The last blog (No. 8) broached the issue of the historic natural attachment of the most reflective people to the God Hypothesis —the fact that for untold years a consensus existed that the only way to account for the existence of everything was to postulate that it was all created by an Infinite Supermind. This monotheistic idea seems to have emerged independently in India, Egypt and Palestine at about the same time. It worked. It was convincing. It was passed down virtually unquestioned for more than two hundred generations. In this way it survived intact until the arrival of Charles Darwin’s evolutionary bombshell of 1859. The theory of evolution got off to a great start: it soon won over the most reflective people. But today there are still many unanswered questions surrounding it. The underlying issue is how Evolutionary accounts of the universe compare with Total Epistemology as laid out in this series. This instalment continues the inquiry with three additional themes (1) an elucidation of the psychology of explanation, (2) a sceptical look at the scope of evolutionary explanations, (3) a look at the effects of speaking and writing in producing a virtual human Mega-Mind.
One of the most important steps in getting a grip on philosophy is to get a grip on the nature of explanation. During the most pessimistic years of the 1970s there were plenty of nihilists and jeremiahs who went round saying that <<science cannot really explain anything, because its explanatory arguments take things for granted which actually also need to be explained>>. This argument was nonsense. It echoed the ancient paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise, which said that Achilles can never over-take the tortoise because he has to run through an infinite sequence of shorter and shorter distances in order to catch up with the tortoise. It might sound impossible, but we know that Achilles can —easily— overtake the tortoise.
Of course the scientific explanation of the earth as a sphere works, of course the explanation of why a stick seems to bend in water works, of course Newton’s explanation of the rainbow works. You don’t need to explain everything before you can start to explain specific things. The intense intellectual pessimism of the 1970s led a lot of fragile, susceptible, pessimistic commentators to become neurotic about the difficulty of explanation: and hence to swallow this absurd generalisation that “explanations never explain”. Not only can we explain simple things, we can “fully” explain them to the standards of meaning of ordinary language. A key argument introduced in the 1970s in analytic philosophy is that of a person who is puzzled when he sees a ladder leaning up to an open first-floor window of his absent neighbour’s house. He has never seen a ladder there before, and there is no sign of a window cleaner or a painter being around. This causes him to be puzzled by its presence. Eventually, though, he finds the explanation: this ladder was used by a burglar to burgle the house! It is of course correct to say that this serving of information fully explains what was previously puzzling. No one is going to be concerned at all with its supposed “failure” to answer secondary questions like where the ladder came from, the source of the wood, where it was made, the state of the rungs…
An explanation may be said to have “really explained” something when it succeeds in fully removing the puzzlement which prompted it. How can it do this? We would say in ordinary conversation “by shining a bright light onto a dark place”. What this means is that an explanation is a serving of information which re-describes the originally obscure, puzzling situation in terms which the listener is fully comfortable and familiar with, and by invoking agencies which have a potency the listener knows well and fully accepts.
So an explanation works when it re-describes an initially obscure, unexpected situation in terms with which the listener is familiar, and trusts. She or he suddenly realises that if one describes the situation in this new way, what happened was just what you would expect to happen!
These are explanations which postulate a particular causal process acting over immense stretches of time, a process which can credibly be expected to produce a gradual series of changes right across a large domain, like the biosphere or the whole universe. Charles Darwin introduced the notion of a process “the survival of the fittest” to explain it. Many different species, both plants and animals, were, effectively in competition with a range of other species. If a particular species was “fitter” than its rival species, it would grow in numbers and thrive, while they would decline and eventually possibly become extinct.
This explanation worked quite well. Most commentators were aware that a fitter animal would travel further and faster to find warmth, food and water. In fights between animals, the fitter animal would tend to win. Where an animal with more muscle and sharper teeth preyed on a weaker animal, the weaker animal would probably be eaten, thus reducing the numbers of the weaker species. On this impressionistic level the explanation sounded pretty cogent.
But what exactly did Darwin mean when he used the word ‘fitter’? There were all kinds of ways in which “fitness to survive” could occur. In the case of the struggle between Homo Sapiens and Neanderthal, the latter species was stronger physically, but it did not win. So here the word ‘fitter’ has to encompass something like “greater brainpower”, a tricky item to include in what is supposed to be a simplifying narrative.
There is a fundamental problem here, too, because it sounds logical to say that the fittest will survive. Unconsciously we are treating the word ‘fittest’ as referring to those most likely to survive. This, though, is a tautology. Of course those most likely to survive will be most likely to survive!
So Darwin’s theory, simplistically interpreted, reduces to a truism. It can only claim to have some empirical content —bearing in mind Popper’s criterion— if we can give an independent account of what ‘fitness’ means, thus allowing the possibility of falsification.
And the definition of “independently” here has to exclude any indirect assumption of a tendency towards survival. Of course in 1859 Darwin was not aware of the analytic concepts we take for granted today. His book made a huge impact on readers at the time, because it was revolutionary, because it fielded a great deal of factual evidence that evolutionary changes had occurred over geological time, and because it contained a great many carefull observations about plant and animal behaviour which Darwin had collected during his voyage with the Beagle and afterwards at Downe. So Darwin’s reasoning was strong on fact (i.e. a recognition that evolution had happened), but weak on process. It didn’t actually explain as much as it appeared to explain.
Later commentators like Richard Dawkins have tried to turn the Theory of Evolution into a comprehensive theory, starting with primeval soup, from which the earliest living organisms are supposed to have emerged, and fielding an account of lucky accidents —random genetic mutations produced mainly by natural radio-activity in the environment. The problems associated with ‘fitness’ and the impressionistic nature of the process, however, remain. No human being has ever observed a random or chaotic state-of-affairs giving rise spontaneously to a structured situation which then replicates itself almost perfectly, and keeps doing this indefinitely.
After 1859 evolutionary theorising became increasingly popular with those who railled against the archaism of religion, but its popularity probably owed more to this “desire to believe” feeling than any clear explanatory logic. It was almost universally regarded as a “scientific theory”, but whether it really fits the definition of a scientific theory is far from clear. The orthodox paradigm for a “scientific theory” since Descartes has been that it is a narrative, exploiting the credible possibilities of the very small or the very large in the form of a mathematical model: one which, on being operated mathematically, provides excellent predictions about what can be reliably observed. But there can be no “mathematical model” underlying evolution. The axioms on which a mathematical model relies are timeless. There can be no genuine “evolutionary surprises” in a mathematical model: the patterns are set in stone, and what will happen will inexorably happen.
So any scientific mathematical model raises the question: How can we explain why this particular model is in control? It is an age-old problem which was not solved until Emmanuel Kant saw that these patterns must be preconditions for our own existence. This was the origin of the Total Epistemology idea as explained in these blogs.
In the mid 20thy century theorists began to field evolutionary concepts in cosmology. What were the earlier states of the galaxies, nebulae and stars which we see today? That such an “evolution” had happened soon became the Official Story, especially after evidence of a Big Bang appeared. No attempt has been made, though, to apply a “survival of the fittest” mechanism to plasmas, galaxies or stars. Instead it has been postulated that these vast conglomerations of matter (or their original energy content) arrived via the Big Bang in an unstable condition, which has gradually led towards what we see today as the result of the inexorable working of physical laws.
Any serious attempt to ask “Why?” has been quietly shelved. All the puzzlement arising from cosmological knowledge has now been compressed into a single point where an apparently near- “infinite” amount of energy was somehow released —already containing, like a cosmic DNA, the blueprints for all the structures which would later emerge. The Big Bang is being unconsciously expected to serve as the origin of everything. As such it has an enormous weight of explanatory expectation resting on its shoulders, a burden it is hopelessly unable to bear.
The entire agonised, unsatisfied desire of the human race to understand the universe has been pushed back and back… finally being squeezed into a corner. But what could ever —in the future— explain the Big Bang? If we look at this dispassionately we can see that this is where the wheels come off contemporary orthodox science. The Big Bang is the worst scientific explanation ever conceived. It is entirely nominal. It throws the least light (nil) onto the darkest place. It takes the form of an infinitesimally tiny “singularity” which is expected to be, simultaneously, Nothing and Everything.
Is it surprising that decent, intelligent people are giving up any hope of ever understanding much? Whatever has happened to our previously formidable penetrating human rationality?
Let’s remember some very simple home truths. (1) The past is an unknown country. We know relatively little about the past before the advent of printing, much less before writing, and still less about what happened over thousands of millennia before the emergence of the earliest conurbations. We don’t even know whether the velocity of light was the same in the year 1000 CE as it is today. (2) Evolutionary theory is an attempt to explain past states of affairs by posting narratives about the extremely distant past, which entirely lack the sense of strong familiarity and trust necessary for any explanation to work. The simplest acceptable narrative about the past is surely that it becomes more and more obscure the further you go back, and eventually disappears into a White-Out. (3) So trying to explain the present by invoking an infinitely obscure event 13.8 billion years ago is an hubristic mistake. The most likely explanation is that the Big Bang is an illusion, which will always, in the future, appear to have happened 13.8 billion years ago. (4) The main problem which urgently needs to be elucidated is quite different. It is the current world and its amazing structures —as uncovered by science— here today. Whatever agency is enforcing the laws of nature this morning?
The theme of these blogs is that only Mind can be a credible final source of order and reliable structure out there. Ordinary human minds are obviously not, unaided, up to the job, especially after the last forty years, during which schools have studiously avoided mentioning ‘mind’, and have perversely tried instead to turn young people into well-drilled robots. But the overall effect of seven billion human minds communicating and inter-acting with each other may be called the Human Megamind. Something like this was postulated by Carl Jung (1875-1961). Daniel Dennett (Tufts University) has also expounded a concept of this kind. It is not a material “thing”, but —like each individual human mind— it is a very real performance, created by this vast body of inter-actions of ordinary human minds. It has, at present, a disorganised surface, but at deeper levels it is more consistent.
It overlaps every ordinary human mind in the sense that we take a lot of authority for granted: so we are letting trustworthy parts of the Megamind be our mind quite a lot of the time.
Are we aware of the extent to which we subliminally defer to those special parts of the Megamind we trust? No, most of us are not: especially in this era when it is widely assumed that individualistic sentiment rules OK. So it is the Human Megamind which is the only credible candidate we have for the immense source of willpower and purpose necessary to sustain the universe. It can do this if the final, ultimate constitution of things is on-going, transient and actimatic, but not if it is rigidly mathematic: because mathematic objects are utterly static, paper-thin… and nothing ever happens in a universe which is imagined as timeless.
Orthodox science has set itself the task of understanding the cosmos, but has foolishly neglected to look at the logical preconditions for the kind of extra-reliable understanding and explanation needed to pull the trick.