Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Modeling growth of mental capabilities


Information-Processing Capabilities
We can get hints about how the mind of a living thing may develop when we model the increasing organization of life in the Resource-Patterns Model of life (RPM), which is the subject of this blog. In RPM we suppose that life on Earth has advanced from small-scale organization, such as in single-cellular organisms, to larger-scale organization, such as in our human bodies. So the larger, new level of organizations requires coordination, that is information processing, among the smaller, previously existing Living Things. How, we ask, is such information processing accomplished? RPM creates a context in which such questions arise, and in which we can test answers.

We use agents to represent small-scale Living Things (LTs), and agent-based modeling in thought experiments to test ways that a set of small agents with limited capabilities can coordinate their behaviors. The agents will need to coordinate their behaviors to meet environmental challenges which we modelers pose for them. We design each challenge so it is too difficult for any of the individual agents to master alone, but it might be mastered by a group of agents which cooperate effectively. So coordination is required. We create settings in which groups may be rewarded with greater survivability if they can develop group-wide capabilities of sensing, signaling, deciding, and initiating action. We will call each of these capabilities an Information Processing Capability (IPC).

When we succeed in modeling development of one IPC which helps a group of agents overcome one of our challenges, we modelers may pat ourselves on the back. We have taken a step, albeit just one little step, by demonstrating one capability which may later be included in the plan for a mind for a larger-scale organization, for a Living Thing that is on a higher level.

The Overlooked Role of Resource Patterns
To give a more complete picture of the model we are developing, you should understand that the environmental challenges which we present to the agents typically involve the food required to sustain the lives of the agents. We call this food a resource and we insist that it may be discovered only in specific locations and at specific times. That is the food is located in patterns, which we call Resource Patterns (RPs). This patterned location of food makes survival possible for agents which can “learn” the patterns by adjusting their behaviors to discover and exploit the patterns. Moreover, we postulate that:

  1. The resources are available in a wide range of sizes. Tiny patterns enable microscopic LTs. Mid-sized patterns enable our lives as multicellular organisms. But the large astronomical patterns which we see in the sky can only be exploited in science fiction, to date.
  2. The resources vary over a wide range of ease of access. Some resources are easy to access, and this makes possible the initial population of disorganized scavengers with which we start our thought experiments. But other resources are difficult to access (e.g. iron from rocks), and this creates the promise of survivability for groups of LTs which can somehow divide the difficulty into roles which are manageable for individual LTs.

This postulation of the distribution of resources is realistic, I believe, in that it describes the distribution of resources which we humans observe in our world. But this postulation has also been overlooked, as I have not found another writer who employs such a postulation to explain coordination we observe in living systems.

An Example: Critters

Now we will develop an example. This will show how small LTs can improve their chance of surviving in their environment if a group of them can develop an information-processing capability which enables their exploitation of a large resource pattern.

In a thought experiment we model the world as a tabletop on which some tiny, perhaps single-cellular, critters live. The critters require both water and sugar to survive, and we imagine that the initial, small population of critters can survive because those two life-essential resources are sprinkled occasionally by the wind onto the tabletop. Figure 1 shows how we will picture the three types of objects on the tabletop.

Figure 1

Our minimal population of critters survives as scavengers by moving about constantly to keep up the chance that they will happen upon enough morsels of water and sugar. While a few of these critters may live long enough to die of old age, more commonly critters die after using up their internal storage of water or sugar. This describes the initial condition. See Figure 2, in which we have zoomed out to show the initial condition on a larger portion of the tabletop.


Figure 2

Incidentally, this model of tabletop critters provides the starting point for many of my thought experiments in RPM. You can find more complete descriptions of the critters in other posts, such as: draft of Chapter 3 and The Initial Condition.

First Challenge
Now we modelers change the circumstances on the tabletop. We place a drop of water at some spot, and a crumb of sugar at another spot. See Figure 3. Once again we have zoomed out when compared with the previous drawing so that now the critters have been reduced to looking like small spots and the original wind-dropped spots of water and sugar have fallen completely out of this view because they are too small to be visible. But the new drop of water on the left and crumb of sugar on the right are huge compared to the critters.

Figure 3

We stipulate that the distance between water and sugar is farther than any one of these critters can travel in its entire lifetime, so that no individual critter can enhance its life by exploiting both large new deposits of water and sugar. But we will give all the critters a new physical ability which they did not have before: Now they can pick up a portion of a raw material, carry it for a small distance, and then drop it back onto the tabletop.

With this ability to truck, as we might call it, we modelers easily imagine that the critters could establish a dense and thriving population between the water and sugar. See Figure 4. The critters have the physical capability to achieve such prosperity.
Figure 4

But do they have the information-processing capability, the ability to coordinate themselves? None of them has a sense of sight or smell, and we have not given them any way to communicate with each other. Nevertheless we modelers know that living systems do in many circumstances accomplish such feats of cooperation. So Figure 4 is the image that draws us modelers forward. We are challenged to describe in convincing detail how the critters might overcome this challenge of information processing.

Obviously there are many ways that the critters when given more abilities might organize to satisfy this challenge, and we humans find it more easy to imagine these ways when we let our anthropomorphism give the critters some human-like capacities of sensing, thinking, and communicating. But we ruin the educational benefit of our thought experiments if we endow the critters too liberally. We want to learn about our own human minds so, assuming that our human information-processing capabilities developed through Darwinian evolution, we seek models in which critters accomplish this feat of organization with few but serendipitously fruitful increments in capabilities.

I will describe two ways that the critters might meet our challenge to advance from Figure 3 to Figure 4.

First way: We modelers give two new behavioral rules to the critters.
  1. If you sense water on the left, carry it to the right and set it down.
  2. If you sense sugar on the right, carry it to the left and set it down.
These two rules when exercised throughout enough time should help the critters to attain the success we see in Figure 4, at least for those critters who were lucky enough to start out somewhere between the water and sugar.

Second way: We give critters extra capabilities so that they can negotiate and complete mutually beneficial trades with each other. After signaling willingness to negotiate, they would run through a protocol seeking a mutually agreeable trade: X units of water for Y units of sugar. With these capabilities and the passage of enough time we expect our thriving community as pictured in Figure 4 to develop. (This scenario is developed more completely in Chapter 5, Section 2.)

Reflection: Although we started out with many small LTs, each capable of processing information to sustain its own life, now we have what we modelers may see as a single entity feeding itself on the tabletop. We may speak of this cluster as “it” rather than “they”. But this one entity has, so far, only one of the internal information-processing capabilities which we have just sketched. It has nowhere near enough information-processing capabilities for it to be able to recognize itself as a cooperating group, let alone for it to reproduce itself as a biological organism.

Second Challenge
In Figure 5 we picture the next challenge which we offer the critters. We see that:
  • the world has been rotated by 90° to fit it into a workable diagram;
  • we have once again zoomed out to show a larger part of the world;
  • on the left a group of critters has, as we discussed above, somehow met the challenge of organizing itself to exploit the RP there on the left;
  • on the right now there is another RP not yet exploited. In this diagram we adopt the practice of drawing a dashed line around a RP not yet exploited.
Figure 5

Given that the critters have already succeeded in grouping themselves to exploit the RP on the left, can they now take what they have learned on the left so as to exploit the RP on the right more quickly? Yes, we humans may naturally think, assuming we start from an appreciation of what biological life has accomplished around us on Earth.

But what if we start with only our critters, critters which have no more capacities of sensing, planning, and communicating than we modelers have consciously decided to give them? As yet our critters do not have:
  • any sense beyond recognizing the presence and the type of something they can touch with their little legs, notably they have no sense of sight or smell;
  • any way of signaling except perhaps that of negotiating a trade;
  • a way to consider future scenarios;
  • a way to recognize other critters individually, that is to distinguish one critter from another;
  • a way to conceive of a group of critters. The critters in the prospering group which we humans see between water and sugar in Figure 4 do not know that they are prospering because of the way they are organized.

Obviously a big step in the right direction could be if the critters came to recognize the RP that feeds them and the behavior pattern implied.

Note about Agent-Based Modeling
This seems like a good spot to insert a note about Agent-Based Modeling (ABM). ABM can be undertaken in two contrasting ways.
  1. Here and in almost all of my writing about this model we use thought experiments with textual descriptions of the agents and their environments. I call this Thought-Experiment ABM (TEABM).
  2. But alternatively ABM can be done in computer programs in which the human modelers have described the agents and their environments in a computer language. This Computerized ABM (CAMB) is much, much more difficult because it is so hard to write the exact instructions which will cause the agents to behave reasonably as we humans can so easily imagine they should. The behavior which does emerge from CABM often surprises the modeler who wrote the programs.
Later on I hope to switch to Computerized ABM because I suppose it may be more convincing to many readers. But for now the thought-experiment modeling enables me to quickly create thought-pictures which I hope will convey my points. I ask my readers to see these quick and admittedly loose-jointed thought experiments of mine as a first step in a research program which may in future beneficially move to computerization. These points were developed more completely in this earlier post.

Third Challenge
To carry on, now we zoom out farther in Figure 6, and once again see a bigger part of the universe in which our critters live. We see many opportunities. What new information-processing capabilities when given to our critters might lead to a species of critter-groups which takes over this space? We may begin to imagine that our first-organized group of critters could most easily spread out into its world if the group had a plan, a compact description of steps to be taken with materials likely to be found at hand, a plan to be used when sending seeds out into distant parts of its world, a plan of group reproduction.

Figure 6


Amount of Internal Organization
In the modeling suggested by these challenges which we present to critters, each challenge may be solved by adding new IPCs to the set of IPCs already possessed by critters at the outset. So the critters continually gain increments in the number of IPCs which we have given them.

To shift our terminology a bit, let us call the number of IPCs given to a group the “amount of internal organization” of that group. Considering this amount of internal organization in various groups of LTs, as we look around in the world we expect to find a wide range in this amount of organization. At the minimal end of this internal-organization range we have simple, mutually beneficial actions which involve only two LTs and which occur only one time. At the maximal end we have biological organisms which are so well internally organized that they can reproduce.

Between those two ends of the range our model suggests that groups exist (or have existed in a Darwinian history) with all the various amounts of internal-organization, because in this model the only way to get a greater amount is stepwise up from a smaller amount. But it remains to be seen whether this stepwise-development suggestion stands up under further investigation. The increasing organization of life through time may show bigger steps with many IPCs gained at once for reasons I have not yet understood.

Do not think that the augmentation of organization stops once it reaches the level of biological organisms (which we perceive as LTs). Organization continues as these new, larger organisms provide a new base of units to be organized. For example, we humans are constantly trying to organize ourselves better in many ways, including in families, businesses, and states.

Cross-Level Communication
Organization of the new organisms (new base units) toward a higher level of order can focus mostly on the exterior attributes and abilities of the new organisms, considering mostly how those exterior attributes and abilities might be employed toward a challenge of exploiting a RP which had formerly been out of reach, while mostly ignoring the inner complexities of these new base-level organisms. For example: A gardener planning the rows of a garden can usually ignore the biological mechanisms through which a seed germinates.

Now, having observed the informational separation of two subsequent levels of organization, we step further. There may be almost no communication between the levels. To continue with the gardener example: the gardener may drop seeds into soil which contains compounds poisonous to that species of plant seed. But while the seeds struggle inside to stay alive the gardener has no clue and notices only whether a plant starts to grow from a given location. Soil in the opposite corner of the garden may be ideal for this species of seed. But again, the seeds cannot tell the gardener. For another example: I want the cells of my body to be healthy and to that end I wish I had much better channels of communication with them.

Correlation between Information-Processing Capabilities and Resource Patterns
We should be on lookout for correlation between Information-Processing Capabilities (IPCs) and Resource Patterns (RPs) when we observe life (LTs and organizations of LTs) through the outlines suggested by this Resource-Patterns Model of Life (RPM). Life is made possible after all by its ability to discover and exploit the patterns in which resources are distributed, and this discovery and exploitation requires IPCs. Here are a few of the correlations we might observe between IPCs and RPs:

  • If we observe a species of organisms, we should assume that the environment must contain food (RPs) exploitable by individual members of this species, and that individual members of the species must each possess all the IPCs necessary to sense and exploit those RPs.
  • If we observe an IPC in an individual agent, group, or organization, we might successfully search for a RP being exploited.
  • If the species is social, exhibiting behavior in groups, we might be correct to assume that the groups, which exist by virtue of inter-individual signaling, help individual group members somehow to benefit from a RP otherwise out of reach to those group members.

Exploratory Activity
Correlation between IPCs and RPs will not be complete, however, because LTs must discover RPs before they can exploit the RPs. Such discovery will require exploratory activity, and exploratory activity will require IPCs distinct from the IPCs used for exploitation of already-known RPs.

While the long term continuation of life will require exploratory activity, we should not expect to find exploratory activity uniformly distributed among LTs. Poor LTs who are only breaking even in their struggle to survive are not likely to invest in exploratory activity. Whereas wealthy LTs who can easily satisfy their basic needs with only a small fraction of their efforts might be expected to invest some of their excess resources in risky ventures with small probability of great success.


When we think of how our bodies and minds may have evolved in the world of physical facts emphasized in RPM we find explanations for both the capacities and incapacities of our nervous systems. This theme will be developed further in my book’s chapter on Public Psychology, a draft of which I hope to post in this blog within a few months.

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