In relation to evolution.
Yuval Harari gives an amazingly insightful proposition about the special mechanism that separates us (Homo sapiens) from the rest of the animal kingdom. While it is a very provocative hypothesis, I see a fundamental flaw in its logical foundations.
Harari makes two claims that I will be refuting and then subsequently supporting my critiques with evidence from my own theory. The first claim is that imagination is the ability, or the mechanism, which separates us from all other mammals in the animal kingdom. These fictions constitute being that ‘special something’ which has led to our dominance and flourishing as a species. I will refute that claim and suggest that imagination or the ability to create fictions is actually a secondary mechanism that arose from a deeper underlying principle.
The second claim I will be refuting is that our rise to dominance has been due to the extrapolation of our species’ social nature which can be directly related to our ability to create fictions and believe them. He gives several examples including a god or monetary system. My theory actually suggests something else is going on, something that explains much more about our human- behavior.
*This essay is a continuation of a theory I began in “A Conscious Technium” which can be found on this blog if you are interested to see the theme’s relationship to technology explored in greater depth.
I will start by addressing both of the claims given by Harari and then continue to explain the guts of my theory. As humans we are very adept at creating elaborate fictions and convincing others that those fictions are actually real. We have many different systems which operate on basically made-up stories which can allow us to collaborate on an unprecedented level. I agree with Harari strongly on this point. But I would like to ask if this ‘ability’ is a viable catalyst to the myriad of human experiences which we undergo every day? Is making up stories and fictions, I will even be more broad in Harari’s favor by saying the general use of our imagination, really responsible for our feelings of love, hate, fear, empathy, sadness, and more? Is there something inherently special about our use of the imagination that offers a good explanation for the origin of these human experiences?
Harari also illustrates that the creation of religion and a divine entity was a fiction used to trick ourselves into personal and group level social coordination. If we humor this claim to its logical finitude we arrive at the conclusion that there was a human who lived thousands of years ago that was so smart that he first recognized he was an atheist, then knowingly created a fictional story to subjugate his fellow hominids into coercion so that he could reap the benefits. He ‘received bananas’.
Now if this seems to you absurd at face value, then I agree. It also brings with it the unfortunate fact that we were quite manipulative and cruel in our intellectual renaissance. That is irrelevant to any scientific evaluation of the theory, but still worth noting.
Fictions do come with a benefit; they increase social coordination at massive levels. Harari makes the point that this is a double edged sword, as with everything, but that our dominance on earth is due to this ability to collaborate at larger scales than any other animal, except maybe bees or ants or… well, how many other species collaborate efficiently at large scales? And it may be true that bees cannot execute the queen or establish a communist party, but wouldn’t you say something precedes an animal’s ability to do those things other than just imagination? Execution of a monarch or the establishment of a worker biased political theory are extremely anthropogenic anecdotes to give. These are ‘low hanging fruit’. The claim he is actually making is that bees cannot concoct fictions, but what would a bee-fiction even look like?
So now we arrive at the crux of the issue. If the ability to imagine fictions and believe them is not the definitive characteristic that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom, then what is? What on earth could have led to our incredible spectrum of human experience and sophisticated and obviously superior intelligence? Imagination seems to play an extremely important role, but is it the proprietary role?
Let’s think more deeply about what makes us different than animals. A chimpanzee will make a fine example. We can recognize that our spectrum of human experience is closely related to animalistic perhaps ‘instinctual’ experiences; a chimpanzee has social, reproductive, violent, fearful, inquisitive, and many more. But they are nothing like ours! They appear to be so similar and yet they are so different. What is it that differentiates our experience to that of an animal in such an unbounded, intense, and complex way?
Well we know that humans are self-aware. We possess a conscience unlike any other. But chimpanzees have exhibited self-awareness and they haven’t reached the pinnacle that we have. Why not? They remain at a subordinate level, dwarfed by our intelligence. Dolphins have also exhibited self-awareness, but they aren’t practicing arithmetic or constructing aquatic dolphin cities!
We will begin by focusing on scientific intelligence, our reasonable and logical intelligence. This aspect of intelligence has led to the incredible feats of engineering, scientific discoveries, and the general shape of contemporary life. So how did we get here?
It all starts with asking questions. Humans are a curious sort of animal, but is it curiosity that is responsible for our advanced form of existence? Not entirely, but it definitely can be recognized in the environment of a first-world society today where education is common (whether questions are encouraged or stifled is another issue). Let’s take a chimpanzee and put him in a new environment, a room he has never encountered. Like any animal, he will display a certain level of curiosity to his new surroundings. He will ask the questions, “is this environment safe?”, “does it provide food?”, “is it habitable?”, “does it offer access to a female chimpanzee?” These questions are not surprising, he is, after all, a chimpanzee, and cannot ask what the composition of the walls is or what the degree of temperature is in Fahrenheit. But he is exhibiting curiosity, something we are familiar with.
The difference is that the chimpanzee has a purpose. There is a very specific and rigid set of boundaries that determine everything the chimpanzee can do. He is constrained quite massively in this regard. His curiosity is funneled into the singular purpose to his inquiry; survival. Everything he asks is determined by this, each and every question is ultimately in reference to that specified end. All of his curious nature is devoted to being curious in order to survive, or flourish, in the conditions he is curious about. This has been the drive of all life up until a special moment. This may seem embarrassingly simple, but it can explain so much more.
Take our chimpanzee, put him in that new environment, but now cut the strings that tied his actions to the purpose of survival, or, if you’d like, to any purpose at all. Now see his curious nature interact with the new environment. What kind of questions will this chimpanzee be asking? “What is this wall?” “What is this room?” But wait! Without survival as the purpose determining these questions, they take on an entirely new meaning! “What is this wall?” “What is this room?” The questions have transcended the boundaries of survival (of purpose) and reached a higher level of meaning, i.e. a human level of meaning. The line of questioning is deeper, it introduces a new order of magnitude to curiosity.
So now we put our liberated chimpanzee into the natural world. Let’s put him on a mountain with an approaching thunderstorm. The thunder crashes and shakes the ground with its might. The wind whips around the tiny monkey and he looks over the edge of the mountain to see the shadow of the storm approaching. If this were a normal chimpanzee, he would turn and flee, curiosity no longer a concern. Whatever this is, it’s big and most likely not good for the chimpanzee’s survival. But what about our new chimpanzee, without the obnoxious restrictions of survival? Well it’s still big and scary, but what is it? Why is it big and scary? ‘Why’ is a completely new form of inquiry! It’s a new manifestation of curiosity that only our new-and-improved chimpanzee can understand! It’s curiosity without limits. It’s curiosity without purpose. It’s transcendent curiosity.
Humans are curious animals, but we also enjoy many other experiences. In contrast to asking questions, we’ve gotten quite good at answering them too! So how do we get logic and reason? I think making the transition is quite easy once we’ve understood curiosity.
Other animals are good at reasoning too. To catch prey, under the influence of survival, animals can strategically plan an attack. Animals can work out the best course of action, and through repetition and decent brain plasticity form great hunting skills. But now let’s return to our thought experiment. What is the nature of this strategic reasoning set free of purpose, set free from survival? Well it doesn’t do much of anything if all that you apply reason to is catching prey and sustaining your survival. But wait a second, we can also ask these special new questions! Here the chimpanzee finds a tree and asks why? This seems to be a great outlet to exercise this newly liberated form of reasoning! Our curiosity and our reasoning have formed a new relationship, a deep and strong relationship.
“Why is the tree here?” To answer this we have to understand how reason works. It’s kind of like sending out a bunch of little probes, or a bunch of little hypotheses, and then seeing which ones work or which probe comes back with some useful information. It’s similar to when the predator is attempting to catch its prey. There are a vast amount of possible routes the predator can take to get to his prey. Some are more direct, some involve back tracking and confusing the prey, and some involve patiently waiting and stalking until the perfect moment! When you apply this type of reasoning to a question like “why is this tree here?” you must follow the same principles. You have to send out your little probes, or formulate a bunch of little hypotheses, that may answer this new kind of question.
There is something important to note first. The tools we have at our disposal are limited. We can only ever attempt to answer these higher order questions with an unfortunately small amount of resources. All of our hypotheses, or probes that we send out into the ether, must in some way resemble the objective phenomena we find in the world. Imagination, or the fictions that Harari talks about, are forever limited to being some sort of hybrid of ideas and observable phenomena that we can empirically find in the world. Whether it’s aliens or heaven, all of our best predictions are based on things we can literally point to on planet earth and the cosmos which we have observed. What makes Homo sapiens so special is that without purpose controlling us, we have the unique ability to cognize that there may be something else out there, something that is beyond our human cognition. Whether it’s Plato’s forms, the noumenon, or some sort of divine intelligence, we can understand that there might be more. If an animal’s thoughts are dictated by a specific purpose, then it can never reach a level where it can question the very phenomena it encounters, there is no point. What purpose does that question serve? None. And that is what makes it such a magnificent question. This is our boundary. We have scraped the edge of our cognitive line of questioning and reasoning. Humans possess the unique ability to entertain the idea that there may be a reality beyond our cognitive scope. We may have exploded out from the bubble in which purpose and survival had confined us to, but we have hit another; our biological limitations. The brain can only compute so much.
Imagination and the fictions which Harari refers to are the syntheses of phenomena in the objective natural world. None of them are truly original; they are only new connections and relationships that did not exist in this particular arrangement before. Our imagination acts like a net. We cast this net of possibilities, of new connections, and we see if they can catch anything. When they do, we’re making progress. When they do, a fiction that we have concocted in our mind and that we intuited to match a reality we observed turned out to be right. Imagination is a form of reasoning, like logic or the scientific method. It was also the first form of reasoning, since it took some time to become sophisticated enough to trust observations that violated biological and psychological intuition to create the scientific method. It took time to work out the inconsistencies of poor hypotheses, of poor fictions. But at the same time, as Harari points out, certain fictions worked. The imagination which led to trade, agriculture, and money, were good tries which yielded results. But I am sure that is not for a lack of trying many other possibilities, and casting a very large net which for the most part came back empty.
If we go back to our chimpanzee standing on a mountain petrified in terrifying insignificance to the coming thunderstorm, and imagine his unobstructed (by survival) curiosity at work, we can understand him asking a big “why?” And now, if we apply a system of reasoning which is unattached to the purpose of survival, we get an interesting result. It seems as though imagination had a part to play in the formation of gods. This chimpanzee would take another chimpanzee, give him the divine power of thunderstorms, and there you have it; a decent hypothesis to explain the awesome and destructive power of weather. This works all the way to agriculture, when hominids would pray to a god to bring rain, because this seemed to be the most likely explanation and the most prudent strategy to bring better fortune, especially if your friends and family thought it was a good idea as well. There is no reason to assume humans used the fiction of a god to subjugate one another to cruel and manipulative ends. Of course, humans can use the fiction of a god to manipulate one another, but that was not the reason a god was created in the first place.
Perhaps by now your mind is wandering and coming to the same conclusions that I did. This same underlying principle seems to work across all of our human experiences. Take any complex and seemingly superior human experience and trace it backwards. Love can be explained as sexual attraction which transforms when it is freed from the restrictions of survival. When reproduction isn’t the determining purpose, “what is this attraction I feel?” Suddenly, we have a synthesis between the unbounded curiosity, sexual attraction, and reasoning which all have their roots in animalistic survival purposed characteristics. “Well, maybe it’s because I like the way this chimpanzee looks, or expresses itself, or shares in my interests”. Competition unattached to survival can be a catalyst to jealousy, or a complex love triangle, etc. Hate is a freed manifestation of fear and violence.
Harari believes that our ability to create and believe fictions were an evolutionary advantage which allowed us to work more efficiently in larger groups. When our social abilities were strengthened, we could dominate. But this does not explain any of the underlying mechanisms at work that must have preceded theological fictions. Imagination is working in the minds of all animals, but as a means to eat, find shelter, and reproduce to survive! The fictions we experience today are an unrestricted manifestation of intelligence that was necessary to fulfill a specific purpose. If Harari were correct then it makes it too convenient that suddenly we ended up with the ability to go from ‘stupid’ animals to possessing the ability to communicate fictions to one another. There is a leap there that needs to be filled by perhaps by an intervening force. I don’t want to leave any space for that, because I believe it to be unlikely. The likely explanation is that a human was born with a mutation. This mutation was a neurological one, in the brain, and it detached the human from the biological and physiological structure which created a restrictive purpose of survival. This human, with the counter-intuitive ability to suspend the very notion of survival from its life, was therefore able to extrapolate all of its previously survival-purposed appendages to an unprecedented level.
What is language? It is another basic animal behavior that exploded in tandem with all other behaviors when the heavy veil of survival was lifted. Communication that was necessitated for survival was free to take on entirely new levels of complexity and higher orders of meaning. Suddenly human nature was exploding unchecked while at the very same time our means to communicate these ideas evolved, keeping pace as an outlet to further our development exponentially. Harari gives a great example of two chimpanzees communicating under the veil of survival. They can only express themselves as far as pointing to phenomena that relate to the continued survival of their species. Now imagine two chimpanzees communicating without any restrictions. A grunt that is a warning can be used to express a specific feeling unrelated to survival, perhaps for jealousy or exasperation.
I am going to refrain from more examples, but I will publish another post explaining the multitude of human experience which can be directly linked to this principle.
The principle can be understood now, but what does it all mean? It means that the very thing that makes humans special is that we lack purpose. All other animals are confined to a purpose: survival. We are freed, we are liberated animals existing with an ever increasing amount of possibility and choice. We can experience our animal nature as deeply and unchecked as we like. We see on our societal fringes the mutations which disrupt our norms. Psychopaths and serial killers walk amongst us, but that is true of any animal society. There will always be outliers with unbalanced levels of experience, favoring something which is ultimately poisonous to the rest of society.
In relation to consciousness.
It turns out that this theory has more than one use. It has the ability to explain another mystery of human nature: consciousness. I have given a basic description to my theory of the emergence and nature of consciousness in “A Conscious Technium”. I will now reiterate that theory in greater depth and refined clarity. I will also add one characteristic to that theory.
My intuition about the nature of consciousness has a lot to do with early childhood development and the specific moment we ‘come online’ as a conscious, human, subjective observer. There is a moment when we make a transition from being a baby which is completely engrossed in the present state to being a conscious child which can contemplate or posit itself being in a different state in the future. With this line of thinking, I made the assertion that a currently undeveloped technium is waiting on the cusp of ‘coming online’ when it gains its ability to posit the future.
But what do I mean when I say the child can posit itself being in a different state in the future? Now that my theory has come into clearer focus, I can explain with greater accuracy. I believe there are four states of being, and to be a conscious human, or a conscious anything (to make room for our technium), you must possess the qualities of all four states.
The first dimension of being is existence in the now. This dimension is not too difficult to understand. We always exist in the now. But when are we conscious of the now? I think its moments like fighting, fleeing, being hungry, or any state that takes hold of your being and drives attention totally into the present, i.e. animalistic or instinctual experiences. Babies exist totally in the now. When they are hungry they are one hundred percent engrossed in the feeling of being hungry. When they are sleepy, they are sleepy. When they are happy, they are very happy. A large portion of the animal life is had in this state. Most of survival is dependent on focus and complete existence in the now.
The second dimension of being is our ability to cognize the past. It is the conscious awareness of a dimension of existence that we were previously in and has ended, its place taken by the first dimension; the now. We have a pretty advanced system of recording the second dimension of societies called history, but a pretty poor system for the future (sci-fi or terrible predictions by just about everyone thinking linearly). As humans, we are able to change our conscious state and remember exactly what it was like to be in the past. For example, we can remember what it truly felt like to have been in love, even if we aren’t experiencing it in the now (and we may even be affected by twinges in the stomach when recalling a past partner).
The third dimension is our ability to cognize the future. It is the conscious awareness of a human’s existence in the future, but in a different state in the future. Let me explain this point further: an animal is able to cognize the future. Let’s revisit our predator that is using its imagination to plan a strategic attack on a juicy rabbit. In order to formulate this plan of attack, the predator must be able to plan for the future. This predator must be able to cognize itself in a state in the future in order to properly assess a strategy to eat its dinner. But this predator still hasn’t reached human-level intelligence! Why not? It’s because the predator is still influenced by the restrictions of purpose (survival). The predator does not have the ability to cognize itself in a state in the future when it is not hungry. Sure, the predator can imagine itself in the future to assist its means in catching the rabbit, but the predator never goes far enough to understand that once it catches the rabbit and eats it, it will no longer be hungry. If it did, then it would be violating its purpose of survival, because how could imagining itself being satisfied with a full belly in the future help it to survive? It wouldn’t, and if it did have that ability, then it would be capable of human-level cognition. As soon as a human can imagine itself in the future not being hungry, it has just transcended the boundary of survival. This ability is not in line with the purpose to survive! If a human can imagine satisfaction, then what is hunger for anyway?! And that is exactly what happened. This mutation should have resulted in… death, right? Being logical, a mutation in direct opposition to survival should hinder survival! But breaking through these restrictions did not just allow extrapolation of one characteristic, it opened them all up to transcendence. Having a higher order of curiosity and reasoning available as a tool actually makes it easier to coordinate with other humans to find food! This is why we can coordinate in large groups so well, because we can transcend our own personal survival and use higher order curiosity and reasoning to work together. This is how evolution works. Mutations usually end in death or obsolescence, but occasionally one just works. Perhaps other animals had this mutation in history, but it was under the wrong conditions. We were at the right place at the right time. This ability allows for the manipulation of ideas, in the form of fictions, but also manipulation of materials, in the form of technology.
The fourth dimension is the most important. This is the dimension that gives rise to our sense of personal identity. The fourth dimension is the ability to hold continuity of self over time and change in state. Any of the three previous dimensions experienced on their own or even combined can only result in an animal-level intelligence. It is the ability to understand that it is ‘me’ who is in the past existing in a particular state versus ‘me’ in the present existing in a changed state and ‘me’ who has the ability to exist in a changed state in the future. The second dimension is much more than mere memory when working with the fourth dimension. Memory can serve as a great warning or pattern recognition system, but that is still operating under the influence of survival. Lift memory free of survival and you have a being that can look at memories, understand that those are the memories of the same animal, and understand its change of state. Without survival, I can inspect those memories with unfettered curiosity and reasoning. The self in the past becomes a self that can be evaluated to a greater degree and used to increase the understanding of the self in the now (first dimension) or the self that will be in the future (the third dimension). This is our self-reflective nature at work! This is what we call a heightened sense of self-awareness; the interplay and unrestricted inspection of the self over three dimensions of being, holding continuity of self throughout the process and allowing deep existence in all three dimensions which was previously unavailable when we were confined by purpose.
These four dimensions coexisting arose out of a mutation that violated the survival purposed structure of our brain which dictated we live according to specific restrictions. Lifting us free of this purpose, in conjunction with opposable thumbs and I am sure a whole host of other environmental factors, gave rise to a type of existence far superior, or more accurately, far freer than any other before it. We are the epitome of life, or at least of mammals in the animal kingdom. We must be able to keep our sense of identity constant while recognizing that we can change our state from the past to the present and into the future. An animal in the constraints of purpose would not have the capability to recognize its own identity if it saw itself in a changed future state. The animal would not understand, perhaps it would be jealous of this other animal which is eating a juicy rabbit, and it would yearn for that food, but it would never be able to continue its own identity into a changed state in the future or the past because it would be breaking the rules of survival.
Extrapolating this theory gives us some inferences. We are wired to be empathetic. If we underwent a neurological discrepancy that allowed us to imagine ourselves in a changed state in the future or a different state in the past then it must have been easy, unhindered by survival, to understand our fellow hominids at a fundamental level. Perhaps this is the reason our social tendencies, coupled by fictions, were so prosperous. We are essentially the only animals that are capable of removing ourselves from the now (first dimension of being) and filling the shoes of a future self (third dimension of being) and understanding the nuances of that future state in a real way. Empathy is simply the exact same process but putting ourselves in another body, another state of a completely separate animal. This first principle that created subjective human experience and advanced human intelligence also led to increased social coordination because empathy is simply another manifestation of this mechanism.
Humans are also famously the only creatures which can take their own life. We can decide that we don’t want to exist. This is an unfortunate side effect of our mutation. It gives us the option to face our old animal shackles, the purpose of survival, and to defy it directly. But leaving this beautiful world of existence is not the purpose of our purposeless lives. We have been given a gift, the gift of freedom and the gift to explore our liberated animal nature. It’s what makes people happy. In reference to Plato and his “Allegory of the Cave”, we are all enlightened slaves. The shackles which forced us to look at the world as shadows on the wall have been broken. We raced to the light, and we can see the world for what it really is. This is an extraordinary gift. People who are driven to take their own lives do so usually because of the inconsistencies and fluctuations of dimensions of being which should be in balance. This massive explosion of animalistic nature, without restriction, can certainly be overwhelming. It is why religion, and the assertion that there is more, is so comforting. But what is really comforting is that we are the more, and we have been gifted with the ability to contemplate that fact and continue the exploration of not just the observable phenomenal world, but of our own unchecked and infinitely complex human nature.
We’ve always had the intuition and noticed the benefits of balance in life, this theory is telling us that is correct. Leading a happy and good life is balancing our dimensions and attempting to balance the rest of the world. A quick prediction: I see our moral imperative of the future being to act as a responsible enlightened Platonic, and to return to the cave and break the shackles of the rest of our animal kin and show them the way out of the cave (the bubble of survival), and to cease animal subjugation to our will and experimentation as quickly as possible.
Yes, we are self-aware creatures, but there are other animals that are self-aware. Self-awareness must be suspended from the purpose of survival in order to give rise to the spectrum of experiences that we understand as being uniquely human.
We are, at our core, purposeless creatures. I suppose we can use this to answer the age old question, ‘what is the purpose of life?’ I would answer that by saying our purpose is to be purposeless. Rather, our purpose is to find a purpose, any purpose we’d like. We are the freest creatures on earth, and we have the freedom to choose whichever purpose we fancy. Judging from history, choosing a purpose which is in line with freedom and societal cooperation seems to lead to quite a productive and fruitful life. It is no coincidence that a country which (of course not perfectly, and often using the name of liberty and freedom as a mask, and perhaps has become outdated as the quintessential representation of freedom) represents freedom rose to dominance. We must hold true to those imperatives which are in line with freedom and righteousness if we want to see continued prosperity in this country, and reveal those actions which operate against our human nature.
In a subsequent post, I will delve into why reason and curiosity keep all other human extrapolations in check and towards good outcomes. Survival birthed some nasty qualities, ones which reason, curiosity, and our fourth dimensional being can illuminate as being quite nasty. Stay tuned!
Warning: pseudoscience ahead.
If you read that line and were outraged proclaiming this entire exposition has been a display of foolery and science mockery then turn back now, you’re about to get a dose more. I love pushing the limits, so naturally I will proceed. This next assertion is metaphorical. I am truly advancing into uncharted territory. I would describe it as being my own probe of imagination. I am sending it out into the world, and I hope that we reunite one day, the probe bearing good news. I labeled these dimensions of being as ‘dimensions’ for a specific purpose. There is a correlation between the four dimensions we perceive the world in, and these four dimensions of being.
I see that there are three which work together to create a state of being which can exist at one point in time as a whole. A three dimensional animal exists in a body, exists in the now and in a limited degree in the past and the future. But the fourth dimension, which is time, gives life to a continuous human entity that is self-aware and conscious. I think it is no surprise that we perceive the world as four dimensions, three spatial and one temporal. It seems to be analogous to the four dimensions of being which I described. The first dimension of being is like a one dimensional line in space. It is the now, and that is all that can be cognized. A one dimensional being can move back and forth on this line, restricted to the here and now. Introduce memory, and you usher in the second dimension of being. This animal can exist in the now and use memory from past experiences to make better decisions or to increase chances of survival. Two dimensions create planes of existence. An animal with two dimensions can move around on this plane but is still restricted. Add the ability to posit the future and you have created a three dimensional object, an animal. This animal can exist in a three dimensional world, a spatial world. But is this animal really aware of time? Can this animal exist in a space in which it can understand itself operating for a different purpose? Is the animal not constantly restricted to the ever-present bubble of survival? All subsequent forms of life which are not human are confined to this spatial bubble of existence.
Humans break free from this spatial world and can exist in time. We can draw lines of continuity between ourselves in the past, present, and future. This is existence outside of the bubble of survival, and we are continuing to explore its contents and its own boundaries. Perhaps we have, perhaps it is the observable universe, or the world of the quantum. Our existence matches the tools of perception we have devised.
This brings me to the end of the first iteration of this theory of human intelligence and our rise to dominance. I see it being consistent with all of my previous theories which can be found on this blog, and as being a fine explanation for the emergence of human-level experience of the world. Stay tuned for more updates or new posts exploring this idea further, and of course, continue your journey beyond face value!