3rd Conference
The Evolution of Language
April 3rd - 6th , 2000





Evolving language, I-consciousness and free will

Rüdiger Vaas

Institute of Philosophy, University of Stuttgart & Institute of Zoology, University of Hohenheim, Posener Str. 85, D – 74321 Bietigheim-Bissingen, Germany
Ruediger.Vaas@t-online de

This paper has two goals: (1) to extend explanations of the evolution of language, I-consciousness and our impression of having free will in the light of what is now called the "social intelligence hypothesis": the evolution of language is forced by natural selection mainly because of its advantage as a tool and weapon for and within the social struggle of our ancestors; (2) to show how biological and linguistic insights may contribute to the understanding of one of the most puzzling philosophical issues – and indeed of our conception as human beings – i.e. (the possibility of) our experience of ourselves and as autonomous agents. The philosophical problems of I-consciousness and free will cannot be solved as it would require the reconcilation of apparently inconsistent premises; but it may be dissolved by eliminating one of the premises, namely the claim that there are irreducible entities like free-floating selves or Cartesian egos with the ability to act due to their own non-physical power. Nevertheless our misleading conception of being such selves with free will has to be explained. And evolutionary biology and linguistics seem to be able to do this: The ego-illusion of systems which permanently confuse themselves with their own self-model, and the (in some sense inadequate) belief of having free will are sophisticated tools with great evolutionary advantages – they are the most subtle form of deception that was rewarded by natural selection, namely, a systematic and stable deception of our own.

Obviously, organisms need not be very mindful to live and reproduce. But some are. Why? Considering social factors are the most promising approach for an answer (Byrne & Whiten 1988, Whiten & Byrne 1997). A main starting point was the observation that primates appear to have more intelligence than is required for their everyday wants of feeding and ranging. Since evolution is unlikely to select for superfluous capacities, Nicholas Humphrey (1976) conjectured that something had been fergotten, namely the social complexity inherent in many primate groups, and suggested that the social environment might have been a significant selective pressure for primate intelligence. Since better access to food or a safer place to sleep or a higher rank in the complex hierarchies of primate societies normally increase the probability of producing more offspring than other group members, social intelligence pays off pretty well. Natural selection therefore favours it (or its inherited requirements). And since this selective pressure applies to all group members, an evolutionary arms race is set up, leading to a further increase of intelligence. This development probably corresponds to the rapid expansion of our ancestors’ neocortex – especially the frontal parts, which are most important for working memory and planning (Goldman-Rakic 1992) and probably consciousness (LeDoux 1996). This cortical enlargement – about a factor of three to four during the last five million years – is otherwise hard to explain. And it is biologically expensive, because the brain consumes about 20 percent of the energy when the body is idle but accounts for only two percent of its mass. Furthermore, there is evidence for a correlation between neocortical size and group-size or social complexity (Barton & Dunbar 1997).

Thus, social interactions might have been the most important driving force for the evolution of primate intelligence. The elaborated mental abilities of higher primates are conceived as the product of a cognitive arms race leading to more and more sophisticated representational capabilities (representation of complex social relationships, higher-order intentional stance, theory of mind, mindreading). This climate of competition and conflict favours the use of social manipulation to achieve individual benefits at the expense of other group members. Observing social relationships carefully, struggling for influences, making alliances, or deceiving more powerful leaders got more and more important. Particularly useful for this are manipulations in which the losers are unaware of their loss (as in some kinds of deception), or in which there are compensatory gains (as in some kinds of co-operation). Therefore, egoistic intentions remain hidden. A lot of zoo and field experiments as well as behavioral studies in the wild have already confirmed (and reinforced) these hypotheses. It was shown, for example, that apes – and to a lesser degree perhaps also monkeys – may be able to respond differently, according to the beliefs and desires of other individuals (rather than according only to the other’s overt behavior). Hence, they possess a theory of mind (Premack & Woodruff 1978) and can assume what Daniel Dennett (1988) has called the intentional stance: They ascribe intentions to others and take them into consideration for their own actions.

Language is, among other things, a very useful tool and medium for explicit representations and metarepresentations including an intentional stance, self-attributions, I-consciousness, higher-order volitions, autonomous agency etc. These are not an epistemic luxury but have a function, i.e. a causal role. They allow a more precise representation of the external and internal states and their rational and emotional evaluation. They allow a broader range of reactions in complex situations, especially in social contexts. The concept of self reifies the organizing activity of an organism that incorporates its experience into its future actions. These capabilities are – at least at the higher-order level of human beings – based on and boosted by language, and this is probably the main reason for the development of larger brains and linguistic capabilities (cf. Goody 1997). Thus, it is reasonable to assume that these cognitive capabilities are an important factor for the origin and evolution of language and cannot be excluded by any elaborated theory trying to explain this still rather mysterious issue (cf. e.g. Aitchison 1996, Jablonski & Aiello 1998, Noble & Davidson 1996): Language was incorporated in cognitive representations of own’s and others’ intentions and offered more abstract and efficient ways to use these representations; language permits more effective classification, storage and distribution of information, and thus more efficient use of memory and communication; language is an important means to envisage the future; and language-in-use is a new and very effective sort of tool for co-operation between individuals, because it makes information explicit and easily communicable even in the absence of visual contact. Language also paved the way for even more sophisticated deceptions (i.e. lies) and influencing others to act in accordance with one’s own goals. Language is based on symbolic and abstract thought, but conversely it also enhanced their further development. Finally, language lead to more and more sophisticated models of the world and of ourselves.

Self-consciousness is a rather shaky term with many different meanings which often depend on each other, e.g. notions like self-awareness, self-knowledge, self-recognition, sense of ownership etc. (cf. Frank 1994, Bermúdez, Marcel & Eilan 1995). Self-consciousness is not a single ability or property but a complex entanglement of different features creating a special kind of knowledge. As a premise, it is assumed here that self-consciousness does not come ready-made into existence, but bootstraps itself with the help of other minds in a complex interplay of the infant with the social and physical environment starting from inborn dispositions. It depends on perspectivity due to centered information acquisition, bodily awareness due to proprioception and feedback from results of one’s own actions (including the experience of resistance). These are crucial ingredients for a higher-order form of self-consciousness, i.e. I-consciousness. It is conceptualizable and verbalizable. It is based on a feature which is called a self-model. This is an episodically active representational entity (e.g. a complex activation pattern in a human brain), the contents of which are properties of the system itself. It is embedded and constantly updated in a global model of the world created also by the brain based on perceptions, memories, innate informations etc. (Metzinger 1993). Self-models are limited in a crucial way. They cannot represent their own representations as their own representations as their own representations and so on ad infinitum. But there is (or at least was) also no need for that. From an evolutionary perspective, it would have been quite disadvantageous for our ancestors to forget their physical and social environments and plunge into a self-amplifying spiral of self-reflection. Hence, there is a – probably hard-wired – self-referential opacity: The phenomenal mental models employed by our brains are semantically transparent, i.e. they do not contain the information that they are models on the level of their content (Van Gulick 1988). Possibly these phenomenal mental models are activated in such a fast and reliable way that the brain itself is not able to recognize them as such anymore because of a lower temporal resolution of metarepresentational processes due to limited temporal and physical ressources. If so, the system "looks through" its own representational structures as if it was in direct and immediate contact with their contents, creating a special sort of self-intimacy. This leads us to a rather dramatic – and possibly offending – hypothesis: We are systems which are not able to recognize their self-model as a self-model. For this reason we are permanently operating under the conditions of a "naive-realistic self-misunderstanding". We experience ourselves as being in direct and immediate epistemic contact with ourselves. Hence, we are systems which permanently confuse themselves with their own self-model (Metzinger 1996). In doing this, we generate an ego-illusion, which is stable, coherent, and cannot be transcended on the level of conscious experience itself.

Another controversial issue is the problem of free will (see e.g. Honderich 1988, O’Connor 1995, Walter 1998 for an introduction). To define free will in the strongest sense, Libertarians often presume three necessary conditions which, taken together, are sufficient: intelligibility, freedom, and origination. Intelligibility means that a person’s free choices are based on intelligible reasons. Freedom means that this person can make different choices under completely identical conditions, i.e. that this person could act otherwise even if all natural laws and boundary conditions (including his or her own physical states) are the same. Origination means that the person is able to create his or her choices and acts according to these choices in a nonphysical way. But this presupposes an ontology (e.g. a kind of dualism or idealism) which goes beyond and is at least partly independent of the physical world. However, even such an ontology won’t offer what Libertarians want, for it cannot avoid the dilemma of plunging into an infinite regress or abruptly step on the brake at a mysterious causa sui. This is because in order for me to be truly or ultimately responsible for how I am, so that I am truly responsible for what I want and do (at least in certain respects), something impossible has to be true: There has to be a starting point in the series of acts that made me have a certain nature – a beginning that constitutes an act of ultimate self-origination. But there is no such starting point. Therefore, even if I can act as I please, I can’t please as I please. That is not to say that there are no higher-order volitions, for instance wanting to want not to stay that lazy anymore. But ultimately my reasons, beliefs and volitions are non- (our sub-)consciously determined – by earlier experiences, heredity, physiology or external influences – and therefore not ultimately up to me. Thus, in order to be ultimately autonomous and responsible, one would have to be the ultimate cause of onself, or at least of some crucial part of oneself (Strawson 1986). But this would strangely promote man to something like an Aristotelian God, a prime mover. (This is no polemic exaggeration but what Libertarians have actually conceded, see e.g. Chisholm 1964, p. 32, Kane 1989, p. 121.)

However, there is no hint for the existence of humans as prime movers and nonphysical forces interacting with our physical world through causal loopholes. Nevertheless we do conceive ourselves, at least sometimes, as being free. We have the feeling that it is up to us to decide between alternatives. This feeling depends on second-order emotions (without which we cannot act and choose in complex situations despite of rationality), an intentional stance, a "healthy" (non-deprived) development, non-predictability or epistemic indeterminism (that is to say we cannot know the future for certain, and especially not our own future), rationality (the ability to reflect and reason), planning (and hence higher-order thoughts, a concept of the future et cetera), higher-order volitions, and sanity. These features are compatible with a naturalistic world view (Vaas 1996 & 1999) and even with determinism. Therefore it is not to deny a weaker form of free will. But this does not imply the existence of the kind of freedom and origination for which Libertarianism is argueing. The Libertarian will still insist that our subjective impression of freedom is a powerful argument for free will. Thus, a sceptic should be able to explain such an impression within a naturalistic framework. And this is what an evolutionary perspective might achieve: Ascribing intentional states to others necessarily includes ascribing volitions to them and assuming that they have the power to transfer their volitions into actions somehow, because this is the only way to get advantages from the intentional stance at all. For, if other beings are thought to have intentions but they would be causally inert, that is to say their behavior has nothing to do with their volitions, this ascription of intentions and hence volitions simply wouldn’t matter. However the intentional stance is not an irrelevant luxury. It is a powerful tool to get along with the complexity of the social world and even an anthropomorphically-conceived nonsocial world (up to highly restricted activities – e.g. in playing computer chess nowadays it is common and helpful to think and act as if the computer "wants" and "plans" something). Individuals endowed with this tool are better prepared for the struggle of social life. And it is advantageous to assume the volitions of others as somehow being independent of the environment or the past. Not absolutely independent of course, but in an approximate sense – because this makes it a lot easier to deal with them due to the fact that complex organisms can act (or react) quite differently in similar circumstances and quite similar in very different circumstances. There is another reason to take a concept of volition as evolutionarily advantageous, and this is just the other side of the coin: To deal with other individuals in a complex way means also to plan one’s own actions carefully and evaluate their effects. This presupposes some kind of awareness of one’s own volition, hence a concept of will and self. Higher-order representations also take one’s own mental states into account – not only for decisions and follow-up analyses but also as a parameter in the plans of others regarding oneself. Thus, it is reasonable or even necessary to ascribe volitions to oneself, too – because otherwise one cannot reason about the mental states of others who are presumably dealing with oneself. This makes one’s own volitions explicit – and much more flexible. For instance, an individual may think: "She believes that I want to do this, and she will react to this in a certain way to get an advantage over me – and therefore I will act otherwise and not do this but that." At least since the point from which there has been language with an inbuilt grammatical structure distinguishing between subjects and objects, active and passive, present and future – but probably much earlier –, such concepts of volition, actions and self-notions have been flourishing. This was not only the case in contexts of cheating, however! In the course of time co-operation became more and more important among our early ancestors. And the existence of some form of language already implies a high degree of co-operation (Calvin & Bickerton 2000) – spoken language would never have emerged unless most people, most of the time, followed conventional usage. But co-operation in complex, not inherited forms also presupposes an intentional stance and the capacity to ascribe volitions to others.

In conclusion, evolution shaped our minds respectively our brains to cope with our complex social lives. We are forced by our very nature to interact with other people in a fundamentally different way than to interact with, say, stones and sticks (Strawson 1962). From this it is no longer a big step to a notion of free will which is a powerful tool to act in consonance with or opposition to others and to establish some kind of moral responsibility – a very effective way to influence the behavior of others and justify punishments. Thus, free will even succeeded to become an entitiy of religious, philosophical or political theories and a postulate for jurisdiction. Of course we need not dismiss an intentional and personal stance. It is, obviously, crucial for our survival. We cannot leave our subjective standpoints, turning exclusively to an objective, perspectiveless view. We may accept that we have, ultimately, no free choice. Nevertheless, in our everyday life we think and act as if we did. Even sceptical philosophers do – or they might find themselves out of the race quickly. Nature is stronger than insight and "the human brain is, in large part, a machine for winning arguments, a machine for convincing others that its owner is in the right – and thus a machine for convincing its owner of the same thing. The brain is like a good lawyer: given any set of interests to defend, it sets about convincing the world of their moral and logical worth, regardless of whether they in fact have any of either. Like a lawyer, the human brain wants victory, not truth; and, like a lawyer, it is sometimes more admirable for skill than for virtue" (Wright 1994, p. 280).

For some helpful comments or discussions I am grateful to André Spiegel, Henrik Walter and Thomas Zoglauer.


Aitchison, J 1996: The Seeds of Speech. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Barton, RA & Dunbar, RIM 1997: Evolution and the social brain. In: Whiten & Byrne 1997.

Bermúdez, JL, Marcel, A & Eilan, N (eds) 1995: The Body and The Self. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Byrne, R & Whiten, A 1988: Machiavellian Intelligence. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Calvin, W & Bickerton, D 2000: Lingua ex Machina. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Chisholm, R 1964: Human Freedom and the Self. In: Watson, G (ed): Free Will. New York: Oxford Univ. Press 1982.

Dennett, D 1988: The Intentional Stance in Theory and Practice. In: Byrne & Whiten 1988.

Frank, M (ed) 1994: Analytische Theorien des Selbstbewußtseins. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Goldman-Rakic, P 1992: Working Memory and the Mind. Scientific American 267, 110-117.

Goody, EN 1997: Social Intelligence and Language: Another Rubicon? In: Whiten & Byrne 1997.

Honderich, T 1988: A Theory of Determinism. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Humphrey, N 1976: The Social Function of Intellect. In: Consciousness Regained. Oxford: Oxford University Press 1998.

Jablonski, NG & Aiello, LC (eds) 1998: The Origin and Diversification of Language. San Francisco: Univ. of Calif. Pr.

Kane, R 1989: Two Kinds of Incompatibilism. In: O’Connor 1995.

LeDoux, J 1996: The Emotional Brain. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Metzinger, T 1993: Subjekt und Selbstmodell. Paderborn: Schöningh.

Metzinger, T 1996: Niemand sein. In: Krämer, S (ed): Bewußtsein. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Noble, W & Davidson, I 1996: Human Evolution, Language, and Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

O’Connor, T (ed) 1995: Agents, Causes, Events. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Premack, D & Woodruff, G 1978: Does the Chimpanzee have a Theory of Mind? Behav. and Brain Sciences 4, 515-526.

Strawson, G 1986: Freedom and Belief. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Strawson, PF 1962: Freedom and Resentment. Proceedings of the British Academy 48, 187-211.

Vaas, R 1996: Mein Gehirn ist, also denke ich. In: Hubig C & Poser H (eds): Cognitio humana. Leipzig, Vol. 2.

Vaas, R 1999: Why Neural Correlates of Consciousness are fine, but not enough. Anthropology & Philosophy III, No. 2.

Van Gulick 1988: A functionalist Plea for Self-consciousness. The Philosophical Review XCVII, 149-181.

Walter, H 1998: Neurophilosophie der Willensfreiheit. Paderborn: Schöningh.

Whiten, A & Byrne, R 1997: Machiavellian Intelligence II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wright, R 1994: The Moral Animal. New York: Pantheon.



 Conference site: http://www.infres.enst.fr/confs/evolang/