A future for the humanities

The job of science is to tell us about the world. The job of the humanities is to tell us about ourselves. In this, the humanities have let us down. A crucial foundation for what we know about ourselves is our origin story but today we get our origin story from science: science’s account of how we evolved.

Yes, we evolved. But why has science’s account of how that happened become our official origin story, the only one that may be taught to children at school? That’s purely an accident of history. And it’s one we should set right. It’s up to the humanities to summon up the necessary courage, point out the flaws in the scientific story, come up with a new and better origin story based on us having evolved, and make a case for that origin story supplanting the one pressed on us by science.

Evolutionary theory sprang into existence just three lifetimes ago, and all throughout its first lifetime it was, in the English-speaking world at least, exclusively the province of the humanities. The very first extended account of evolution, published in 1794, was Zoonomia by Erasmus Darwin, poet, inventor, physician and philosopher (see my review). In 1844 an enormous storm of controversy shook England on publication of an account of humans evolving from apes (“Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation”); its author, Robert Chambers, was a journalist and professional science writer (see my review). Erasmus’ grandson, Charles Darwin, on failing medical training settled for becoming a clergyman and then a world traveler, he had no other scientific qualifications than those.

Yet it was he whose work lead science to claim evolution as its own. Caught up in a burgeoning fad for scientific reductionism he devoted himself to devising for evolution a purely physical mechanism. Confusingly, what he came up with he called “natural selection.” For proponents of scientific reductionism it was a godsend--an origin story told in terms of pure physicalism, the belief that all that exists is physical forces acting on physical matter in strict accordance with the laws of physics. In their late 19th century battle against the Church, physicalists made natural selection their poster child. And they’ve continued to march behind it in the face of opposition ever since, even to the point of forbidding alternatives to natural selection to be taught in school.

You don’t have to be a creationist to object to that. At thethirdwayofevolution.com some of the world’s most eminent evolutionists cast doubt on Darwin’s natural selection, and call for alternatives. Let the humanities answer that call.

A good place to begin is with awareness of what’s at stake. As long ago as 1987 David Holbrook testified to how far the scientific account had already infiltrated the humanities. He warns of "... a metaphysic, coming across to the humanities from science, that can only be menacing to any sense that life can have meaning.… we must not surrender proper humanist disciplines in the Universities, as some urge that we do, to reductionist and mechanistic theories which offer themselves as so exclusive they must be taken to supplant other subjects." See my review.

By 1998 E. O. Wilson had extended this threat to the humanities to the point of calling for them to be taken apart and re-expressed in terms of physical determinism and its accompanying scientific theory of evolution. Of science he says "The question it poses, of universal and orderly materialism, is the most important that can be asked in philosophy and religion… why should the social sciences and humanities be impervious to consilience with the natural sciences?"  See his “Consilience” (my review). 

Wilson defined the threat. Today it’s being implemented nationwide by the Evolutionary Studies Consortium which "introduces students from all majors to evolutionary theory early in their academic careers, emphasizes human-related subjects in addition to biological, promotes the continuation of evolutionary training throughout the undergraduate education, and promotes faculty training and collaborative research related to evolution…. A major goal of the Consortium is growth." (from the Consortium's website.)

How can such institutional pressure be resisted?

To help creatives and humanities’ students get up to speed, ten years ago I launched evolutionforthehumanities.com. It has grown to over 100 articles, including over four dozen reviews of evolutionary theory’s main texts, both classic and contemporary. We can begin by analyzing critically the two foundational documents on which the scientific theory of evolution rests. These are Charles Darwin’s "Origin of Species" and Ronald Fisher’s "The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection."

Gertrude Himmelfarb in "Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution" (1959) set us a fine example by exposing the spurious logic behind Darwin’s arguments (see my review).

Any analysis of the Origin…is plagued by the confusion between the theory of evolution (what Darwin called the ‘theory of descent’) and the theory of natural selection…. in Darwin’s theory cause and effect were related in such a devious way as to permit almost any conjecture and to resist all control or verification…. logic of the Origin was one in which possibilities were assumed to add up to probability. This technique for the conversion of possibilities into probabilities and liabilities into assets was the more effective the longer the process went on… Thus, by the time the problem of the eye was under consideration, Darwin was insisting that anyone who had come with him so far could not hesitate to go further…. As possibilities were promoted into probabilities, and probabilities into certainties, so ignorance was raised to a position only once removed from certain knowledge.

This is the kind of analysis at which the humanities excel, to which evolutionary theory’s texts are highly vulnerable. I’ve come up with attempts myself, such as this:

During Darwin’s lifetime, you practiced science by turning everything into atoms. Darwin did this with evolution. Built into his theory of natural selection is the assumption that the individuals in a species come basically all the same, like atoms, blanks ready for attaching another set of atoms to—characteristics. What got tested for fitness and passed on from one generation to the next was these characteristics, that the environment could select for, separately, one by one.

We’ve since discovered he was wrong. The unit of inheritance isn’t individual characteristics. What gets passed on from one generation to the next is genes, and genes don’t correspond one to one to individual characteristics. What individuals pass on from one generation to another is not different values for individual characteristics but our genomes as a whole.

We know that now, but the damage has been done. In accepting Darwin’s account of how we evolved we’ve unconsciously accepted those same assumptions, that we’re basically all the same, differing only in the value of a limited number of characteristics like IQ and eye color.

Note that this is just the kind of analysis that will occur to those of a humanities’ turn of mind, rather than those of a scientist. Himmelfarb I expect applied her attention to the first edition of Darwin’s text, the first and last time expression of his theory made any sense. I suggest you apply a similar analysis to the sixth and final edition, by which time his rewritings in response to criticisms (such as having to account for how natural selection prevented loss of features through “disuse”) had turned the text into an almost incoherent porridge (see my review).

Ronald Fisher’s text presents a more formidable target. Though Richard Dawkins called Fisher the second most important evolutionist after Darwin himself, it is very unlikely that any evolutionist actually reads his book as it contains page after page of mathematical equations. Fisher became the acknowledged master of the application of statistics to scientific discovery. The one mathematician I asked to make a critical judgment about his book backed away as if being asked to walk over hot coals.

I am certainly entirely unqualified to judge such material but I found a way to tackle it. Before each string of equations I’d read what it was meant to achieve, and review what variables were set. On doing this from beginning to end I found that through omitting a crucial equation (summing together the effects on fitness of both harmful and beneficial mutations) Fisher had arrived at a completely false conclusion (see my review). Perhaps in a book concerned mainly with advocating eugenics this was a case of wishful thinking. Fisher’s conclusion: genomes undergo continuous random damage; natural selection is then able to turn the resulting predominance of harmful damage into a predominance of beneficial damage, resulting in overall greater fitness and evolution of new species. Get that? Which of two species will do better, the one suffering more random damage to its genome or the one suffering less? Duh! I think the one suffering less. See, this isn’t hard.

If I’m right—and I’ve still not been able to get anyone qualified to check my analysis—one of the two elements that make up the modern synthesis, science’s account of how we evolved, is demolished. Keep my experience in mind; in most cases where mathematics is employed by evolutionists, what is claimed for it amounts to little more than the assumptions and variables that went into it, and those are accessible to quite superficial examination (see my review).

Once we apply to these two foundational texts the critical analysis they deserve it’ll be time to come up with a better theory, out of which can be generated a better origin story.

The place to begin coming up with a better theory of evolution is where science stops. What is there that science can’t yet account for? Most of us would agree, consciousness. To that though, as I’ve explained above, I’d add evolution. So there may be at least two important things science can’t account for: consciousness and evolution. Maybe science has difficulty accounting for them because they share properties that defy scientific analysis. Maybe treating them as two aspects of the same thing will help us understand them both better.

Let’s try. First, some basics:

Consciousness is our experiencing of mental processes.

As for where they came from, they evolved.

Right away that tells us something important. First, for mental processes to have evolved they must be able to cause physical changes, otherwise there’d be nothing physical for evolution to work on. And second, for them to have evolved they must do something that physical processes can’t. Take consciousness for example; it can’t just be duplicating what’s going on in the brain else consciousness wouldn’t have had to evolve; for consciousness to have evolved it must be able to do things brain chemistry can’t.

So for consciousness and mental processes to have evolved they must be fundamentally different from physical processes in some important way. How? Perhaps in not being bound by the laws of physics. Otherwise, why wouldn’t physical processes have evolved in their place?

Considering consciousness and evolution together, as I did above, tells us we can have free will. If consciousness can cause physical changes in the course of evolution then, in us, our conscious thoughts can tell our bodies what to do. And it’s reasonable to conclude our conscious thoughts are not determined by the laws of physics.

So what are they due to? What we've just deduced about evolution implies that the universe involves both physical and conscious-evolutionary processes. Let’s assume there are just these two. Then, since thinking isn’t physical it will likely be something evolving. What could be evolving that can make us think? Consciousness consists of thoughts, so it’s reasonable to assume thinking is our thoughts evolving, one thought evolving into another. That’s what it “feels” like to me. Then, thinking is equivalent to something evolving.

Now turn that around. Something evolving is equivalent to thinking. What else evolves? Species of living creatures. Maybe they’re “really” thoughts in someone else’s thinking.

I got this far by simply exploring the logical implications of assuming that two things science can’t account for, consciousness and evolution, are actually two aspects of the same thing. And it makes a lot of sense. It accounts for our thinking as our thoughts evolving. And it accounts for species of living creatures as thoughts in a mind that can bring them to consciousness, rethink them, and store them away again as new thoughts, new species, as we can recall notions from brain chemistry, embellish them, and store them away again in brain cells as changed notions.

To go any further--to figure out whose mind it is that species of living creatures are thoughts in--we need to reflect on what species consist of. Science has found it most logical to define species in terms of their genomes—their collections of genes. If species were thoughts then the “brain” where they’re stored would be that genome. And the mind capable of bringing those genes to mind would be a mind associated with that genome, the way our minds come associated with our brains.

To explore that mind a bit further I turn to something else science has difficulty accounting for: development. What directs the growth of living creatures like us from a single cell to trillions of cells in the adult? I’ve had this explained to me as involving a series of chemical gradients, initially simple, each one first carrying out one stage in development throughout a creature’s body, then inducing the next even more complex gradient to take its place, and so on. Can you imagine that? The slightest hiccup early in the series would result in massive disruptions further down the chain. Can you see such a process working in a creature like the blue whale that maintains perfect proportions while growing up to 100 feet length, all the while vigorously churning its tissues by swimming and diving? What else but its genome, where the information that defines each living creature resides, could have the intelligence to monitor and direct such a process? And not any one genome, but the genomes throughout the creature, they must all be in communication, somehow, to coordinate that process over a distance of up to 100 feet.

Let’s draw on the license that Himmelfarb identified in Darwin’s thinking, of multiplying possibilities. If genome intelligences can communicate telepathically over a distance of 100 feet, why set a limit there? No scientific data prohibits us from supposing genomes can communicate with one another through a net of intelligence ranging from the individual cell to individual living creatures, to species, orders, even to entire Kingdoms. The result would be a tree of conscious intelligences extending over the entire tree of life, with nodes maintaining living creatures at every branching. Individual ants might draw on the wisdom of their entire colony. Individual protists might draw on their species’ wisdom. Growth of a new twig on the branch of that tree of conscious intelligences managing mammals might result in bat species being popped into existence as that twig grows into a new branch.

Hey presto! A new theory of evolution.

You may draw back in alarm at the thought of resorting to such armchair science. But once you pore over the field’s founding documents you’ll see that this is exactly what Charles Darwin and Ronald Fisher did. Here’s all the proof Fisher provided for the existence of the beneficial mutations—beneficial damage to genes—that the modern synthesis rests on:

In addition to the defective mutations, which by their conspicuousness attract attention, we may reasonably suppose that other less obvious mutations are occurring which, at least in certain surroundings, or in certain combinations, might prove themselves to be beneficial.

That’s it! Consider once again the theory of evolution I came up with above, that the agent of evolution is a network of genome intelligences spread throughout the living kingdoms. Is that supposition any less reasonable than his?

Our campaign can begin by employing sufficient criticism to sink the founding documents supporting science’s theory of evolution. We get that theory withdrawn from the school science classroom. As I’ve suggested, through “reasonable supposing,” as Fisher and Darwin model for us, as I in my turn modeled above, we come up with a new and better theory. All that remains is coming up with a new origin story.

That I haven’t yet done. But I can suggest properties in human nature we need accounted in for our new tale, and new sources of wisdom we can draw on.

First of the properties in human nature we need to account for is deliberation. I define that as ability to anticipate alternative possible future events, evaluate their outcomes, and intervene to take advantage of those outcomes. Nothing purely physical can do this but we do it all the time. “Does it look like rain? Probably only a shower, so I’ll take just a jacket with a hood.” And we’re probably not alone. Take a cat, for example, poised to make a jump. It may hesitate, you can see it weighing the likelihood of landing safely, it may opt for a better take-off surface.

Now, to deliberation let’s add imagination. How could use of your own strength and talents bring about other alternative futures? Want to cross a valley? You could build a bridge. Want to have more food? Look for seeds to plant. Want to catch fish? Make a fishing rod, or a net. I’m going to call this capability “creativity.” Again, in our experience it’s an everyday reality, we do it all the time.

And consciousness--deliberation may not require it but in my experience creativity does. These—deliberation, creativity and consciousness—I prescribe as essential ingredients of human nature, the source of our free will, to be accounted for in our new origin story.

Having got this far I suggest we rejoin the main stream of the development of reason where the Ancient Stoics left it. They supposed that running throughout all of nature there ran an extra element responsible for the creativity and order maintained within it. For them nature in the form of climate and weather was as mysterious as life is to us, but we may confine our “element” to life and identify that element with the genomes in living creatures. Then we can draw on Stoic wisdom. As the Stoics thought inside each human being there came embedded part of that extra element, a “microcosm” reflecting the wisdom of the “macrocosm,” so we may expect to find within us wisdom embedded in us by genomes.

Besides that built into us, I expect we’ll find further wisdom in at least three sources. One is the wisdom inherent in individual species of living creatures, the echolocation of bats for example. Another would be wisdom in how genomes think up species, as I’ve suggested they could themselves think up new kinds of creatures. But before that, genomes themselves had to evolve, and I see some ultimate wisdom lying in that process. There seem to be some strands running throughout nature, beauty for example, and play, that might give us clues to wisdom lying in the ultimate process lying at the root of the living kingdoms.

Scientists will likely mock our project. The prevailing consensus among them is that consciousness is merely a passive reflection of processes in brain chemistry, it can’t by itself decide anything or defy physics by being genuinely creative. What we call mental processes, they say, are simply physical processes taking place in the brain, which is purely physical.

So, reason and science may disagree. Is there any higher authority to appeal to? I believe there is, and that’s the near-universal passion for meaning in life. Meaning in life concerns just those aspects of reality that remain hidden from science today and may do so for hundreds of years. Meanwhile, what are we to do today and in our lifetimes? It is entirely reasonable for us to come up with the best story about life’s meaning that we can, leaving science to catch up with us when it pleases.

Let’s begin.

I have posted this article here so it can conveniently contain links to reviews on this site. But it is available for publication elsewhere. It could be removed from this site on agreement it be published.

New philosophy of evolution

For most of human history, and still for most people, space, time, and physical matter and processes have appeared as fundamental and independent realities. Only with modern science have we become able to account for them in terms of one another.

I propose two other such realities--consciousness, and evolution. In my books and this website I suggest ways they may relate to one another. I call that my new philosophy of evolution.

It says that, acting on matter in space and over time, there are two fundamental and independent sets of processes: physical processes acting deterministically in accordance with the laws of physics, and evolutionary processes operating in association with consciousness.

In consciousness, alternative possible future outcomes of events can be anticipated, their consequences evaluated, and actions initiated to bring about one outcome rather than the others.

This could define a set of future studies to succeed today's physical sciences.

Proposed axioms for such studies:

  • In us, conscious thinking comes in trains of thoughts as each one "evolves" into the next.
  • This process comes associated with conscious experience.
  • Decisions arrived at consciously can initiate physical events intended to bring about consciously-desired outcomes.
  • Such decisions can influence the course of evolution, such as when we intervene to prevent the extinction of other species, as well as affecting our own, eg by such niche extensions as wars.
  • We didn't invent the capacities we need to become conscious, they involved in us. So mechanisms proposed to account for evolution should allow for involvement of something corresponding to what in us is conscious decision-making.
  • This something may be better understood, at least initially, as a feature not of individual living creatures but of processes of evolution themselves, just as we attribute physical effects to the actions of physical processes.

Paradoxes we run into from analyzing consciousness in terms of free will and physicalism may disappear if we think of it simply as a capacity by which "alternative possible future outcomes of events can be anticipated, their consequences evaluated, and actions initiated to bring about one outcome rather than the others," as I suggest above. We know this capacity exists, we employ it ourselves all the time and, from their behavior, it appears to exist in other living creatures too. Where this capacity lies may not matter (for now) as much as how it distinguishes evolved creatures from non-living matter.

I set up this site to provide resources for such studies as I describe above. Please keep this new philosophy of evolution and those resources distinct from the sample mechanism I came up with to show how those resources could be applied in the exercise of this philosophy. Key feature of that sample mechanism is identifying the active agent in evolution with a world community of genomes, seeing it as a brain supporting minds at all scales of life, intelligent, conscious and creative. Please do not apply objections to that imagined mechanism to the new philosophy. Regard my mechanism as no more than an "as if" theory; the way life looks to me it's "as if" the genome is intelligent, conscious and creative. I won't defend that mechanism as the truth, only as the kind of theory I think better represents what's special about life than the current scientific "modern synthesis." I devoutly wish others would come up with mechanisms better illustrating this new natural philosophy.

If you find my concerns, and the resources in this site, worthy (particularly the book reviews), please consider linking to it.

 

Introduction

The humanities are being presented with a golden opportunity to revolutionize themselves from within, through the study of evolution. The opportunity arises from the abandonment by top evolutionists of the prevailing scientific account of evolution. The scientific account is a synthesis of two purely physical processes—genetic mutation and natural selection. With scientists abandoning this theory, the humanities are free to model the process of evolution around the product of evolution they know best, the traditional subject matter of the humanities--human beings with volition, conscious, creative, and possessed of free will.

For the abandonment of the scientific theory see thethirdwayofevolution.com. Among over 50 professional evolutionists testifying to having lost faith in the “modern synthesis” are Denis Noble, James Shapiro, and Eva Jablonka.

The 19th century saw our understanding of the natural world turned upside down. The agent we thought responsible for the entire natural world at the beginning of the century—the Christian God/Creator—by century’s end had been replaced by another, the process of evolution, a process powerful and creative enough to turn microbes into elephants and giraffes and human beings in a mere billion years.

Early attempts to give meaning to this revolution came from the humanities. Erasmus Darwin was a physician, inventor and poet. Robert Chambers was a professional journalist. Samuel Butler was a novelist and art historian. But the meeting of two others, Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace, both initially amateur explorers and naturalists, led to science establishing a monopoly over declaring the meaning of evolution. Evolution would retain its original meaning as what accounted for the origin of species, while issues of more interest to the humanities, such as how evolution impacted human history and ways evolution impacted our lives individually, would be frowned on and relegated to coffee-house chatter.

Alfred Wallace, co-discoverer with Charles Darwin of natural selection, was at first even more insistent than Darwin that natural selection was the mechanism driving all of evolution. But because of a disparity he found between their theory and the course of human history, Wallace concluded that humans were an exception. Some other agency had to be involved in the evolution of our species, Wallace said, and he began attending spiritualist séances to identify it. Darwin’s reaction was unusually strong, he expressed disgust and accused Wallace of disloyalty to the cause they’d jointly embraced.

In the course of years spent living among societies beyond the reach of modern civilization in South America and the Malay Archipelago, Wallace had come to like and admire the people he met there, reporting them his equal as human beings. But he noticed lacking among them certain capabilities history showed us having acquired in the course of becoming civilized, such as mathematics and reasoning. Their lack of these capabilities told him that these characteristics either had to have evolved in us in the course of becoming civilized, which was too rapid a process for natural selection to account for. Or, if humans had been created as a species with these characteristics, through “disuse” in the course of non-civilized existence natural selection would have extinguished them. Either way, natural selection couldn’t account for the mental qualities we experienced ourselves possessing, Wallace concluded.

From this point the sciences and the humanities could have gone their separate ways. The humanities could have established departments dedicated to the study of evolution in history and psychology, for example. But Darwin represented a movement intensely jealous of its principles, from which it would tolerate no deviation. The movement Darwin subscribed to was Positivism, a re-ordering of how science was to be carried out dreamed up by the Frenchman Auguste Comte. The method of science was to be experiment, and the principle of interpretation was reductionism. Findings at “higher” levels—psychological, biological—were to be interpreted in terms of the more fundamental levels of mathematics and physics. Darwin encountered Comte’s thinking while he was looking for a mechanism for evolution in the late 1830’s and  was dazzled by it. Employing it to account for the evolution of living creatures would be a magnificent triumph for Positivist science.

And so it turned out. By the time Darwin published his account of the origin of species Positivist science had come to dominate scientists’ thinking, and Darwin’s mechanism seemed as glorious a demonstration of it as Newton’s work on gravity has seemed of modern science. Thomas Huxley towards the end of the 19th century would generalize Positivism into physicalism, the principle that the Universe consisted only of matter acted on by physical forces. Conscious experiences may exist but, not being made of matter, could have no influence on anything that was physical, to cause any physical change. The sense we had free will was an illusion. Physicalism stripped the humanities of all their meaning.

Here’s how Michael Ruse expresses the situation, in Monad to Man: The Concept of Progress in Evolutionary Biology”, “progress” standing loosely for the humanities-approach to what evolution means. “There was no place for [old-fashioned talk about progress] in the work of the professional evolutionist…. Progress had been eliminated from professional evolutionism to protect its status as “professional”…. The emphasis must always be on epistemic values [origin of species].”

The point I am trying to establish is that the absence of humanities’departments devoted to the study of evolution is an artefact of a very particular historical period, that is coming to an end. Modern genomics has revealed that a combination of genetic mutation and natural selection cannot be what drives evolution. James Shapiro, in “Evolution: The View from the 21st century,” says he expect to find the same processes driving the machinery of the cell at a scale of milliseconds, the evolution of new species at the scale of eons, and processes of life at all scales in between. Denis Noble in “The Music of Life” supposes processes controlling living creatures operate at every scale from individual genes up to entire organisms. The individual human being may all along have been a player in his or her own evolution.

This site is intended to serve artists, writers and members of the humanities as a resource for coming up with new theories of evolution. The site links to the book “Re-Thinking What it means We Evolved,” in which I try to show how such theories can be arrived at.

Common sense vs. Darwinism

What matters most about teaching Darwinism to schoolchildren? I think, what it tells them about themselves. And what it tells them I think can be very harmful. 

Here's why. Can you follow me?

1. I experience being conscious, having conscious experiences. Agreed?

2. Often while I’m conscious I'll consciously decide to do something, and then do it. This won't be just a physical reflex, I'll be doing it for the sake of some other conscious experience in the future. Suppose I buy a book about art. What matters to me is not buying the book, it's the effect that will have on my future conscious experiences. Conscious experience is what gives meaning to something physical like buying that book. For me, conscious experiences are at least as "real" as matter, and on the whole more meaningful. Agreed?

3. Thinking like this is basic to the arts and the humanities. They're usually about how what someone thinks and does today can affect what they'll experience in the future. Agreed?

4. That's true for the physical sciences too. Carrying out a scientific experiment involves a series of conscious operations like these:

Coming up with a question, creating alternative possible answers, designing an experiment to tell which of these hypotheses is more likely right, judging which of them the results confirm, and empathizing with others--assessing who’d like to be told. Questioning, creating, designing, use of reason, judging other people’s reactions—these are just as much the foundation of the sciences as of the humanities.

It's by thinking of mind and matter interacting like this that we make sense of ourselves and the world around us. Agreed?

5. But here's a strange thought: What's true of us must also be true of the universe we live in, since we're a part of that universe. In other words, if mind and matter can interact within us individually then logically they can interact outside us elsewhere in the universe too, right? It could have been through mind and matter interacting that we have both minds and bodies. By studying that, how we evolved to become conscious, we might discover where our conscious capabilities came from and how to enhance them further. 

 

Here we run up against the account of evolution that's taught to children in school--Darwinism, our shared origin story.

Most people I talk to say, all they know about evolution is what they were taught in school: we evolved through random mutations to our genes, followed by natural selection. No interaction of mind and matter here, these are both purely physical processes. 

What does this story tell children about themselves? To me it tells them that, since they're made by purely physical processes, they must be purely physical too. Imagine a smart kid asking, "What about consciousness?" According to today's science, because consciousness isn't made of atoms it's not physical, so it can't interact with anything that is made of atoms. It's not real like matter so it can't make anything physical happen. Now let's imagine, the kid's really stubborn: "Consciousness is real to me, I can make things happen just by thinking them." No you can't, science will reply. Thinking you can consciously make things happen is just an illusion. You're no different from everything else in the world, you're purely physical too, and everything you do is determined by the laws of physics. What you do is what your brain makes you do. In effect, you're a robot.

This is the physicalism that dominates today's science, believed in by most of the writers of school biology textbooks. I strongly disagree. I can’t live without conscious experiences being real, to some extent at least independent of today's physics. To me that's common sense. It's my mission to encourage you to insist that conscious experiences are real for you, too, and to agitate for some other story about how we evolved, that can account for our conscious experiences. 

Am I misguided? Show me to my satisfaction I am and I’ll be delighted to give up. Otherwise, for me, it's the logic behind today's theory of evolution that's misguided:

Scientists insist that accounts of evolution must stay within the limits set by today's physical laws. But they don't limit themselves to today's physics when what they want to account for is their own mental operations. Instead, to account for those mental operations they invoke future progress in science that they assume will follow along the lines of science today. But sciences able to account for scientists' mental operations could find similar operations in the processes of evolution. After all, those processes are obviously able to make creatures like us that are conscious, they can "transact" in consciousness somehow. Aren't those scientists guilty of defying logic in applying one limit to accounting for evolution and a different limit to accounting for their own mental operations? 

Today's purely physical theory of evolution, Darwinism, could be hideously wrong about almost everything. It could be holding back our understanding of the natural world. And what about us? Our decision-making seems crucially different from that of purely physical things--a volcano can't apply reason, it can't hold two hypotheses in mind while it plans an experiment to distinguish between them as a scientist can. An origin story that tells us our conscious experiences are illusions, that all our decisions are determined by physics, mightn't that have a corrosive impact on human nature over future generations? Should we be teaching that to our children? Isn't that a challenge the humanities should respond to?

Note, the issue isn't dualism or creationism, it's science's assertion that to account for both consciousness and what it means we evolved, all you need is today's physics. Are we sure enough about that to teach it, as the truth, to our children? Doubting Darwinism isn't anti-science if it leads science to abandon an arrogant reductionism it would be better off without.

What you can do for yourself now is look around this site and check out the "Theory of Everything" video, see sidebar on this page. For an alternative mind-focused theory of evolution pick up a copy of the book "Re-thinking What it Means We Evolved," take links also in the sidebar. Please comment below or email me through our contact page. Tell me, does this matter? If so, spread the word. It's a matter of common sense.

 

"Neurasthenia"--we need it now

Posted by Shaun Johnston, April 7, 2017.

“Neurasthenia” was a medical term characteristic of the period from 1880 to 1920 that I think we’d be well off reintroducing. Also called “Americanitis”: “The best educated, most cultured Americans were suffering from a new, distinctly American condition that was destroying their health. They had migraines, poor digestion, fatigue, depression, and even complete mental collapse in alarming numbers. They suffered from neurasthenia – nervous exhaustion…. Beard saw neurasthenia as created by the hectic, fast-paced life in American cities – he even called it ‘American nervousness.’ The nation’s leaders in business, government, and the arts were made ill by the stress and strain of modern life. The only cure was withdrawal from the pressures of urban life, rest, and a simpler, healthy lifestyle.” (from http://exhibits.hsl.virginia.edu/nerves/). The term "neurasthenia" was succeeded by terms such as “neuroticism.”

In “No Place for Grace” Jackson Lears accounts for neurasthenia as a reaction against the meaninglessness associated with the loss of Christian faith and the onrush of modern city life, and he details various distinct strategies that sufferers employed. Interesting, because in today’s widely-reported transgressiveness and feeling of not belonging to the world these causes are often blended and hard to identify. I think the term helpfully tags a common modern attitude that otherwise we find it difficult to acknowledge and engage with.

Here are some of the strategies Lears mentions: retirement into arts and crafts handwork, losing insistent invidualism in the imperatives of combat, mind cures, return to a medieval lifestyle, adopting Catholicism for its ritual, romantic creativity, folk customs, exotic travel and eastern religions. Lears has a wonderful turn of phrase. Some examples: modernity's evasive banality,the worship of force, republican strenuosity, quest for authentic selfhood, the spiritual dessication of a rationalizing culture, and repeated references to modernity as "weightless." 

Notably, the period 1884 to 1940 is also marked by a lull in belief in evolution. Today we could add to Lears' various causes of neurasthenia the debilitating implications for human nature of its evolution being thought to consist of purely physical processes.