image adapted from Pixabay, CC0
“I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware, nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself, we are creatures that should not exist by natural law. We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self; an accretion of sensory experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody. Maybe the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction, one last midnight – brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.” — Rust Cohle – character in the TV series True Detective
Three years ago, I added a third ‘law’ to the small set of ‘important things I’ve learned over the years’ and codified on this blog. The three laws are:
Pollard’s Law of Human Behaviour: Humans have evolved to do what’s personally urgent for them (the unavoidable imperatives of the moment), then to do what’s easy, and then to do what’s fun. There is never time left for things that are seen as merely important. Social, political and economic change happens only when the old generation dies and a new generation with different entrained beliefs and imperatives fills the power vacuum. We have evolved to be a collaborative and caring species, and we are all doing our best — we cannot do otherwise. We have no free will — our behaviour is entirely the product of our biological and cultural conditioning, given the ever-changing and unpredictable circumstances of each moment.
Pollard’s Law of Complexity: Things are the way they are for a reason. To change something, it helps to know that reason. If that reason is complex (and it frequently is), success at truly understanding and changing it is unlikely, and developing workarounds and adapting to it is probably a better strategy. Complex systems evolve to self-sustain and resist reform until they finally collapse. For that reason, the systems of global industrial civilization culture, having precipitated the sixth great extinction of life on Earth, are now collapsing rapidly and inevitably.
Pollard’s Law of Human Beliefs: We believe what we want to believe, not what is actually true. We want to believe in happy endings, simple answers, the inevitability of progress, self-control, karma, responsibility, destiny, miracles, a proper order of things, the power of love, and infinite human capacity and agency. Most of us want to believe in a higher power that can step in when we falter. We want to believe what those in our circles of trust believe (even if it’s crazy, gaslighting or propaganda). So we tend to seek sources that reinforce those beliefs and ignore those that undermine or unsettle them. Our hopes and expectations are determined by those beliefs. Our worldview is the sum of those beliefs, hopes and expectations, and bears no necessary resemblance to truth or reality. This invented reality is the only way we can make sense of a world that is impossible to grasp, to understand, or to ever really make sense of.
When I put forward the third “law” I was starting to ask myself why these things seem to be true. The Law of Human Behaviour would seem to make sense in the context of our evolution — these behaviours have helped propagate our species and enabled us to navigate through very difficult times. The Law of Complexity seems to make sense at a meta level for the same reason — life appears to evolve towards greater complexity until it cannot anymore, and then it collapses and the whole cycle starts again.
The Law of Human Beliefs seems to me mostly a means of maximizing our species’ social cohesion, and it also serves as a coping mechanism when we get overwhelmed. Our species had to evolve as a social species, since we don’t have the raw stuff to survive as lone individuals, at least once we jump down from the trees of the tropical rainforest that was our home for a million years. If we hadn’t developed this capacity to conform our beliefs and sense-making to those of our fellow humans (including the invention of abstract languages to reinforce that conformity), it is doubtful whether we would have been able to domesticate ourselves and each other to be able to get along and collaborate in anywhere near the numbers and varied ecosystems that we do.
Those three ‘laws’, however, have seemingly not served us well. Our beliefs (third law) and behaviours (first law) have seemingly precipitated an accelerating massive collapse (second law) of all the complex systems upon which we depend for our survival.
What went wrong?
At the time, I drew upon the work of Julian Jaynes to formulate what I called the Entanglement Hypothesis. This is not another ‘law’ because it cannot be supported or confirmed by observations. It is instead just a hypothesis of how and where we went wrong to get to this point of global violence and polysystem collapse. Here’s how I put it when I first articulated it:
Suppose Julian Jaynes, in his 1976 book The Origin of Consciousness, was correct, and it was only in our recent evolution that the human brain evolved the capacity to integrate its sensemaking activities (responding to signals perceived by the senses) with its imagining activities (creating/conceptualizing mental images). This integration, or ‘entanglement’, of brain activities is, he says, necessary for what we call ‘consciousness’, the experience of having a separate self.
In other words, it was only then that the brain was able to imagine that what it imagined made sense — and especially that its idea of the self and everything else as real and separate was ‘true’. Prior to that, Julian argues, there could be no self-consciousness and hence no sense of self, and no sense of ‘other’, or of time or space or other ‘places’ where separate ‘things’ could really be and really ‘happen’. He supports his thesis with an analysis of ancient written records and ancient human activities that show evidence of a lack of any sense of self or of self-consciousness. (Even the word ‘self’ is an etymologically recent coinage.)
The sensemaking part of the brain would therefore, back then, operate purely on instinct — eg fast yellow thing is perceived ⇒ brain “makes sense” that there is danger ⇒ flee, fight, or freeze. There would already be primary and immediate feelings: fear (⇒ flee), anger (⇒ fight), and/or sadness/hopelessness/resignation (⇒ freeze).
In the imagining part of the brain secondary thoughts (perhaps of gods, or monsters, anything that might be imagined) and secondary feelings (perhaps akin to anxiety, hatred, grief or shame) might arise, but there would be no way (yet) to act on or react to them, as there would be no context for ‘making sense’ of them. These thoughts and feelings wouldn’t ‘belong’ to anyone, so they’d just arise and fall away.
Michael Graziano hypothesizes that what prompted the evolution of the human capacity to synthesize the brain’s sensemaking/perceiving and imagining/conceiving activities was not the need for a self. The “unconscious” human species, like many others, had apparently thrived for a million years without this capacity.
Instead, what he thinks prompted this capacity for synthesis was humans’ primal survival need to socialize with other humans. We are maladapted to a solitary existence. In collaborating ‘unconsciously’ with other humans, as many creatures do, perhaps in the search for food or in attempting to escape from a predator, there is a need to communicate. For most creatures, body language, pheromones and rudimentary vocalizations were and are sufficient communication for essential social activity.
But as we moved farther and farther from our comfortable natural habitat in the trees of the tropical rainforest, we had both the need and the capacity to evolve a more sophisticated means of communication (abstract language). And we had the need and capacity to imagine a new way of modelling reality (‘consciousness’ of the self and ‘other’), that might enable us to adapt to hostile and unfamiliar new habitats and situations.
These new evolutionary features required the capacity to integrate the brain’s sensemaking, perceptual abilities with its imagining, conceptual abilities. And so, in successful survivors in these new habitats this capacity emerged, was apparently evolutionarily favoured, and has been with us ever since.
So, here, reduced to its basics, is the Entanglement Hypothesis:
For almost all of our existence, like other animals, we thrived despite having no sense of self, self-consciousness, or sense of separation from everything else. Then at some point, either by an evolutionary accident (a spandrel), or as a consequence of our need and capacity to form more complex relationships with fellow humans in new and hostile environments, our brains’ processing mechanisms became entangled, enabling us for the first time to imagine ourselves as real and separate from everything else. But, while this evolution enabled the development of language, civilization and other mechanisms for social cohesion and domestication, it also enabled us to imagine previously unimaginable fearsome and distressing dangers and terrors, the consequence of which is severe species-wide mental illness (constantly reinforced by stress, fear, anguish, and endless cycles of violence). So our brains’ entanglement has turned out to be a terrible maladaptation, one that has created a mad, chronically stressed and anxious, often hateful, disconnected, rogue species, which is unintentionally killing everything on earth in its desperate, misguided search for personal safety, security, and freedom from precarity. When there actually is no separate person to be protected from anything!
That is my elaboration of Julian Jaynes’ theory, which I have called the Entanglement Hypothesis. If it’s correct, it might explain how our unfolding global human tragedy came about, and the accelerating polysystem collapse it has led to. It is also consistent with our complete lack of free will — since there is actually no separate person to have one.
We may have become a rogue species, but that is not our inherent nature. Nature, it seems, made a dreadful error in evolving us as it did, and collapse is how she is now correcting it. And when we’re gone, all that will be left (and all that has ever really been) is this — this astonishing, indivisible, unknowable, at once real and unreal, purposeless, meaningless, need-less, timeless, complete, empty, motionless nothing-being-everything. Already. Obviously. Rust Cohle got this, but he was a fictional character, a nobody. Just like us.