Evolution and the humanities
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If updating Stoicism was all it took to come up with ways mind could evolve, why does it seem a novelty? I think partly because of ideas left behind by Christendom, and how science dealt with them. According to the Christian story our free will and consciousness were special gifts from God. Once science took over and wanted to tell a different story it dismissed those gifts, along with angels and devils, for being supernatural. So scientists felt no need to account for how those gifts evolved.
But for most people today those gifts—consciousness, creativity and free will—do need accounting for. Then, does that make my triadism a new religion? I say, no. As far as we know genomes have existed for only a few billion years and only here on Earth, so they aren’t infinite or eternal. Living creatures keep going extinct so genomes don’t appear to be omnipotent and all-knowing. And they’d make a poor personal god—they seem quite happy for most of the creatures they code for to serve as fodder for creatures coded for by other genomes. So, not a religion. More of a natural philosophy.
That’s nothing to sneeze at. A new natural philosophy can offer benefits. It can spin off new concepts.
Let's try that.
The three branches of my triadism correspond to three distinct realities: matter, life, mind. We have different ways of accessing each one: matter through science, life through study of evolution, mind through consciousness. All three realities can interact with the others. That's how the world looks to me, overall.
Each way we access what's real in the world can inform us differently. Physical sciences can show us ways it manifests itself as matter and energy. Consciousness we all experience directly, so we each know what that can tell us. The big unknown is what we can learn about what’s real from evolution.
Let’s compare what’s evolved with what’s purely physical. In something purely physical, a crystal say, the relatively simple molecules it consists of line up in a regular grid that repeats no matter how large the crystal grows. It’s quite homogenous. A living creature is entirely different, it consists of relatively large and complex molecules, then as we go up in scale those molecules come to constitute entirely different but still complex structures, all the way up to the individual creature and even entire populations (the ant colony). Study of the physical world and the study of life act as two different kinds of probes into what’s real, offer us two entirely different ways of learning about it. Just as we can learn about ourselves by studying matter scientifically we can learn about ourselves by studying how evolution works.
Existing concepts: creativity and free will, physical determinism and closed causation—what can evolution tell us about them? Earlier I insisted that evolution was creative, as we observe ourselves being. But now I want to turn that around. I want to redefine creativity in terms of the appearance on Earth of radically new kinds of living creatures. Let’s call that novelty-creation. How living creatures differ, that’s something physical, something open to public scrutiny. Evolution may not be able to do what physics tells us is impossible, but physics can’t tell us what evolution’s going to do next. Because of that you can’t claim causation is closed. If we follow the Stoics in seeing our creativity as a small portion of the creativity of nature, or of the genome as I suggest then, while our creativity will be limited as evolution is, it will also be free of strict physical determinism, as evolution is. This pulls the rug out from under what’s called “theory of mind” where strict physical determinism is the default; you have to declare your theory compatible or incompatible with determinism.
But on the other hand we can’t claim to have absolute free will--evolution must operate within an envelope of possibilities all its own. Instead of the extremes of free will or physical reductionism I suggest we talk of “volition”— the ability to employ “volition” to create novelty, to choose to do something. So retire free will and physical determinism in favor of some freedom to act of our own volition. That I propose be made theory of mind’s default that you declare your theory compatible or incompatible with.
How is it possible for one event to be followed by something novel? Recall I supposed some of our own thinking could involve our thoughts evolving, one into another. And, since such thinking in us invariably comes with consciousness I proposed we say that’s true of genomes too, that they can be conscious—that of course is where we would have got it from. Then we can see all novelty-creation, both in us and in the genome, as a property of consciousness. Then we can explore what’s real through consciousness, both through how we experience it and in the form of living creatures evolving.
How can we explore consciousness from the inside? Through art and culture of course, science and technology. But most of all, as meanings, the rails our minds run on.
Are meanings real? They have very little physical presence. Genomes do have to build physical accommodations for them in creatures’ brains but then in these lodgings the genome can embed a basic set of meanings needed to carry on a life. An orb spider comes into the world knowing how to spin a web, how to devour prey, how to mate, and much else. That all originates as code in the genome, translates into growth of brain tissue in the egg or embryo and meanings in mind in the adult. Spiders are real, and their behavior is real. So surely meanings, though not physical, are real. I’ve devoted one branch of my triadism to them.
In connection with the spider I’m saying “meanings” where we used to say “instincts.” I choose to refer to them as meanings because that’s how they appear in us. Just as our genome, of its own conscious volition, built meanings into us so we of our own conscious volition extend those meanings into entire libraries. I demonstrated that with mother and father becoming motherland and fatherland. As we create and name new meanings we expand the mother tongue that we inherited. Spoken or written, words take on physical form. As patterns of connection in mind they can be accessed by the autonomic system. At the same time they can be real in consciousness. They are real, as real as the code written along the genome of a spider for how to spin its web.
How exceptional does my triad make us? It frees us from possession of a soul that separates us from the rest of creation. But, in addition to an upright posture that gives us hands for making tools, it points to us alone having enough consciousness to create meanings, and associate them with behaviors and words. We can consciously create novelties, to a greater degree than any other living creature can.
But still we are just living creatures. I take it for granted that consciousness ends with our death. We have just our lifetime to make as much sense of the world as we want. The form of consciousness we inherit through our language is likely a creation of just the past 3000 years, say 100 generations. So we may expect to create in our lifetimes another two or three percent of our culture’s consciousness. Quite possibly that will result from ways we find wisdom in knowing we evolved.
Remember how I said living creatures evolved by genomes simply thinking them into existence but, before living creatures could evolve, their genomes had to evolve first? Genomes may evolve through entirely different mechanisms from those they employ to create us. Discovering these mechanisms might introduce us to even more powerful mental tools. Studying how genomes themselves evolved could lead to us enriching our own thinking with nature’s ultimate powers.