3.6. Symbolic behavior

The last section was about the question of how living things acquire the knowledge that enables them to understand information. Naturally, this knowledge itself is information: it is the forms and structures of living things, as these forms and structures determine their behavior, their re-actions, their decisions. The original kind of understanding information is the ‘right’, appropriate reaction to them.

Understanding in a purely mental sence as well – what we usually mean when speaking of understanding – is a reaction and decision, even if only internally and mostly by means of language, by thinking in words and clauses. Speaking is a motor activity, an action, and often a re-action. Verbal thinking (inner speech) can be taken as internal simulation of overt speech – just as we in other cases can simulate motor actions in internal imagery, remembering an earlier action, or planning a future action.

To recognize, to identify and categorize something perceived may be one of the simplest kinds of mental understanding. When I see something, and I think: “That’s a horse,” then I have assigned the perceived visual structure (the information) to the category ‘horses’ and, by that, made a decision: “That’s a horse (but nothing else).” Every identification is a decision because every “That is...” includes many “That isn’t...”.

Let’s look at another simple instance of understanding, the understanding of language: I understand my native language because I can words (acoustic sequences) associate with ‘meaning’. But what is meaning here? Basis of mental understanding is phenomenal experience. I understand the meaning of the word ‘cat’ by association with visual, acoustic, or haptic memories or imaginings of those animals. Also in this case, understanding implies a decision: The word ‘cat’ is associated with these, but not with other memories or imaginings (of dogs, rabbits, cars, clouds...)

To understand more abstract words that cannot easily associated with phenomenal imaginings, and to understand sentences is to be able to say: “It means this (but nothing else, at least not the opposite).” Also in these cases, understanding implies a decision. Those decisions can also be of more general kind, e.g.: “This assertion is wrong (but not right),” or: “That’s a good thing (but not a bad one)” or: “That’s a foul deed (but not a good one, in moral sense).” As one can see, in many cases understanding includes assessment, which again implies a decision.

Assessment is not (as one may believe) the highest level of understanding. By contrast, assessment is rather the basis of understanding: As described in Section 3.3, living things initially understand their environment by re-acting to it in the appropriate way, so that they can survive and procreate and preserve their species. Even very simple organisms without brain and nervous system have an inherited knowledge of what benefits and what damages them. They have at least one pair of categories – we can refer to it as ‘good – bad’: things to search for (food, shelter, sexual partners), and things to avoid or to flee (danger, enemies). By making a behavioral decision the organism understands and assesses its environment.

For humans as well, the category contrast ‘good – bad’ basically is a behavioral alternative between things to strive for and things to avoid. Likewise, other pairs of categories are related to behavioral options: the beautiful is what to strive for in the field of aesthetics; the evil is what to avoid in the realm of moral. Also the contrast ‘right – wrong’ has, as already mentioned, its roots in behavior: the right is what is appropriate in relation to a purpose or goal. A goal can, for example, also be to observe a rule, e.g., the law, or the rules of mathematics.

Speaking as well is behavior. We can call it a symbolic behavior because the purpose of action here is mainly the production of symbols, that is, of information (forms, structures) which are understood by conspecifics, and which have a defined meaning for them. Words, spoken or written, are such symbols. However, animals and plants as well produce information that is understood as a sign by conspecifics or other living beings – think of the ‘dance’ of bees, bird song, all kinds of courtship- and display behavior, or flower colors that are signs for dusting insects.

Living things are able to produce signs because they are able to understand environmental information, i.e., to transform this information into signs for behavior. An important sort of environmental information is the behavior of conspecifics and other living things; also this information, if understood, turns into signs for behavior (appropriate behavior is the primordial way in which this information is understood). Gregariously living animals, for instance, often take the sudden flight of an individual as a signal to flee as well. The individual that fled first did not so in order to produce a signal; it fled because of a danger – but this behavior turns into a signal for the others to escape as well.

The first step in the evolution of communication is: to understand a certain behavior as a sign – this is learned either individually or by learning of the species. Then the second step is: to behave in this way in order to produce this information such that it can be understood as a sign by others. Also the evolution of human languages did not start with someone creating words, but with our early ancestors’ ability to spontaneously understand their comrades’ vocal expressions – sounds of fear, of pain, of surprise, of pleasure.

The not only accidental production of information that is likely to be understood as a signal can only develop by learning of the species, if such behavior is beneficial for the individual that produces the information. This might have been the case, e.g., in procreation: The sending animal attracts potential sexual partners, and by that it has a better chance to procreate. A further example is the color of flowers: Plants learned to produce this information understood as a signal by dusting insects because it was beneficial for the plants – insects learned to understand this information because it was beneficial for them.

In these cases as well, the understanding of certain information as a signal is the basis for the regular (not only accidental) production of this information. First, for instance, animals learn to understand a substance in their excretions as a signal of the presence or proximity of conspecifics, and then, as a second step, it may be beneficial to produce this substance as an attractant for mating.

More generally, we can say: Understanding of information originally happens by turning the information into a sign or signal for behavior. The more environmental information a living thing can turn into signs for behavior, the more appropriate and adapted to the environment its behaviors and the greater, statistically, its chance of survival, growth and procreation.

A especially useful kind of information is that about the presence of other living things (their shape, color, smell...) and their behaviors – not only of the own species. To understand such information as signs for one’s own behavior is very beneficial; therefore it is learned, initially by learning of the species (behavioral evolution by mutation and selection).

The ability to understand information as signs is then the ground on which living things learn to regularly produce information as signs or signals for other living things. They can produce such information by behavior, but even the presence, the shape, the color of a living thing is often sign for other living things, as in the case of flower colors. Living things can even learn to produce information that misleads others, e.g., enemies (see Section 2.5 about misinformation)

On this basis, living beings with phenomenal experience eventually learned to deliberately produce information associated with the anticipation it will be understood as a sign by others. I refer to such information as a ‘symbol’ and the respective behaviors as ‘symbolic behaviors’. That is, I use the terms ‘sign’ and ‘symbol’ not as synonyms, but with clearly different meaning: Information becomes a sign for a receiver by an act of understanding. Information is a symbol when it is sent out in order to be understood as a sign in a certain manner.

The term ‘sign’ therefore tells us something about the relationship between information and receiver, the term ‘symbol’ something about a relationship between information and sender. All information can become a sign, even if it was not produced as a symbol. On the other hand, a symbol is not necessarily understood, and it can be misunderstood; then it becomes either not at all a sign or not the sign meant by the sender.

Symbolic behavior is the basis of human symbol production, e.g., in speaking, writing, computing, and in verbal thinking. But not only humans are symbol producers; we seem to share this ability at least with our closest relatives, great apes. Free-living chimpanzees as well use gestures as signs in their communication. Researchers identified 66 different gestures and 19 meanings These ‘speaking gestures’ represent an early stage in language evolution [1].

Chimpanzees can learn even symbols of a human sign language. The chimpanzee Washoo learned to use about 250 words of the American Sign Language. Probably she was aware of sending out symbols when she used them, and anticipated appropriate response [2]. However, this behavior was taught her by humans; she adopted elements of the human culture. There is some similarity to the training of an artificial neuronal network, but with the important difference that Washoo had phenomenal experience and her own needs and desires, thus she actually learned by reward and penalty, and she used the symbols to satisfy her own desires.

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3.6.1. Excursion: Can machines be wrong?

As already mentioned, the possibility, even the ability to be wrong (by oneself) is a crucial criterion by which we can distinguish the behavior of living things from that of machines. We will not earnestly say of a machine that it is wrong or mistaken. When a machine doesn’t do what it should do (appropriate to its purpose), then the cause is an incorrect program, or a defect. However, someone may object: Couldn’t we say this of a living thing as well? Is that what we call an error or a mistake when speaking about human or animal behavior not also the result of a (perhaps momentary) defect in the brain or of incorrect or insufficient ‘programming’ by parents or teachers , or by the evolution?

In fact, people can be misled by wrong upbringing or by indoctrination. Such ‘incorrect programming’ can make them behave systematically ‘wrong’, in a way not beneficial for themselves and others. However, if someone has clearly been the victim of suchlike wrong programming because it was impossible for him to tip in the scam due to his juvenileness, or because he couldn’t get alternative information, then we cannot blame him for his mistakes, for his wrong behavior. Rightfully, we must say that not he, but his nurturers, teachers, those who misled him were wrong.

There are cases in which we do assume a defect in someone’s brain: when a person is permanently anyway mistaken, that is, when he behaves abnormally, e.g., when schizophrenia or Alzheimer’s disease was diagnosed. In such a case, we don’t ascribe his errors to himself as a person; we don’t say: he is mistaken and is responsible for the mistake, but we say. there’s a defect in his brain. Apparently, a living thing can be mistaken only if its behavioral control is basically intact.

And what about incorrect programming? Why can we at least in some cases of human mistakes and fallacies that the person is mistaken and is responsible for? And why can we even say of an animal that obviously behaved wrong (so that it was killed or damaged) that itself was mistaken and not only the victim of its insufficient inherited behavioral programs?

The reason is the ability of living things to learn autonomously, either as individuals or (at least) as a species. Individual learning depends on the ability of suffering by the consequences of errors (feeling pain, hunger, fear...). Learning of the species depends, simply said, on the possibility to die in consequence of an error, or at least the possibility of being excluded from further procreation. By these two kinds of learning, the knowledge is acquired which forms the basis of understanding and right behavior or, if lacking, of fallacy and wrong behavior. The knowledge is represented in form and structure of body and brain.

An insufficient behavioral program in a living thing is therefore not the consequence of insufficient programming (by whom – by an intelligent designer?), but it is lacking knowledge. The knowledge lacking is knowledge acquired during past life – may it be the previous life and learning of an conscious individual or the previous life and evolution of a species.

However, looking at organisms without phenomenal experience and thus unable of individual learning, i.e., plants and lower animals: If they behave wrong – is it not solely the result of insufficient inherited knowledge, as they are unable to acquire any knowledge by themselves? If every error results from lacking knowledge, should we then not say: When an individual of such a species behaves wrong, then the species, not the individual is mistaken?

I think we can’t say so because of the possibility that other individuals of the species behave right in the same situation. The knowledge of a species is not inherited equally and not always completely in all individuals; there are genetic variants within a species, and mutation occurs. Insofar, every living thing is the victim of history: of its individual record and that of its species, and of the past in general.

That’s true for humans as well. Someone’s mistakes can often be explained by his biography. Nevertheless, he is responsible for his fallacies and mistakes, except cases of diminished responsibility as mentioned above. The history of a machine however is a human plan of how a human purpose can be realized, and the knowledge represented in a machine is human knowledge. Machines are basically heteronomous and not responsible. Their mistakes, in truth, are our mistakes.

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  1. Hobaiter, C. & Byrne, R. W. (2014): The meaning of chimpanzee gestures. Current Biology 24 (14), 1596–1600  [⇑]
  2. Gardner, B & R. A. et al. (eds.). Teaching sign language to chimpanzees. Suny Press 1980; Fouts, R. S. & Fouts, D. H. (1993). Chimpanzees’ use of sign language". In Cavalieri, P. & Singer, P. The Great Ape Project: Equality beyond humanity. Macmillan.  [⇑]