Ultimately, humanness may be most clearly marked by this transformation of the merely physical and physiological into the meaningful and implicitly value-laden by virtue of symbolic reference. Under the influence of the generalizing power of symbols this experience of ethical significance can be extended well beyond the social sphere, to recognize an ethical dimension implicit in all things. This suggests a way to think about two additional features that are characteristic of most spiritual traditions: the ubiquitous assignment of symbolic meaning, purpose, and value to things outside human affairs (e.g., origins, places, natural phenomena, and life and death itself), and the presumption that there is something like intentionality or intelligence behind the way that things are and the unfolding of worldly events.

Both of these nearly universal tendencies reflect a complex interaction between the cognitive predispositions that have evolved to ease the acquisition of symbolic communication and the implicit power of symbols to alter conditions of life in the world. Since a prerequisite to symbolic reference is the “discovery” of the logic of the system of inter-symbolic relationships that supports any individual symbolic reference, there are reasons to believe that the changes in prefrontal proportions contributed not just an ability to sample these non-overt relational features, but also a predisposition to look for them. With symbols, what matters is not surface details, but a hidden logic derived from the complex topologies of semantic relationships that constrain symbol use.

So the neuropsychological propensity to incessantly, spontaneously, and rapidly interpret symbols should express itself quite generally as a predisposition to look beyond surface correlations among things to find some formal systematicity, and thus meaning, behind them, even things that derive from entirely non-human sources. Everything is thus a potential symbol—trees, mountains, star patterns, coincidental events—and if the systematicity and intentionality is not evident it may mean merely that one has not yet discovered it.

Symbolic meaning is a function of consciousness and symbols are produced to communicate. So if the world is seen as full of potential symbols, it must implicitly be part of some grand effort of communication, and the product of mind. Whether this projected subjectivity is experienced as different personalities resident in hills, groves of trees, or rivers, or as some single grand infinite mind, this personification also taps into the intersubjective drive that is also fostered by symbolic projection.

In summary, the role of symbolic communication, and especially language, in moral cognition is ubiquitous. It has played a role in the evolution of a brain more capable of the cognitive operations required; it has provided critical tools for easing the implicit cognitive strain of performing these mental operations; and it has made it possible for societies to evolve means for developing these abilities (as well as opening the door for the horrors of their abuse). Moreover, the capacity for spiritual experience itself can be understood as an emergent consequence of the symbolic transfiguration of cognition and emotions. Human predispositions seem inevitably to project this ethical perspective onto the whole world, embedding human consciousness in vast webs of meaning, value, and intersubjective possibilities.

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