Transcendent EvolutionCory Panshin on May 15, 2011
When I suggested in the previous entry that our society is in the process of adopting a new standard of morality, I cited the acknowledgement of altruism by evolutionary theorists as just one example among several. But I’m thinking now that this single change could be the most important of all — that it has the potential to spark a philosophical upheaval that will redefine our entire culture.
Once we stop regarding the natural world as driven by ruthless self-interest, for example, it will compel us to undertake an equivalent transformation of our politics and economics. But even that would be only one minor aspect of a fundamental shift in our understanding of life and mind.
The greatest limitation of Darwinian theory has always been that it is hyper-mechanistic. It allows no role for consciousness or purpose, but insists that the entire history of life on Earth can be explained in terms of impersonal forces acting on organisms without their knowledge or assent.
For a strict Darwinian, living things have no goals in life other than to survive and pass on their genes. If creatures do happen to evolve — if fish turn into amphibians, or apes into proto-humans — it can only be the result of a series of accidental variations that turn out to have superior survival value.
But although this belief may have been acceptable in the 19th and 20th centuries, when the goal of science was to explain all of existence in terms of simple, physical cause-and-effect, it has now fallen out of touch even with its own field of study.
As one example, it takes no account of the opportunistic and improvisational nature of living things. Even the simplest lifeforms appear to be hard-wired to try new strategies and explore new environments, suggesting that they deserve to be recognized as active participants in their own evolution.
Beyond that, the assumption that survival of the fittest is the ultimate rule of nature has become a serious impediment to explaining why evolution should occur at all. If fitness is the only objective, why would any organism give up a way of life to which it is already well adapted in order to take a chance on something different?
Now, however, we’re finding out that fitness is not all it’s been cracked up to be. One recent study of bacteria, for example, concluded that those organisms which are the most efficient are also the most vulnerable to any change in conditions. Under appropriate circumstances — if crises arise periodically to shake things up — this can create a stable configuration “in which both the fit and the unfit coexist indefinitely.”
It’s beginning to seem that evolution is neither rare nor accidental, but is an ongoing process which is built into the nature of life itself. Even the simplest living things appear to be subject to two complementary forces — one which pushes them to become more closely adapted to their current environment and another which encourages them to take risks and explore new possibilities.
In higher organisms, both these tendencies have become more fully developed — first in the form of instinctual behavior and then in terms of conscious control. And for us humans, the process culminates in a two-tier system where both survival and evolution are elaborated into complex systems of knowledge and motivation.
On one hand, we are driven to refine and perfect the ordinary knowledge that provides us with guidelines for going about our daily business. But at times of crisis, when ordinary knowledge fails us — or, conversely, when ordinary knowledge becomes so effortless that we start to get bored — higher knowledge kicks in and prompts us to take a flyer on altruism, creativity, or simply doing things for the lulz.
From an evolutionary point of view, then, there would seem to be every good reason why we humans might be characterized by a superior ability to set aside conventional wisdom and explore new possibilities whenever necessity compels or opportunity beckons. And yet, I can’t help feeling that evolution alone does not provide a complete explanation of the nature of higher knowledge.
For one thing, higher knowledge is not merely a type of elevated problem-solving, but a profound subjective experience. For another, throughout human history our most creative individuals have insisted that the source of their inspiration lies not in themselves but in a larger reality which is radically different in kind from the everyday world.
And if that was not hard enough to accommodate rationally, mythic art and story also inform us that this larger universe is a place of magic and wonder, vaster and stranger than anything accessible to ordinary knowledge. It has its own purposes and objectives that transcend mere worldly motivations. And if we are able to set aside self-interest to identify with these higher purposes we will thrive and evolve in both that world and this, while if we fail to do so we will falter or die.
These assertions are impossible to either prove or disprove through science — which is an advanced form of ordinary knowledge — and yet we have to take them seriously. But what could they possibly mean?
One possibility is that our intimations of a higher reality are false, and that art and story are no more than a clever con-job we pull on ourselves to keep our eyes fixed on the path of evolution rather than on short-term gain.
I find it difficult to believe, however, that the most valued part of human culture amounts to a pack of lies, or that the wisest and most talented among us would be the greatest suckers.
Even for those of us who are not particularly wise or talented, what we care about most in life is the various aspects of higher knowledge — games and sports, art and music, poetry and story-telling, philosophy and religion. Not only do we devote an inordinate amount of time, effort, and money to these passions, but many of us would say that without them life would not be worth living.
There seems to be no rational reason for our species-wide obsession with the stuff of the imagination — but if the stories we tell ourselves are in any sense true, that investment is fully justified.
To say as much, however, does not relieve us of our obligation to attempt to reconcile the extraordinary messages we receive from higher knowledge with the far more skeptical conclusions about the world derived from ordinary knowledge.
This problem is not a new one. In ancient times, the usual basis of reconciliation was the notion that higher knowledge speaks to us of a spirit realm, another world lying beyond the borders of the world we know but also impinging upon it in the form of dreams and portents, miracles and wonders.
All such answers, however, are good for only a limited time. They take advantage of gaps in ordinary knowledge to make room for higher possibility — but eventually the gaps are filled in and the work of reconciliation has to be done over again from scratch.
That’s where we stand at the present moment. We now inhabit a material universe that stretches to infinity on every hand, leaving no place for the old spirit realm and its wonders. We are badly in need of an alternative justification — and the most promising candidate would appear to be an enlarged understanding of evolution.
The theory of evolution is an accepted part of modern science, and yet it is full of gaps and mysteries. We do not know why evolution happens or just how it fits into the universal scheme of things. It is an unfolding drama in which we are simultaneously authors, actors, and spectators, a story that we are telling to ourselves while never knowing what will happen next.
Given this ambiguity, it appears that we can reconcile both sides of our nature by interpreting “evolution” in two different ways at once. On one hand, it is a simple, natural process that helps us attain ever-greater levels of biological and cultural fitness. But on the other, it is a vast cosmic spectacle in which the universe itself is the evolving party and we are merely its agents.
Even that accommodation, however, leaves one particularly vexing issue unaddressed — namely the hallucinatory beings, supernatural forces, and strange affinities that characterize what I have been calling myth space.
Ordinary knowledge tells us that these things cannot possibly be real. And yet they are very much there — in our stories, in our dreams, in our visions and forebodings. They are essential parties to the operation of higher knowledge, and we cannot deny their presence.
So what are we to make of them?
My best advice is that these things should be taken as comprising a kind of virtual reality — a user interface which enables us to engage with a level of being that is too intricate and multi-dimensional for us to grasp directly. Much as we see the world in color as a simplified shorthand for the complex wave-forms of light, we perceive it in terms of gods and magics as shorthand for even more fundamental aspects of existence.
If that is even vaguely correct, we might conclude that higher knowledge brings us closer than ordinary knowledge to the underlying source code of being — but that it does so at the cost of consistency and sense. The stuff of myth space is weird, alien, nonsensical, and incoherent, and yet that weirdness and incoherence are inseparable from any true encounter with higher reality.
The biologist J.B.S. Haldane famously stated, “The Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” I’ll give him points for that — but I’d also suggest that imagination will always take us further than mere scientific supposition.
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