"... Human mentality has several components, but consciousness is probably central. The concept of consciousness is related to other ideas like foresight, planning, awareness, self-awareness, fantasizing, and dreaming. All of these are part of anyone's description of human mentality. Among other things consciousness implies the ability to think about times and places and events separated from our immediate personal circumstances. It implies the ability to use information from the social past to anticipate and alter the social future, to build scenarios-to plan, to think ahead, and to anticipate different possible outcomes and retain the potential to act in several alternative ways, depending on circumstances that can only be imperfectly represented at the time the plans or scenarios are being made.
Language is tied closely to consciousness· as scenario-building, because it alone enables us to communicate with others about events "displaced" in space or time or both (Hockett, 1960) - a requisite characteristic of social (or other) scenarios. We can use signs or symbols to designate places, events, objects, and individuals, and then, through the use of tenses, talk to others about events, objects, or individuals in different times and places. In no other way can detailed information about mental scenarios, which necessarily involve different times and places, be transferred between individuals (see also Alexander, 1989b; Gibbard, 1990).
What circumstances should we expect to be most challenging, with respect to accurate and complete building of scenarios via consciousness? Surely, the answer is: those involving other organisms doing exactly the same thing in preparation for their competitive and cooperative interactions with us. In other words, nothing would select more potently for increased social intelligence-for better ability to look ahead and survey the alternatives accurately-than a within-species co-evolutionary race in which success depended on effectiveness in social competition. In effect, consciousness is a way of seeing ourselves as others see us so that we may cause competitive others to see us as we wish them to, rather than as they might like to (that is, with our "defenses" down).
I think that this view places cognition, as a part of problem-solving ability, in a clearer light as well, because it implies that the problems that have driven the evolution of cognitive abilities have been social problems. I have argued that other aspects of human mentality such as the expression of the emotions and personality traits are also parts of our supply of tools for social cooperation and competition (Alexander, 1989b). Psychologists and anthropologists have already suggested independently of the theories discussed here that mathematical ability is a special case of linguistic ability (Lenneberg, 1971), and that linguistic ability is likely explainable as serving a social function (Burling, 1986).
Scenario-building, including dreaming and daydreaming as well as serious or purposeful planning, has seemed to many a kind of social-intellectual play. The most widely accepted theory of play is that it represents practice for the future, which occurs under circumstances that make it inexpensive compared to real-life, full-cost episodes of social competition (Fagen, 1981; Humphrey, 1983). Such 'practice can take many forms. It can merely improve physical, social, or intellectual skills. It may involve producing and trying out alternative scenarios. It may also involve acquiring status, or learning how to deal with dominance rankings that may be difficult to change as the playing individuals grow and develop and begin to compete in earnest for the actual resources of reproductive success, such as mates, jobs, and status (Alexander, 1989b). The term "thought experiments," as used frequently by scientists, suggests the centrality of scenario-building. It refers to an initial, internal process of testing and rejecting possibilities, and in that sense I regard it as responsible for the generation of virtually every reasonable hypothesis. To the extent that useful ideas represent a limiting factor in the advance of knowledge, this process may be central in even the most conservative and rigorous aspects of science. Einstein completed the general theory of relativity in his brain and tested it there so thoroughly that he was confident that "The result could not be otherwise than correct. I was only concerned with putting the answer into a lucid form. I did not for one second doubt that it would agree with observation" (Clark, 1971, p. 259).
Every human continually builds hypotheses and initiates their testing within his own mind, whether he is dealing with high-level scientific questions or everyday problems like how to start a car or whether or not to cross the street in some particular place or time. Such thought-experiments work because every human already has some relevant data in his head when he generates an hypothesis. The skill with which the process of internal testing is undertaken, and the data that already exist in the theorist's head against which he can test his idea, are what determines whether the hypothesis, when it is finally communicated to others, will be reasonable and useful, or will immediately be seen as false or unacceptable because of someone else's thought experiments. Reviewing possibilities and probabilities, and mentally playing out step-by-step either physical or mental challenges that lie ahead, are widely believed to be sometimes more important than more direct forms of practice. Even the actual experimental testing of an hypothesis, after all, is itself nothing more than a mental scenario brought out into the external world."
Richard D. Alexander (1990)