A new theory about the origins of consciousness that finds learning to be the driving force in the evolutionary transition to basic consciousness. What marked the evolutionary transition from organisms that lacked consciousness to those with consciousness—to minimal subjective experiencing, or, as Aristotle described it, “the sensitive soul”? In this book, Simona Ginsburg and Eva Jablonka propose a new theory about the origin of consciousness that finds learning to be the driving force in the transition to basic consciousness. Using a (...) methodology similar to that used by scientists when they identified the transition from non-life to life, Ginsburg and Jablonka suggest a set of criteria, identify a marker for the transition to minimal consciousness, and explore the far-reaching biological, psychological, and philosophical implications. After presenting the historical, neurobiological, and philosophical foundations of their analysis, Ginsburg and Jablonka propose that the evolutionary marker of basic or minimal consciousness is a complex form of associative learning, which they term unlimited associative learning (UAL). UAL enables an organism to ascribe motivational value to a novel, compound, non-reflex-inducing stimulus or action, and use it as the basis for future learning. Associative learning, Ginsburg and Jablonka argue, drove the Cambrian explosion and its massive diversification of organisms. Finally, Ginsburg and Jablonka propose symbolic language as a similar type of marker for the evolutionary transition to human rationality—to Aristotle's “rational soul.”. (shrink)
The scientific study of consciousness or subjective experiencing is a rapidly expanding research program engaging philosophers of mind, psychologists, cognitive scientists, neurobiologists, evolutionary biologists and biosemioticians. Here we outline an evolutionary approach that we have developed over the last two decades, focusing on the evolutionary transition from non-conscious to minimally conscious, subjectively experiencing organisms. We propose that the evolution of subjective experiencing was driven by the evolution of learning and we identify an open-ended, representational, generative and recursive form of associative (...) learning, which we call Unlimited Associative Learning (UAL), as an evolutionary transition marker of minimal consciousness. This evolutionary marker provides evidence that the evolutionary transition to consciousness has gone to completion and allows reverse-engineering from this learning capacity to the system that enables it – making possible the construction of a toy model of UAL. The model allows us to identify some of the key processes and structures that constitute minimal consciousness, points its taxonomic distribution and the ecological context in which it first emerged, highlights its function and suggests a framework for exploring developmental and evolutionary modifications of consciousness. We point to ways of experimentally testing the relationship between UAL and consciousness in human and in non-human animals and discuss the theoretical and ethical implications of our approach. The framework we offer allows the exploration of the evolutionary changes in agency, value systems, selective processes and goals that were involved in the transition to subjective experiencing from a perspective that resonates with the approaches of bio-semioticians. (shrink)
Over the past two decades, Ginsburg and Jablonka have developed a novel approach to studying the evolutionary origins of consciousness: the Unlimited Associative Learning framework. The central idea is that there is a distinctive type of learning that can serve as a transition marker for the evolutionary transition from non-conscious to conscious life. The goal of this paper is to stimulate discussion of the framework by providing a primer on its key claims and a clear statement of its main empirical (...) predictions. (shrink)
This editorial introduces the Journal of Consciousness Studies special issue on "Animal Consciousness". The 15 contributors and co-editors answer the question "How should we study animal consciousness scientifically?" in 500 words or fewer.
There are many different notions of information in logic, epistemology, psychology, biology and cognitive science, which are employed differently in each discipline, often with little overlap. Since our interest here is in biological processes and organisms, we develop a taxonomy of functional information that extends the standard cue/signal distinction. Three general, main claims are advanced here. This new taxonomy can be useful in describing learning and communication. It avoids some problems that the natural/non-natural information distinction faces. Functional information is produced (...) through exploration and stabilisation processes. (shrink)
This is a response to the nine commentaries on our target article “Unlimited Associative Learning: A primer and some predictions”. Our responses are organized by theme rather than by author. We present a minimal functional architecture for Unlimited Associative Learning that aims to tie to together the list of capacities presented in the target article. We explain why we discount higher-order thought theories of consciousness. We respond to the criticism that we have overplayed the importance of learning and underplayed the (...) importance of spatial modelling. We decline the invitation to add a negative marker to our proposed positive marker so as to rule out consciousness in plants, but we nonetheless maintain that there is no positive evidence of consciousness in plants. We close by discussing how UAL relates to development and to its material substrate. (shrink)
We discuss the evolutionary transition from animals with limited experiencing to animals with unlimited experiencing and basic consciousness. This transition was, we suggest, intimately linked with the evolution of associative learning and with flexible reward systems based on, and modifiable by, learning. During associative learning, new pathways relating stimuli and effects are formed within a highly integrated and continuously active nervous system. We argue that the memory traces left by such new stimulus-effect relations form dynamic, flexible, and varied global sensory (...) states, which we call categorizing sensory states . These CSSs acquired a function: they came to act as internal “evaluators” and led to positive and negative reinforcement of new behavior. They are therefore the simplest, distinct, first-person motivational states that an animal can have. They constitute what we call basic consciousness, and are the hallmark of animals that can experience. Since associative learning has been found in many invertebrate taxa that first appeared during the Cambrian era, we propose that the processes underlying basic consciousness are phylogenetically ancient, and that their emergence may have fueled the Cambrian explosion. (shrink)
This is the first of two papers in which we propose an evolutionary route for the transition from sensory processing to unlimited experiencing, or basic consciousness. We argue that although an evolutionary analysis does not provide a formal definition and set of sufficient conditions for consciousness, it can identify crucial factors and suggest what evolutionary changes enabled the transition. We believe that the raw material from which feelings were molded by natural selection was a global sensory state that we call (...) overall sensation, which is a by-product of the incessant activity of the highly interconnected nervous systems that characterize all neural animals. We argue that global sensory states generated limited experiencing once they became coupled to the simplest kinds of nervous-system-mediated learning, a coupling that occurred in the most ancient taxa of neural animals, which were similar to present-day cnidarians and ctenophores. In such animals, limited experiencing involves a small number of persistent global sensory states. These sensory states, however, do not have a function and do not act as motivational states. As we argue in the next paper, with the evolution of associative learning they evolved into systems that gave animals basic consciousness. (shrink)
Veit suggests that the challenge of coordinating movement in multicellular organisms led to the evolution of a prioritizing value system, which rendered organisms complex enough to be sentient and drove the Cambrian explosion, while the absence of this evaluation system led to the demise of Ediacaran animals. In this commentary we criticize Veit’s terminology and evolutionary proposals, arguing that his terminology and evolutionary scenarios are problematic, and put forward alternative proposals. We suggest that sentience is a system property, and that (...) the evolution of sentience was the outcome of the evolution of open-ended associative learning, which included the coevolution of sensory, motor, memory, and value subsystems. We suggest that these coevolutionary system dynamics were a factor in the Cambrian explosion and contributed to the extinction of the Ediacaran biota. (shrink)
Heyes argues that human metacognitive strategies (“cognitive gadgets” or “mills”) are the products of cultural evolution based on domain‐general cognition with few simple biases. Although like Heyes, we believe that the evolution of domain‐general cognitive processes played a crucial role in the evolution of human cognition, we argue that Heyes' distinction between mills and grist is too sharp, that associative learning evolved gradually to become more complex and hierarchical, something that is not captured by the system 1/system 2 distinction, and (...) that human cognitive plasticity required the genetic accommodation of gadget‐specific processes that led to more plasticity‐enhancing human‐specific biases. (shrink)
Heyes argues that human metacognitive strategies evolved through cultural rather than genetic evolution. Although we agree that increased plasticity is the hallmark of human metacognition, we suggest cognitive malleability required the genetic accommodation of gadget-specific processes that enhanced the overall cognitive flexibility of humans.
We suggest that, in animals, the core-affect system is linked to partially assimilated behavioral dispositions that act as developmental scaffolds for the ontogenetic construction of emotions. We also propose that in humans the evolution of language altered the control of emotions, leading to categories that can be adequately captured only by emotion-words.