Chapter 1

Where is My Mind?

“Where is my mind

Where is my mind

Wheeeee-ere is my mind …”

The Pixies

The riddle of the human mind has tantalized us for centuries. While the universe has steadily surrendered her secrets to bigger telescopes and better microscopes, the problem of the human mind has remained recalcitrant. The current approach to this problem is through the brain. Where else would the mind live? How else could it exist? Unfortunately, despite more than twenty years of intensive investment in the modern brain sciences, we still know precious little about how the brain creates subjective human experience. How and why neurons sustain the flux and reflux of hopes, fears and desires in the forms that imbue our daily experience with oh-so-human vim and vigor remains a one of humanity’s deepest mysteries. Perhaps we just need a better microscope, or, perhaps we need another approach.

This investigation tracks down the ‘mind’ in an unexpected way. It starts with the Big Bang and, step by step, it shows how each major universal transformation shares common features with previous transformations. Taken together, these common features constitute a pattern. This investigation shows how the emergence of the human ‘mind’ fits into this pattern of transformation. What a mind could be, its features and capacities, becomes evident when its emergence makes sense in a universe that has been producing different systems the very same way for billions of years.

This book is the pursuit of human nature through deep time.  It is a historical explanation for how the human mind evolved. It proposes an adaptation of Darwin’s logic of natural selection and then applies this new version of an old logic to the natural history of the universe. Thus, the focus of this investigation will be much broader than the canonical human brain. Its larger focus will be on the evolution of order in general.[1] Currently, there is no theory for how the universe gained order. This investigation proposes that emergent order is always built the same way. It demonstrates how the structures at each level of historical emergence are unique, but the process by which they emerge has always been the same. Essentially, the proposal is that emergence is a process that is common to each of the major transitions the universe has experienced. The candidate definition of emergence is:

Selection for symmetric persistence from expanding spectrums of interaction.

The universe is an expanding spectrum of interaction which means that it has always been interacting with itself, so that it continually samples new interactions. These new interactions are subject to a kind of broad scale selection process, much like Darwinian natural selection, where only those interactions that are symmetric[2] end up populating our universe. Thus, only symmetric relationships are selected to persist. One could reformulate this hypothesis in layman’s terms as, ‘anything that can happen does happen, but only those things that happen regularly, exist.’[3]

Unpacking this hypothesis will be the leitdifferenz (guiding difference) of this journey from the primordial Big Bang to the origin of mind. At each step we will see how cutting edge research from apparently unrelated fields is producing a body of evidence that supports the principle of selection for symmetric persistence from expanding spectrums of interaction.

This investigation itself is organized into chronological sections that examine how different types of systems have emerged over the entire history of the universe. One of the challenges of such an extensive project is establishing a balance between consistency, rigor, and readability. The first challenge is to establish a lexicon that is capable of not only unifying concepts from different fields, but of remaining readable and thus capable of navigating the vast and subtle conceptual landscapes that different academic domains have developed. Error on the side of too much rigor leads to extensive philosophical tracts that can bog down the reader, while error on the side of too much readability leads to dismissal on grounds of frivolity. The first section walks the tightrope between these two towers of error by introducing a toolbox of concepts that are rigorous enough for experts, yet useful and consistent enough to allow the reader to navigate foreign scientific landscapes. In this section ancient concepts like transformation, thought and time will be reexamined, newly adapted concepts like symmetry will be expanded, and completely new concepts like the reactive face and propagating symmetry will be introduced. Readers who are uninterested in philosophical foundations are invited to start with “SECTION 2: Universe”, but they may find themselves backtracking to nail down terms.[4]

The second section reviews cosmic origins. It starts thirteen point seven billion years ago with the Big Bang and shows how quantum, chemical and astronomic structures are related through a common process of emergence that is reminiscent of Darwinian evolution. This section proposes a new working definition for emergence and it shows how the historical transitions from quantum to chemical to astronomical systems embody this emergence.

The third section reviews how Earth conditions gave rise to the emergence of life in the last four billion years. It shows how the major transitions in biology are related to the major transitions in cosmology. In this section group selection is revised, expanded and compared to John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry’s list of Major Transitions in Evolution. The evolutionary histories of autocatalysis, binary fission, mitosis and meiosis are compared and the result is the establishment of a series of biological group selection events that represent the same process of emergence established in the previous section. Basically, the major biological transitions revolutionized their environments through the same process that structured the major universal transitions.

The fourth section reviews the evolution of humans and symbolic language over the last two million years. It demonstrates how the transition from proto-humans to symbolic-humans fits seamlessly into cosmological and biological history (e.g. sections 2 and 3). In this section we examine the evolution of vocal/aural senses in bats and whales (e.g. echo-location) and show how they share design features with the evolution of language. The result is that both the emergence of Homo sapiens and symbolic language can be interpreted as fitting in to a long cosmological and biological history of emergent group selection events.

The fifth and last section focuses on the origin of the human mind in the last hundred thousand years as it could be anticipated by billions of years of similar universal and biological transformations. The universe has a long history of selectively maintaining novel communicative interaction that reproduces novel levels of cooperative systems. The human mind is part of this long history. Binary fission is the language of bacterial persistence. Mitosis is the language of protist persistence. Meiosis is the language of metazoan persistence. Social symbolism is the language of human persistence. In each case a new way to store and access what-has-worked-before has been added to the emergent organisms’ network of maintenance and reproduction. These new reproductive languages are preserved (however and whenever they occur) because they extend the adaptive futures of their emergent organisms. Many of the current mysteries of the mind can be clarified by understanding how the human mind emerges, maintains and reproduces itself. This section demonstrates how, in many ways, the transition to mind is no different than the preceding transitions.

The journey from the Big Bang to mind will require tracking current thinking in a number of scientific disciplines. Fred Spier’s Big History and the Future of Humanity and David Christian’s Maps of Time have introduced us to the ‘Big History’ format, the fourteen billion year grand vista of what happened when. Unfortunately, ‘why’ is an altogether different question. Frustrated with the slow progress cosmology is making on the question of ‘why this universe and no other,’ physicists like Lee Smolin and Robert Laughlin are breaking new ground by expanding the ‘reductionist’ context to include evolutionary and communal emergence concepts. At another level, biologists like Stuart Kauffman are expanding the biological context by demonstrating how life could emerge from chemical diversity – in his words, ‘order for free.’  Physicist Per Bak even showed us exactly what the conditions for self-organizing ‘order for free’ look like. In different buildings, all the way across campus, conceptual tools from the cutting edge of all these sciences are being adopted by cognitive scientists.  Both Terrence Deacon’s seminal work on symbolic origins and Daniel Dennett’s valiant attempts to naturalize the human mind synthesize concepts from chaos, complexity and evolutionary theories. One way or another, all of these researchers are addressing the fundamental question of ‘why we are the way we are?’ This investigation is based on research from all these sources, but it takes a big history view. The answer to how the universe makes a mind is founded in the broader question of how the universe makes order.

This investigation proposes a hypothesis for how the universe makes order. This hypotheses is based on a somewhat well known, but rarely applied, fundamental conceptual transition; ‘things’ are ‘processes.’ Looked at from the point of view of ‘things,’ (like quarks, suns and cells), the universe looks unconnected. These ‘things’ are our objects of study. Their structural differences are the foundations of our separate academic disciplines. When one looks at the different categories of our objects of study, the universe looks like a grab bag of unrelated and mysteriously emergent structures. Examined from the point of view of processes, however, the universe presents a consistent pattern of emergence. This pattern is not evident in the systems themselves, but in the way these systems came to persist – in their process of emergence.

In principle, the hypothesis of emergence proposed here is applicable to all major universal transitions, past and future (e.g. quantum, chemical, astronomical, biological, etc.). If any major new type of universal system could be shown to emerge outside of this pattern, this hypothesis would have to be discarded. Much of this investigation will be dedicated to demonstrating how the main types of systems that constitute our universe emerged from this pattern. However, once the pattern is established it will give us an evolutionary platform from which we can understand the origin of the human mind.

One the most curious results of this investigation, at least for the cognitive sciences, is that the brain loses its power to explain the mind. From an evolutionary point of view the human brain is but one relatively recent link in a long chain of emergence. More important than the wet wiring of the brain (e.g. the ‘neural correlates of consciousness’ or the ‘connectome’)[5] is the process that the mind is engaged in – its function within the unfolding of the biosphere and the unfolding of the universe. Ultimately, understanding the neural structure of the brain will give us as little information about how our minds fit into this unfolding process as the number ‘233’ gives us about the Fibonacci sequence.[6] Alone, both the number and the brain tell us very little about the systems they help maintain and reproduce. In the case of the number ‘233,’ the structure of the number is meaningless taken out of its developmental context. It is the pattern itself – the process of its transformation – that makes the number 233 meaningful within the Fibonacci sequence. Likewise, it is not the structure of the human brain that determines what it means to have a mind. While a brain is necessary, it is also far from sufficient. What is sufficient is the process that the human brain has learned to maintain and reproduce. The human mind makes sense only within the transformational logic of how it is emerging into this universe. Only within the long and illustrious history of this transformational logic can we find what it means to have a mind, and to be human.

This investigation is a scale-free, state of the art enquiry into natural origins. It is a new point of view, a substantial expansion of the Darwinian paradigm. It places human evolution in perspective with the history of life-on-Earth, and within the history of the universe. The aim is to show that universal evolution has been a process of selection for symmetric persistence from expanding spectrums of interaction for almost fourteen billion years. This process has ordered the emergence of all matter/energy since the Big Bang and, at a higher resolution, human emergence and the human mind are parts of this very same universal process.


“… from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.”

Charles Darwin


[1] See Appendix 1 for a definition ‘order’ in the context of energy, entropy, information and complexity.

[2] The term symmetry will be defined in the traditional mathematical and physical way as, ‘transformation with preservation of structure.’ This definition is discussed in the chapter, “Symmetry.”

[3] Hat off to Jeff Forshaw and Brian Cox for the phrase, “anything that can happen, does happen.” (Cox & Forshaw, 2011)

[4] The project of defining necessary terms for a project such as this deserves a book in and of itself. The option of putting these fifty or so pages at the beginning was an act of triage. The risk of losing readers’ interest in an early metaphysical discussion was deemed preferable to the possibility of losing their confidence in the latter process of operation and recovery.

[5] The ‘neural correlates of consciousness’ is a reference to the neurobiological search for the neural underpinnings of conscious thoughts as suggested by Francis Crick and Christof Koch. The ‘connectome’ refers to the recent effort to map the brain’s neural architecture as proposed by Olaf Sporns.

[6] The Fibonacci sequence is a mathematical sequence first recorded by Leonardo Fibonacci where the addition of the last two numbers gives the next number in the sequence (e.g. 0,1,1,2,3,5,8,13, … 233, …). The Fibonacci sequence is closely related to Adolf Zeising’s famous ‘golden ratio’ and is particularly evident in the ontological development  of many organisms (Goodwin, 1994).