Thursday, 2 August 2018

A Fascinating Twist On The Theory Of Our Evolution


In my as yet untitled book on God, mathematics, physics and philosophy, I wrote a chapter along the lines that without biological sentience the universe is just pure mathematics - or at least, pure mathematics is one way it could be described by the mind of God. The basic story of human evolution is that all the stuff we humans perceive as being 'out there' - the stars, planets, trees, mountains, etc - are perceptions that accurately reflect reality through the Darwinian lens that is essential for survival. In other words, we perceive the world physically because we are physical, but the outside reality is not very much like what it seems.

This morning I read an interesting interpretation of that idea by professor of cognitive science at the University of California, Donald D. Hoffman, who postulates that not only are our sensory perceptions a very limited reflection of reality 'out there', but that it may in fact have been evolutionarily advantageous to avoid perceiving the outside world as is (full article linked at bottom of page). Here's how professor Hoffman puts it:

"The classic argument is that those of our ancestors who saw more accurately had a competitive advantage over those who saw less accurately and thus were more likely to pass on their genes that coded for those more accurate perceptions, so after thousands of generations we can be quite confident that we’re the offspring of those who saw accurately, and so we see accurately. That sounds very plausible. But I think it is utterly false. It misunderstands the fundamental fact about evolution, which is that it’s about fitness functions—mathematical functions that describe how well a given strategy achieves the goals of survival and reproduction."

He then says that an organism that sees reality as it is will never be fitter for survival than an organism of equal complexity that sees none of reality but is just tuned to fitness. What follows is a terrific computer desktop metaphor from Hoffman about how seeing a false reality could be beneficial to an organism’s survival:

"Suppose there’s a blue rectangular icon on the lower right corner of your computer’s desktop — does that mean that the file itself is blue and rectangular and lives in the lower right corner of your computer? Of course not. But those are the only things that can be asserted about anything on the desktop — it has color, position, and shape. Those are the only categories available to you, and yet none of them are true about the file itself or anything in the computer. They couldn’t possibly be true. That’s an interesting thing. You could not form a true description of the innards of the computer if your entire view of reality was confined to the desktop. And yet the desktop is useful. That blue rectangular icon guides my behavior, and it hides a complex reality that I don’t need to know. That’s the key idea. Evolution has shaped us with perceptions that allow us to survive. They guide adaptive behaviors. But part of that involves hiding from us the stuff we don’t need to know. And that’s pretty much all of reality, whatever reality might be. If you had to spend all that time figuring it out, the tiger would eat you."

In one of my books I wrote a chapter about what I called the 'mental matrix' - the limitations of physical organisms in seeing the world through the narrow lens of their own biological landscape. I argued that there is a multifaceted, highly complex outside world that our biological evolution only enables us to sparsely sample. As with Kant, the distinction between the world 'out there' (noumena), and the world experienced through minds 'in there' (phenomena) creates a very limited phenomenal world that engages with external reality through evolutionary perceptions and conceptions of space and time.

But on top of the noumena merely being things which can’t be known 'as is' due to our being locked inside the limitations of our evolutionary biology, Hoffman wants to take it even further and hypothesise that natural selection acts on mutations that retain a veiling filter between reality 'as is' and reality 'as is perceived'. In other words, Hoffman's contention is that noumenal reality is so ultra complex and so informationally intractable that our brains evolved a sensory system to inform us of the fitness consequences of our actions and at the same time shielded us from developing a too complex, albeit potentially more accurate perception of outside reality.

I think there is plenty of truth in all this. Avoiding snakes and tigers is much more evolutionary advantageous (in the short term) than being able to appreciate complex metaphysical wonders of reality, or do philosophy, or tap into our creative endeavous - and it is probably true that evolution edited out some of the extraneous cognitive qualities if they would have impeded survival. But the fact is, along with the our reactions to moving objects, our fear of the dark, our blushing, our sneezing, our hairs standing up, our goose bumps and our trepidation at wild animals, we did evolve the capacity to philosophise, and do complex maths, and write profound literature, and construct beautiful poetry, and enjoy hints of the numinous, and be awed by our sense of wonder, and recognise God as the Creator.

While there is no question that we are evolved beings, with all the limitations of a Savannah-dwelling species, it is also very evident that our cognition operates as though it is over-engineered for the things for which biological evolution equipped us. I was in HMV earlier looking for a CD: an activity sedimented in a variety of things such as alphabetisation, image awareness, memory, geometrical apprehension, and every other perceptive tool that causes an interrelation between the agent, the objects and perceptivity. But even a simple task like finding a CD comes with all the suggestion that we are over-skilled and over-endowed in our cognitive capacity for the tasks at hand that aided our thriving of the species - there seems to be a supplementary facet to task-management that goes well beyond simple agent and action. What we do with our minds astronomically dwarfs what we need to do with our minds as evolutionary animals. 

For balance, I should say, one must remember the law of large numbers and how, given vast amounts of activity, things that produce seemingly extraordinary patterns are bound to occur. If one thinks of our development as rather like dealing cards, then natural selection has dealt a lot of cards, so our mental engineering, fecund as it is, must also be seen on those terms, especially as natural selection is rather like getting to keep hold of your favoured cards when they are dealt. So we should remember that, in card dealing terms, natural selection has dealt billions upon billions of hands that are 'under engineered' compared with us, so the human mind is certainly a stupendous deal - and on this score it is important to avoid simply assigning providence to our cognition just because we happen to notice it is superior to anything else in the world we know. 

On the other hand, there may be a better explanation. As well as it being true that our evolution filtered out most of the stupendous traits of cognition that would have helped see reality even more comprehensively, perhaps the dynamics of the interaction of the agent and its surroundings, as primary determinants of bit by bit accumulative development of reasoning, gave rise to an inevitable unsatisfactory logical dead end, whereby the justification of the fecundity of the human mind using mental artefacts that arrived through natural selection was just simply too much of a cognitive leap for us to understand quite how amazing we are in relation to the rest of the universe. In other words, perhaps a feature of our evolved consciousness is that it had to evolve with sufficiently limited protocols that it doesn't have the potential to recognise its own metaphysical magnitude, except by way of hints, such as when transcendent echoes like poetry and music literature seep through the cracks.

You can read the whole article here.
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