Evolution and the humanities
- Published: December 8, 2022 December 8, 2022
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For most of us, homo sapiens having evolved into existence has become our shared origin story. Quite a few versions of that story have been proposed over time. But in today’s school science classroom only one version may be taught, what I refer to as “Darwinism,” a purely physical process impervious to the operation of mind. Why is that? Why must mind be denied representation in the “official” story of how we evolved?
I suggest this lies in people having different opinions about what needs accounting for—life and mind. Even my slight awareness of philosophy of mind confirms we differ about that, which could explain why different people are likely to favor different mechanisms for how evolution works. But if that’s so, if we differ about mind, why is a purely physical mechanism the only one that may be taught to school children? Who made that mechanism the default? Who among us is most likely to favor evolution being accounted for in purely physical terms?
To explore that I recalled ways I’ve read and observed people’s attitudes to mind to differ, and for each one I identified what kind of evolutionary theory I thought it implied. Note: while this is a purely personal and off-the-cuff exercise, what matters is not the listings themselves but what such a listing suggests. To me it suggests that the mechanism of evolution taught in school does indeed favor one cognitive style.
Here’s my list:
1: Degree of aphantasia. Phantasia is being able to bring images to mind, or having a mind’s eye. At one extreme, entirely unable to bring images to mind, are aphants, at the other extreme are hyperphants whose imagined images can be as vivid as vision itself. Most of us lie somewhere in between. Instead of storing visual experiences as mental images aphants seem to store it as something like data in a spreadsheet. They can report accurately on what they’ve seen but they can’t turn it back into mind’s-eye images. Because they can’t turn written descriptions into images they’re left cold by written descriptions of landscapes or something scary. If I experienced this flattening of experience I’d probably experience myself as somewhat robotic. But I would experience being able, through conscious choices, to establish new habits so I’d probably opt for Lamarckism. If I experienced no visual imagery at all but had vivid dreams, as some aphants report, I’d probably be a mysterian. On the other hand, as a hyperphant, able to summon up vivid visual imagery at will along with the frequently accompanying synesthesia, I might vote for solipsism.
2: Contradictory evidence for what’s real, when what you’re conscious of conflicts with what you see and hear your body doing. Which will you trust? If you trust your behavior more then you’re likely to distrust consciousness. With a mild case you’d probably simply dismiss conscious experiences as distracting illusions. That would make me an illusionist, effectively a physicalist with reservations. As an evolutionist I’d be confused; how could creatures with wonky minds evolve at all? I suspect a extreme case of this was the Wittgenstein who wrote “Tractatus.” Later, reconciled to how differently other people related consciousness to reality, he spoke of arriving at that relationship as a game for which different people chose different rules. I’ve no idea how he’d have conceived of how we evolved.
3: Internal voices narrating conscious experience. Extremes vary from a complete absence of internal chat to a voice that never stops. Some people experience multiple voices, but more common I think is experiencing the voice as one’s own, of a conscious self that one recognizes as persisting largely unchanged from one experience, one day, to the next. Experiencing that amounts to what I call a bank-account dualist: coins and notes you feed into a bank account become something with no apparent substance or location you can point to, that yet remains associated with the same identity over time.
4. Tendency to personify actors and objects, oneself, other people, parts of the physical world, and endow them with free will, in. One may be particularly aware of agency in other people and feel called on to devote oneself to them, selflessly, or one may project agency onto physical objects like trees or mountains. If I experienced matter as having agency, even down to the atom, I’d probably reason my way into becoming a panpsychist. Then my mechanism of evolution would probably have life emerging from matter through successive stages of self-organization.
5: How much of mind your consciousness has access to. Some people are conscious only of sense impressions coming in and their behaviors going out. They’re not aware of their minds working, it seems to operate behind a curtain, what’s going on back there they can know about only by what they see themselves doing or by speaking or writing. If this was my experience everything would appears to be physical so I’d be a physicalist. For evolution I’d settle for a purely physical theory, Darwinism.
Another version of this, which I’ve observed becoming more common over my lifetime, is people experiencing having no executive control over their mental faculties. In the movie “Inside Out” a young girl experiences her feelings and behavior being entirely controlled by competing mental modules: joy, sadness, fear, disgust, and anger. One critic exulted that everyday conscious experience was finally being acknowledged! Until I was 30 I experienced another limitation in cognition, epiphenomenalism—I had no awareness my behavior could influence my conscious thinking at all. I opted for physicalism. I remained a committed Darwinist up into my fifties.
From compiling this list I concluded that today’s purely physical origin story corresponds to cognitive styles favoring physicalism. Yet this appears to reflect how only a minority of us experience consciousness. Could this be confusing for children with other cognitive styles? Should we supplement that story with others able to account for mind? Should we each be entitled to adopt whichever theory of mind best suits our cognitive style?
Take me, for example. I do have mind’s eye, I do experience an internal voice narrating my thinking for me, I do recognize agency in other people and in such material phenomena as computers and machines, though not down to the level of atoms. I observe little contradiction between how my body reports on the world outside me and how I see my body responding to it. I experience being able to consciously direct my attention (free will?). I experience remaining the same person over time. I experience my self having executive control over most of the mental faculties it’s aware of. I can for short periods during medication consciously monitor and subdue my thinking. I am conscious of being conscious, of how my experience is more vivid at some times than others for example. I’m going to claim this makes me a representative sample of the general population and in the following chapters I arrive at a mechanism of evolution I think corresponds better to such a mentality than Darwinism does.
The kind of natural philosophy I could feel at home in takes the form of a triad. First leg of this triad is a world of purely physical matter. The second is a world of mind running on meanings. The third is a world of conscious experiences. The nature of each is unlike the others, yet each can interact with both the others. Whether these are three faces into the same noumena or three separate worlds I lack the means to resolve.