Biosemiotics

, Volume 3, Issue 1, pp 17–31 | Cite as

Biosymbols: Symbols in Life and Mind

Original Paper

Abstract

The strong continuity thesis postulates that the properties of mind are an enriched version of the properties of life, and thus that life and mind differ in degree and not kind. A philosophical problem for this view is the ostensive discontinuity between humans and other animals in virtue of our use of symbols—particularly the presumption that the symbolic nature of human cognition bears no relation to the basic properties of life. In this paper, we make the case that a genuine account of strong continuity requires the identification of some sort of correlate of symbol-use in basic life properties. Our strategy is three-fold: 1) we argue that examples of proto-symbolism in simple living systems would be consistent with an evolutionary trajectory that ultimately produced symbolic cognition in humans; 2) we introduce Gordon Tomkins’ biological notion of ‘symbol’ as something that represents to the organism a feature of its environment that is significant to its survival; and 3) we employ this biological understanding of symbol-use to suggest that the symbolic nature of human cognition can be understood as an enriched version of the basic symbolic properties of life, thus preserving life-mind continuity in this context.

Keywords

Strong continuity thesis Life-mind continuity Symbol-use Symbolic communication 

References

  1. Alberts, B., et al. (2002). Molecular biology of the cell (4th ed.). New York: Garland Science.Google Scholar
  2. Ames, B. N. (1977). Gordon M. Tomkins 1926–1975. In G. Litwack (Ed.), Biochemical actions of hormones (pp. xvii–xxxvi). New York: Academic.Google Scholar
  3. Bellman, K. L., & Goldberg, L. J. (1984). Common origin of linguistic and movement abilities. American Journal of Physiology, 246(Regulatory Integrative Comp. Physiol. 15), R915–R921.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  4. Clark, A. (2001). Mindware. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Damasio, A. R. (1999). The feeling of what happens: Body and emotion in the making of consciousness. Florida: Harcourt.Google Scholar
  6. Deacon, W. T. (1997). The symbolic species: The co-evolution of language and the brain. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.Google Scholar
  7. Edelman, G. M. (1992). Bright air, brilliant fire: On the matter of the mind. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  8. Godfrey-Smith, P. (March 2006). Keynote address at the Harvard/MIT graduate philosophy conference.Google Scholar
  9. Godfrey-Smith, P. (1996a). Complexity and the function of mind in nature. New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  10. Godfrey-Smith, P. (1996b). Spencer and Dewey on life and mind. In M. Boden (Ed.), The philosophy of artificial life (pp. 314–331). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  11. Griffin, D. R. (1991). Cognitive ethology: The minds of other animals. New Jersey: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  12. Noble, W., & Davidson, I. (1996). Human evolution, language and mind: A psychological and archaeological inquiry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  13. Pred, R. (2005). Onflow: Dynamics of consciousness and experience. Cambridge: MIT.Google Scholar
  14. Tomkins, G. M. (Sept 5, 1975). The metabolic code. Science, New Series, Vol 189, No 4205, pp 760–763.Google Scholar
  15. Wheeler, M. (1997). Cognition’s coming home: The reunion of life and mind. In I. Harvey & P. Husbands (Eds.), Proceedings of European conference on artificial life IV (pp. 10–19). London: MIT.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of Colorado, DenverDenverUSA
  2. 2.Department of Oral Diagnostic Sciences, School of Dental Medicine, and Ontology Research Group Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics & Life SciencesState University of New York at BuffaloBuffaloUSA

Personalised recommendations