Figments of Reality and the Theatre of the Mind: Part Two of Three

(this is a continuation of yesterday’s review of Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen’s 1997 book Figments of Reality — Part One can be found here)

I concluded the first part of this essay by saying that:

  • I find very compelling the authors’ argument that our minds (as processes producing figments — simplified models — of reality) co-evolve with everything that influences them (external events and the extelligence — collective intelligence — that manifests itself in language and culture), but
  • I prefer Gould’s assertion that all evolutionary innovations are accidental, trial-and-error, unlikely to recur in any other evolution of life anywhere anytime, to the authors’ assertion of the inevitability of some qualities of life, including flight, consciousness and intelligence wherever and whenever life emerges and evolves (which is wherever and whenever it can emerge and evolve). 

I know many people find Gould’s arguments for the improbability and non-repeatability of the evolution of intelligence and consciousness too brutal and cold; I find Stewart and Cohen’s arguments for their inevitability too romantic. I see nothing inherently ‘incredible’ about a world of mind-boggling, heart-pounding beauty that has no minds or hearts present to appreciate it.

In the latter part of Figments, the authors move on from their arguments about complicitous [i.e. involving interaction among complex systems] evolution to arguments about the nature and ‘reason’ for intelligence (capacity for induction and deduction), awareness (of external phenomena), consciousness (self-awareness), and free will (capacity for making choices). They say that our senses, our motility, and our brains (intelligence, awareness and consciousness) co-evolved because each serves the other to the organism’s evolutionary advantage. (Though their insistence on the correlation between these attributes raises and does not answer the question of why animals with the most acute senses are not necessarily the most intelligent or ‘most conscious’). They also explain how the non-algorithmic brain, with its co-evolving neurons and sensors, differs utterly from the most sophisticated, and even conceivable, man-made machines. It’s nice to hear scientists refuting the ignorant nonsense of the post-humanists.

The evolution of the womb, and then the nest, and then the society protecting its young in community, all examples of ‘privilege’ of the young, can all be explained by the evolutionary advantage of trial-and-error protected ‘on-the-job’ learning (‘software’) over genetically encoded knowledge (‘hardware’), whenever environmental contexts are in rapid flux. Learning (a social adaptation) required co-evolution of a brain that could aggregate patterns to recognize features (qualities of objects and actions that pose risk, or offer reward), and, say the authors, recognizing features is the brain’s main function, which is why languages are so rich in feature descriptors and so poor at everything else. They even speculate that our concept of beauty, of attractiveness (a face and body with the least irregular features) stems from this feature recognition imperative of the brain.

These features perceived/conceived by the limited-capacity brain are, of necessity, simplified representations (figments) of reality. Our brains “project the inner world of figments back onto our conception of the outer world of reality so our inner, virtual world appears to be out there“. So the real ‘version’ of the world (e.g. the light-waves of frequencies we perceive as ‘red’), and the virtual figment of it (e.g. our perception of ‘red’) are superimposed on each other, a little, perhaps, like Google Maps’ combined aerial photos and maps.

Now the authors, after a much-deserved refutation of several popular psychological and physical theories of consciousness and awareness, come to the most critical part of their theory: Cells, they assert, are complex, more like cities than “lumps of jelly”, and it is foolish to believe that the elements of even more complex organisms, right down to molecules, are single-function creatures in the service of consciousness, the ‘humulculus’ that is the ‘conscious’ person.

Rather, they argue, living species, including humans, are emergent properties of (what Daniel Dennett has labeled) the ‘pandemonium’ of the body’s semi-autonomous processes — We are a complicity of the separately-evolved creatures in our bodies organized for their mutual benefit i.e. we are an organism. And our brains, our intelligence, awareness, consciousness and free-will, are nothing more than an evolved, shared, feature-detection system jointly developed to advise these creatures’ actions for their mutual benefit. Our brains, and our minds (the processes that our neurons, senses and motility organs carry out collectively) are their information-processing system, not ‘ours’.

If that’s humbling, or outrageous, it is also illuminating, their argument is persuasive. And, although the authors do not mention and do not appear to support Gaia theory (in fact, they rarely use the term ‘organism’), the analogy of this argument to Gaia theory is striking: Just as the creatures in our bodies have formed themselves into an organism for mutual protection and benefit, and evolved a collective central processing unit to help them coordinate their actions, so have all those organisms formed themselves into a super-organism, Gaia, ‘all-life-on-Earth’, for mutual protection and benefit, with a collective regulatory system (the thin membranes that are our atmosphere, our soil and our ocean) that also gives them (including us) feedback and instruction on the delicate balancing act needed to sustain all of Gaia’s elements on our often-hostile naked Earth.

This feedback is what we feel when we see a clear-cut forest or read about millions of oil-soaked birds or see pictures of a tsunami’s death-toll. The meta-organism Gaia is telling us, its members, that our fellow creatures are suffering, and urging us to action to compensate for the damage, to heal the wound. This is, perhaps, too, what we feel when we see the devastation wrought by 9/11, or what bees feel when a bear tears apart their hive, or what the body’s organs feel when the HIV virus invades the blood-stream. ‘Grief’ propels the ‘observers’ of the injury to action — attack the cause and heal the damage.

So now you see yourself as a collective of creatures, all banded together, complicit for mutual benefit, with ‘your’ brain their humble servant. Only 18 bits of the 16 million bits of information your body processes every second are conscious, processed by those parts of your brain that constitute what we call conscious perception and thought. John Gray says:

The belief that we as individuals and as a species have control of ourselves and our world is a deception… We labour under an error. We act in the belief that we are all of one piece, but we are able to cope with things only because we are a succession of fragments. We cannot shake off the sense that we are enduring selves, and yet we know we are not… We are ruled not by our own intermittent moral sensations, still less by self-interest, but by the needs of the moment

So what are ‘you’ supposed to do about global warming, about world poverty, about your neighbour who abuses his family? Most of what is ‘you’ couldn’t care less about any of these things — these problems have no immediate impact on the creatures who are ‘you’. At what point will the damage to the air, soil and water be sufficient that the creatures who are ‘you’ get the message from Gaia that the ‘all-life-on-Earth’ organism is imperiled? Probably when it meets their ‘needs of the moment’ to do so. Why, just because ‘you’ have a big brain, should ‘you’ expect to get the message any sooner than any of the other creatures on the planet, especially those that are living in the immediate proximity of the consequences of this destruction — poisoned, desertified, polluted, razed, imprisoned, tortured? And even if we do get this message, do we have the will to do anything about it? John Gray again:

For much of their history and all of prehistory, humans did not see themselves as being any different from the other animals among which they lived. Hunter-gatherers saw their prey as equals, if not superiors, and animals were worshiped as divinities in many traditional cultures. The humanist sense of a gulf between ourselves and other animals is an aberration. Feeble as it is today, the feeling of sharing a common destiny with other living things is embedded in the human psyche. Those who struggle to conserve what is left of the natural environment are moved by the love of living things, biophilia, the frail bond of feeling that ties humankind to the Earth.

Stewart and Cohen turn their attention next to precisely this issue — free will, which might offer an answer to the question whether we, the only species which can stop the global extinction event we are now precipitating, have the biophilia necessary to want to save the world, and if so if we actually have the will to do so. In a nutshell, their answer is that free will is largely an illusion — there is substantial evidence that we are what we are and we will do what we will do, and ‘we’ have no say in it, but (big but) we are also conditioned (‘educated’) by our culture and that culture can have an effect on what we do, and don’t do.

Culture is substantially local — the pressure to conform, to do what we would otherwise not do, decreases substantially with distance, as we move from family, peers and community to nation and world. Western culture is also highly ‘individualistic’ — with some notable exceptions, Western culture attempts to interfere minimally in the actions of the ‘individual’ organism; other modern human civilization cultures exert much more social pressure to conform to behavioural and belief norms. But these individual freedoms are substantially impotent: Our culture offers us little opportunity to exercise ‘individual freedom’ — the knowledge, wealth and power to actually exercise significant personal choice, to a degree that would dramatically affect other people or the world, has been restricted to an elite few since the dawn of civilization culture. The purpose of culture, after all, is to make ‘you’ just like everyone else — your parents, your teachers. your employers, your preachers, your political representatives — because they have succeeded in the gene pool, and therefore must be a model worth emulating and continuing.

So your free will is an illusion thrice-over: The creatures who are ‘you’ have already made up ‘your’ mind what ‘you’ are going to do, though they might sometimes grit their teeth (if they had teeth) and constrain what they do by what ‘your’ culture considers tolerable behaviour. And even if you did have the free will to overcome what the creatures who are ‘you’ had already decided to do (or not do), and even if ‘your’ individuality hadn’t already been culturally crushed by the suffocating pressure to conform, it is doubtful you would have the resources and opportunity to do what ‘you’ really wanted to do anyway — your culture has already removed that temptation, that possibility.

The authors wryly refer to the acculturation process, including language, education, myth and ritual, as the Make-a-Human Kit, and the fictitious alien teacher in the book’s sci-fi excerpts is named Liar-to-Children. The Kit, and the system that employs it, has enormous inertia — it is ‘recursive’ and inherently change-resistant just as it is evolutionary, probably because we realize that a society based on software (culture) is much more fragile and prone to crash if the software ‘fails’ than one based on hardware, where the program is, at least in the short run, tamper-proof. The Hitlers and Stalins and Maos of the last century alone show the consequences of such software failures.

In the final chapter of Figments, before the whimsical and imaginative alien prologue, the authors wander into the domain of anthropology in an attempt to predict our future, and unfortunately do so badly. By a kind of gene/meme analogy, they attempt to argue for the inevitability of a global ‘multiculture’ and the need for that culture to embrace complexity and appreciate the potential of its extelligence (collective intelligence) to resolve the conflicts and problems that have accompanied this evolution. The argument appears to be based on the myth of selfish competition among species and the denial of Gaia theory and biophilia. Since the authors don’t deal with these topics it is impossible to understand why they are making this argument, but it detracts from a book that would have been fine without it. This chapter is full of ‘ifs’ and ‘hopes’, long on ideology and almost a desperate need for optimism, and short on science and credibility. Like some otherwise great movies, this book runs a few minutes too long and loses its way.

I would instead have ended it on a promising note that the authors sound in the penultimate chapter — that human society, being built on a foundation of culture (software) rather than just genetics (hardware), has evolved at an accelerating rate as a result: Grandchildren acclimatize easily to a culture that would be utterly foreign and unacceptable to their grandparents. No other species on Earth, to our knowledge, can change its behaviour that quickly. We therefore have the capacity to change our culture from one that is inexorably destroying all life on Earth — and even the ability to support life — to one that could revere and protect the diversity of life on our planet and the environment of which we are all a part — a Meta-Culture that is inclusive — in just two generations. Indeed, at the current rate of human population growth, resource consumption and environmental destruction, that is just about all the time we have. Our grandchildren are the light, not yet visible but fraught with promise, at the end of civilization’s dark tunnel.

(Part Three of this essay, coming soon, will discuss Theatre of the Mind, a new book on consciousness, and integrate its theories with those in Figments)

Painting above by painter and environmentalist Sophie Sheppard, auctioned in 1999 at the Authors Unite in Defense of Mother Earth festival.

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3 Responses to Figments of Reality and the Theatre of the Mind: Part Two of Three

  1. Hi Dave, I have always found the interaction between genetic material of individuals, society, environment and evolution fascinating. Some readings & authors I really liked: Steven Pinker’s “The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature” (genetics/social), Pierre Bourdieu’s perspective on what is thinkable and unthinkable in a society and the resulting consequences, e.g. in “La misère du monde”…

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Alex: Thanks for the reading ideas; I’ll check them out.

  3. Thank you Dave, i ordered the book right ahead.It eally reminds me alot of Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael. I really think this story has the better ending.I liked your hardware, software analogy really alot. I also think our culture needs to find the nature-given-rules to work fine.thanx again Thilo

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