6. Self : From Action Plan to Person
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Abstract:  The fundamental characteristic of the thinking mind is its ability to formulate an action plan. It is the virtual processing relationship of subject/action/object of action that creates the function of the action plan. I will show how the 'self’ is an extension of this function.  The development begins with the action pattern, which evolves into an action plan by the volitional separation of effecter muscles and efferent neurons from stand-ins representing them.  This develops into the reasoning intellect which eventually mistakes itself for the generic subject of its organism’s action plans.

Statistics: 9 printed pages, 3351 words, 39kb
Published: March 29, 2000

            The foundation of thinking lies in a brain’s ability to form new action plans.  An action plan is the dynamic functional (and intangible) relationships between a subject, an action performed by that subject and the object on which that action is performed.  I must assume that every mobile organism uses action plans (in the case of instinctual creatures, action patterns) to navigate.  The level of development of that basic facility defines a vast range of capabilities from the fly that couldn’t plan a flyby to men and women who build skyscrapers and travel in outer space.

          There are those who would say that computation is only a metaphor for what brains do. I disagree.  What the brains of mobile creatures’ are doing is computing because what they are processing are symbols.  A brain is not reacting solely to physical affecters being applied to it, it is also reacting to the patterns of interactions within those affecters.  The patterns are the symbols and are the specificity of the event whereas the physical way in which a brain is affected and responds is generic to any event. This defines a true hardware/software relationship even if the demarcation between what is physical and what is intangible is blurred.

          We know from our familiarity with computers that until the groundwork circuitry is laid a computer does not exist.  A processing pattern must be created beginning with transistors placed into circuits whose patterns of organization contain algorithms for processing signals. This is the substrate to which software containing other patterns and processing algorithms is applied.  Only then can the computer do something.  This is absolutely significant.  For a human being to make a plan there has to be an analogous formation of brain circuitry.

          The action plan and the action pattern are such specifications of brain circuitry.  They are organizations of symbols in relationships that are processed on a neurological computer.  If a honey bee is flying about and its eyes discern a flower from which its species collects nectar, that image will trigger a response in the brain of the bee causing it to fly into the flower.  The flower is not the cause of its behavior rather it is the light reflected from the flower or maybe its scent.  These are information carriers.  Because the effect of the stimuli on the bee is directly related to the specificity of information sensed by the bee, what is represented in the bee’s brain on account of that stimulation is a symbol.  The action pattern resulting from the stimulation is specific.  The pattern consists of signaling motor pathways to move in what are fairly rigidly defined patterns.  The bee continues those patterns of movement while an information feedback loop signaled from the flower to its eyes and then to its brain continues stimulating the motor responses while it flies into the flower.  In this way the motor patterns are adjusted.  It is obvious that even what we call an instinctual response is quite complex and must involve a large number of variations of the basic theme. 

What I am interested in focusing on here is the symbolic organization of that theme in order to show the origins of the action plan involving a subject, action and object of action.  It might be easier to do this in reverse order.  The object of action is the flower, which is symbolized in the presentation phase of the bee’s navigation as the signal resulting from the stimulation of the bee’s sensory apparatuses.  The subject is the particular motor effectors that are synapsed on as a result of the signal.  The action is the pattern of signals from efferent neurons.  This organization of the subject, action and object of action are an action pattern.  It is the processing path of a bee’s response to the sight of a flower.

When development of this system during evolution moved upward in sophistication from a pattern to a plan it meant that there became stand-ins for the motor effectors and the efferent neurons so that the plan could be created but then articulated at some later moment in time.  The primary difference between the processing characteristics of the instinctual action pattern and the action plan is that the action plan can be newly formed and its articulation can be held in abeyance by a processing gate that depends on other contingencies.  Consider a hungry cheetah that is stalking a herd of gazelles.  Its brain is in the process of forming a plan and its muscles are twitching while its volition holds action in abeyance until the right moment.  The cheetah’s brain is fixing on a target, calculating the distance and its own ability to outrun the gazelle. When the plan is released and set into action then instinct will take over and the plan will be adjusted on the fly by action patterns.

        An action plan is a higher-level representation of the ‘subject/action/object of action’ relationship that is expressed in the action pattern.  The correlation of the plan to the pattern with a volitional gate between them (so that the plan can be held in abeyance until contingencies are met for its application) was an obvious extension for evolution to have hit on and one that exponentially increased the versatility of an organism’s response to its environment. 

The circuitry of the action plan is essentially the same as that of the action pattern.  If we think of the relationship of a subject performing some action on or towards some object (in a less ‘self’ focused way than we see our own relationship to the world), we can see the relationship as a loop.  The object (as clearly is the case with the bee) causes the subject to act in such a way as to affect the object that then affects the subject and on around the loop again and again.  The key is that there is a dynamic relationship between the subject and the object and not that one is the affecter and the other the affected.  The orientation towards the subject being the affecter increases as the complexity of action plans and volition increases and more and more of the power of whether or not the plan is articulated is vested in the domain of the subject. The subject, on account of having a choice between acting and not acting, is seen as the cause of the action.  The cheetah’s volitional gate could be that is very hungry, mildly hungry or not really hungry at all.  Looking at volition as being the difference between a pattern and plan we could imagine that maybe a bee would pass up a flower if it were already loaded up with nectar or if it was getting dark.  Those factors could be contingencies symbolized in input signals creating modulation of what we would like to think of as an instinctual response.

It should be clear that the sophistication of response systems was correlated to the amount of complexity that was possible in an organism’s brain.  We might suppose that only a minimal number of neurons are necessary for a truly instinctual response.  More neurons might sophisticate the articulation of the response by permitting finer motor articulation.  We might suppose that some of those neurons are processing various inputs from other neurons that may be reporting the condition of muscle tone, readiness to synapse and etc.  Once there is complexity, specialization is the obvious next step.  A contingency gate is setup and the efferent neuron is isolated from a more sophisticated efferent neuron by an intermediary neuron.  The efferent neuron is the motor neuron and the more sophisticated neuron becomes the planning neuron.  Imagining this in large systems we can see how action planning could have been the natural extension through specialization of the basic action pattern. 

The more sophisticated action plan circuits still contained the basic pattern of ‘subject/action/object of action’.  Instead of the subject being the effector muscles that were acted upon by the efferent neurons stimulated by the signal generated by the sensory apparatuses affected by the object, the subject became neurons representing the muscles. The action pattern of the efferent neurons was associated to both the neurons representing the muscles and other neurons representing the object but held in check by the volitional gate. The pattern of efferent response was divided into a higher controlling level and a lower articulating level.  The volitional gate made the neurons representing the muscles carriers of an abstract subject.  Evolution expanded that abstract subject to a proprioceptive body image and finally to a ‘self’ in humans.  It seems natural to think of the action patterns held in abeyance at the higher level of an action plan as belonging to the subject of that plan and so we get our orientation of the subject acting on the object.

        Most all of the processing of response to the environment by the organism is characterized by this ‘subject/action/object of action’ organization.  The characteristics of a subject, action or object of action within an action plan can be elaborated by more detail being added to them.  The subject in the case of the stalking cheetah must include an estimation of its potential of success depending on its capabilities.  Those capabilities are probably comparisons to memories of other successes or failures and they elaborate the subject.  The action pattern will be elaborated by strategies.  The object will be elaborated by appreciation of its strengths and vulnerabilities.  Action patterns can also be organized in series such as the cheetah going down to the river to look for prey.

Here is an analogy for the function of action planning to appreciate its significance in the scheme of the mind.  Think of a large geographic area whose predominant feature is a river valley.  From an ecological point of view, the entire network of nature is determined by the topographical pattern of the river valley.  Precipitation falls on the mountains and runs to the sea.  The high reaches are dry and barren in the summer.  The valley is green and lush.  Few people live near the tops of the mountains.  There are many people living in the river valley where there is good agriculture.  There are few roads on the mountains but zillions of streets in the valley.  The urban areas are networked with roads, buses, automobiles, trains and utility lines.  There are stores galore in the valley but scarce places to find what you need in the mountains.  The topography of the river valley is determining the arrangement of everything that goes on within it.  That is the kind of significance that the function of the action plan has in the organization of our minds. It is virtually fundamental to everything that the mind does.

The form that function takes is subject-action-object of action.  A plan is a virtual thing.  It is not a material aspect of the brain.  It is constructed through representations carried on neural circuits.  It is a pattern of brain states.  It relates images representing the environment to a scenario of internally fabricated images of the organism’s interactions with the environment.  When a plan is formed, it can be executed or held in memory.  This format of a plan can be used to understand an event by breaking the event into its subject, the subject’s action and the object of that action.  It thus becomes the foundation of language and intelligent thought because it can represent events.  The subject/verb/object organization of language is formatted on the subject/action/object of action format of the action plan.  It is the way in which we appreciate information brought to us by our senses from the environment.  We remember events as the functions of things affecting other things.  But, without the basic program that creates a subject, action, object of action and their relationships, there would be no plans, thoughts or language.  The action plan function is ubiquitous in the formation of the mind.

The ‘action plan function’ is an appropriate designator for the process that it characterizes.  The mind began as the simplest response by an organism to stimuli from the environment.  The object about which information was sensed became represented in the neural networks as a trigger that elicited a particular response by the organism.  The basic processing relationship of subject/action/object of action had been formed.  That pattern then facilitated the development in evolution of the function of action planning which allowed an organism to create a new action pattern and hold its articulation in abeyance.  Then that function was applied to the analysis of events and rudimentary thinking began to evolve.  Names were correlated to subjects, actions and objects of action in action plans and to those derived from the analysis of events and language was formed.  The act of my forming a sentence in this paper reflects this.  Creating a sentence is in essence creating an action plan.  I analyze data determining what the object that I want to express is and when I feel that the plan is well organized and I am ready, I permit it to be articulated in a sentence on the page.

You can’t plan to go to the movies unless you are planning to be the subject who is going.  To create an action plan there must be a subject who will do the action of the plan.  The subject is created virtually just as much as the plan is created virtually.  What’s more, the subject is virtually empowered by the plan.  It is the subject who is going to do something.  Ultimately the subject is empowered by the plan’s ability to initiate a motor response in the organism’s muscles.  This is the heart of the ‘self’ and its empowerment to do things. The ‘self’ is the subject of action plans.

          The subject of a primitive action pattern is the muscles that the efferent pattern of response synapses on.  When the action pattern evolved to being an action plan, neuron proxies were used as stand-ins for the muscles.  The neurons represented the muscles.  As action plans became more evolved in the higher animal species, a proprioceptive body map represented other lower level representations of the muscles. 

Whereas a proprioceptive body map may sometimes be an appropriate subject for an action plan, it may be that a person might want to consider the outcome of his or her plan before he or she considers whether he or she has the musculoskeletal facility to accomplish it or not.  The subject position in the action plan is plugged with a generic subject called ‘I’.  ‘I’ is a stand-in representing one’s proprioceptive body image and other abstract qualities associated to that body image for the subject of an action plan.  The actual subject will be defined after one has investigated the opportunity the plan may afford.  That subject will be selected from the repertoire in the mind’s memories of attributes of his or her ‘self’ but in the end boiling down to whether there are attributes associated to motor responses that can accomplish the plan. 

The subject position is a skeleton on which a body of attributes is built.  Those attributes are generally memories of what I have done and what I can do, but because the action plan gives me the ability to plan things virtually, I can imagine doing things, which are impossible to do.  I can imagine myself flying, but I can’t fly.  Most of the time my action plan refers to my organism and it being given that I don’t see any wings on my organism I sort out what is possible from what is not.  Okay, so I can’t fly.  But, I could believe that I could.

A subject that could believe that it could fly is an advanced virtual entity that is not just representations of my organism that is being used as the subject of the action plan.  The organism as it is represented in an action plan is virtual but it is not acting as if it is an agent. It is grounded by feedback of information from the external world where what the organism is, is a fact.  In humans, the subject of action plans has become an agent of the organism.  I will explain how.  The transition of the subject into an agent gets to be very confusing for the organism as a whole.  Whose interests is the action plan going to serve, that of the organism or that of the virtual ‘self’ (in some cases what we call the ego)?

Before I was aware of the fact that the subject and the subject position in action plans made my ‘self’ possible, the question ‘Who am I?’, arose quite naturally in my abstract levels of thought.  The apparent answer to the question was that I am the one that can do things, all kinds of things.  It was obvious to me long ago that the ‘self’ was the product of neurological computation because when people are dead there ‘selves’ are gone.  It was also obvious that a ‘self’ was a cybernetic entity because it filled the bill of being a ghost in the machinery of the brain.  Then came my understanding of intangible affecters and ghosts in machines became real things that could affect material events.  It did not occur to me until quite recently that the ‘self’ is the subject of action plans.  It wasn’t until I appreciated the significance of the action plan that I understood the mechanism by which a ‘self’ came to exist as the agent of the organism.

        The self is a robust and centralized agent.  It isn’t wishy-washy, being at one time one thing and at another time something else, which is what we might expect from loosely associated sets of attributes as the subjects of action plans.  My account of the ‘self’ lacks a couple of important characteristics.  As a matter of fact, a ‘self’ seems to think that the action plans are its own plans and that the attributes of the subjects of its action plans are its attributes but that it is itself something more fundamental being dressed up as different subjects at different times.  Here is what I think happens.

When the question, Who am I? naturally occurs, intelligence (which is just the fundamental ability to reason not belonging to anyone but residing in a human organism and stemming from the action plan function) makes the mistake of identifying ‘I’, the generic subject of an action plan, as itself.  Intelligence is the movement of thought in the brain.  It is the dynamic principle that creates the mind and links it together.  It reasons through the function of the action plan.  It appears to the unaware intelligence that the organism (represented virtually as the subject of an action plan) is acting on the environment.  It believes that ‘I’ (my ‘self’), the generic stand-in for the subject, is the one who is the initiator of actions.  It attributes credit for the more fundamental process of its own self in action planning to the subject ‘I’.  Through this identification, ‘I’ has insinuated its ‘self’ into the position of being the intelligence that is at large in the brain thereby building a fundamental link that associates all the subjects of my action plans into my ‘self’.   It is the skeleton on which the attributes of the ‘self’ (which are the subjects of action plans) get hung.  This creates a very abstract virtual machine but it has power.  The action plan is the initiator of motor responses.  In effect, a virtual process has risen higher into being a virtual agent (a spirit) by relating itself onto its own self.