An outline of the ToK System...

Tree of Knowledge

     In one way, the Tree of Knowledge (ToK) System reflects a fairly common hierarchy of nature and of the sciences that has been represented in one way or another since the time of Augusta Comte, who in the seventeenth century used a hierarchical conception of nature to argue for the existence of sociology. Despite its surface agreement with a standard conception, in actuality the ToK System offers a set of novel ideas that have crucial implications for both ontology (i.e., reality) and epistemology (i.e., how we acquire knowledge about it). The novel ontological claim made by the ToK, and depicted pictorially above, is that cosmic evolution consists of four separable dimensions of complexity, namely Matter, Life, Mind and Culture. The dimension of complexity argument is one of the most intriguing, original and complicated aspects of the system. Many have argued nature is hierarchically leveled; for example, a list of levels such as subatomic particles, atoms, molecules, cells, multi-celled organisms, consciousness, and society is common. The ToK System embraces a view of nature as levels, but adds the notion that there are also dimensions of complexity. The difference is most clearly seen pictorially. A view of nature as solely consisting of levels would have a single cone of complexity, whereas the ToK depicts four cones. The ToK posits that a separate dimension of complexity emerges when a process of selection operates on a unit of information. Thus, according to the ToK, natural selection operating on genetic combinations gives rise to the dimension of Life; behavioral selection operating on neuronal combinations gives rise to the dimension of Mind; and justification operating on symbolic combinations gives rise to Culture.

Four Dimensions of Complexity

     Matter refers to the set of material objects and their behaviors through time. In accordance with modern cosmology, matter is theorized to have emerged out of a pure energy singularity at Big Bang. Space and time were also born at such a point. Matter is frozen chunks of energy. Nonliving material objects range in complexity from subatomic particles to large organic molecules. The physical sciences (i.e., physics, chemistry, geology, astronomy) describe the behavior of material objects.

     Life refers to organisms and their behaviors through time. Living objects are considered a unique subset of material objects Just as quantum particles form the fundamental units of material complexity, genes are the fundamental units of living information. Although many questions about the emergence of life remain unanswered, in accordance with modern biology, the ToK posits that natural selection operating on genetic combinations through time is the unified theory of biology and forms the foundational understanding for the emergence of organic complexity.

     Mind in the ToK System refers to the set of mental behaviors. Mental behaviors are behaviors of animals mediated by the nervous system that produce a functional effect on the animal environment relationship. As such, Mind is essentially synonymous with what behavioral psychologists have meant when they use the term behavior. Thus, a fly avoiding a fly swatter, a rat pushing a bar or a human getting a drink of water are all mental behaviors. Mind is not synonymous with sentience or the capacity for mental experience, although such processes are presumed to emerge in the mental dimension. Cognition, in the broad sense of the term (i.e., as meaning neuro-information processing) is seen as covert mental behavior, whereas change between the animal and the environment is defined as overt mental behavior. Defining mind as mental behavior provides a way to bridge the epistemological differences between cognitive and behavioral science.

     Culture in the ToK System refers to human justification systems, which range from individual justifications for particular actions to religions and political stances adopted by nation states. Just as genetic information processing is associated with the Life dimension and neuronal information processing associated with the Mind dimension, symbolic information processing emerges with the Cultural dimension.

Four Theoretical joint points

     Quantum Gravity refers to the imagined merger between the twin pillars of physical science which are quantum mechanics, the study of the microscopic (e.g., electrons), and general relativity, the science of macroscopic (e.g., galaxies). Currently, these two great domains of science cannot be effectively interwoven into a single, physical Theory of Everything. Yet progress is being made, most notably through string theory, loop quantum gravity, black hole thermodynamics and the study of the early universe. Some of the difficulties combining these two pillars of physical science are philosophical in nature and it is possible that the macro view of knowledge offered by the ToK may eventually aid in the construction of a coherent theory of quantum gravity. The reason the ToK might help is that it locates scientific knowledge in relationship to the physical universe.  

     The Modern Synthesis refers to the merger of genetics with natural selection which occurred in the 1930s and 1940s and offers a reasonably complete framework for understanding the emergence of biological complexity. Although there remain significant gaps in biological knowledge surrounding questions such as the origin of life and the emergence of sexual reproduction, the modern synthesis represents the most complete and well-substantiated joint point.

     Behavioral Investment Theory (BIT) is proposed as a merger of the selection science of behaviorism with the information science of cognitive neuroscience (notice the parallel with the modern synthesis). BIT posits that the nervous system evolved as an increasingly flexible computational control system that coordinates the behavioral expenditure of energy of the animal as a whole. Expenditure of behavioral energy is theorized to be computed on an investment value system built evolutionarily through natural selection operating on genetic combinations and ontogenetically through behavioral selection operating on neural combinations. As such, the current behavioral investments of the animal are conceptualized as the joint product of the two vectors of phylogeny and ontogeny. A unique element of BIT is that it finds a core of agreement and builds bridges between five brain-behavior paradigms: (1) cognitive science; (2) behavioral science; (3) evolutionary theory and genetics; (4) neuroscience; and (5) cybernetics/systems theory.

     The Justification Hypothesis (JH) is a novel proposal that allows for both the understanding of the evolution of culture and for identifying what makes humans distinct animals. A basic initial claim of the JH is that the process of justification is a crucial component of human mental behavior at both the individual and societal level. Unlike all other animals, humans everywhere ask for and give explanations for their actions. Arguments, debates, moral dictates, rationalizations, and excuses all involve the process of explaining why one’s claims, thoughts or actions are warranted. In virtually every form of social exchange, from warfare to politics to family struggles to science, humans are constantly justifying their behavioral investments to themselves and others.
      The JH can be stated succinctly as follows: The evolution of language gave rise to the problem of justification, and this evolutionary pressure ultimately resulted in the human self-consciousness system and human culture. The JH carries with it three fundamental postulates. The first is that the evolution of language must have created the problem of justification, which is the problem of explaining one’s self to others in a justifiable manner. The second postulate is that the human self-consciousness system can be understood as a “justification filter”. This second claim links the evolutionary analysis with key insights from psychodynamic theory. Specifically, psychodynamic theory posits that socially unjustifiable impulses are inhibited and socially justifiable reasons are given for actions taken. The third postulate is that culture can be understood as large scale justification systems that coordinate the behavior of human populations. Cultural systems are seen to evolve much in the same way as organisms do in biological evolution: there is a process of variation, selection and retention of belief systems.