Sunday, September 13, 2009

A world for mind

Well, I finished the De Waal book, but I still haven’t been able to get back to the morality thing – I’m not too good at week-spanning posts, I guess. So I’m rehashing something else from my journal, somewhat rewritten for your benefit. If you’re out there...

Any world in which a mind could evolve by natural selection must have at least three characteristics: it must have stuff in it, the stuff must be lumpy, and the lumpiness must be orderly. “Stuff” is obvious – a world without anything in it would be no world worthy of the name. “Lumpiness” is the quality by which mind can make distinctions. (Plato proved in the Parmenides – if I can trust Cornford’s wonderful interpretation – that perfectly homogeneous stuff is indistinguishable from nothing at all.)

“Order” is that quality whereby mind can create useful rules about stuff. This is important, because making rules is what makes a mind useful, and usefulness is what makes natural selection preserve it. A mind could perhaps arise by chance in a chaotic world, but since there would be nothing for it to make rules about – nothing could be generalized – it would have no predictive ability, it could not enhance the reproductive success, or even the life experience, of the organism. It would be no good at all.

I don’t know how many specific conditions on the nature of stuff and its organization (order) are required to have a sufficient (as well as necessary) set of conditions for the evolution of some sort of mind. I suspect fewer than most people might think. I think we must make some sort of posit regarding the interaction of stuff, e.g., that inferences about important qualities of stuff (as they affect the organism) can more accurately made with information about proximate conditions than distant ones. Alternatively, this might serve as a definition of “proximate” and “distant”. The spacio-temporal variation of stuff must be such that most of the time predictions based on experience don’t become invalid before the organism has a chance to benefit from them. (“Experience” could here be defined as one particular set of interactions with proximate conditions.)

What is needed for natural selection is a world in which some lumps of stuff can interact with other lumps in such a way as to create near-perfect replicas of themselves. Self replication amidst random generation of other things and random destruction of all things leads to an increasing population of self-replicators. Changes (mutations) that enhance the efficiency of self replication increase the rate of population growth. Harsh circumstances or competition with other self-replicators may enhance the importance of some useful mutations, causing some forms of self-replicators to die out, while other populations continue to increase – et voila! Natural selection.

Mind (following Dewey) is obviously adaptive, at least for motile self-replicators, who actively seek to influence, and therefore must have some ability to predict, the spacio-temporal distribution of stuff in their environment. So given the above conditions, and perhaps a few more I haven’t thought of, it seems to me that mind has a fighting chance to evolve.

The whole point of this exercise (which principles of good writing might have had me put at the beginning of the post, and not near the end – but I’m feeling contrary, today) is to address the supposed mystery of how, of all the possible universes that might have existed, did it come to pass that the actual universe (assuming there is only one) is one in which such apparently frail things as humans and human intelligence could survive and prosper? The supposed intransigence of this question is apparently of great comfort to theists, who supply their own preferred answer.

Now God, of course, is really no answer at all (why, of all of the possible gods, did we get one who would decide to create a universe in which...? etc.), and the supposed statistical improbability is really irrelevant (if we didn’t have a universe in which mind could evolve, we wouldn’t be here to comment on it – the probability of an event that is known to have happened is 100%). But all that aside, I just don’t think that evolution of mind is all that hard to credit. A world without stuff in it, and lumpy stuff, at that, would be something we hardly could accept as being a world (or universe) at all. In a purely chaotic world, anything at all could be, but nothing at all would last, so no mind, but there’s no particular reason to believe that pure chaos is anymore “likely” than a world with SOME sort of order. And in a world with any kind of order, it seems that some sort of experience could be derived from interactions among “proximate” lumps of stuff, which would have at least limited utility in making predictions about further experience. So all that is necessary is for some lumps of stuff to have qualities that allow them to self replicate.

Okay, I’ve probably missed a few practical requirements (at least). And certainly the whole state of affairs is marvelous and wonderful (two words which are perhaps literally synonymous). But if a “miracle” is some occurrence that we just can’t rationally explain, then, folks, I just don’t see the existence of a world with mind in it as a thing miraculous.

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