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2. The Evolution of Homeostats

 
 

 

“The beginnings of a differentiation of mental function can be found even in the protozoa.”
 – Wilhelm Wundt
 “It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.”
― Charles Darwin
 

 

12.

The control systems, we call our minds, consist of four kinds of flesh and blood organs that make and use homeostats and the nerves that connect them. In the next few pages, we will discuss how random mutation has produced the ultimate motive. We are not plants, we do not need a detailed set of instructions in order to survive - we are self-interested individuals. Using pleasure and pain to define self-interest is the best survival system evolution has produced. It gives animals options to adapt on the fly to a constantly changing world.

Allow me to explain how minds work with a simple example.

Like those little round vacuum cleaning robots that scurry across the carpet by themselves, we too have a task. They vacuum; we survive to reproduce.

As running out of power would thwart the robot vacuum's mission, its designers have put in a second set of commands. A low power condition will always start a trip to the charging station. The designer hardwired the low power reading to the recharge order. From the robot's perspective, the designer's motives have no bearing on its action. However, identifying low power implies an evaluation; clearly, the designer saw low power as a problem. Likewise, time has evolved our DNA to notice and act on threats to our main goals. For instance, we all avoid harm by blinking at incoming objects. Again, the blink implies an evaluation: injured eyes would hurt our chance of surviving. Blinking is very much like recharging; both are preset responses to known threats. Living animals have an additional kind of helpful subroutine that states the evaluation along with the response. It imposes an evaluation as one of two parts of a reflexive response to known threats. That evaluation is our perspective. Threats, like hunger, produce pain along with specific commands to cry. Avoiding such feelings drives our self-interested actions. Conscious pain evaluates hunger as threatening to the baby, but without help it must starve, its only programmed action is crying. Crying aids survival by alerting mother to the needs of her baby. The pain appears to exist as a pointless burden until we realize that it triggers consciousness and learning. In the end, consciousness of the situation and any helpful efforts, along with the ability to learn them together will free the growing child from dependence on parents with its remembered do-it-yourself options. We all identify the same hunger, but without a hardwired, unaided response, we learn to react differently. We do not care how; we just want the pain to stop. Situations vary and we can respond with whatever we judge as best for us. We might react; we might not. We might react one way or another. It is why we can disagree.

Our DNA has pre-identified hunger and some other conditions and pre-evaluated them as harmful or helpful with pain and pleasure. Sensory reports like thirst, injury, extreme cold, or heat also trigger feedback as pain that demands a change in behavior, but without a solution beyond crying. In addition, sensory reports like sweet taste, sexual opportunity and salty taste produce feedback as pleasure. Pleasure encourages continuing the present behavior and triggers laughter, but does not produce directions an adult could usefully use. Plato believed that both kinds of evaluative feelings are subsets of five senses feelings, but two important differences give these sensations unique traits. One difference is that the five senses only reflect conditions outside our bodies. Vision and hearing report on the sights and sounds from around us. The pains of hunger and injury, on the other hand, identify internal conditions. Both kinds of sense feelings reflect conditions, but hunger and injury feelings reflect internal states, whereas, vision and hearing feelings reflect the outside world. The other difference is that our DNA pre-links pain with internal reports like hunger and injury. You cannot identify these conditions without feeling the pain evaluation. While some will object that our five senses feelings also often come with an evaluation - sight of a tornado or fire often comes with a feeling of fear - we will see that such evaluations are learned and, therefore, not inborn. Learned optional values are not at all like our DNA preset links between pain and injury. Preset values allow no variation; all babies start out feeling hunger with pain and taste mother's milk with pleasure. The links between these two kinds of meaning (value and identity) add up to knowledge. DNA tells us that hunger hurts and mother's milk helps. Again, these basic links also trigger learning of same time five senses reports and any helpful or harmful actions. Our nerves connect five-senses, evaluative senses and muscle sensations, which teaches us identification, evaluation and action together. The baby learns that pleasure comes with mother's milk when sucked. In the same way, experience usually links fear with the sight of a tornado and taking shelter.

Evolutionary selection has twined pain with states that work against survival and pleasure with states that promote it. Using DNA to link feelings of pain or pleasure to specific body states gives us a self-interested motive. We avoid painful states, and seek pleasurable states. In addition, our biology uses those feelings to trigger learning of all same time, conscious feelings. Other conscious feelings exist with pain or pleasure because value feelings always shine a light on same-time, five-sense reports and any beneficial actions. DNA makes us that way. As a result, both five senses identifying reports and muscle actions also become conscious. This stores and recalls the current conditions and actions that worked. We use memories of five-sense reports and muscle action reports in an algorithmic sequence described in the next chapter. That algorithm uses past learning to control current actions while noting results to improve the instructions for next time. Pain or pleasure get your head up, looking or sniffing for its cause and ways to avoid or prolong it. Five senses reports and memories guide the response. If you have never felt the pain of cold, hot, hungry, or thirsty or pleasure of sweetness or sexual arousal, you cannot subjectively observe survival-triggers. If you do not realize that our five-senses do not always prompt the same kinds of hunger and thirst aches, you cannot grasp the fact that previous theories have reversed cause and effect. Survival-trigger evaluations do not result from five senses reports; survival-triggers select conscious of some of our five-sense reports as germane to survival. Pain or pleasure get us looking for a cause. Our feelings of value cause our awareness of some objects in the world and drive our behavior. Just as a low, power reading overrides the vacuum cleaner's main task, feelings of pleasure or pain prompts consciousness and a change in our behavior until the danger to our main mission is past or support for it is no longer useful.

The designer of our floor-cleaning robot has also devised a subroutine that responds to running into a wall or piece of furniture by reversing its direction. This subroutine operates independently of the low-power subroutine; in fact, both operate at the same time. We work the same way, but on a much grander scale. Each human has a set of responses tailored to each survival-trigger in their own life. Just as the robot vacuum would have separate instructions to deal with recharging and obstacles, each human survival-trigger prompts preset or learned instructions. We have several programmed sets of instructions within the individual; each operates independently, but we can learn to coordinate their actions. We can be both hungry and cold, and learn to take steps to solve both problems at the same time. Grab a sweater on the way to the fridge. People 'in love' tap into their reproductive set, and often report "not feeling like themselves", while under the spell of the reproductive trigger. We use learning to build on our basic reflex survival-triggers into cause and effect steps that work better than the evolutionarily preset responses. For example, while other animals can only graze or hunt, we can choose from a variety of educations and jobs to satisfy our need for food. In addition, while the males of other animal species jump on any available opportunity, most humans develop relationships in order to procreate. That kind of freedom lets each human develop their own behavior. You can feel yourself using or becoming each survival-trigger as they take charge. Sex organ triggers provoke different emotions and sets of instructions (or personality) than the behavioral set based on the need for food, knowledge, and work. Surviving modern highway traffic teaches different responses than surviving battle, even though the response to shell shock or PTSD often looks very much like road rage.

Once our minds only consisted of the hard-wired homeostats of the kind that feed our cells, beat our hearts or blink our eyelids, now evolution has added another kind: learned homeostats love our families, read books and quest after scientific explanations. Threats can now trigger either kind to oppose and correct any problem. Preset ones fix on-board problems. Insulin counters high blood sugar; each breath fixes a lack of oxygen. They are routine problems with evolved solutions. In addition, animals can learn one time homeostats, also able to maintain health. Learned homeostats deal with the unexpected. Over a lifetime, our brains make millions of them to deal with situations that evolution could not expect, like the danger of atomic radiation or driving a school bus in a snowstorm. Unlike reflex homeostats, learned homeostats can be tailor-made on the spot and quickly overwritten as needed to deal with changing threats and opportunities. They keep your blood sugar constant by getting you to plant zucchini or swindle a bank rather than adjusting your insulin. They control our bargain with the rest of the world by eyeballing the locale beyond our skins and, like all homeostats, start actions intended to keep us balanced and our genes safe.

If you were to design a self-moving life form or machine from scratch, you would quickly run into the energy problem. Using a reflex, one-celled animals ingest their fuel. The original probably looked like the reflexive, cell wall found in modern protozoa. It is able to recognized food grade particles that bump against it and act to absorb them. That kind of life survives to reproduce because DNA grows the ability to recognize food by its molecular shape that acts as a key to open the cell wall. It needs no nerves or brain to know food. Ingesting all particles would not work nearly as well as only admitting the right fuel.

Artificial intelligence (AI) experts currently use a similar reflex like algorithm to program robots. They aim to program the robot to identify specific situations and act accordingly. The coding, like the automatic reflexes it mimics, recognizes one situation and responds with one action, which forces programmers to anticipate all possible situations and program all appropriate responses. Now that is a big job. We learning animals use another somewhat more adaptable algorithm that recognizes general situations and uses feedback to control the response. It allows us to recognize variations in situations and modify our responses to suit the current instance. As was said in the first chapter, evaluative organs function as executive consciousness. Variable evaluation functions as a feedback loop that sorts the options and guides the choices necessary for a complex being to stay alive in an ever-shifting world. Pain and pleasure are the motives to keep warm, protect our modesty and eat. AI programmers will save a lot of unnecessary coding by using algorithms that incorporate the self-correcting evaluative feedback loops described in the third chapter of this work.

You can easily overlook the fact that recognition automatically includes a default evaluation; a one-celled animal does not need an evaluation when it defines the right kind of fuel by ignoring all the wrong kinds. The nutritious key opens the right lock reflexively; misevaluation would starve out the misidentifying cell walls. Cell walls control the cell’s limited behavior; they were the original minds. Even at this primitive level the basics are obvious, the cell wall cannot just recognize any bit it must be the right bit. Evolution evaluates the key as good for the purposes of survival and reproduction. Implicit evaluation works fine when only one kind of fuel works, but what if several kinds work – some better than others? Now you have choice, and evaluation becomes more important because it makes the choice. Behavior driven by evaluative control would be a great improvement. As has been explained, any random mutation in the genetic code that helped survival or reproduction was automatically included in the next and subsequent generations.

Given a few million years, evolution must have tried uncountable, ill-fated ways to make that single-cell move efficiently because locomotion would have been an evolutionary dead end without start and stop switches. The ability to flex, spin or wiggle allows the animal to pursue the useful and flee the dangerous, but moving continuously, randomly, or just not moving, would have bumped into as much danger as food. Only a basis for deciding when to start and stop would increase the chances for finding food and avoiding danger. Evolution demands an advantage before its sifting process selects for a new characteristic and the great advantage offered by movement must have developed with the ability to recognize the difference between food and danger because choice is only useful with an evaluated distinction. Recognizing one thing only requires a match. Recognizing the difference between useful and not useful requires an evaluative standard. Evolution's sifting algorithm uses life-promotion to determined when to start and stop activity. To fulfill that requirement evolution has provided an evaluative standard as a means of gauging a sensation or action’s chance of being life-promoting. It could be as simple as an acid detector that started movement and continued until the feedback indicated that the surrounding water was at a neutral pH level. If that cue prompts or stops action, it provides a basis for choosing between options.

All items in our feeling streams are of three basic types. Two represent kinds of meaning (identity and value), and muscle tensions make the third.

Everyone feels the sight and feel of buckwheat differently from car tires. The words have different meanings because they refer to unique sensations. We feel differences between identities by their effects on our five, phenomenal sense organs. Buckwheat and car tires look, smell, taste and feel different - neither makes much noise.

The other kind of meaning is not so clear because it does not exist where Descartes taught us to find it. Value meaning does not exist outside us; value is our own rating system. American writer, Robert Pirsig, (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, 1974) tells us that taking away value or Quality (his word, his capital) from everyday choices would leave us with basic, army-type clothing and prison food because we would be unable to notice degrees of value. We could not be aware that one thing looks, feels, or tastes better than another looks, feels, or tastes unless we can compare. In truth, without the ability to take stock, we could not tell clothed from naked or food from famine. Without value, we would have no motive to cover ourselves or eat, and would freeze or starve ourselves to death. We could not choose ice cream over gruel because we would not care. We could never tell the crucial from the trifling. Identity is of little use unless we can also rank the value. Value makes us self-interested. It is another kind of feeling from a unique set of sense organs. Pleasure and pain associated with survival sense organs like hunger, thirst, injury, and cold define value. These survival/genitive sense organs respond to internal, bodily conditions in the same way that our five senses report phenomenal feelings based from the world.

Feelings of muscle tension allow us to vary those feelings with the result that we can, at first, move without aim. Over time, feedback teaches us to vary tension with purpose. Hand to eye coordination is one result.

Briefly stated, our brains record and playback these three types of feelings together in a homeostat learned for one purpose. Recognizing identity, matches value and prompts action. The sight feeling of food linked to feelings of hunger cues the muscle tension feelings necessary get and eat. As we will see, a kind of logic tree matches our actions to current threats and openings. The brain matches any sensation to prior experience. The emotion felt at that past time compared with current value feelings select the exact action.

Random mutation must have produced a few cells that generated consciousness of pleasure or pain in response to at least one stimuli. If behavior that avoided (pain) or maintained (pleasure) contact with that stimuli increased reproduction those evaluative cells would be encoded in successive genes. Random variation explains the addition of the opposite value - either pain or pleasure - adding sensitivity to more stimuli - heat, cold, hunger, sweetness, sourness - and varying the feeling intensity would evolve the kind of versatile evaluative system we now enjoy. The DNA of each species tailors the specific survival behavior by designating the evaluation of sensations with a specific degree of one of these two emotions using an automatic reflex. For example, humans have sense organs that evaluate hunger with pain and sex with pleasure. Houseflies apparently enjoy the taste of dung. We experience evaluative feelings as an executive consciousness as they enter our conscious streams coincidentally with other feelings like sight, hearing and taste. They monitor, evaluate and decide about the reality represented by the identification senses. They either control or could easily be the ebb and flow of energy that motivates us to act or not. This is no small thing; without the marvel of reflexive evaluation, we would have no preference for ice cream over poison and no way to stop ourselves from running off a cliff. Evaluation by the standard of self-sustainment or life-promotion is the genesis of intelligence.

At some later point in the evolutionary progression, recognition and action became specialized to their own organs, each needing its own kind of phenomenal sensory and muscle cells. The DNA of early simple animals must have coordinated their organs of recognition, evaluation and action by means of a primitive nervous system. It could have been as basic as recognition producing a chemical that triggered or powered locomotion. Recognizing food potential would produce one chemical to turn its locomotion on and recognizing danger would make another to turn it off. These two chemicals would have amounted to a biological evaluation of the sensations recognized as life promoting or life threatening and the means of triggering action or inaction and those three elements of recognition, evaluation and action must exist together in any effective optional behavioral system.

Because we share so much of our DNA with the other learning animals, their sense organs, nerves and brains look much like ours and so it seems reasonable to assume that theirs, although perhaps in some ways less evolved, work mostly the same way ours do. We cannot know that because each of us only has access to our own mind, and while we can describe how ours work to each other, the other animals aren't talking.

The Hippocratic and Epicurean mind theories agree that brains store life-promoting information, but disagree about which organs gather and use it. The Hippocratic model assumes that the brain is the mind and the five sense organs gather information so it can direct muscles. As likely as this explanation feels, we must consider other options because this one requires a, so far, impossibly complex explanation. On the other hand, the Epicurean model holds that all organs capable of awareness (including internal organs and muscles) both gather and use information; the brain just stores it. As unlikely as this model seems, it does admit to the reasonable explanation in the following chapter. It is consistent with our current understanding of biology and based on observations anyone can make.

Like our respiratory, circulatory, digestive or reproductive systems, our minds are biological systems with component organs. Obviously, the brain and nerves, but also three kinds of sense organs in combination reflexively produce our understanding and response to the world.  Of course, phenomenal sense organs are needed to distinguish what is what in the world, but unexpectedly, each muscle is a sense organ that moves instead of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, or touching. Just as eyes and ears remember past experience by re-visualizing or re-hearing, muscles learn by doing and remember by doing it again. Our phenomenal senses identify the parts of the world that our muscles could affect to advantage. A third kind of sense organ provides evaluation by responding to some conditions in our bodies with pleasure or pain. Those reflexes and emotions provide the standards that evaluate conditions and possible responses. Hunger for example causes pain and, just as the phenomenal senses and muscles remember how to re-enact their sensations, the memory of hunger causes pain. Just as muscles sensed and report their own conditions as tensed or relaxed our evaluative organs sense and report their conditions as various degrees of pleasure or pain. In combination, these three kinds of sense organs answer three questions. What is it? How does it affect me? What can I do to enhance or avoid that effect?

Randomly expanding the ability to recognize things and situations with additional sense organs only helped because we also had a fair number of organs able to evaluate them. As already listed, we have nutritive (nose, tongue, stomach, bladder and intestines), defensive (skin) and reproductive (nipples and genitalia) sense organs that reflexively evaluate DNA specified sensations because over the eons they have proved helpful or harmful to life-promotion. You feel pleasure from eating because your stomach, not your brain, has a reflexive homeostat generating the life-threatening feedback expressed as pain when empty and the life promoting feedback expressed as pleasure as it fills. The reflexive homeostats in skin produce the feedback pain of cold and injury and the feedback pleasure of warmth. Reflexive homeostats in the tongue produce the pleasure of sweetness and the pain of sourness. The primitive sense organs that reflexively produce the feedback pleasures and pains that mean life promotion and life threat respectively are collectively called here evaluating organs. Pleasure and pain may have always been the chemical switches that activate and stop propulsion, but now they have evolved into evaluative signals that can commute on nerves between sense organs and brain and they are variable. Emotional feedback comes in varying degrees of pleasure and pain and we can feel difference between the evaluations of gruel and cake. That feeling is consciousness. Most of us feel a greater pleasure associated with cake.

Our evaluative sense organs chiefly respond to reflexively evaluated sensations with pleasure or pain, but smiling or frowning, laughing or crying muscle responses also automtically follow according to the feeling's intensity. Other reflexive muscl responses connected to evaluative feelings include kicking, shivering, grasping, gaging and sucking, and we can only imagine that such knee-jerk reactions are useful genetic leftovers from some of the most primitive simple animal’s homeostats. Goose bumps and shivering follow along with pain from a cold sensation. The pain may well be the causal link between cold and shivering, but others must answer that question. What we can directly observe here is that while we often overlook goose bumps, we are always conscious of pain. Pleasure and pain draw a conscious response from us that can extend to and often illuminates simultaneously occurring sensations like goose bumps, frost and snow. As indicated earlier, all phenomenal perceptions are not conscious, only phenomenal perceptions timed with evaluation are conscious; all other phenomenal perceptions are irrelevant and unconsciousness. We only notice the goose bumps because we feel cold. Consciousness of our feelings evaluates phenomenal perceptions according to their potential to be life promoting.

Our brains do not understand sight; as Epicures said, our eyes are conscious of sight. They do not understand it intellectually, but rather as an energy level and pattern, that does or does not match one in memory. The same holds true for our ears, tongues and so on. Every kind of organ converts these various kinds of energy in patterns into to a single energy form - electricity. Electrical signals must be indistinguishable to the nerves and brain and so they can deal with electrical impulses from any organ using exactly the same biology. Our conscious stream has no single experiential home; we feel each element in the sense organ affected by energy changes. If you pinch your finger, only your finger hurts. Your liver is unaware of that pain, and cannot empathize. In response, your brain may reflexively freeze your muscles, but that evolutionary trick only sometimes works to stop further injury. Neither those muscles nor the brain feels pain. This makes the brain and nerves' jobs so much easier because they only need to deal with electricity not the various kinds of sensory energy (light, sound, chemicals, etc.) or concepts. Using the dedicated one-way circuits of afferent and efferent nerves allows electrical traffic to commute back and forth between every organ and the brain without interference. No separate being inside of us, the executive consciousness or brain, feels sensations; only our organs feel sensations; our conscious stream is the series of those sensations - each experienced in its own organ. The brain has no need to understand, it only needs to store the patterned charges and hold them ready to return to the sense organs. We understand the identity of things and actions in terms of their coincidental effect on feelings. For that reason, we are not aware of what we know or what it means until we remember it in each sense organ. Apples affect the mouth and stomach in a way that evaluates them as food. Houses and tents affect the skin, which evaluates them as shelter. Other people have a sexual effect on us, and we evaluate money by its ability to be converted into food, shelter or sex.  Psychologically, we are the sum total of those individually experienced conscious sensations. Often basic evaluative sensations from stomach, tongue, skin or sex organ evaluates the meaning of the eye's light sensation or ear's sound sensation.

Combining sensations of recognition with conscious evaluation can activate some of our approximately six hundred and fifty muscles to mobilize our millions of cells into a coordinated, learned action. Hippocrates had one thing correct: muscles are in one way a completely different kind of sense organ from the other two kinds and perform a different function. We are not super beings who can shoot heat rays or thunderbolts from our eyes; of all our organs that can respond to remembered instructions only our muscles can respond with world changing actions. All our action responses to pleasure or pain like speech, pulling, writing or running are muscular responses. Higher animals can make far more sophisticated responses to sweet and cold than the knee-jerk reactions of saliva, goose bumps, and shivering. We can bake more cookies or get a sweater because we can sense the cause of pleasures and pains and have learned and stored effective action responses to them in our brains.

Linked together by simultaneous experience our three types of organs provide the means to identify, evaluate, and respond to reality and its parts. Our ability to lurch onward long enough to reproduce depends on coordinating these three abilities with a brain. Neurons, millions of them, make up the cerebral cortex and in 2004, Giacomo Rizzolatti and Laila Craighero identified what they called a mirror neuron, "that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. Thus, the neuron "mirrors" the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting.” This neural behavior could explain monkey see, monkey do imitation. Taken with Hebbian theory could also explain our fundamental ability to react to our environment. Carla Shatz explained D. O. Hebb’s theory with her catchy phrase "Cells that fire together, wire together" which, if true, would explain why learning links recognition, evaluation and action and how we react to specific sensations with appropriate coordinated actions.

The brain’s capacity to learn and thereby preserve recognition, evaluation and action sensations in mirror neurons linked together represented significant evolutionary progress in mind development. It would allow plugging any recognition, evaluation or action into the base homeostat three-part model. Using our nervous system, the brain stores them together in a manufactured homeostat that automatically cross-references them. It only wants a matching, evaluated mirror signal to trigger an appropriate, previously-successful response to the recognition of millions of sensations with tailored muscle reactions ranging from speaking and thinking to punching and running. The next chapter is a more detailed discussion of our ability to construct a life-promoting homeostat to deal with an evolutionarily unanticipated opportunity or threat.

Learned abstract symbols like language and numbers so successfully assure human survival, that today we mostly concern ourselves with the pleasures of mere comfort. The rest of this work explains how our brains interact with our survival triggers, five senses, and muscles to deal with danger that might interfere with or support our basic survive to reproduction mission. Those four: brain, survival trigger, five senses, and muscles together comprise each of the various minds or separate subroutine instructions of any animal.

 

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