Human thinking
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Human thinking

Human intelligence, as distinct from the intelligence of non-human animals, results from a metasystem transition that allows the organism to control the formation of associations of mental representations, producing imagination, language, goal setting, humor, arts and sciences.

We still know so little about the process of thinking and the structure of the thinking brain that any theory claiming to explain this phenomenon as a whole is hypothetical. Thus, our conception of thinking must also be treated as a hypothesis. However, this conception indicates the place of thinking in the series of natural phenomena and, as we shall see, puts a vast multitude of facts together in a system. The complete absence of particular, arbitrary assumptions, which ordinarily must be made when a theory includes a structural description of a little-studied object, is another positive feature. The core of our conception is not some hypothesis regarding the concrete structure and working mechanism of the brain, but rather a selection of those functional concepts through which a consistent and sufficiently convincing explanation of the facts we know about thinking becomes possible.

Thus, we assert that the appearance of thinking beings, which marks the beginning of a new stage--perhaps a new era--in evolution (the era of reason) is nothing short of the next metasystem transition, which occurs according to the formula

control of associating = thinking.

To prove this assertion we shall analyze the consequences that follow from control of associating and equate them with the forms of behavior we observe in thinking beings.

First of all, what is control of associating? Representations X and Y are associated in an animal only when they appear together in its experience. If they do not appear together (as a rule, on many occasions), the association will not arise. The animal is not free to control its associations; it has only those which the environment imposes on it. To control associating a mechanism must be present in the brain which makes it possible to associate any two or several representations that have no tendency at all to be encountered together in experience--in other words, an arbitrary association not imposed by the environment.

This action would appear to be completely meaningless. An elder tree in the garden and an uncle in Kiev--why connect these two totally unrelated facts? Nonetheless, arbitrary associating has profound meaning. It really would be meaningless if brain activity amounted to nothing more than passively receiving impressions, sorting them, grouping them, and so on. But the brain also has another function--its basic one: to control the organism, carrying out active behavior which changes the environment and creates new experience. You can bet that the alarm clock and the holder for the teapot are in no way associated in your consciousness. Nor in the consciousness of your three-year-old son. However, this is only for a certain time. One fine day, for some reason an association between these two objects occurs in the head of the young citizen and he is overcome by an insurmountable desire to rap the alarm clock with the holder. As a result, the objects enter a state of real, physical interaction.

In the metasystem transition, some thing that was once fixed and uniquely determined by external conditions becomes variable and subject to the action of the trial and error method. Control of associating, like every metasystem transition, is a revolutionary step of the highest order directed against slavish obedience by the organism to environmental dictatorship. As is always true in the trial and error method , only a small proportion of the arbitrary associations prove useful and are reinforced, but these are associations which could not have arisen directly under the influence of the environment. And they are what permits a reasoning being those forms of behavior which are inaccessible to the animal that was frozen in the preceding stage.

Turchin V. (1977): The Phenomenon of Science. A cybernetic approach to human evolution, (Columbia University Press, New York).

Copyright© 1997 Principia Cybernetica - Referencing this page

V. Turchin,

Oct 24, 1997 (modified)
Aug 1993 (created)


Metasystem Transition Theory

The History of Evolution

Cognitive Evolution (stages)

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