Friday, December 11, 2009

Sentience, Sapience, Story

Where did "story" come from, functionally?

On this blog, I try to stay focused on things directly related to OCS. For most readers, this post might seem tangential and academic. But for me, it is part of the center of why I care about narrative.

Sentience is often defined as the ability of an organism to subjectively perceive ("sense") its environment. Here, I want to take a systemic, functional approach, and to instead define sentience as the ability of a system to respond and adapt (albeit imperfectly) to its environment.

I realize that by this definition, sentience can be applied to many unexpected things. Social institutions, perhaps. Ecosystems. Every living species, certainly. No subjective "consciousness" is required to respond to an environment, only some linking mechanic between environment and adaptive response. Theoretically, on some level, every sustained system in the universe requires this trait, because it is this very trait of adaptability that allows a system to fill an environmental niche in the first place, and to adapt as the environment changes. I call this force "systemic creativity".

The predecessors of humanity were certainly sentient by this definition. When the last ice age began to recede, our rodent ancestors stepped up and evolved to forest- and plains- dwelling primates. When changing environments created a niche for soft but clever tool-users, homo habilis and erectus evolved to fill the niche. These social creatures were undoubtedly the most brilliant of animals, and yet, they were not human.

It was another million years before homo sapiens rose and replaced (read: extinguished) its competitors. Homo sapiens; a new kind of mind, a new kind of sentience. Dictionaries define sapience as a synonym of wisdom, as the ability of an organism to understand, to judge. For our purposes, sapience will be the ability of a system to create its own pseudo-input, to simulate environments that are beyond the purview of immediate reality. Most species only adapt via evolutionary pressure, and then only because that pressure is present and immediate. A species cannot plan to evolve, cannot make any preparations unless the triggers of evolution (usually, either massive death or reproductive advantage) are present in the immediate environment. It seems that humans are uniquely able to pretend that the environment is different than it really is, for example by foreseeing a predictable future that has not yet come to pass. This can be seen as a subclass of sentience, a systemic extension of the ability to (still very imperfectly!) react and adapt to environment. So far, I think we have only witnessed only this kind of sentience in the human system. This imaginative extension of sentience is what we will call sapience.

All abstraction, all language, everything that makes us uniquely human can be seen as the result of this ability.

From this perspective, the human mind is a self-programming learning machine equipped with sophisticated simulation software. As discussed above, one can reason that this resulted from an evolutionary pressure towards the ability to make probabilistic appraisals of future events. Still, this may be the evolutionary reason for the ability to simulate, but it is not how the imagination works. No, for how could life encode the abstract temporal concept of "future" into the double helix? For that matter, it hardly seems likely that genetic code would prenatally restrict its hardware to simulating only realistic probabilities. With the blunt tools of DNA at its disposal, it seems more likely that life would treat the ability to simulate as of a single piece; fundamentally, such an engine could not separate a probabilistic appraisal of a future event from the most fantastical imagining, or from a false memory, or from the feverish hallucination of dreams...

Like Prometheus' fire, life gifted to humans the strange power of prophecy; to predict one day what may happen the next. Just like fire, prophecy carried with it its own destruction. How strange it must have been to the first humans, who "saw" (imagined) the first spirits. Before psychology, before even the explanations of organized spirituality, how did humans perceive their ability to synthesize pseudo-sensation? How did they explain the ghosts of their own minds? Was it a switch, to suddenly turn on, or did our imaginations slowly grow more vivid. Were the first People stoned to death for their madness, by their own neolithic mothers and fathers?

Whether it happened quickly or slowly, what began as an evolutionary pressure to predict the future became a fully integrated ability to simulate possibilities beyond immediate reality. It was the total integration of this ability, I think, that finally transformed the primate homo sapiens into Human People. Once we had the ability to simulate alternative realities, to imagine, we couldn't help but apply it to every facet of our lives. We applied it to playful behavior, and imaginative play was born. We applied it to divergent thinking, and occasional creative solutions became the steady march of innovation. We applied it to communication, and with that, we had access to abstract language. We applied it to our daily experience, and for the first time, we could imagine the existence of a "self", of an "other". This was the birth of "I" and "Thou", and before it, how could we have been called "human"?

At their most basic level, all of these abstractions are stories. I think that stories are the explanations that we use to tie our vast experiences (including these ceaseless pseuo-sensations, our simulated, imagined experiences) into a somewhat coherent whole. We call this our "worldview", our "identity", and we create it every day by the stories we tell. Collaborative storytelling, including storygames and Open Circle Story, are regulated systems of shared fantasy, wherein we come together to link our simulation engines via communication and create a common story and shared meaning. Talk therapy can be conceptualized as a specific kind of collaborative storytelling; when it works, it is the scaffolded restructuring of an individual's narrative framework, so that they learn to create meaning on their own and with others in a way that is more personally satisfying.

Within the next century, I want to see human sapience modeled by computational systems. I want to see humanity chart its own mind. I want to know, pragmatically, how external agents and systems can influence narrative to affect the transformation of our identities and behaviors towards more functional states. From my own experiences, it is my feeling that collaborative storytelling has a role to play in this journey, though what that role is and where I am supposed to fall into it are anybody's guess.

1 comment:

  1. That's an interesting angle on the concept of humans as story-making creatures. If you look at Homo Sapiens as organisms uniquely suited to thriving in their environment, then of COURSE all our attributes, even the most bizarre or "impractical" ones, would be assets for that. It's no accident that ancient story is tied to a sense of place. Making sense of our raltionship to the land is vital to our survival, and just happens to be spiritually enriching as well--which one might ALSO argue is essential to our survival.