired the ability to discriminate self and non-self, and we acquired that ability when we acquired the ability to learn languages.

What remains to be explained is what causes infants to diverge from other animals.  If, as toddlers, we are no more conscious than puppies, what happens to toddlers that does not happen to cubs, so that after a few years a toddler is conscious and a cub will never be? Ultimately, MacPhail postulates that the answer lies in our ability to learn languages, i.e. that something unique in the human genome sets in motion a process to learn languages that is unique to humans.


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