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Biosemiotics

DOI 10.1007/s12304-013-9169-5

Symbols, Meaning, and Origins of Mind


Abhinav Gautam & Subhash Kak

Received: 17 September 2012 / Accepted: 30 October 2012


# Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Abstract The mind maps symbols and the extra-symbolic relationships amongst
them to specific meanings. When symbols of various levels are placed in a hierarchical ordering, one may look at such ordered classes as distinct worlds where one
class represents objects and the other represents the objects corresponding meanings.
However, such an explanation can only be partial because the number of potential
levels in such an ordering is infinite and, therefore, it engenders problems of recursion
and infinite regress. There are also logical problems in the form of paradoxes that
emanate from the consideration of sets of sets. Given that most prior studies only
consider symbols that are classical objects in associative relationships, we argue that
there is a need to also consider objects with shifting boundaries and quantum objects.
We believe that objects belonging to each of these three classesthat is classical
objects, objects with shifting boundaries, and quantum objectsplay a role in the
workings of the mind.
Keywords Life-mind continuity . Languages of the brain . Quantum objects . Symbolic
communication

Introduction
Meaning, by definition, presupposes a viewer of the symbol for whom this symbol
has significance within a matrix of symbols together with associated meanings. The
Special Issue Origins of Mind edited by Liz Stillwaggon Swan and Andrew M. Winters
A. Gautam
Department of Anesthesiology, Miller School of Medicine, University of Miami, Miami,
FL 33146, USA
e-mail: abhinav.gautam@me.com
S. Kak (*)
Department of Computer Science, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, OK 73072, USA
e-mail: subhash.kak@okstate.edu

A. Gautam, S. Kak

larger context is the triad of sign, meaning, and the code that binds the three together.
The fact that symbols themselves do not have any meaning has a surprising analogy
with the idea of randomness. All binary sequences are equally random since each one
of them may be viewed as a product of a coin-tossing experiment. The complexity, or
information, we assign to specific binary sequences arises from our expectations, and
the relationships these sequences have to other patterns.
In biology, meaning is always in relation to the behavior of the organism within an
environment. Even perception is best seen in an ecological sense (Gibson 1979). The
association of tasks to specific regions in the brain does not explain the meaning
assigned by the mind to these tasks. Such associations can no more explain intelligence than phrenology can. This is the reason the code must be viewed as an
independent category.
Symbols and the relationships between them at various levels may be viewed as
abstract objects. We see this in the case of two non-numerate autistic kids who are in a
glance able to recognize that certain large numbers are prime (Sacks 1985). The
neuronal correlate of the notion of primality may be viewed as the object that
embodies the abstract property of primality. If meaning is not intrinsic to objects, it
can only spring from the mind that reflects on these symbols. But the meaning is not a
material property (Swan and Goldberg 2010a). This is because if the mind were
material, then it would be part of the symbolic structure that we have concluded
cannot be the source of meaning.
If one considers quantum mechanics, which undergirds classical mechanics, one
must admit to the possibility of nonlocality and behavior that is paradoxical from the
perspective of classical logic. The consideration of quantum objects enlarges the
definition of materiality beyond its normal usage.
Since the symbols are grounded in biology at the most fundamental cellular level,
one can also build up a ladder of meanings that relate symbols across these levels in
the manner of biosemiotics (Swan and Goldberg 2010b). When speaking of symbols
at different levels of expression, we must consider associative, reorganizational, and
quantum languages (Kak 1996; Kak 2004) where the signals are electrical, chemical,
or optical. Corresponding to these, the symbols may be defined in terms of number,
shape, shifting organization, or as quantum objects that can be in superposition states.
When symbols of various levels are placed in a hierarchical ordering, one may
look at two such ordered classes as two distinct worlds: a world of objects that we
call signs and a world of objects that represent their meaning (Barbieri 2008). But
such explanations can only be partial because the number of potential levels in such
an ordering is infinite and, therefore, it engenders problems of recursion and infinite
regress, as seen, for example, in the problem of the homunculus. There are also
logical problems emanating from the consideration of sets of sets for they are
associated with paradoxes (Kak 2012).
If we think of the mind as a processing unit for various sensory inputs, it is clear
that our biology comes preset with certain preferences. For example, sound is energy
causing various frequencies of vibrations within the ear leading to various amounts
and types of neurotransmitters to be released that cause signal cascade down the
eighth cranial nerve into the brain. If minor notes or chords invoke sadness, it is
because some meaning comes pre-wired in our biology. The rest of symbolic
meaning comes from ones personal experiences and the biochemical events that

Symbols, Meaning, and Origins of Mind

occur as a result of those experiences. Good or pleasant things are associated with
positive neurotransmitters.
In this paper, we review evidence from a variety of fields that shows that
consideration of classical symbols and objects does not exhaust all possibilities
related to biology and the mind. We present evidence in favor of the view that the
symbols should come in a variety of forms, some of which are classical (that is
they can be defined exactly), and others that are reorganizational, and quantum
objects. We stress that an ecological approach is necessary to deal with all the
three classes of objects.

Life and Intelligence


The problem of the origins of life in respect to how original complex life molecules
arose is similar to the problem of how the code-bridging symbols and meanings arise
in the mind. The mainstream view is to see the emergence of life as the emergence of
new properties due to complexity. In this view, physics leads to chemistry and that, in
turn, leads to biology. The immense complexity that even the simplest molecules of
life possess suggests that the odds that such molecules arise out of chance in a dead
environment are vanishingly small (e.g., see Penrose 2005). To counter this, the
proposal of an extraterrestrial origin of lifes most basic molecules has been made and
indeed traces of some of the fundamental molecules have been found in comets from
outer space (Wickaramasinghe 2009). The astrobiological theory of the origin of life
somewhat parallels the postulation of the category of the mind that lies outside the
physical elements.
The idea that machines that only follow instructions should suddenly, on
account of a greater number of connections between computing units, become
endowed with self-awareness does not appear credible. If one accepts that machines will never become self-aware, why is the brain-machine conscious, when
the silicon-computer is not? Perhaps the answer to this puzzle is that the brain is a
self-organizing system that responds to the nature and quality of its interaction
with the environment, whereas computers do not do this. Yet other ecological
systems, which are biological communities that have complex interrelationships
amongst their components, are self-organizing, without being self-aware. This
suggests that while self-organization is a necessary pre-requisite for purposive
behavior, it is not sufficient.
Yet another possibility is that the scientific framework is still incomplete. We may
not have yet discovered all the laws of nature, and our current theories need major
revision, which has implications for our understanding of consciousness.
When considering evolutionary aspects related to cognitive capacity, consciousness is viewed as emerging out of language. Linguistic research on chimpanzees and
bonobos has revealed that although they can be taught basic vocabulary of several
hundred words, this linguistic ability does not extend to syntax. By contrast, small
children acquire much larger vocabulariesand use the words far more creatively
with no overt training, suggesting that language is an innate capacity.
In the nativist view, language ability is rooted in the biology of the brain, and our
ability to use grammar and syntax is an instinct, dependent on specific modules of the

A. Gautam, S. Kak

brain. We learn language as a consequence of a unique biological adaptation, and not


because it is an emergent response to the problem of communication confronted by us
and by our ancestors.
In another view, human language capacities arose out of biological natural selection because they fulfill two clear criteria: an extremely complex and rich design, and
the absence of alternative processes capable of explaining such complexity. Other
theories look at music and language arising out of sexual selection. Howsoever
imaginative and suggestive these models might be, they do not address the question
of how the capacity to visualize models of the world that are essential to language and
consciousness first arose. If the evolution of machines is driven by human intelligence, the case could be made that biological evolution is driven by Natures
intelligence, which is an embodiment of consciousness.
One can also assert that biological forms, and by extension machine forms, are
latent in the physical law, just as the excited states of the electron orbits are latent in
the physics of the hydrogen atom even though these states may not be occupied.
Furthermore, ideas can be given the same footing as biological forms or machines
although they need appropriate biological structure to be articulated.
If the brain must be viewed as a machine, it is still not an ordinary machine (Kak
2009). Even with self-organization and hitherto-unknown quantum characteristics
one cannot explain all the capacities associated with the brain. In the philosophical
critique of the search of a theory of consciousness, all that normal science can hope to
achieve is a description of objects. Consciousness is a property of the subject, the
experiencing I, which, owing to its nature, forever lies beyond the pale of normal
science. The experimenter cannot turn his gaze upon himself, and ordinary reality
must have a dual aspect. This duality means that the world of objective causality is
incomplete, creating a fundamental paradox: objects are described by normal science,
but this science is not rich enough to describe the body associated with the experiencing subject.

Brain and Mind


Anesthesia provides a unique platform for physiological exploration of some of the
fundamental questions of consciousness. Is the construct of reality a physiological
byproduct of sequential neurotransmission in specific portions of the cerebrum?
Could reality simply be this physiology functioning in a homeostatic fashion? The
idea of quantum realities may be viewed as a trace of altering the physiology by
meditation or by means of drug-induced states.
It is no coincidence that many scientific theories and human inventions have arisen
from extraordinary states (e.g., Hadamard 1954). These alternate realities may be
thought of as stations on the FM radio. There are distinct stations with strong
amplitude, and depending on the granularity of the receiver (i.e., focus and processing
power of the mind), a certain number of possible tunable signals can be received and
subsequently processed. The unconscious state is one of the tuned states of the FM
tuner in the aforementioned circuit. Although the experienced realities are many, the
actual deeper reality must be a unity. Altered states of the mind are thus mere
constructs.

Symbols, Meaning, and Origins of Mind

Although the mind is not physical, it requires specific structures in the brain.
Furthermore, there are neuronal traces associated with the activity of the mind.
Awareness is a correlate of neuronal activity and it cannot be localized in any specific
neurons.
Observations from basic science and clinical practice suggest that anesthetic
agents induce unconsciousness by altering neurotransmission at multiple sites in
the brain stem, thalamus, and cerebral cortex. Positron-emission tomographic (PET)
studies in humans under general anesthesia reveal appreciable decreases in cortical
metabolic activity. The brain stem serves to modulate the most basic functions
including heart rate, breathing, sleeping and eating. The thalamus functions as a
switch board that filters and relays sensory input that is destined for the cortex. The
central thalamus plays an important role in normal arousal regulation. The convergence in this area of ascending pathways from the brain stem and basal forebrain and
descending pathways from the frontal cortex helps regulate forebrain arousal and
maintain organized behavior during wakefulness. All forms of brain injury to the
central thalamus are associated with the impairment of awareness and functional
integration via frontal cortex.
In vivo and in vitro molecular pharmacologic studies have identified N-methyl-Daspartate (NMDA) and -amino butyric acid (GABA) receptors in the brain stem,
cortex, thalamus, and striatum as two of the most important receptor targets of
sedative or hypnotic drugs. While there is relatively a small number of these
inhibitory interneurons, they control large numbers of excitatory pyramidal neurons
and therefore the GABA inhibition induced by these therapeutic serum levels of these
agents can safely and efficiently inactivate large regions of the brain and lead to
unconsciousness.
Let us now consider if the boundary between consciousness and unconsciousness
is a thin line by using an example one of the authors (A.G.) encountered personally.
The patient was a 73 year-old male who was having an emergent laparoscopy to
evaluate for peritoneal rupture. He had multiple co-existing diseases and during the
pre-operative discussion he said that he had an allergy to a benzodiazepine,
midazolam. The benzodiazepines act on the GABA receptors that theoretically inhibit
the cortex and thus result in sedation. The patient said he had awakened from prior
surgeries in a crazed state.
The induction of anesthesia went extremely smoothly and the procedure was brief.
All extubation criteria were met and the patient was extubated without complication.
However, the patient was extremely disoriented and kept repeating, Something is not
right. I cant breathe. The patients vital signs were all stable, and blood oximetry
never fell below 96 %. As the patient continued to complain the team proceeded
down the differential diagnosis algorithm. The patient was stabilized and sedated and
brought to intensive care. Fifteen minutes later he was completely lucid and actually
recalled his dysphoria. The patient had not been administered a benzodiazepine yet
his emergence from anesthesia resulted in paradoxical excitation and disorientation. It
was as if his baseline neural circuitry included some excitatory pathways connected to
his GABA receptors, which resulted in a discharge of neurotransmitters that caused
disorganized bursts throughout his cortex.
The minds constructs of reality rely on a complex signal pathway that processes
each level of reality beginning with brainstem and ending in higher cortical thinking.

A. Gautam, S. Kak

The complexity of the interaction between the mind and the body is clear from the
placebo effect and the field of psychoneuroimmunology (Ader et al. 1990).

Ways of Knowing
Ancient cultures expressed ideas about meaning, and especially the paradoxical
aspects of it, in the coded form of myth. The idea that the mind must be energized
by a categorical entity that transcends space and time became important in Indian
philosophy. Indian models of the mind consider it to be a category in itself.
The parallels or analogies between Vednta and quantum theory (Moore 1989)
have motivated many scientists to examine Indian scientific ideas. Indian epistemology approaches reality differently from Western science and while some have
classified it as idealism, it is distinct from Western idealism in many ways. It is
unlike standard scientific epistemology in that it accepts consciousness as an independent category different from matter. It provides an interesting resolution to the
seemingly insoluble problem of interaction between the causally closed worlds of
matter with the world of consciousness. It accepts the possibility of obtaining
knowledge by non-empirical means. In most general terms, Indian epistemology
differs from Western epistemology in that it includes sentient agency within the
universe (Kak 2011). The bridging of the worlds of consciousness and matter does
not occur at the level of matter or mind. Consciousness itself is a transcendent
category that goes beyond both matter and mind.
Schrdinger endorsed the Indian view of consciousnessthat it is a unity and the
feeling of sentient beings as being separated from others is a misapprehension
(Schrdinger 1965). Indian tradition accepts that consciousness influences nature
by the process of observation. This is very similar to the quantum mechanical view
of the influence of observation on a physical process by the quantum Zeno effect, in
which the state of a system when observed continuously becomes frozen. The
difference between quantum theory and Indian ideas is that although one speaks of
observations in quantum theory there is no place in its ontology for observers.
Schrdinger was aware of this limitation of quantum theory and he argued that Indian
philosophys sense-categories at the individual or the cosmic level were essential to
understanding reality.

Quantum Descriptions
There is much research that deals with quantum models of the brain (e.g., Stapp 1993;
Hameroff and Penrose 1996; Schwartz et al. 2005). Recently, further evidence
regarding holistic, quantum-like operations in the brain has emerged (Page et al.
1999). Additional evidence in support of a biological quantum language is the
vibration theory of olfaction. The orthodox theory is lock and key based on
recognition of the structure of shape of the odorant molecule. On the other hand,
the vibration theory states that the odorant molecule must first fit in the receptors
binding site and possess a vibrational energy mode compatible with the receptor, so
electrons can travel through the molecule via inelastic electron tunneling, triggering

Symbols, Meaning, and Origins of Mind

the signal transduction pathway (Turin 1996). In a recent paper (Franco et al. 2011),
the hydrogen molecule in the odorant was replaced with deuterium to determine if
Drosophila melanogaster can distinguish these identically shaped isotopes. It was
found that flies not only differentiate between isotopic odorants, they can also be
conditioned to selectively avoid the common or the deuterated isotope. The authors
claimed that the findings are inconsistent with a shape-only model for smell, and
instead support the existence of a molecular vibration-sensing component to olfactory
reception.
Considering that the physical world is described at its most basic level by quantum
mechanics, a classical computational basis cannot underlie the description of the
mind that is able to comprehend the universe. A classical computer cannot reorganize
itself in response to inputs. If it could, it would soon reach an organizational state
associated with some energy minimum and would then stop responding to the
environment. Once this state had been reached, the computer would then merely
transform data according to its program. In other words, a classical computer does not
have the capability to be selective about its inputs. This is precisely what biological
systems can do with ease.
Most proposals that consider brain function to have a quantum basis have done so
by default. In short the argument is: There appears to be no resolution to the problem
of the binding of patterns and there are non-local aspects to cognition; quantum
behavior has non-local characteristics; so brain behavior must have a quantum basis.
Newer analysis has led to the understanding that one must consider reorganization
as a primary process in the brainthis allows the brain to define the context. The
signal flows now represent the processing or recognition done within the reorganized
hardware. Such a change in perspective can have significant implications. Dual
signaling schemes eventually need an explanation in terms of a binding field; they
do not solve the basic binding problem themselves but they do make it easier to
understand the process of adaptation.

Biological Intelligence
The question of the emergence of intelligence in machines also parallels the problem
of the emergence of the mind. Machine intelligence is the ability to solve a specified
problem that requires search or generalization. On the other hand, animal performance depends crucially on its normal behavior. It may be argued that all animals are
sufficiently intelligent because they survive in their ecological environment. Even in
cognitive tasks of the kind normally associated with human intelligence, some
animals perform well. Thus dolphins solve logical problems or problems involving
some kind of generalization.
It is assumed that the tasks that set the human apart from the machine are those that
relate to abstract conceptualization best represented by language understanding. Yet
nobody will deny that deaf-mutes, who dont have a language, do think. Language is
best understood as a subset of a large repertoire of behavior.
Since nonhumans do not use abstract language, their thinking is based on discrimination at a variety of levels. If such conceptualization is seen as a result of evolution,
it is not necessary that this would have developed in exactly the same manner for all

A. Gautam, S. Kak

species. Other animals learn concepts nonverbally, so it is hard for humans, as verbal
animals, to determine their concepts. It is for this reason that the pigeon has become a
favorite with intelligence tests; like humans, it has a highly developed visual system,
and we are therefore likely to employ similar cognitive categories. It is to be noted
that pigeons and other animals are made to respond in extremely unnatural conditions
in Skinner boxes of various kinds. The abilities elicited in research must be taken to
be merely suggestive of the intelligence of the animal, and not the limits of it.
In a classic experiment (Herrnstein 1985), 80 photographic slides of natural scenes
were presented to pigeons who were accustomed to pecking at a switch for brief
access to food. The scenes were comparable but half contained trees and half did not.
The tree photographs had full views of single and multiple trees as well as obscure
and distant views of a variety of types. The slides were shown in no particular order
and the pigeons were rewarded with food if they pecked at the switch in response to a
tree slide; otherwise nothing was done. Even before all the slides had been shown the
pigeons were able to discriminate between the tree and the non-tree slides. To confirm
that this ability, impossible for any machine to match, was not somehow learnt
through the long process of evolution and hardwired into the brain of the pigeons,
another experiment was designed to check the discriminating ability of pigeons with
respect to fish and non-fish scenes and once again the birds had no problem doing so.
Over the years it has been shown that pigeons can also distinguish: (1) oak leaves
from leaves of other trees, (2) scenes with or without bodies of water, (3) pictures
showing a particular person from others with no people or different individuals.
Another experiment (Wasserman 1995) has shown that pigeons could be induced to
amalgamate two basic categories into one broader category not defined by any
obvious perceptual features.
An extremely important insight from experiments of animal intelligence is that one
can attempt to define different gradations of cognitive function. It is obvious that
animals are not as intelligent as humans; likewise, certain animals appear to be more
intelligent than others. For example, pigeons did poorly at picking a pattern against
two other identical ones, as in picking an A against two Bs. This is a very simple task
for humans.
Animal intelligence experiments suggest that one can speak of different styles of
solving Artificial Intelligence problems and Herrnstein argued (Herrnstein 1985) that
the manner pigeons process information is different from how humans do it. Are the
cognitive capabilities of pigeons limited because their style has fundamental limitations? It is possible that the relatively low scores on the sameness test for pigeons can
be explained on the basis of wide variability in performance for individual pigeons
and the unnatural conditions in which the experiments are performed? Is it possible
that the cognitive style of all animals is similar and that the differences in their
cognitive capabilities arise from the differences in the relative size of their mental
hardware? Since current machines do not, and cannot, use inner representations, it is
right to conclude that their performance can never match that of animals. Most
importantly, the generalization achieved by pigeons and other nonhumans remains
beyond the capability of machines.
A useful perspective on animal behavior is its recursive nature, or part-whole
hierarchy. Considering this from the bottom up, animal societies are viewed as
superorganisms. For example, the ants in an ant colony may be compared to cells,

Symbols, Meaning, and Origins of Mind

their castes to tissues and organs, the queen and her drones to the generative system,
and the exchange of liquid food amongst the colony members to the circulation of
blood and lymph. Furthermore, corresponding to morphogenesis in organisms, the
ant colony has sociogenesis, which consists of the processes by which the individuals
undergo changes in caste and behavior. Such recursion has been viewed all the way
up to the earth itself seen as a living entity. Parenthetically, one asks whether the earth
itself, as a living but unconscious organism, may not be viewed like the unconscious
brain. Paralleling this recursion is the individual who can be viewed as a collection of
several agents where these agents have sub-agents that are the sensory mechanisms,
and so on. These agents are bound together and this binding defines consciousness.

Conclusions
Signals and symbols are infused with meaning only by sentient beings and, therefore,
this meaning inherently lies within the parameters of consciousness. It is of course
true that within cells on a biological system, different molecules or substances bind to
different receptors and in so doing contribute to various levels of relative meanings.
These levels are seen as conditioned behavior or the play of instincts, if considered at
the level of the organism.
We believe that consciousness (which encapsulates the code that lies behind
subjective experience) manifests itself in the everyday world leaving a trace that is
open to scientific examination. Arguments have been made that the rise of complex
organic molecules cannot be explained using only probability considerations. The
case can also be made that evolved forms are already present as potentialities within
natural law and natural selection is a restatement of the fact that pure probabilities do
not account for the outcomes of random evolutionary processes.
Anomalous events that are a part of social history are evidence of the workings of
the minds code at a grand scale (Kak 2004, 2009). In certain philosophical schools of
the West (as in Platos theory of forms or Kants transcendental idealism), ideas are
variously taken to be part of the structure of the mind or even to exist independent of
the mind. But these schools are not taken seriously in the narratives of science by
practicing scientists. Modern science privileges empiricism, that is knowledge based
on observations by the senses together with logical inference and abstraction, as the
only true source of knowledge. It cannot provide explanations for unusual coincidences. Neither can it provide explanations for agency and intentionality in psychology or the performance of savants (Sacks 1985; Kak 2000).
When considered logically, a system of objects in sets where membership is
defined in a loose way leads to paradoxes. Meaning associated with symbols also
has subjective and paradoxical features. Since ordinary narrative is limited in describing reorganizational and quantum descriptions, the problem of the origins of
mind cannot be addressed in a theory that deals with classical objects alone.
Machines are deficient compared to biological systems at incorporating intelligence because, unlike brains, they do not have the capacity to self-organize.
Machines are based on classical logic, whereas Natures intelligence may depend
on quantum mechanics. Further study of symbols, meaning, and the code must
consider not only classical objects, but also reorganizational and quantum objects.

A. Gautam, S. Kak

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