Olduvai Gorge Finger – Questioning Human Origins

Olduvai Gorge Finger – Questioning Human Origins

Researchers recently discovered of a >1.8 million-year-old little finger. They published their findings in the prestigious Nature Communications Journal. Interestingly, on extensive analysis and comparisons with known species, this bone was found to fall within the Homo Sapiens (modern man) category.

However, as the bone is dated to be >1.8 million years old in their discussion, the researchers exclude it from being placed in the Homo Sapiens category:

Collectively, these results lead to the conclusion that OH 86 represents a hominin species different from the taxon represented by OH 7, and whose closest form affinities are to modern H. sapiens (Fig. 3). However, the geological age of OH 86 obviously precludes its assignment to H. sapiens..

In the spirit of science, the discovers have left the final conclusions open to further evidence. However, others claim this finding is another drop in a growing body of evidence which challenges the conventionally accepted theories of human origins.

Even in accepted archaeological science the date for when we ‘anatomically moderns’ first came into existence has seen a constant push to earlier and earlier times. Current estimates are around 200,000 years edging closer towards 300,000 years (or even earlier). However, some archaeological evidence doesn’t seem to fit the prevailing narrative. These types of finds hint at human (modern) origins  which go back millions of years as opposed to hundreds of thousands.



Domínguez-Rodrigo, M., Pickering, T., Almécija, S., Heaton, J., Baquedano, E., Mabulla, A. and Uribelarrea, D. (2015). Earliest modern human-like hand bone from a new >1.84-million-year-old site at Olduvai in Tanzania. [online] https://www.nature.com/ncomms. Available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms8987


I’m honing my skills as a Psychiatrist at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, UK. I've also always had a keen interest in physics, philosophy and fundamental issues.
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I’m honing my skills as a Psychiatrist at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, UK. I've also always had a keen interest in physics, philosophy and fundamental issues.

22 replies to Olduvai Gorge Finger – Questioning Human Origins

  1. Well I think there are a couple of things to remember here. The first is that evolution is theorized to be a progressive process, so there shouldn’t be a distinct line anywhere but rather countless individual changes. Then secondly, the Homo Sapiens term, like all other terms, is whatever we define it to be. If scientists decide it’s useful to mark this distinction at 300,000 years, well that’s just a convention anyway rather than some kind of truth out there. If they don’t see any inordinate differences at this point rather than others, then yes, take this category back or forward to where a significant difference becomes apparent. I suspect that the shape of a little finger bone isn’t going to alter the perspective of many such professionals, even if similar to ours.

    I personally like to distinguish the genetically modern human by its development of oral language, though a time frame about that hasn’t been simple to determine. I consider language not just an amazing form of communication, but a potentially quite advanced mode of thought.

    Fizan I’m always impressed with how professional and clean your posts happen to be. Can you tell us anything about the guy pictured at the top for this one?

    • Thanks Eric, I am trying to give some consistency to my articles. Due to copyright issues I can’t usually share the pictures most relevant to the topic. However pictures do get our imagination running more so than words, so I chose this above picture which is available in the public domain and is of a member of a modern hunter gatherer tribe in Africa.

      I completely agree with you that a little finger isn’t going to change the existing structure of the narrative. Nonetheless it is interesting and worth noting to appreciate exactly what you are saying the reality of things isn’t clear cut by any means and we usually use arbitrary cut-off points. If we consider a little finger as little evidence that also seems to reflect on how we subjectively view things, a little finger is little only to us.

      What is more interesting is the claim by some that this is just a fraction of the evidence. There is much more dramatic evidence out there as well. Which I will write about but as can be expected more dramatic evidence causes a more dramatic rejection. I want to clarify that I by no means endorse those views either but I do like to reflect on opposing narratives.

      Coming back to the little finger. The date of it is whats most significant about it. It is nowhere near when the modern human is estimated to have evolved. Here’s where I become a bit skeptical, there is a few ways in which such evidence can be interpreted. One is to consider that modern-human like hand morphology evolved prior to the modern human evolved. However, what could have led to the same morphological hand adaptations in a relatively primitive hominid species which would have existed >1.8 million years ago? And so far we can’t identify which hominid species it belongs to either, comparing it to all we theories to have existed at that point in time.

      I don’t want to get too pedantic. What I’m suggesting is that if the existing narrative was that modern humans have exited for more that 1.8 million years this exact same sample would have easily been placed within that category. So what knowledge a piece of evidence provides us seems to be greatly depend on our existing narrative (expectation). On one hand it could be the sole evidence of a new species and evolutionary mechanisms whilst on the other it is a simple human bone. Take a hypothetical, lets say, the first ever archaeological dig found this piece of bone, and we were able to date it to 1.8 million years. Where would it have led us? I think it would have been thought to belong to a human and our origins would have been estimated at at-least that long ago. And, when we did start to find other hominid species this bone still wouldn’t have fit in. And, If we also found the other evidence (the dramatic one, which I’m going to write about in the future) it wouldn’t have seemed as dramatic because it would have been fitting the developing narrative.

      • Fizan,
        What I like most about your perspective here is that you’re not endorsing per se, but rather assessing ideas which challenge the status quo. Of course there are lots of loopy ideas outside of the establishment, but safe ideas (and obviously group think) also won’t get us where we need to be. I eagerly await the more dramatic evidence that you’ve mentioned (though I also grant no free passes).

        For the “anatomically modern” concept, I like to begin from the other side of things. Regardless of our evidence, where is a good place to make such a distinction? Well if a baby from an earlier era were somehow born to a modern human family, could it fit in somewhat? Or instead would such a subject become more like a freak, or perhaps a pet? I admit that this test is a bit stiff, since obviously even modern humans sometimes become freaks or need to be taken care of like pets, but not inherently so. I’m asking if such a subject could ever be considered essentially one of us? If under the proper conditions one of these ancient humanoids could be taught to function somewhat as we do, then I’d consider it useful to call them “homo sapiens”. This is the narrative that I consider useful, and independent of any fossil evidence.

        So what would it take to potentially fit in? Maybe a proficiency in creating and using tools, or perhaps fire? I don’t think so. A similar appearance would probably help, though as I see it this shouldn’t in itself get the job done. The only way that I believe such a being could function somewhat like us, would be to have the potential to gain at least some capacity to understand (if not so much speak) a modern human language. And for this I suspect that reasonably advanced languages would have needed to evolve back then, with associated cognitive abilities as well.

        Coincidentally (or perhaps not so much), Mike and I have recently been talking over at his blog about a “secret sauce” which permits the human to be human. If you check the “Recent Comments” list between us over there, I’d love your thoughts. I suppose that the fossil evidence that you’re going to tell us about won’t get into language, though I will be interested in the narrative that these divergent scientists take, whether I consider it helpful or (more likely) I don’t.

        (Just noticed Mike’s article below on homo erectus, which will certainly interest me.)

  2. The timeline of human evolution is constantly being revised based on new findings. If we start finding lots of million+ year old evidence of modern humans, we should be prepared to revise the timelines. But I don’t think a little finger that appears to be modern should be, by itself, enough to make such a radical revision to the timeline.

    Interestingly, when anatomically modern humans arrived is a matter of interpretation, by what we mean by “anatomically modern”. In fact, there are substantial differences in anatomy between the remains from 200-300 thousand years ago and modern humans. We tend to regard them as modern because the volume of their brain case was similar to ours, but the shape of their brains was very different until around 100,000 years ago. Also remains from more than 100,000 years ago tend to have the prominent brow usually associated with pre-modern humans. And evidence for behavioral modernity only arises in the last 50-80 thousand years. (Adding to the confusion are the finds that the oldest cave art may have been drawn by Neanderthals.)

    All of which is to say that any line drawn between modern humans and pre-human is, to some extent, arbitrary.

    • Yes I agree it is very messy. However, it does seem that cranial capacity is not the only criteria to define anatomically modern humans. In this study they present ranges with centiles of different morphological aspects of a little finger such as it’s curvature and even on these discrete measures there is a rough distinction that can be made between most hominid and ape species, although admittedly there is a degree of overlap in the extremes of the range but the median values are usually defined and different for different species on the scale.
      As I said to Eric there is other much more dramatic evidence out there as well which I will write about in the future. Do look at my reply to Eric for more information.

    • Thanks for the link Mike. I haven’t read this before, seems interesting.

    • Mike I really enjoy the homo erectus article that you’ve provided here, and yes I suppose because I interprete it to corroborate the position that I’ve recently laid out in a discussion with you at your site. I wonder what your current thoughts are about language as an invented tool given sufficient cognitive capacity?

      To be certain, the position of Daniel Everett is radical, but to me it also seems sensible. How could homo erectus have reached the places that it’s known to have reached, without boats? And if it was able to build such tools, as well as make these sorts of journeys, it should have required not just the ability to communicate, but also a form of language from which to think (which is to say to plan out what it was doing), as well as as to express such thoughts back and forth. Symbolic representation (or a semiotic path), may have been the key which unlocked language to a creature that has sufficient cognitive capacity.

      My guess is that if a baby homo erectus from maybe 400,000 years ago were raised in a human family today, that it could potentially learn and use modern language, even if it didn’t have dedicated oral tools from which to express this language very well. (This would be given that its ancestors had been using language for over 600,000 years before that point.)

      (Fizan, one of my comments seems to have gotten lost. Let me know if you can’t find it.)

      • Eric,
        Everett’s views resonate with a conviction I’ve had for a long time, that language is far more ancient than most anthropologists think. I’ve long thought that it goes back to at least Homo heidelbergensis (which Everett lumps in with Homo erectus, a move I have no real position on). My view is that language evolved gradually, in stages. I suspect erectus did have language, but I also suspect it was far less sophisticated than sapien or neanderthal language. (I do think it’s likely a neanderthal baby could learn sapien lanuage, but we really just don’t know.)

        But I think what appeals to you is Everett’s view that language is just a matter of computational capacity. Late in the article he asserts that horses and dogs can interpret symbols, which seems to bolster his claim. Fascinated, I took a look at the linked studies. The horse one was really just horses operantly learning to select certain symbols for specific results, and the dog one seemed more about emotional reactions to particular noises. Neither seemed to show the animals actually interpreting the symbols. (I haven’t looked at the ape one yet, but I’d expect them to be better candidates.)

        Here’s the thing. As a long time professional programmer, I can assure you that functionality is *never* just about capacity. If it was, we’d have stopped programming computers in 1952 and just watched while functionality came for free with each hardware upgrade. Likewise, functionality in brains doesn’t come from just more neurons, but with additional evolved neural circuitry. So it’s true that language requires more neural capacity. But it’s also true that the right functionality has to be there as well.

        But language, the ability to access our conscious experience and associate aspects of it with symbols, is a very complex capability. Most complex adaptations have simpler predecessors. What was language’s predecessors? My current thinking is that it required the ability to access our conscious experience, period, or at least in a much more sophisticated manner than most animals can. Based on the other studies I’ve shared with you before, we can see signs of that predecessor in other primate species.

        This isn’t to say definitively that no other animal has access to its own experience. It might be that non-primate access is just far less developed, or maybe it’s of a different enough variety that our primate centered tests are missing it. We only know that we can’t confirm it outside of primate species. (Some studies claim to detect it in dolphins, but their methodology is controversial. There’s also a study that claims to find it in rats, but it’s widely acknowledged that, similar to the horse study, operant learning is what’s really happening.)

        All of which is to say that I think Everett can be right about erectus having language, but be wrong about what is needed for language. I’m curious to see what paleo-anthropologists have to say about the first assertion, particularly in terms of the evidence he claims to see. But in my view, Everett didn’t justify the second one. (Which actually makes me nervous about how good a job he actually did with the first, which I don’t have the expertise to assess.)

        • Mike,
          It sounds like we’re in agreement regarding the ancientness and importance of language. Furthermore our agreement grows once I remove your misconception that I consider computational capacity to be important in itself. I was actually referencing cognitive capacity, or the computation associated with conscious function, and then in reference to a minimum required for language. There will be a minimum requirement for containing a gallon of milk, for example, and we agree that a 500 gallon container is mostly wasted for such a task.

          Now that you and I (and I think Fizan) may be considered “rebels” somewhat, let’s try not to support presumably bad science in as many ways that we can. When you command a dog to sit, and it does exactly as instructed, is there something less than “symbolic interpretation” here? We can certainly say that it has the “sit” symbol under its conscious grasp, for it anyway (though I suppose that a given dog might understand the term for humans as well). Regardless it will have all sorts of other symbolic understandings. But even if it can comprehend “Eric”, “vet”, and so on, we also know that it doesn’t grasp the English language in general. Eliminating false differences should help us reach the real differences.

          I’ll also stand up for operant learning, since the consciousness model that I’ve developed functions entirely through a punishment / reward dynamic. Here we interpret inputs and construct scenarios in order to figure out how to promote personal value. Thus I submit that all conscious life does actually have access to its own experiences. How could we say that something in pain, doesn’t access it? Of course it does, and this access is theoretically how consciousness functions.

          So given access to what is felt, let’s get to how language might have evolved. Everett believes that tools were probably important, and perhaps so. I can see how a society that builds spears and has generally been using them for countless generations, would find it useful to have a spoken symbol for this sort of instrument. Furthermore I suspect that many social animals today have terms that they use, such as for predators. So here I’m not talking about anything all that strange.

          The first stage of language should thus have been stand alone nouns for all manners of persons, places, and things. But this should have still been a bit frustrating and primitive, since it depends upon a listener taking a noun from the proper context. So I suppose that the second stage would have been verbs, such as “Come [whoever]” and so on. Similarly we would expect symbols for adjectives and on and on, increasing again and again into modernity.

          Given that all conscious life has access to what it feels, I don’t see a need for something beyond general cognition and general evolution required for language to evolve. Though an incredible tool for us, language should have still had humble beginnings.

          • When you command a dog to sit, and it does exactly as instructed, is there something less than “symbolic interpretation” here? We can certainly say that it has the “sit” symbol under its conscious grasp, for it anyway

            Rather than saying sit you could also show a dog a spoon or a light and it will sit. And pretty much anything else which you train it to sit to. What we do in operant conditioning is to successively reinforce desired behavior to certain stimuli using rewards. To me operant conditioning seems to be independent of conscious ability. In fact it could be opposite to it. A human has much more capacity to consciously overcome/ resist the effects of operant conditioning as compared to a mice for example.
            Even simple organisms such as bacteria tend to show evidence of operant learning (as we discussed in a previous post here). I think all that is needed for operant learning to occur is some basic degree of computation ability. This would include a basic feedback mechanism and a desired direction.

            Coming back to the dog example is their behavior of sitting to a stimulus equivalent to a symbolic interpretation? It is an interesting proposition.
            If we are saying symbolic interpretation involves access to conscious experience and then associating aspects of it with certain symbols, do you think a similar thing is happening here. I suspect not. Even if you suggest a dog has access to it’s conscious experience. Operant learning can happen completely unconsciously.
            When we say sit, it has a symbolic meaning to us. However can we also say any stimulus to which the dog sits also has a meaning for it? Meaning should be consciously accessible. It seems the dog just unconsciously sits to any number of stimulus we want it to.

      • Restored your comment, don’t know why for some reason my spam filter had blocked it. Thanks for pointing it out to me.

        • Fizan,
          Your observations permit me to go a bit deeper into this language business, so I appreciate the opportunity. Let me first clarify here that I’m not actually a behaviorist. There are simply elements to behaviorism that coincide with my own theory. Then secondly the “operant conditioning” term as I was using it, does not apply to anything that lacks consciousness, such as a computer or bacteria. Of course I don’t mind if you or others use the term that way, though I wasn’t, and I didn’t take Mike to be. Operant conditioning has no “true” definition, though if people commonly use it that way, then I shouldn’t have used it at all. (“Classic conditioning” seems more appropriate there to me, not that I have much use for either term, really.)

          I’m saying that the dog is able to acquire symbolic representations, just as the human is, and about as simply as this: Associations are naturally made with sounds, images, smells, and tastes during conscious function, and such associations themselves can potentially become symbols. A dog can know me by means of seeing me in person, or through a picture of me, or through the smell that I emit, or the sound of my voice, or the spoken “Eric” term, and on and on. Each could thus be taken as symbols of me. These are acquired, I think, the same way that a human might acquire such symbols — through conscious experience. But just because a given dog might know a spoken name for all sorts of people, places, and commands, this does not mean that it’s able to grasp the English language. These understandings will simply be some portion of how it makes sense of its existence. The symbols merely “communicate” to it. And even with things like yelping and angry barking, we have little evidence that back and forth oral dog communication is all that involved.

          When you say that for the dog “Operant learning can happen completely unconsciously”, I do agree, but of course that’s the case for us as well…

          Maybe the most effective way to challenge me here would be to argue that dogs don’t have access to their own experiences. But then if they do have experiences, what evolutionary sense would it be for them to have no such access?

          • I agree with you that dogs (and other animals) can have associations and those associations can be grouped together as representing aspects of a single thing. As in your example these can be the smell, sight, sound of a person etc. These sensory associations are concrete in that they are actually part of that person rather than being a representation of them.
            I think by symbolic representation as we use for language what we are saying is, imaginary conscious representations which take the place of the concrete sensory experience of things. This process infuses the sensory experience with imaginary meaning. Without such a process there can still be associations like for example a face-recognition camera can also associate aspects of what makes a face. It can differentiate this association from the background, the body and also from other faces. There is no reason to believe, the ability to make such sensory associations on their own has anything to do with consciousness or language.

            Maybe the most effective way to challenge me here would be to argue that dogs don’t have access to their own experiences. But then if they do have experiences, what evolutionary sense would it be for them to have no such access?

            I remain undecided about this. The best way to know would be to be a dog myself. In the meanwhile, my current bias is that language has a crucial role (language just being a word to represent a deeper process) to play on how we experience consciousness. I also feel that it is not the whole of consciousness (as I did start to feel few years ago). Consciousness remains a mystery to me. I feel animals do probably have phenomenological experience but this would be quite different from how we experience consciousness.
            The operant learning example does reflect on this view as well. As I said mice (and dogs) seem to be more at the mercy of operant learning than humans (I would have serious problems trying to train you to sit to a blue light). The reason for this, in my view, is that consciousness is able to work opposite to unconsciousness. The more conscious free will you have the harder it is for you to be programmed.
            Yes, millisecond based studies reveal humans have biases and inclinations which are there even before they are consciously aware of them. Other studies also show that we have already begun to make decisions before we are consciously aware of them. That’s fine. But what is being discussed in these studies is how the unconsciousness works. Once something does enter into our consciousness we do have control over what we do with it.

            Given that all conscious life has access to what it feels, I don’t see a need for something beyond general cognition and general evolution required for language to evolve.

            I was also intrigued with this statement of yours. But I incline towards Mike’s statement that functional ability does not come from purely computational capacity or number of neurons. A lot would depend on how the neurons are structurally organised. If it was only about the number of neurons, many animals have more neurons than humans. Even if we consider neocortical neuron numbers (which are the latest to evolve) some dolphins have twice the number humans have.

          • My use of the word “operant” was meant to refer to non-reflexive learning. (I do remain unclear on the distinction between reflexive operant learning, which I’ll admit is a thing in the research literature, and classical conditioning.)

            I mostly agree with Fizan in this discussion. A dog can learn to respond a certain way to the sound of the word “sit”, but that doesn’t mean its association of the word with the action operates at the level of symbolic interpretation. It it did, then we should be able to issue commands in new simple combinations and they’d be able to interpret the combination, but that doesn’t happen (except in movies).

            Whether the dog is conscious of its operant learning depends, I think, on how we define consciousness. Non-reflexive learning would require imaginative simulations, but in humans it appears those simulations can happen outside of our introspective perception, which means it can happen in dogs even if they don’t possess the ability to introspect.

            Does consciousness require introspection? In humans, if we can’t introspect it, then we usually consider it to be outside of consciousness. That said, an argument could be made that consciousness lies more in the experiences normally reachable by introspection rather than in the introspection itself.

            Eric, you ask what evolutionary sense would it make for animals to have experiences but not have access to them. My question is, can you identify abilities that require that access? If you can, then we can observe whether animals have those abilities and gain some insight into whether they have that access. That’s why I’ve focused on the studies looking for metacognition in animals. Their results are pretty stark, showing it only in primates and possibly dolphins.

            We have to be very careful not to project our own experience on animals. The human cerebral cortex has 16 billion neurons, the dog’s about 530 million. It shouldn’t be controversial that a dog’s experience will be substantially less developed than a human’s. They will be missing something we experience. That’s why a principle in animal research is not to favor a higher order cognitive explanation for behavior when a simpler one is available. (Of course, we’ll be missing some of a dog’s experience, such as the detailed olfactory maps they make of their environment. But in general we should expect our cognitive perceptions to be deeper and broader.)

  3. Fizan,
    I agree with you that other animals are unable to use symbols in the way that we do, and I presume because other animals haven’t evolved to use languages. Still I do consider us to acquire our useful symbols in the same way that they acquire their useful symbols — through conscious experience.

    I’m impressed that you’re able to admit that consciousness remains a mystery to you. My advice is to just keep doing what you’ve been doing, or balancing an open mind against a skeptical outlook. If nothing ever makes sense to you, then go ahead and remain agnostic. Of course science isn’t yet able to claim effective answers here, so it’s not like there’s any real party happening without you.

    I believe that I’ve developed some extremely useful mental models, though teaching others how they function has been challenging. If you end up understanding how they work pretty well, then I’ll be extremely interested in your assessments of them.

    As I define consciousness, human or otherwise, introspection can be an element of it, though it’s certainly not required. The way that we can assess whether this definition happens to be useful is to explore alternatives. Would we want so say that something which is suffering horrible pain, but can’t introspect it, has no consciousness in this regard? If you decide this to be a useful definition then I’ll accept it while considering how your models function, as well as hope for reciprocation. Regardless, yes I do find it useful to define consciousness by means of “experiences normally reachable by introspection rather than in the introspection itself”.

    You ask if I can identify any animal abilities that require these subjects to have access to their experiences? Well since my theory is that conscious abilities in general require access to conscious experiences, I suppose that I can. (By the way, I’m interpreting “access” here as an ability to experience and/or assess conscious inputs. Let me know if you have something else in mind for the term.)

    A parent could do things which promote offspring survival automatically, and/or it could do such things consciously. To go the conscious route however my theory is that there must be a punishment / reward motivation associated with accessed experiences. Let’s say that a given parent has no empathy or sympathy for its offspring, but evolution has also programmed it to enjoy providing offspring nutrition. Well even this would be an experience (the enjoyment part, that is) which would need to be accessed in order to motivate associated conscious behavior.

    You may recall me telling you about my parents’ presumably jealous dog (in an argument against Lisa Feldman Barrett’s theory of constructed emotion)? She’s a sweet old lap dog that I think would never dream of being physically aggressive with my young nephew. But I presume that she had access to feelings of betrayal associated with the attention that my parents would give this child, and so she covertly took a doll that he brought over and ripped it to shreds for them to find in their bedroom.

    We could also consider the behavior of trained police dogs. They should need access to their experiences in order to display their various conscious talents. So I predict that removing such access, perhaps by means of certain drugs, would also remove these conscious abilities.

    Mike unless you state it plainly, I will not believe that you believe that dogs have conscious experiences, and yet no access to them. To me this just wouldn’t make sense. What I suspect is going on here is that you’ve observed that lots of people seem to believe that their pets feel essentially the same things that humans feel, and so you may have gone too far in the other direction. It could be that in a very basic capacity much of what we feel was needed in conscious life long before there were humans, and that these feelings simply do not require the number of neurons that you’ve been imagining they do. Even though we currently term feelings such as jealousy to be “higher order”, at least note that humans probably didn’t seem all that special over the vast majority of their evolution.

    One thing that I think we should keep in mind about soft sciences, is that professionals in them should naturally be biased to believe that their theories are “harder” than they happen to be. Regardless I believe that my perspective on animals generally corresponds with the perspective of professionals who actually work with them. Furthermore it still seems to me that what scientists today are calling “metacognition”, is simply an arbitrarily greater level of standard cognition. Their tests certainly do not measure whether or not animals are thinking about the concept of thought (not that I consider this useful for much more than human academics anyway). That there are animals like the human which have far greater cognitive abilities doesn’t suggest a profound difference to me.

    I’ll also remind you of the study that you once led me to that Lisa Feldman Barratt cited in her book. The experimenters decided that dogs can’t feel guilt because they look and act the same when their masters scold them, independently of whether or not their behavior suggests that there is reason to feel guilty. Did it really not occur to them that wrongly punishing dogs could cause them to look and act similarly to subjects that actually are guilty of such behavior? Perhaps so and perhaps not, though far better work than this will be required in order for our soft sciences to harden up.

    Anyway Mike, I think that I’m finally starting to get what has troubled you about the models that I’ve developed. Perhaps modern science has given you the impression that there is something inordinately strange about the human. I conversely present parsimonious models which suggests that we are a simple continuum of the whole system. My position is that beyond our much larger cognitive capacity in general, we’ve been transformed by four amazing revolutions — oral language, specialization, written language, and hard science. Hopefully we’ll end up reconciling our positions for the betterment of us both!

    • Eric,

      “Mike unless you state it plainly, I will not believe that you believe that dogs have conscious experiences, and yet no access to them.”

      I think there are at least three possibilities:
      1. Dogs aren’t conscious. The illusionists are right that our introspection of experience is an illusion. Creatures without introspection don’t have that illusion, and since there is only the illusion, they aren’t conscious.
      2. Dogs are conscious and have some limited form of access to their experience, or it’s in a form that our (possibly) primate centered tests can’t detect.
      3. Dogs are conscious, but at a simpler level than humans, one that doesn’t include introspective access to their experience, but the experiences are still there.

      My sense is that 1 is unlikely, mainly because the computational resources to construct the illusion of experience seems like it would be as much, actually probably more than, what is needed to simply construct experience. That said, the human version of these experiences in inextricably tangled up with our metacognitive access to those experiences, which could make the weaker sense of this position a matter of how we define “experience”. And it’s worth remembering that we tend to consider whatever we can’t introspect to be outside of human consciousness. (Note how I avoided the “un” word here 🙂 )

      2 is possible, but it feels like question begging to me, a refusal to accept what the data is telling us. But I’ll fully admit we can’t rule it out.

      That leaves 3. I won’t say I have certainty about this option, but it seems like the most plausible one to me. Incidentally, this is entirely compatible with F&M’s views of consciousness. They never claimed to be explaining metacognitive self awareness. And the fact that a dog has 1/32 the neurons in its cerebral cortex seems entirely compatible with this scenario.

      • Mike,
        Okay, I see that you’re using both a “consciousness” term for all that I consider conscious, or sentient beings, and then a special “introspection” form of consciousness as well (associated with what I at least consider to be an arbitrarily greater level of cognition that permits certain primates to pass certain tests). So then I suppose that in future discussions with you I could steer clear of this advanced form of consciousness, and then see if you have any questions or comments regarding my basic consciousness model itself. This is the one that states that the “brain” is made up of a large computer, as well as a tiny conscious one that functions through the first. Theoretically the function of the small computer constitutes what I know of existence, with input (senses, valence, and memory), processing (thought), and output (muscle operation).

        (Thanks for avoiding the “unconscious” term, which I consider people to use in too many ways to be effective.)

        • Eric,
          I think there are layers to consciousness. In a lot of the literature, this is often referred to a first order consciousness, constructing concepts and images of the outside world, which dogs must have in order to generate the behavior they exhibit, and second or higher order consciousness, which involves constructing concepts of the concepts, what I call metacognition.

          Another way to look at it is the 5 layers I’ve discussed before.
          1. reflexes
          2. perception, building concepts of the environment to increase the scope of what the reflexes react to
          3. attention, prioritizing what from 2 the reflexes react to
          4. imagination, simulating scenarios to see how the reflexes react, and inhibiting or allowing reflexive reactions of 2-3 based on that
          5. metacognition, building concepts of the concepts recursively for more sophisticated behavior, such as symbolic thought

          I think dogs have 1-4, but can’t see any evidence for 5. Human level consciousness requires 5.

          Honestly, sometimes I think the same thing about “consciousness” that you think about “unconscious”, that it’s a word with too many varied meanings. I’ve noticed that a lot of neurobiologists avoid it altogether in favor of more precise terminology.

          • Mike,
            I really like where you’re going with the thought that consciousness may be a word with too many varied meanings. When I get my thoughts together on it I’ll shoot you an email, since we’ve taken this one way off topic.

    • Eric,
      Consciousness does remain a mystery to me. It’s not from a lacking of trying to understand it. My search for that understanding is no way near it’s conclusion and it seems to grow with time. However, so far my direction has been going from a mechanistic/ neuroscience/ materialist explanation to a more psychoanalytic idea to a more agnostic acceptance of some limitations. This is as my world view as a whole seems to be progressing. I feel going into psychiatry and then getting acquainted with a certain brilliant psychiatrist made this change. I’ve spent over a year arguing against his ideas with him and vice versa. I came to accept something of where he was coming from. I haven’t given up though.
      I feel we eventually come to accept things by redefining them so they can fit into a larger picture, this reduces our cognitive dissonance. Often we progress by giving up on things without even realizing it. For example as I heard Chomsky saying, no one is really a materialist anymore. There is no materialist/ mechanistic world view anymore yet we are still using the term as it means something. This change happened when we came to accept forces at a distance like gravity, there is nothing material about such magical actions. But we came to accept them as a property inherent to matter. (I don’t want to go off in a tangent a start a whole other topic here, we could leave it for a further more relevant post).

      • Fizan,
        I suppose that it will be difficult for me to compete with a brilliant psychologist who has been interested enough to have discussions with you for over a year. But will this perspective of “limitations” be enough to satisfy your inner curiosity in the end? Perhaps not.

        Of course you might well have unintentionally misrepresented him. As a scientist who is paid to explore human nature, is he happy with the contradiction of “agnostic acceptance” paired with “some limitations”? Scientists aren’t paid to figure everything out right now, though they are paid to piece together whatever they can where ever they can, on the hope that effective understandings may in time be developed regarding their explorations given causal dynamics. The only valid reason to propose fundamental limitations that I can think of, would be to begin with a premise of dualsim.

        I wonder if he’d like to respond privately? If so then I can always be reached here: thephilosophereric@gmail/com

        (Wow, in this day and age Chompsky argues that there are no mechanisms associated with gravity? That would be an interesting post!)

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