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Next: The Advantage of Reason Up: Wanted: Answers to some Previous: Primate Philosophy   Contents

Big Questions, Big Answers

Early humanity was not terribly constrained by reason. First of all, it hadn't really been invented yet - it was still co-evolving with the brain structures that support it. The early answers to these many questions were therefore relatively unconcerned with logical consistency, rationality, scientific verifiability - they were often as not stories, verbal histories that themselves evolved into part of the memetic baggage of each culture that was passed down from parent to offspring along with their genetic inheritance.

In the short run these histories nearly always had survival value as they were the memory of the superorganism, which needed to be longer than the memory of any of its members to cope with long term fluctuations in the superorganism's environment (such as drought, war, famine, disease) as well as to guide it in the quotidian business of tribal survival. However, just as is the case with genetics, some of this memetic inheritance was or rapidly became ``junk'' - of no particular use to individual or tribal survival, but conserved nonetheless along with the useful part. We can easily imagine that (just as is the case with genetics) some of the junk memes gradually mutated to where they did perform survival enhancing functions, social functions, at the same time that they satisfied that basic hunger for seeking causes and stimulating all of that brand new brain tissue with `ideas' that might one day bear fruit.

These mutated histories, freely enhanced with imagination and fiction and self-serving insertions, became the myths and legends of the tribe, many of which persist to this very day as a blend of history and mythopoeic narrative that still serves to bind huge embedded superorganismal groups together. With or without rational rules of thought to guide the selection process, these stories were heavily connected to the notion of cause, as the world in which individual and tribe lived has always provided differential rewards in terms of survival and reproductive success on the basis of how effectively the ``magic'' of its underlying causality has been mastered.

Note well that there is something startling about the discovery of causality and its close friend, induction. Inductive reason in general is a deductive fallacy - in fact the one labelled post hoc, ergo propter hoc. Loosely translated, this means: ``after this, therefore because of this''. It may be more familiar in the words of a common litany taught in any good course on statistics: correlation is not causality! Just because you always see two events in close proximity, with one following the other in time, does not logically mean that the former ``causes'' the latter. Which is a shame because, as we shall see, correlation is all we've got. Ever.

It's even more of a shame, because one can start with a tiny handful of very plausible axioms and derive induction as a quantitative system of contingent probabilistic logic, and show that deductive logic is a limiting case of this system, one that is effectively never realized in nature. In other words, as a means towards knowledge of the real world, it turns out that it is deductive logic that is the ``fallacy'', in that deductive truth is forever beyond our grasp. When we use it we are basically using inductive logic where we really really believe that our premises are true and assign them a prior probability of being true that approaches 1. But more on this later, when we treat the amazing work of Richard Cox and E. T. Jaynes.

Evolution, on the other hand, doesn't give a rat's furry ass about ``valid'' or ``invalid'', or more properly ``conditional truth''. All it cares1.12 about is whether or not a behavior improves one's chances at survival and reproduction, and humans, dogs, cats, and chimpanzees that for whatever reason acted as if correlation is causality tended to outlive those that didn't. Indeed, we rank the ``intelligence'' of animals almost exclusively on the basis of how well they recognize this basic principle at a level beyond instinct (so that they can learn from their experiences).

So behaving as if induction works and the environment is causal have always been favored by natural selection at so very many levels. We are literally evolved to look for causal (or at least associative) patterns and form generalizations even though doing so is completely irrational from a deductive point of view. By golly gosh it works though, even in subjects like mathematics where we are traditionally (and badly) taught that inductive reasoning of this sort is supposed to play no role1.13.

This is beautifully illustrated in, for example, G. Polya's superb two-volume series entitled Mathematical Induction and Plausible Reasoning. Polya makes the compelling point that nearly all nontrivial mathematics, however well it is deductively supported by theorem and proof today, got its start from induction - looking at patterns among numbers, for example, formulating a hypothesis, then attempting to prove the hypothesis correct.

Wait a minute, that sounds a lot like physics! And of course, physics did start up pretty much all of calculus and a slew of other branches of modern mathematics. Polya shows that induction historically has been a key component of the invention of abstract mathematics such as Number Theory where one ``observes'' the properties of numbers ``empirically'' and then form a conjecture, and that even today there are many famous conjectures that appear to be inductively true but cannot (yet) be deductively proven.

To return to our muttons, it seems likely that causal associativity and induction were the primary forms of reason used through much of prehistory (and continue so even today, supported at the hardware level in all animals capable of ``learning'' at all) and that deductive reasoning, with its insistence on ``truth'' and reliance on symbolic forms, is a very recent addition to the human repertoire. Symbolic reasoning requires different brain structures than non-symbolic inductive reasoning of the sort that makes your cat connect spraying your legs with cat-urine as you sit there arguing with your children over the proper use of TV controllers with being chased out of the house by an enraged primate or that permit rats to learn that pressing the left bar yields cocaine while pressing the right one only produces only boring old food. These abstract symbolic reasoning brain structures (which are empirically a mix of cortical hardware and memetic/symbolic software) have simply not been around all that long even in humans.

One function of this symbolic reasoning system is to compress information in a sense we will discuss in some detail later. A single, very short semantic assertion such as ``fire burns'' enables one to reason correctly and in survival-enhancing ways about a huge range of specific instances of occurence of ``fire''. Encoding it thus symbolically permits this knowledge to be passed on to offspring or others of one's tribe where it can be reinforced by non-fatal experience (as any parent who has ever worked on communicating ``Stove hot - don't touch!'' to their questing two-year-old well knows). It also permits the whole concept to be symbolically manipulated and adjoined to other symbols to where one can eventually make sense of:

As these strings of meaning-compressing symbols got longer and longer they became stories, stories that represented rather complex experiences. They became ``recipes''. Yes, if you take the little one-line recipe above and whomp together the ingredients (and a bit of this and that added by your own sense of monkey-curiousity-play and personal taste over time) and slap a steak so marinaded over hot non-flaming coals and avoid burning them for just long enough to render them cooked rare, you will have a tasty treat that just barely might increase your survival rate, at least if you are feeling suicidally despondent and a single really delicious meal is enough to help you past the crisis. And as you do, the steps semantically outlined in the recipe becomes the ``cause'' of the feast (and your ultimate survival) - a few words compresses a wealth of experimentation and experience into a simple story or magical spell.

The big questions listed above therefore got big answers, answers told in easily remembered stories that reinforced the very idea of everything having a cause even where the cause could not (yet) be divined by anything like a systematic or rational process. Mere association was considered enough, and even associations that were rare occurrences or fictional occurrences were often interpreted in terms of occult rules of causality1.14.

Causes naturally form temporally correlated associative chains (a fundamental principle of modern physics, as it were - straight out of the textbooks, if they are good ones), and with their greatly enhanced personal and tribal memory and growing left-brained capacity for temporal/sequential processing1.15 early humans could encode experiences semantically and hence perceive those associative chains over many steps, over very long time scales.

On the other hand, the Universe is a frighteningly random place. Many things that happen occur just once and never happen quite the same way again. Indeed, in some fundamental sense everything that happens is unique in this way. Evolution created beings with brains that craved associative proximate causes, then gave them data in which those causes were partially hidden by this uniqueness and complexity and randomness. At this point we have a very good understanding (subject to many axioms, of course) of the fundamental properties of the causal chains that make ``everything happen''. More to the point, for roughly fifty years now (since the work of Cox) we have a sound axiomatic basis for the mathematics of induction, for the laws of probability and statistics in a universe where every event is fundamentally unique. We can now systematically quantify the apparent randomness even as it occurs in a presumably deterministic causal chain1.16.

That doesn't make it any less frightening! The world (as we know it) could end in the next few minutes because our Sun, for reasons that are perfectly well founded in the science of stellar dynamics (if only we fully understood that science and had access to all the requisite information about solar state), could just plain explode, or not even bother to explode but merely engage in a prolonged `hiccup' of (say) 100% increased solar output for a few days, long enough to sear the planet's surface bare of most life. Or if you want something even more implausible and random, consider being hit by a gamma ray burst from a nearby star of sufficient power to significantly damage the biosphere1.17 . Our ignorance of state and the impossibility of prediction of essentially chaotic phenomena leave us vulnerable, and we still seek ``higher cause'' explanations for bad things that happen (in human terms) as a consequence of sheer bad luck.

Humans tended to extrapolate the patterns they observed in the causes they could recognize, and saw themselves and their own relatively deliberate mastery of the environment and their near-random volitional capriciousness as the ``model'' of a causal agency that could explain all of those unexplainable occurrences in terms of deliberate volitional acts. The cause of everything was therefore imagined to be an active intelligence much like their own. That is to say, capricious, selfish, jealous of its power, as likely to blast you with a lightning bolt or cause a bear to pop up out of nowhere and maul you as it was to reward you with plentiful food, good sex, and tribal power and status.

Thus was born the notion of deity as a cause of the otherwise unexplained. This is not at all to suggest that this notion of deity was homogeneously implemented across all cultures - far from it - only that all cultures adopted some sort of deity as at least part of their explanation for Everything, and that as time passed it was further adapted to serve as a direct support of the tribes idealized social structure. The basic rule is - if you can infer a consistent proximate cause for classes of events, that's fine. Fire burns, cave bears eat people. Where this explanation is inadequate (or even where it is) invoke the ``God C(l)ause'' - Aunt Mabel got eaten by a cave bear (even though she was particularly careful about cave bears) because it was God's will.

In the animal kingdom, social groups of mammals often have a hierarchical structure where individuals within the group obtain status by one (usually competitive) means or another. Nonhuman primate tribal groups are often led by a dominant ``alpha'' individual of either sex, although some research now suggests that females were in the past more commonly tribal leaders than males. The same research suggests that females were historically one of the driving factors behind the formation of primate tribal social groups in the first place, as they stand to benefit more from the protection and support of other tribal members during the extended vulnerable time of child bearing and child rearing. The social hierarchy extended beyond just the alpha individual, of course, and was a dynamic thing where the location of individuals on the the hierarchical scale of tribal status and reward was constantly being challenged and negotiated.

When the human notion of diety was introduced, it was thus perfectly natural to extend this tribal hierarchy by a notch:

god(s) $\to$ alpha $\to$ tribe itself $\to$ tribe member $\to$ outsider
Unsurprisingly, the deities introduced as often as not strongly resembled humans, only bigger, better, more powerful, and far more bloodthirsty. In fact, they resembled nothing so much as a human tribal leader (again, of either sex) on steroids, with all the powers humans wished that they had over their environment and other humans.

This placed everyone in the tribe above humans in other tribes, and sorted out the tribe itself so that its alpha individuals were closest to deity. This made everybody feel warm and secure because just as the weakest member of the tribe had some expectation of protection from the alpha leadership, so did they have some expectation of protection from the ills of life thought to be due to the gods.

This particular social hierarchy dominated humankind for thousands of years. Hierarchies like this that explain humanity's place in the universe relative to everything else are sometimes referred to as ``grand paradigms'', and this particular one is called the classical paradigm1.18. Over the years it shifted from its probably matriarchal or mixed roots towards very definitely and overwhelmingly patriarchal paradigm for the last three or four thousand years.

Many cultures extended the human hierarchy even further on the god side and invented tribal ranking/status systems among the gods, so that some gods were more powerful than others. Some cultures similarly extrapolated human conflict over to the god side and created detailed myths concerning wars between good gods and bad gods (devils) (making it perhaps easier to explain why bad things happen as there are bad gods to blame them on). A few cultures abandoned the notion of gods plural for God singular, but still maintained the extrapolatory picture of that God as a warped version of a human tribal alpha - God the King, basically. Gods and godly conflicts and godly capriciousness formed a sufficient explanation for all sorts of random, bad events or otherwise unexplainable neutral or good ones in human lives without giving up the notion of causality that otherwise proved so fruitful where proximate causes could indeed be identified.

It also gave societies a powerful memetic tool for reinforcing social behaviors - bad things inevitably happen to everybody, of course, but they also don't always happen. People inevitably violate some of the behaviors expected by the society, but don't always do so, at least in a stable and powerful society. It became very simple to tie social misbehavior to pain and suffering inflicted ``by the gods'' as a punishment, and to tie social rewards both now and in the hereafter to proper social behavior. Naturally, one can always find correlated pairs to support this explanation, and the many exceptions were chalked up to the well known capriciousness of the gods.

This sort of schizophrenic presentation of God as sometimes-arbiter of social behavior through suffering and natural disaster continues to this very day. People afflicted with (say) cancer are blamed for having the disease. Disease is viewed as a punishment for real or imagined sins; the fact that the disease is not healed by a miracle is because the afflicted individual manifestly lacks the perfect faith required to be healed, fails to make a large enough donation, was known to be an unfaithful husband or wife. By connecting the effect (disease) with a false cause (failing to worship the right god in the right way by giving the right tithe) considerable social control is exerted on tribal members.

After the two hurricanes in 2005 that devastated New Orleans it didn't take the bible-thumpers long to suggest that the real cause of the hurricanes wasn't a bathwater warm Gulf of Mexico with low atmospheric shear (helped out by a silly butterfly in Brazil somewhere that beat its wings just right a few years ago) - no, it was clearly a result of the direct will of God, deliberately directed at New Orleans because of the sinful nature of its inhabitants. They were being punished. Of course if that were consistently God's behavior, every community in the world would be nothing but a pile of ash, the preachers themselves would in most cases be struck dumb for all of the horseshit they've unloaded on the world, and sinful behavior of any kind would have been bred out of the human species long since out of sheer evolution in action. The temptation to exploit natural disasters and disease for the gain of a superorganismic religious entity to which one belongs is clearly very strong.

However, our instinctual need to make sense of the random and uncontrollable is a very powerful one. Even though we as humans pretty much understand what really causes hurricanes and cancer (and can to a tremendous extent predict the course of either one), the explanations are long and complicated and involves all sorts of things most people can't be bothered to, or aren't capable of, understanding. ``God's will'' as an explanation is much simpler and we may even have an evolutionary tendency to accept this sort of thing as an explanation. As we shall see in later chapters, this explanation can never be disproven as an explanation for absolutely anything, making it difficult to convince anyone who chooses to believe in it that they are wrong1.19.

Back to our story. The greatly enhanced brains with powerful memories tied to imagination-driven analytical units capable of symbolic/memetic reasoning and social intercourse produced, as a side effect that is still not understood (and that this work will not explain, although it will certainly indulge in some idle speculation just for the fun of it), an awareness of Self that at least appears to be far beyond that of any other living thing on Earth1.20. This awareness, as we will explore in later chapters, is at once incapable of conceiving of its non-existence (because this is literally a self-contradictory process, as Descartes noted) and yet forced to conclude on the basis of observation that it is limited in temporal scope.

That is to say, humans die, but while we are living and conscious we cannot, really, imagine the state of not being conscious. At best we might remember ``being unconscious'' as discontinuous boundaries within our memories. We can ``remember'' not always having been alive as our personal memories only extend back so far while our tribal memories and inferential extrapolation of causes suggest that the world was around long before we were. If we have an accident, or surgery, or take drugs that leave us truly unconscious for an extended period of time, that period of time does not happen for us.

This is (for those who have experienced it) a deeply disorienting and disturbing process - one minute you are there, in a hospital, counting backwards as you are anesthetized and the next it is hours or even days later. You have been dead (in the sense that your awareness was suspended) for that entire period but you cannot remember being dead because of the contradiction - it becomes a ``blind spot'' in your memory, inferred because of the lack of continuity in memory that is somehow deeper than the dream-filled process of sleep.

Faced with the existential crisis of unavoidable and yet inconceivable death, humans have ever sought to find an ``answer'' that would permit them to reconcile the two and cope with the very real and immediate pain of the death of loved ones, with illness, with injury, and above all with the mix of steady progression of an aging process leading to inevitable death and the myriad of ways death could randomly seek one out in the meantime. As a purely evolutionary reptile-brained instinct, nearly all volitional animals have a built-in urge to survive,1.21 but in humans the ability to conceive of the inconceivable that came with the ability to build self-referential symbolic maps raised that urge to the level of a positive mania.

Deity, as a cause for everything, rapidly became a cause for death as well, or at least deity was assigned two attributes that helped humans cope with death's omnipresence and inevitability in their lives. The first was immortality - the self-aware cause of All Things clearly had to be temporally persistent over the same time scale as the existence of All Things, and awareness/self/soul cannot, as noted above, truly conceive of its own mortality anyway. The second was the ability to create and preserve the human awarenesses so that they were immortal as well. Once again, this was hardly done in a homogeneous way - every tribe and every society in the ancient world came up with its own mythopoeic solution to this existential dilemna - but as time passed certain memetic patterns with social side effects proved more enduring by conferring a greater survival benefit on social superorganisms that were based on them.

Recall that social superorganisms were in the process of co-evolving significant memetic structure that required their ``cells'' - individual humans - to behave in very odd ways compared to the way that they would have behaved in a state of asocial nature when stripped of all memetic overlay. This process did not conflict with the process of genetic evolution - it superceded it and became a major driving evolutionary force in and of itself.

Two critical conditions were required for memetic evolution to become a significant factor. The first is that proto-humans had to be organized in extended hierarchical tribal structures and gain a significant evolutionary advantage thereby. The preservation and exchange of behavioral and cultural memes requires proximity, numbers, and generational overlap. The existence of a social hierarchy within these tribes, along with a challenging and constantly varying natural environment, both favored the development of new cortex to facilitate social interaction and cope with the challenges of the natural environment as tribes with better social organization and problem-solving skills were more successful than their neighboring competitors when presented with the same challenges.

This advantage was then in a position to grow dramatically along with primate intelligence when the latter reached the critical point. We can speculate that the critical point involved the invention of language. There exist other social animals that can make tools (in some cases instinctively). There exist social animals that invent tools in what appears to be an empirically driven reasoning process. There are even social animals that teach their young, preserving toolmaking memes across generations and giving them a relative survival advantage compared to other social groups that haven't learned to make the tool. However, there are no other toolmaking animals with anything like a true language, even a very primitive one1.22.

Language is the DNA of memetic evolution. Without language, toolmaking and social transmission of knowledge can only be transmitted by physical example and visual contact. Neither of these suffice to transmit anything but the most primitive tribal memories, condemning each generation to rediscover many things - or not, and perish in the attempt. Once language advanced to the point where abstract symbolic representation of the world was possible, one didn't need an actual sabertooth tiger to be present to discuss the best way to run from sabertooth tigers (or fight if need be). Language also enabled all sorts of degrees of cooperative behavior to be developed between members of a tribe to everyone's mutual benefit. Suddenly (we can speculate) there appeared memetic rules for a social hierarchy that one way or another made the survival of the social and familial group itself come before individual survival and not after.

Note well: some people object to this sort of picture on the basis of a ``selfish gene'' picture of evolution that has every individual always doing that which makes their own personal probability of survival to reproduction maximal. That's silly. First of all genes aren't selfish, individuals are. Sometimes being selfish is a big win. Sometimes - frequently, actually - it gets you killed. Game theoretic studies of things like the Prisoner's Dilemma1.23 show that in fact it is startlingly easy to come up with scenarios where nonselfish behavior is maximally selfish1.24 and that in fact they tend to occur in a social context where there is a memory.

Second, this is a highly naive view from the point of view of pure empiricism. After all, this sort of thing - collective/cooperative organism evolving out of previously competing organism - has happened before many times, beginning when two extremely primitive cells stuck together when dividing and proved to be more robust and likely to survive together than either would have been alone. They had lots of little dicellular children until one day one of their children turned out to be quads. The many times removed descendant of those cells, up to fifty trillion or so and still counting, is now typing this document and calls the many times removed descendants of the cells that didn't stick together and become more complex ``germs''.

Finally, memes are quite powerful when it comes to determining human behavior - they are clearly more than powerful enough to absolutely dominate human evolution. Consider the evidence of what feral children can accomplish with nothing but their DNA versus what children raised on memes can accomplish, all things being equal. Consider the tens of millions of humans that die every century engaged in self-sacrificing behavior such as fighting in the military or entering a burning building to save a child. Face it, a selfish meme theory trumps a selfish gene theory every time.

All of which leads us to conclude that at some point the first ``human'' sociomemetic superorganism was born, and once born it simply blew away all competition in the form of less organized tribes and the challenges of nature alike! This was a startling development! The significant transmission of memetic information between generations within a tribal social structure, however, provided a powerful secondary mechanism for the development of cooperative behavior, just as it does in repeated play (with a memory of the history of betrayals) of the prisoner's dilemma!

By the time humans had evolved to where complex social groups were a necessary survival advantage, and language had appeared on the scene to facilitate memetic evolution, the state was set for rapid discovery. However, it is probable that initially ``reason'' per se had very little to do with the discovery process, which was likely almost entirely empirical and associative. Successful ideas that were ``accidentally'' discovered or discovered using very simple reasoning processes were preserved, of course, conferring advantages on the tribe that developed them. Deity explanations reinforced the tribe and encouraged the growth of ever more complex social structures, but only at the expense of the incentive to seek more complex proximate causes. For a while memetic/brain co-evolution (although immensely faster than the previous million years or so of mostly genetic evolution) was still random and quite slow.

Memetic evolution is capable of occurring through a non-random mechanism that is very different from that used in genetic evolution in certain key ways. In particular, there exist systematic ways to extend successful memetic knowledge that don't require crossover and exchange (although they still can benefit from them). Again, however, mankind awaited a kind of critical point discovery that would tip the balance. That discovery was the discovery of reason.


next up previous contents
Next: The Advantage of Reason Up: Wanted: Answers to some Previous: Primate Philosophy   Contents
Robert G. Brown 2007-12-17