Semantic Transmission and the Emergent Mind

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This is a synopsis of Antony Croft's lecture on Semantic Transmission and the Emergent Mind. A more complete discussion is available in the Complexity article (in press for Fall 2007).
Source: Antony Crofts' presentation on life, information, entropy and time (PDF).
And there are more talks from the PITP workshop on Emergence (2005).


Three suggestions to define properties of semantic content

  1. The semantic content of a message adds no additional thermodynamic burden over that due to the “engineering aspects”.
  2. The semantic content has a value only in a particular context.
  3. The meaning only becomes apparent on translation and/or interpretation.

Two avenues for information transmission in the biosphere

  1. The forms of living things (the phenotype of each) are defined by the information in DNA (the genotype). All living things have this avenue for semantic transnission.
    • Transmission of information between generations is a copying function.
    • Contemporary life forms all have a semantic heritage through DNA going back to the same common ancestor, - a duration of the same length, ~3.5 billion years. If there were a thermodynamic cost of semantic content, it would be amortized over this 3.5 billion year period.
    • You are the result of a translational machinery with hierarchical levels of increasing combinatorial complexity: (DNA→protein→cells→tissues→you).
  2. For human kind, an additional channel for semantic transmission is provided by the extra-chromosomal cultural heritage—the collective stored output of human consciousness—the whole apparatus of civilization.

Properties of semantic transmission

Semantic content of the cultural heritage has the same properties as that transferred through DNA—the semantic content imposes no additional thermodynamic burden over that of data storage and transmission mechanisms, it has a value only in a particular context, and the meaning of the message is apparent only through translation and/or interpretation.

These properties demand complementary properties of the human mind. All input to the mind is via physicochemical detectors (the five senses). Before anything has meaning it has to go through a hierarchical series of translational and interpretational filters. We cannot interpret information for which we lack the translational machinery.

Evolution, behavior, time, and the emergence of mind

Three components:

  1. the biological apparatus;
  2. the individual mind; and
  3. civilization.
  1. All living things show behavior—they respond to the environment. The response represents a temporal sequence and requires an awareness of time—chronognosis.
    • Anticipation of changes in the environment has an evolutionary advantage.
    • One line of evolution has been towards the exploitation of temporal awareness through the development of movement, and a sophisticated sensory apparatus, to increase the chronognostic range—animals, and eventually, human kind.
    • Plants also show chronognosis, - diurnal and seasonal variations in form and metabolism in anticipation of the availability of light, temperature, water, etc.
    • Up until ~150,000 years ago, all behavior was determined by the biological form of the phenotype, - transmission of semantic information through DNA (genotype).
    • 2 and 3. With the evolution of modern man, the development of a sophisticated vocal apparatus, and the extension of certain properties of the brain, came the development of consciousness, language, mind, and eventually of civilization.

Evolution of Societies

  1. At the DNA level:
    • Conservation of useful characteristics requires faithful reproduction of the semantic message in DNA.
    • Evolution requires new forms that compete. The mechanisms of evolution work on the variations among species to select those fittest for survival.
    • The copying machinery therefore has to be imperfect—random mutations that are not perfectly repaired.
    • Selection through survival of the fittest leads to more “advanced” forms – better able to garner the thermodynamic potential.
    • Competition occurs between and within populations of species, but works at the individual level. The semantic content of DNA only has meaning in this context.
    • The interplay within populations, between populations, and with the physical and chemical environment, through feedback on the genome, means that the informational context within an ecology is extremely complex.
  2. Similar mechanisms work in the evolution of societies.
    • The cultural heritage of a civilization is sustained through the faithful transmission of its semantic content between individuals and over generations, through education and archival storage.
    • The ability of the individual mind to “mutate” ideas introduces a variability through which evolutionary pressures can play a selective role.
    • The exchange between the individual and the wider society harboring a civilization introduces an inevitable social context. We think within our cultural heritage, - “sorting algorithms” learnt in education. Our peers can only deal with our “conversations” if our ideas are within an agreed common frame of reference, - we have to share similar “sorting algorithms”.
    • The two-way semantic traffic of such “conversations” is the basis of our education, teaching, society, etc., and the source of all change in the cultural heritage.

Emergence of the mind

The evolution of the modern human mind arises from the extension of behavior into a supra-phenotypical range, and echoes the emergence of civilization.

  • Social systems
  • Language
  • Conscription of inanimate matter to extend behavior, - tool making
  • Abstract representation
  • Agriculture, allowing extensive settlements
  • Number systems
  • Writing
  • Monumental calendars
  • Division of labor and social stratification
  • Formal education

The present adult mind depends on the combined efforts of thousands of prior generations in establishing the external semantic heritage that provides the base and framework of our knowledge. Rather than “cogito ergo sum , we should say “cogito ergo sumus”, - the difference is us.

The phenotype has probably not changed significantly over this period. The mind that shaped the art of Lascaux was not inferior, but educated to a different context.

  1. Organized social structures are necessarily highly ordered, and hence inherently unstable.
  2. The appearance of stability comes from the development of political, social, economic, technical, and philosophical tools that make possible the continued maintenance, renewal and evolution of these institutions through the input of work.
  3. The continuous application of human endeavor needed to maintain the stability of a complex society is best served through the willing participation of its members. “Willingness” can be engendered through different mechanisms; - fear, religious or totalitarian fervor, bribery and greed, “informed consent”, etc.
  4. The most successful exploitation of physical and intellectual resources has occurred in the context of democratic societies. The feedback loops between government and the people, and freedom to choose, open up possibilities for error correction that seem to have a longer term advantage.
  5. The freedom to express ideas has an obvious evolutionary advantage. If the sorting algorithms condoned by society limit ideas to those that conform to “scripture”, Quran, “the party line”, etc., stagnation can be guaranteed.
  6. Our extensions of the limits of experience and of our chronognostic range are all part and parcel of the same thing, - the evolution of the biosphere to take advantage of the thermodynamic opportunities available through refinement of the semantic heritage, and increased combinatorial complexity.


Philosophical discussion must be framed in the context of an evolving culture, and the mutability of ideas in individual minds.

If we want to get our ideas across to a wider audience, we must bear in mind the limitations of the translational machineries in different minds (avoid abstruse technical terms if possible).

We need to ensure through all democratic means at our disposal that our society continues to allow free expression of ideas without the constraints of dogma.

We must take responsibility for our future by addressing the effects arising from our exploitation of the thermodynamic resources of the world, and despoliation of the environment.

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