Figments of reality The evolution of the curious mind


In this book Cohen and Stewart give their ideas on how the sentient human being evolved. Various chapters discuss scientific and philosophical ideas such as emergence and chaos, free will, perception versus reality, objectivity versus subjectivity, self-awareness, the ego and id, groupthink, and extelligence. A theme is that the traditional reductionist approach of trying to understand things as interaction of simpler things can not alone explain such complex concepts as intelligence or culture. To better understand them one has to consider also the context in which they have evolved and the fact that the evolution is a recursive process, often changing the context so that previously unseen evolutionary paths became available. The authors claim that intelligence is an inevitable result of letting evolution progress for long enough.

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Isn’t it strange that the animal we used to be developed into the creature that we now are? How – and why – did human intelligence and culture evolve? How did we evolve minds, philosophies and technologies? And now that we have them, where are they taking us? The orthodox answer to these questions looks inside our brains to see what they are made of and how the various components operate. This leads to a story based upon DNA biochemistry, the evolution of nerve cells as pathways for sensory information, and their organization into complex networks – brains – that can manipulate neural models of natural objects and processes. Mind is seen as a property of an unusual brain – complex enough to develop culture – but here the ‘reductionist’ story starts to lose its thread. Many people see mind as something that transcends ordinary matter altogether. Philosophers worry that the universe around us may be a figment of our own imagination.

In Figments of Reality we explore a very different, but complementary, theory: that minds and culture co-evolved within a wider context. Every step of our development is affected by our surroundings. Our minds are rooted in ordinary matter; they are complex processes – or complexes of processes – that happen in material brains. Our brains are linked to reality by their molecules; but they are also linked to reality on another level, their ability to model reality within themselves.

Those links have had important effects on the evolution of the brain and the mind. For example, even our sense organs are not totally pre-programmed: far from it. Instead, as we grow, our senses are ‘tuned’ to detect particular features of our surroundings. Mind is not immaterial transcendence: it is the response of an evolving brain to the need to survive in a complex environment. And with the evolution of culture, that environment has become self-modifying and self-referential, and human minds have done the same. Evolution and tunable senses have produced minds that can grapple with reality by operating upon features – high-level structures/processes in the brain that correspond to large-scale regularities in the surrounding world. For example, a goat eats leaves because they look like leaves, not because its nerve cells have a chemical affinity for chlorophyll. If plants had evolved differently, using a purple chemical for photosynthesis, then goats would be looking for purple leaves instead; but otherwise they would be much the same as present-day goats. We shall investigate how the mind explores its own mental landscape and works with the features that it finds there. This leads to a new theory of the relation of individual minds to the human culture in which they reside.

This is a different view from that of current physics, which, for instance, sees a table as ‘mostly empty space’ because of atomic theory, and thereby directs our attention away from important human-scale features such as ‘wooden’, ‘solid’, ‘brown’. Such ‘commonsense’ features were important for evolution, an remain important for understanding many areas of science. For example, the evolution of the goat as a successful herbivore depended upon its ability to perceive leaves, not upon its understanding of biochemistry.

How can a conscious, intelligent mind evolve? Instead of giving a reductionist answer based upon internal fine structure we take an external, contextual view. We see the accumulating knowledge of generations of intelligent beings as a thing or process with its own characteristic structure and behavior: extelligence. Extelligence constantly modifies and organizes itself through continuing interactions with innumerable individuals. As a result, extelligence has become greater, more permanent, and far more capable than any individual intelligence. However, extelligence makes no sense without intelligences to interact with it: the two are ‘complicit’. The developing mind of each child interacts with extelligence by way of language, and the two-way flow between individuals and their surrounding culture changes both. Intelligence is fostered in the child, and extelligence is fostered in the culture. Thus the evolution and structure of the brain cannot be divorced from the evolution and structure of human society and its environment, the universe. Our minds co-evolve with everything that influences them. Minds are figments of reality, processes going on inside structures made from ordinary matter whose behaviour evolved in order to mimic, model, and manipulate natural processes. This explains why they are ‘unreasonably effective’ e1 at perceiving and reorganising their environment. The human condition is a complicit interaction between culture and individual minds, each shaping the other. Culture depends upon communication, which we achieve with language. Language, the first step towards extelligence, co-evolved with brains and made minds, complicit with hands and technology, and the discovery of patterns

1 The symbol e(‘note’) indicates that there is a note at the back of the book which takes the appropriate topic further, or provides a reference. Various technicalities are relegated to the Notes, as are discussions of interesting distractions. and laws. Mind can only think about mind once language equips it with a recursive (that is, self-referential) feature-detection system. Once it has this, self-awareness is an immediate, essentially trivial property, because ‘self’ is a feature too.

The existence of features makes it possible to employ a mental map instead of the real territory. The greatest single step in organic evolution was the aggregation of different bacteria to make the nucleated cell. Similarly, the greatest step so far in our cultural evolution has been the aggregation of different cultures to make multicultures. There are many kinds of multiculture, ranging from multinational corporations to major cities like New York. But the self-complication of human culture will not stop there, because it is a self-propelled process. Today’s multicultures are like the creatures of a colony, coexisting as more or less isolated ‘ghettos’. Tomorrow’s multicultures will be more like genuine multicellular organisms, in which extelligence is specialised like the different tissues of a complex animal. Our new communication technologies are beginning to knit all of the different multicultures into a new entity, a superculture: Humanity. This will be our story.

And here is the place to thank everybody who has contributed to it. JC is grateful for the hospitality of the University of Warwick, which provided him with a room and a phone. IS had a room and a phone too, but then, he works there. READ MORE


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