Theory of Knowledge

A unified approach to psychology and philosophy

Mapping Cosmic Evolution with the ToK System

Energy, matter, life, mind, culture

A couple of weeks ago, it was announced that the gravitational wave signature from the Big Bang had been detected in the cosmic microwave background radiation. If you are into physics and astronomy, this is about as big a finding as it gets. Indeed, if it is confirmed it will mean that, beyond any shadow of a doubt, the Big Bang Inflationary view of the Universe is true!  

But this is Psychology Today. Does this finding have anything to do with psychology? The answer depends on your view of the universe. Because I view the universe as an unfolding wave of Energy-Information, and see us humans as representing one particular branch on that unfolding wave, I see it as connected. I map the relations via what is called the Tree of Knowledge System, depicted here.

The ToK System depicts the evolution of complexity as occurring in four separable dimensions: Matter, Life, Mind, and Culture. Why are their separable dimensions of complexity? Because, following Matter, the other dimensions have emerged as a function of novel information processing systems. Life, or organic behavior, emerges as a function of genetic information processing. Mind emerges as a function of neuronal information processing and Human Culture emerges as a function of linguistic information processing. Let me break down the ToK System into its component parts.

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The ToK System starts with Energy. Energy is the ultimate common denominator. Everything is and arises out of Energy. And, we now know that the Universe started as an “Energy Singularity” in which there was no matter, space, or time.

Then, 13.8 billion years ago, there was a dramatic chain reaction called the Big Bang in which the pure Energy quanta began to freeze into chunks of Matter, called fermions. Fermions are the fundamental units of Matter that ultimately form all the Matter in the Universe. Because fermions occupy discreet bits of space and time, the Big Bang generated Space and Time, as well as Matter.

As the Universe continued to expand and cool, large collections of gases condensed and formed into stars and galaxies. This variation created many different types of Energy-Matter environments, which in turn led to the formation of a variety of different types of atoms. The atoms that were ultimately formed are, of course, represented and categorized in the Periodic Table. In particular environments that are neither too hot nor too cold, atoms link up through the process of covalent bonding, creating increasingly complex chemical systems.  

 

Fast forward almost 10 billion years and zoom in on one particular environment, found on a planet orbiting an average size star in the Milky Way Galaxy: Earth. The complex chemical systems on Earth 4 billion years ago exhibited a wide variety of algorithmically complex behaviors. One behavior of a particular class of these complex chemical systems was the behavior of self-replication. That is, many chemical systems made copies of themselves. Through the process of replication, variation, and selection, these self-replicating chemical systems became increasingly complex and sophisticated, eventually forming huge strands of ribonucleic acid. Eventually, these self-replicating chemical machines formed into prokaryotes, which are primitive cells that lack a nucleus. Over the next ~3 billion years the prokaryotes eventually formed into eukaryotes (cells with a nucleus) and finally into large scale, multi-cellular organisms, which would be similar in complexity to a modern day plant or tree. Thus the span of time ranging from four billion years ago to 700 million years ago saw the evolution of life via natural selection operating on genetic combinations through time.

 

Starting at approximately 640 million years ago, a new type of multi-cellular creature emerged, creatures we call animals. Animals are unique in that they are multi-cellular organisms that move around their environment. This capacity for movement created the selection pressure for a computational control center that measures the organism’s relationship to its environment and moves the organism toward beneficial environments and away from harmful environments. This computational control center is, of course, the nervous system. The nervous system represents a fundamental shift in complexity because behavior of these organisms is not fully restricted to the unfolding of the genetic program encoded in the deoxyribonucleic structure. Instead, animals can use neuro-information processing mechanisms to generate new behavioral outputs in response to novel environmental stimuli. In other words, they can learn to modify their behavior based on experience. The nervous system begins as a set of simplistic neural reflex arcs made up of neural nets. It then becomes a reflexive control center for basic bodily functions (like temperature regulation). The nervous system evolves into a system capable of generating increasingly complex neuro-representations of the organism-environment relationship, which allows for increasingly sophisticated behavioral patterns, such parenting or cooperating. Finally, the nervous system becomes capable of manipulating the neuronally represented animal-environment relationship.

 

One can roughly trace the evolution of Mind, or nervous system complexity, from worms to fish to reptiles to birds to mammals. This took place from approximately 640 million years to five million years ago. Five or six million years ago represents the point at which humans share a common ancestor with our closest great ape relatives, the chimps and bonobos. The period between five million years ago and today saw the emergence of Culture, which occurred for one particular animal, the human animal.

The story told by archeologists and anthropologists is that climatic changes in river basins in Africa changed dense forests into savannah grasslands. This change in ecology required a change in morphology. This ape ancestor of modern humans had to “come down from the trees” and be able cover large amounts of territory. This adaptive pressure set the stage for bipedalism, which in turn freed the hands from locomotive responsibilities. Freed hands created more opportunities for behaviors like tool making, which in turn created selection pressures for increased neuro-cognitive capacity and selection to fill a "cognitive niche."

The evolution of language is thought to have occurred between 500,000 and 100,000 years ago. This period is associated with massive growth of the cortical structures, as well as changes in throat structures associated with language. This period is also associated with the emergence of modern Homo sapiens. The capacity for true language is unique to humans in the animal kingdom. The adaptive advantage of language is obvious. It allows for the efficient transfer of huge amounts of information, which in turn leads to greater knowledge and more effective coordination of behaviors. The reason it evolved in humans is intimately connected to the increased neuro-cognitive abilities for mental manipulation. The ability to mentally transform objects in time set the stage for these mental objects and their transformations to be symbolically tagged. The mental objects are tagged as nouns and their transformations as verbs. The neuro-cognitive machinery that allows for the unique human capacity to easily acquire the linkage between symbols and objects is referred to as the Language Acquisition Device and is housed in the left hemisphere.

 

Between approximately 60,000 and 30,000 years ago, there was an explosion of cultural artifacts, such as carved statues, artwork in caves, and burials with ornamentation. Modern humans begin to dominate the landscapes all over the world. And the pace of change only accelerates. Agriculture and writing appear ~10,000 years ago, setting the stage for large scale civilizations and the cultural advances that come with it, such as law, mathematics, philosophy, and science. What caused this “explosion” of culture?

The ToK system offers the Justification Hypothesis (JH) as a solution to the problem. The JH proposes that the evolution of language created a fundamentally new adaptive problem our pre-human ancestors had to solve. Language allowed others a window into ones’ thought processes. For the first time, our human ancestors had to explain why they did what they did. That is, they had to justify their actions to others. The JH proposes that problem of justification was the fundamental selection pressure that led to the Modern Human speciation event. The JH argues that the explosion of culture can be thought of as an explosion of justification systems. The JH proposes that the human ego or self-awareness system exhibits the complex functional design consistent with a mechanism designed to solve the problem of justification. That is, humans tend to bias the explanation of their actions to others in a manner that maximizes social influence and minimizes social loss or punishment. The ToK System claims that the evolution of language combined with the JH provides the framework for explaining what differentiates modern humans from other animals. That is, the JH explains why humans have cultures (or shared belief systems that coordinate and legitimize behaviors), why humans have the capacity for reason, and why humans have self-awareness.

The ToK system views social institutions such as religion, law, and morality as justification systems. The ToK System further claims that Science is a particular branch in the evolution of justification systems.

It is the branch of human belief systems built on the value of accuracy. Scientists seek to generate accurate algorithmic or mathematical representations of change. And as scientists are now mapping the gravitational waves from the earliest beginnings, the loop is now closed!

Gregg Henriques, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at James Madison University.

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