Infographic – Hierarchical Construct Theory (HCT)

I remember learning at primary school about the early explorers. I recall feeling a sense of envy that there was no land remaining on the globe to be discovered: how was I going to become an explorer if there was nothing left to explore?

Despite this, and being a fairly pragmatic ‘would-be explorer’, I also remember realising at this very young age that there was a landscape that remained undiscovered; a landscape that I would seek to conquer. This landscape seemed on the one hand as distant as the stars, and on the other as observable as the nose on the end of my face. This landscape was the expansive territory of ‘mind’:
I decided that I would seek, explore and discover consciousness.

As a primary task, it should not be difficult to promote the thesis, that in principle understanding how and why consciousness emerged and has its particular characteristics entails understanding the evolution of a hierarchy of systems-constructs. Why?
If not irrefutable, it is at least commonly held and accepted that:

    i) systems are self organising and self sustaining;
    ii) over the evolutionary history of the universe, systems-structures have increased in complexity and sophistication; and
    iii) whilst there has evolved physical complexities so too has there evolved (on earth at least) increasingly sophisticated characteristics that we broadly associate with consciousness.

All things being equal, the three points above require us to take seriously and boldly the thesis that consciousness relates to the self-sustaining dynamic nature of increasing complexities and quite possibly to a systems-construct hierarchy.

infographic hierarchical construct theory

The infographic (above) is an illustration of the Hierarchical Construct Theory of consciousness (HCT). It details four hierarchically related categories (separated by horizontal grey dividers) each with its uniquely specific and characteristic representational, Intentional and informational features (cf. text to the left in the infographic). A fifth hierarchical category is also shown lacking detail because it has not yet evolved on earth. Complexity cycles (green circular images) illustrate that evolution of form takes place within each category. Ultimately, increasing complexity leads coincidentally to an emergent transition (illustrated by a circling red arrow); a transition that defines the subsequent category in the hierarchical sequence. This emergent transition is transcendental, meaning, that it leads to causally distinct representational, Intentional and informational characteristics and features. Thus with each transcendent emergent stage, one has a new hierarchical level of representation, Intentionality and informed construct forms. On the righthand side, images illustrate the relevant evolutionary mechanisms that evolve within each particular complexity cycle.

The infographic does not show why there are complexity cycles at each hierarchical level nor does it explain the cause of emergent transitions. However, the theory is a deductive-nomological account that does provide detailed answers to these questions.

What follows is a brief exposition of how HCT relates to the philosophy of Intentionality and representation (specifically in regard the contributions of John Searle, Daniel Dennett and Michael Tye). Alternatively, read a 10,000 word exposition of HCT, ‘On the Emergence and Evolution of Consciousness

Super High definition 7Mb version of HCT infographic

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HCT’s take on Intentionality and Representation

In philosophy, the term ‘intentionality’ (that is intentionality with a ‘t’) is typically used in regard the feature of human mentality to be about, to represent or to stand for things, and is often directed at mental states such as believing, desiring, experiencing, feeling, hoping, intending, knowing, perceiving and remembering.

John Searle’s view (‘Intentionality‘, 1983), is that there is a nonreductive “Network” of Intentional mental states that are reliant on a nonrepresentational and nonintentional “Background” of skills, assumptions, presuppositions, practices, and habits (see my illustration below). Translating this terminology into the HCT model (see infographic) one can say that the “Network” are features pertaining to the #4 construct and the “Background” might be construed as features pertaining to constructs #1, #2, and #3. Searle’s idea of Intentionality is that it is constituted by the #4 construct of human conceptual facilities and that it cannot be reduced to more primitive features of nature.
Searle intentionality Network Background illustration

Notably, despite his formal nonreductive stance and rigid interpretation of representation, Searle does appear to make a significant concession in a footnote on p. 141 of his book,

“I am discussing human Intentional states such as perception, beliefs, desires, and intentions. Perhaps there might be more biologically primitive Intentional states which do not require a Network, or perhaps not even a Background.” (Intentionality’, 1983)

In terms of HCT, these two sentences are the most significant in Searle’s book in its admission of vulnerability to a hierarchical theory. Some form of hierarchy is suggested by many writers. In comparing his stance with Searle, Michael Tye (1995 – Ten problems of Consciousness) states explicitly (p. 131) that he breaks away from the philosophical orthodoxy on Intentionality and representation. In his view, the features of constructs #2, #3 and #4 from Hierarchical Construct Theory are representational (labelled in my illustration of his so called “PANIC” theory below as 1, 2, and 3 – sorry for the numbering inconsistency i.e. #2=1, #3=2, #4=3. However, Michael Tye’s thesis does not link sections 1, 2, and 3 in a unified theory in the way HCT does. Furthermore, his theory does not extend outside mentality further to account for the representational nature of HCT’s #1 constructs. But certainly, the hierarchical notion is there. (For further analysis, see my critique of Michael Tye’s, representational theory of the phenomenal mind)

Michael Tye - PANIC Representational Theory of Mind

The PANIC Theory

Dennett reacts against the view that humans are privileged in having mentality with special characteristics and features that cannot be either explained, replicated artificially or extrapolated to less sophisticated organisms or non-mental processes. Consequently, he advocates that Intentionality is, to all intents and purposes, an illusion – merely by degree – of complex function. From this position, an artefact that responds to the environment such as a thermostat (responding to temperature) differs from the brain exclusively in virtue of its limited degree of representational complexity.
Intentionality Intensity Gradient
However, Dennett’s stance on Intentionality fails to identify distinction in the constitution of complex constructs (cf. my analysis of Dennett’s stance on Intentionality). With Dennett’s stance, one arrives at the position of believing that only functional complexity is relevant in the creation of characteristics that might assume the features of Intentionality. I argue that complexity, or processing sophistication in itself, does not provide the necessary explanatory details although I would concede that complex function can potentially mimic the features of intrinsic Intentionality, representation and information.

Despite their polar opposition, Searle and Dennett agree about the following: some kind of process, some kind of neural mechanism instituted by the brain, creates the phenomenon of consciousness (Searle: “On my view mental phenomena are biologically based: they are both caused by the operations of the brain and realized in the structure of the brain. Intentionality p.ix) What HCT explains is that it is not just cognitive mechanism that is responsible for consciousness (the clue is in the fact that cognitive mechanism is itself dependent on neurone function which is an evolved biochemical mechanism). Rather, consciousness exists because of the evolution of several transcendent layers of hierarchically related complexities.

Newton’s First and Third Laws of motion are an abstract that limits our conceptual interpretations to ‘bodies or objects in motion’.
First Law: When viewed in an inertial reference frame, an object either remains at rest or continues to move at a constant velocity unless acted upon by an external force.
Third Law: When one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction on the first body.
HCT opens out this abstraction of bodies or objects to include any form of temporally coherent or stable ‘construct’. It is with this in mind that one can then turn to the rationale that underpins HCT:

i) Consider atomic elements/compounds, replicating organisms, animal consciousness and human awareness, each as examples of distinctive types of construct. 
ii) A construct can be defined as a coherent whole that is conditionally constituted by non-aggregate parts that are continually interacting dynamically.
iii) A construct is identified as a coherent whole merely by virtue of its temporal stability.
iv) Constructs that are not stable within any given environment tend to dissipate whilst those that are stable tend to predominate.
v) Thus, constructs that are stable tend toward temporal longevity necessarily proliferating at the expense of those that do not.
vi) Consequently, one might say that “Mother Nature” is, by default, in the business of the proliferation of coherent constructs through the maintenance and enhancement of temporal stabilities (c.f. Jerry Fodor – Against Darwinism).
vii) Indeed, for whatever reason, Newton’s Laws of Motion are fundamentally concerned with this characterisation of stability acquisition and maintenance: all colliding bodies negotiate a compromise toward a stable equilibrium state.
viii) Environmental interaction tends to lead to variety of construct forms due to the reconstitution of stability following the destabilising effects of interaction.

A. I argue that the intentionality of all types of constructs (i.e. atomic elements/compounds, replicating organisms, animal consciousness and human awarenes), can be broken down to the seeking toward the maintenance of dynamic stability – which, for an aware human amounts to maintaining stable dynamic conceptual interpretations regarding the phenomenon of qualitative conscious experience; for a conscious animal amounts to maintaining stable realtime assimilative, evaluative and prioritising understandings with regard the qualitative relevancy of experience; whilst for a replicating species amounts to maintaining stable and therefore qualitatively relevant physiological adaptations.
B. I also argue that the various types of construct are all hierarchically related in so far as their structural forms evolve in complexity, and that this evolution of complexity of form ultimately leads to the transcendent emergence of the subsequent hierarchical construct-type.
C. In some respects, one might say that Hierarchical Construct Theory (HCT) explains emergence. HCT achieves this by showing how each type of construct firstly, obeys Newtonian principles, and second, relates hierarchically.
D. HCT explains that any given structure pertaining to any particular construct type, is informed about its environment and that this informedness constitutes a distinctive type of representation about its environment. HCT explains why causal mechanics create the particular types of complexities that realise particular types of features and characteristics in the natural order of things i.e., in the nature order of physical interaction. HCT explains the physics of evolution and of the transcendent emergence of novel kinds of constructs in a way that closely correlates with our understanding of evolution. Through the extrapolation of the hierarchical model, phenomenal consciousness is explained.
E. Finally, an advocate of HCT may or may not be a dualist. HCT does not address this issue at all for it leaves a certain puzzle entirely untouched. This puzzle I express with the following:

The first time you looked at yourself in a mirror was a unique event in the 13.7 billion year history and the 100 trillion year future of the universe. It was unique, not in so far as it was some individual looking at themselves in a manner that can be characterised by the ‘first-person perspective’. Rather, it was definitively and personally you – “You” had never done it before. How is it possible to provide a physicalist explanation of such a profound and uniquely individual self-identity-event?

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