What if Evolution had Produced an Unintelligible World?

In Chapter 2 of Thomas Nagel’s book, Mind and Cosmos, the author explores more deeply the reasons why materialist reductionism is necessary for science and why mind cannot be explained by such a reductionist approach.  One important observation is that we believe that the world is intelligible:

“Science is driven by the assumption that the world is intelligible. That is, the world in which we find ourselves, and about which experience gives us some information, can be not only described but understood. That assumption is behind every pursuit of knowledge, including pursuits that end in illusion. In the natural sciences as they have developed since the seventeenth century, the assumption of intelligibility has led to extraordinary discoveries, confirmed by prediction and experiment, of a hidden natural order that cannot be observed by human perception alone. Without the assumption of an intelligible underlying order, which long antedates the scientific revolution, those discoveries could not have been made.”

On the one hand, I can hear the Darwinian materialist answer that evolution could not have done otherwise since we have evolved to be successful in the existing world.  Of course we understand the world!  Our survival depends on it!  However, this response only provides a partial answer.

Clearly, we are dependent on biological adaptation to the physical world.  All of our physical movements in the world depend on an intuitive understanding of the physical laws that govern such activity.  We could not long survive without intuitively grasping the law of gravity.  One could even argue that our direct experience with electricity and with radiation have come so recently that we have not yet had time to evolve an intuitive understanding of these forces.

Yet, it is difficult to see why evolution would need to respond to the electromagnetic force or the nuclear force by making them comprehensible, since direct experience with these forces is rare.  Why wouldn’t evolution respond to electricity and radiation by providing either immunity or an avoidance reaction?   So the question raised by Nagel boils down to why have we been so successful in understanding such non-intuitive phenomenon as electromagnetism and nuclear energy?

Our success at understanding non-intuitive scientific principles is even more remarkable when we consider how our minds are wired.  From my viewpoint as a computer programmer, the human brain works in a very inefficient manner.  We don’t simply compute responses to input stimuli as one might expect.  The mind is actually continuously generating expected results and comparing the expected results to observed activity and our attention is drawn to areas where the expected results do not match reality so we can make quick adjustments.

Our minds are wired to be generators of outcomes based on intuitive narratives that we have learned from experience.  This is why professional tennis players and baseball players can hit a ball that is travelling faster than we can consciously follow.  Professional players have learned to see clues about the physical dynamics of play that they have learned from experience and sometimes cannot even consciously explain.

In fact, our need for a narrative to generate expected outcomes is so great that it doesn’t much matter how good the narrative is as long as it does better than random chance.  That is why superstition can sometimes have such a strong grip on our outlook if we have had experiences that have confirmed those superstitions.  The same can be said about political and social beliefs.  The simple narrative always has an advantage over the more complex narrative because it is easier to use based on the way that our minds are wired.

So we are not naturally predisposed to understanding complex and abstract subjects like electromagnetism.  Yet we seem driven to explain the physical world even if we do not need such explanations for individual survival.  One could say this is about group power, but it seems to me that curiosity precedes the desire for prestige and power.  Time after time the satisfaction of curiosity is the only reward.  Few persons make the important discoveries that pay off in terms of power and prestige.

Nagel thinks this character of intelligibility leads to an important conclusion.  Since we have evolved to find the world intelligible, and we, ourselves, are part of the world, then we must be able to understand ourselves.  We are certainly driven to try.  I am still waiting for a clear answer.

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5 thoughts on “What if Evolution had Produced an Unintelligible World?

  1. It appears to me that your discourse is itself reductionist; e. g. you use the term “mind” to describe brain function as analogous to a computer. Mind, or consciousness, may not be internal, nor is it necessarily a product of evolution. Consciousness may be an external phenomenon; it might even be cosmic. 200 years of science based on Decartes axiom of self-awareness might be wrong.
    As to our understanding of the world contributing to our survival, we certainly cannot sustain 10 billion people on this planet indefinitely. Nor are the consumptive appetites of Western “civilization” in any way sustainable, whether we understand electromagnetism, nuclear energy, or internal combustion.

    • Good observation! I generally follow a reductionist approach, but I favor changes to the most fundamental level of physics so that “mind”, cosmic or otherwise, can be introduced without destroying the entire approach to science. With this approach, the fundamental particles become representatives of a decision process and can be characterized more as mental than material.

      • So, is “mind” brain function? Is consciousness an internal process, or is it cosmic? Consider Chomsky’s augment for a “speech organ” in the brain. We now know more about the structure of the brain, and that various parts of the brain interact to produce speech.

      • I am not familiar with Chomsky’s argument regarding speech, but studies of brain-injured patients has demonstrated that individual mental experiences are strongly affected by individual biology. The common way that our individual brains are wired certainly indicates a guiding ordering principle whether one attributes that ordering principle to evolution, to God, or to some combination of the two.

        I think the clearest thing that can be demonstrated concerning “cosmic mind” is the presence of a cosmic ordering power inherent in the laws of physics. Whether that is evidence for “cosmic mind” will depend on individual beliefs, to which I am sympathetic. However, there also appears to be a deep mystery in the delicate balance between individual consciousness and universal consciousness and it is not clear to me how much any one person can know about the universal aspects of consciousness.

        If one takes the discipline of mathematics as an example, there seems to be within the mathematics community standards of proof that cannot be attributed to strict logical inference alone — Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem, for example. This could imply that there are aspects of community discipline that are based on principles of universal consciousness. Again, it is not clear to me how much can be demonstrated objectively versus simply accepting the judgment of the community based on trust in their underlying discipline.

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