Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Stars Less Vivid: Experience and Evolution

Last week I wrote of an experience watching the sunrise over a jetty at the edge of the Lake Ontario. I was taken by the question of how this experience is conditioned by the dominant technologies a human lives with: a clearing in the trees, a wharf lined with wooden sailing ships, a parking lot leading to a concrete jetty. In the comments to the piece both Occasional Reporter and Mike Gottschalk raised issues which have dovetailed with some of my own continued meditations on the subject and so are worth a few more words. The question can be posed simply as follows:

What aspects of human being are unmediated by culture and time?

In other words how much of our day to day perception, how much of our abstract thinking, how much of our sense of a sacred or even an absolute, is given form through the prism of our culture's "facts on the ground". Some answers to this are obvious as in "no twitter, no tweeting". But the deeper issues lay in what has been constant and what has changed across the 1000+ generations since we became cultural modern in action and symbol.

I have been concerned with Mythologies for a long time because they might to carry some trans-historical constants in them, at least in our need for certain kinds of stories to set our lives and their transitions into meaning. Is this true or just wishful thinking? Our powers of reason seem to be an ingrained aspect of human being and their gradual refinement has led to ever increasing degrees of "sophistication" in the social structures we create. And what of the Sciences that our reason have bestowed to us? It is exactly the promise that Science stands above history (and Time entire) that makes it so alluring.

So there are ways to argue for continuity - for a direct link between the hunter-gather stepping out from the trees before the infinite horizon of the shoreline and my stepping from a 1999 Subaru Outback to walk past the Port-O-Potties out to the jetty.

And yet, and yet... Somehow something feels different. Somehow I get the sense, deep in the artificially illuminated night, that there is a profound difference. I get a sense that there are profound differences. In the plasticity of our brains we adapt to our physically structured cultures and that changes experience itself. Do the stars in our satellite girdled world shine less vividly? Does distance lose an essential extension when vaulted by combustion engines and electromagnetic signalling? It may work the other way as well. Are we closer to a whole when news of Iranian's struggling for voice flashes around the planet in quick succession with Micheal Jackson's global superstar demise?

What explicitly is lost? What explicitly is gained? What, if anything, remains constant?


  1. The question that has kept me in its gravitational orbit (after the, how do I get the girl? phase) is, what does it mean to be human? I've struggled in talking about my inner drive explicitly, especially at cocktail parties, because it seems audacious and even arrogant in settings other than some philosophy class; and there, it probably seems arcane.

    And then it occurred to me the other day, that maybe the reason such a question seems so socially out of place, is that our culture has reduced our sense and scale of life to balance sheets and brands: in this world, awesome refers to a well articulated number from ______.

    If, on the other hand, we could see ourselves within our true context, that of "astrobiology," and "coevolution," we would see the way life in its immensity of the universe, points its evolutionary impulse at human being; and there, changes its direction from breadth to depth- where it can be intimately realized. You and I embody the the very evolutionary impulse that exploded into existence those billions of years ago; if this doesn't inspire awe, than you may as well go hit the sale at ______.

    In this context, the question of what it means to be human? no longer feels audacious, it feels basic. Even obligatory in light of such privilege.

  2. Adam, you are actually asking two questions, what is profoundly different (between the present and our hunter/gatherer past) and what is profoundly the same. You rightly dismiss the obvious differences as trivial or merely symptomatic.

    In reply I want to combine here two comments I made in the past.

    What is profoundly different is that there is a new dualism in our minds that describes the ways we perceive the world. Alva Noe described the concept of Action in Perception where some set of actions is necessary for us to form an integrated perception of objects in our world. This is an ancient pathway that must have been present in the earliest conscious life forms. And this pathway to perception is a major component of how we perceive the world today.

    But with the advent of writing we acquired the ability to perceive the world in symbolic terms. Mathematics is the crowning expression of this ability. This symbolic perception is what has powered the remarkable progress of the last four hundred years. Now we are at the outset of applying symbolic perception to social interaction, as in the Internet. We can't foresee the outcome but it might be just as remarkable.

    So what is profoundly different is that our mind has acquired this dualism, perception rooted in action(the ancient pathway) and perception rooted in symbols(the modern pathway). The future balance between them one can only guess at but it seems that symbolic perception is growing ever more important.

    Then there is the question of what is profoundly the same. I think my answer came from running thousands of kilometers with my dog on rocky trails. That experience is dominated by my memory of her extraordinary, joyous curiosity. She would run back and forth, side to side, in and out of the bushes with an insatiable curiosity and unquenchable joy. That made me think of the profound role that curiosity played in powering the advance of our species and made me realise that curiosity is widely present in other species. Obviously it conveys a great evolutionary advantage since all conscious organism are constantly faced with making choices. Curiosity helps determine the best choice.

    So if there is one profound trait constant, both now and in our hunter/gatherer ancestors, I would say that it is our native, innate curiosity.

    I have often wondered if our ability to experience joy, awe or beauty also qualified as a constant trait but on reflection it seems that these experiences have their root in curiosity and are a form of reaction to curiosity. In fact curiosity seems to me to be a fundamental force that has driven much of evolution as it is still, so obviously, driving us today.

  3. I would like to add to my previous comment that the new pathway of symbolic perception is in effect multiplying the reach of our ancient trait, that of curiosity.

  4. @Mike - I really agree that our horizons are being restricted as we in the developed world at least are transformed into consumers rather than citizens. Still, I am hopeful because the aspiration to create in respond to the world's great beauty (art, science, scholarship, music) seems to be impossible to fully extinqusih (so its...um... a constant fire!). That gives me reason to hope.

  5. @Occasional - Can you explain the idea of action in perception a bit more. The concept of symbolic perception makes sense to me if it relates to an internal representation of an idea that is coded into the symbol but how does "action" operate?

    The point about curiosity across species is an interesting one. When an animal is not hungry and does not need to mate and is not tired then what does it do? When all the basic needs imprinted by genetics are satisfied then what does consciousness of any kind open up to? Curiosity obviously has an evolutionary advantage but perhaps it is a kind of behavior that opens up when consciousness is freed from survival concerns.

  6. Adam, every animal in the wild is constantly scanning its environment for threats and opportunities. Every sense is fully and intensely engaged in this constant scanning. Satisfaction of needs does not free it from the necessity of continually scanning the environment. Every hunter who has stalked a wild animal knows this.

    This intense scanning(and exploration) of the environment is the precursor and close cousin to what we experience as curiosity. What I am maintaining is that it is really the same thing, just expressed differently because we have been freed from the fear of predation. I like your point about consciousness opening up. Curiosity illuminates our consciousness.

    What I observed with my dogs in the wild was that, when freed from needs and fear of predation this scanning(and exploration) of the environment was immediately recognisable as the emotion we call curiosity. The other striking thing was the evident joy they experienced when expressing their curiosity.

    The concept of curiosity illuminating the consciousness, that you mention, is an important one. It stimulates the mind to create or find new relationships or mental constructs. I suspect that there is a virtuous feedback loop in play here. As we mastered our environment, freeing ourselves from the fear of predation, the scanning of the environment was redirected to what we call curiosity. And the expression of curiosity further stimulated the development of the brain.

  7. Adam, as you raise the idea of a constant through history, I'd like to talk about one made explicit by the event of the historical figure of Jesus. In the phrase, historical Jesus, I'm differentiating between a Christian figure who is often made into a fetish, like that of a rabbit's foot, and a courageous Jewish peasant who had a Mystic's connection to life. I'm also using the word event, because the "revelation" that transpires from Jesus' life, does so in the Roman Empire; and central to the revelation to be seen in this historical event, is the comparison of, Jesus the peasant, to, Tiberius the Roman Caesar. Isolating Jesus from the whole of the historical context distorts his meaning.

    Tiberius' father was Augustus. Augustus was declared as god by the Roman senate; this made Tiberius the "son of god". What we know about palestine at the time, 90 to 95% of the population was forced into a peasant form of living in order to supply the wealth to Rome and the local elites who were willing to exploit their countrymen for their own engrandizing.

    Seen in the totality of the historical human event, Jesus as "the son of god" is a rebellious stand against Caesar, "the son of god"; the former embodies a god who SUBLIMES the individual, the later SUBSUMES the individual for himself. Jesus, from his deep connection to life, argued that the true nature of life can't be embodied by exploitation. Those who thought otherwise, killed him off.

    So a constant that I see, is that there is a humanity that connects to life, and experiences its evolutionary impulse; the constant fire. On the other hand their exists a humanity that alienates itself from life in order to exploit it for their own engrandizing; this is the humanity who will fight against reshaping social structures that work for them but not for their society at large- or the global climate.

    It's two thousand years later, and the decision between the way into life embodied by Tiberius the Caesar vs. the way into life embodied by Jesus, the peasant, is even more paramount to us today then it was to us back then.

    I'm angered as I watch the Christian Right; by making Jesus into a religious fetish, they domesticate the power he embodied, and having neutralized it, they can comfortably embody the way of Caesar.

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