My God: It's Evolution!

I never thought it would happen to me, but I’ve had a divine revelation, of sorts. Have you heard the good news?

While being brought up in a Methodist church, and educated for 8 years in Catholic schools (where I went to mass five days a week for the first three years), I abandoned Christianity midway through high school—tentatively traversing an agnostic phase on my way to calling myself an atheist. Now I eat babies and make my clothing out of puppy skins. Just kidding: I am playing off childish myths about atheists, though I now recognize how completely ludicrous and backwards this perception is. Atheists actually eat puppies and use baby skin for clothing. Ah—I can’t stop kidding around.

I’ll skip over all the physics training, astrophysics exposure, outdoor experiences, etc. that contributed to my worldview. Suffice it to say that I found no shortage of phenomena in the world worthy of awe and appreciation. It was all the more amazing to reflect on the simple origins of everything and the emergence of astounding complexity—especially in the spectacle of life. To me, the idea that our biodiverse world rests on a relatively simple set of physical laws makes the outcome FAR more interesting and dazzling than does the comparatively unimaginative invocation of a sentient creator.

The revelation at hand did not arrive all at once. An initial grounding is partly contained in the reading journey I laid out some while back. Most importantly, the writings of Daniel Quinn (who lived for a time in a monastery aiming to be a hard-core Trappist monk) played a major role—recently reinforced by Alex Leff’s excellent podcast treatment of Ishmael. The revelation finally matured in the context of my post from last week on free will, and the illuminating responses it generated.

Ishmael’s Gods

Despite my godless orientation, I really loved the metaphorical framing of the Law of Life in Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael as living in the hands of the gods. In this context, plants and animals do not dictate their destinies: they are not themselves gods. The way Ishmael (the gorilla sage) portrays it, the gods aim for balance within the community of life. Sparing the quail from the teeth of the fox is good for the quail and bad for the hungry fox. But sparing the quail is also bad for the grasshopper that is eaten by the quail—yet good for the grass that was about to be munched by the grasshopper.

The gods recognize that one creature’s gain is often (but not always) another’s loss, and that perpetual win-win situations are not possible to contrive: good for one is often “evil” for another. It’s a tough job, being a god.

In the story, the gods debate the best action to take, quickly reaching an impasse in arbitrating who gets stuck with the evil outcome. It is at this juncture that they turn to the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, to eat of its fruit and gain the requisite wisdom to make decisions about who shall live and who shall die. The goal of the enlightened gods becomes achieving long-term balance so that no one form of life is systematically favored or penalized. The plants and animals under their care accept that things will sometimes go their way, but not always. The fox may not catch the quail today, but there’s always tomorrow. The plants and animals live in the hands of the gods, who support a diversity of populations in rough balance. Everyone plays by the same rules to the best of their own capabilities: no favorites.

In this telling, real trouble starts when the first humans—Adam and Eve, who heretofore had been content to live in the hands of the gods—defy a commandment and themselves eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. What they fail to realize is that the fruit only works for gods, not humans. The plot twist is that they think the fruit works for them as well, and assume they now have the knowledge of good and evil. They begin acting like gods: deciding which plants and animals live and die to suit their agricultural aims in exile from the Garden of Eden. But they lack the wisdom to actually do this fairly, misconstruing “fair” as “always in our favor.” Does this behavior sound familiar?

Our Gods

So, where are these gods, and how do they work? What phenomenon in nature acts to achieve approximate long-term balance? Why, evolution, of course! Positive feedbacks in either direction (whether decreasing or increasing) are unstable, runaway phenomena that cannot persist. Things that cannot persist are pruned out of the tree of life. The only way to exist within the community of life for durations relevant to evolution is to operate in reciprocity with the rest of it. If the quail always got the grasshopper, then grasshoppers go bye-bye, and probably the quail too, to the extent that they depend on grasshoppers. Thus, it’s not even good for the quail to always get its way!

By the simple fact that the mechanism of evolution selects organisms and relationships with staying power, we might say that evolution IS the wisdom of the gods—balancing good and evil. We (the community of life) don’t need sentient control. We don’t need divine agency. We just need matter, dependable relationships (physics), and the simplest life form to operate within this space subject to slow, random mutation, judged on success or failure based on how it interacts with its environment and eventually with other life. We got to become humans by living in the hands of the gods for millions of years, evolving by the Law of Life. Trying to live by new, self-invented rules is very risky, not time-tested, and nearly certain to fail.

Free Won’t

Last week I posted a piece on free will. Reactions were not particularly surprising, yet still revealing. Some people cannot bear to contemplate life without free will. For them, the resulting world becomes nonsensical, topsy-turvy, and chaotic—and perhaps pointless.  It’s akin to abandonment by the gods who keep the wheels on the cart and the Earth in its orbit.

This reaction is easier to understand under the flawed—but subconscious—model that we are our own gods. The illusion of free will replaces—or in some cases is allied with—belief in god. It becomes scary to consider what would happen in the absence of this imaginary agent of control: people would become irresponsible homicidal maniacs, if they no longer need to account for their actions. Furthermore, without free will, the outcome of the entire universe becomes deterministic and inevitable, so why make any effort at all? Even those who make no room for anything other than material beings that are entirely subject to the laws of physics—and nothing else—find some way to insert free will (pixie dust?) into the mix, while denying the oddness that whatever this agent is somehow has the power to override physics/determinism. For these folks, a world without free will is unthinkable absurdity, beyond the boundaries of their mental cosmology.

When it comes to belief in free will and/or god, a frequent question begins: “How else would you explain…” Hint: the correct answer might not be the one that seems obvious to you—the first thing that pops into your head.  The universe is under no obligation to operate via easily-explained—or even human-graspable—mechanisms. Emergent complexity does not automatically disqualify a concept from being true. So, the challenge is often an unreasonable, hubristic one, intoning: “I will not accept as truth anything that: A) can’t be explained succinctly, and B) that doesn’t fit in my limited brain.” This is not to say that we can’t try to make sense of it, as I do here.  But we need to acknowledge that our brains are limited.

In my responses to comments, I frequently invoked evolution’s role in shaping behaviors. Human cognition is not a blank-slate free-for-all: evolution has our backs—to a point. Our brains have been wholly shaped by evolution, which includes acceptable social behaviors as a social species. Our reflexive behaviors, gut reactions, and even careful deliberations are all completely and inescapably in the context of this evolution. It would be practically impossible for us to all start behaving as unaccountable murderers of our own species. Our brains would recoil at the prospect. Thanks, evolution, for the guard rails! We wouldn’t still be here without them/you! (Note that soldiers in war get a social pass from their in-group, importantly, and that most emerge damaged and less than eager to relive or continue the practice of killing. The tried-and-true coping mechanism is to demonize the enemy as no longer human.)

I can sort-of understand the disconnect. If your implicit assumption is that we are our own rulers, always telling our bodies what to do, imbued with agency that is something more than a meat-brain obeying physics and looking out for its survival and fitness, free will is all we’ve got keeping us in line. Free will is then, for some, a subconscious substitute for god. It outranks nasty, brutish determinism. Surely, our complex actions and ability to choose between various options signals something bigger—something grander—than a collection of atoms interacting via dumb physics. Well, this isn’t wholly wrong in my view: it’s just that the “something bigger”…the missing piece…is evolution. Don’t underestimate its “omnipotence.”

Evolution as God

Evolution at the human (vs. bacterial) scale takes a very long time. We’re talking hundreds of thousands of years, at minimum. But to capture the legacy that humans inherited (countless capabilities from metabolism to cognition) requires far, far longer—stretching to many millions and even billions of years.

I’ll just say it: you have no intuition for what this means. Our fleeting lives are far too short to allow visceral comprehension of such timescales. Sure, we can apply tools to put these long spans in context, but we can’t directly experience or perceive the yawning ocean of past—or future—time.  This is not a movie, or even nature documentary.

As a result, our own experience is very compressed and highly distorted. From our narrow point of view, we each went from a barely-functioning infant—mistakenly imagined to be a blank slate—to a genius in a few short decades. Good on us!  What’s that? We have to count the preceding eons of evolution as part of our development? Well, $#!+—that changes the calculus!

Our mis-impression is that we make ourselves who we are: we are our own masters, in control. That’s not accurate. We can no more decide to format our consciousness into that of a bat than a bat can assume human-level cognition. Just as animals are often born knowing how to live, most human babies raised among their kind can’t be stopped from learning to eat, walk, and talk—and to eventually sing, run, and make more babies. Babies require no taming: they have amazing social skills that start with early smiles. They grow up to become functioning adult humans, independent of culture: never a mental donkey. Nothing outside of evolution has authority over our design plan. We don’t get to shape or dictate what variety of cognitive capacity/style we have by force of will.

In other words, we take for granted the billions of years of preparation that went into making us who we are, wrongly attributing the apparent miracle to more fanciful notions. Our social behavior has always been a part our humanness, stretching much further back to earlier animals. We would not have gotten this far if our collective instinct was to behave monstrously toward each other. Evolution is an unforgiving task-master, whipping up successful organisms by sheer dint of survival. Bad ideas simply don’t last. Maladapted social behaviors don’t survive. Brain designs that operate out of compliance are culled.

In the Ishmael context, the gods gained wisdom after eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Where is the wisdom in evolution, which, after all, knows nothing? It is in deep time. As I said, we cannot fathom such vast tracts of time. Consequently, we cannot fathom the wisdom inherent in a process that plays out in deep time. Dwell on this for a bit: this is the missing piece hiding in plain sight—the central mystery—that even when revealed is nearly impossible to stare down or recognize as special.

How do the gods decide who goes hungry on this day? Whatever works in the long term. The pseudo-equilibrium we find ourselves in only exists because non-compliant processes disqualify themselves from the marathon (ahem: modernity). If the fox is too skillful a hunter relative to the evasion capabilities of the local prey, both the prey and the fox run a serious risk of failure (extinction). The ever-tinkering and patient gods of evolution will land on something sustainable, by construction, discarding mistakes.

So, evolution is our creator—of course. Evolution dictates what our bodies and brains can do, and how they are fashioned and even how we learn and how we react to complex stimuli. We generally know better than to do stupid stuff that will eliminate us from the gene pool. Our decisions may seem like free choice, but evolution is constantly whispering, undetected, literally shaping our every thought. We arrive at decisions that are likely to serve our survival, that of our offspring, our social status, and the health of the social collective upon which we depend. It could not have been any other way, for our species to have lasted hundreds of thousands of years (and much longer, considering inherited traits). Determinism—jolted, of course, by indeterminacy—is effectively harnessed by the design plan, just as a turbulent collection of water molecules bumping off each other by pure physics can be induced to flow through a tube or channel.

I’m reminded of a joke I liked in third grade. Aaron pointed out a fly smugly sitting alone on top of a fresh, steaming cow patty. Jimmy laughed and laughed. Aaron asked: “what’s so funny?” Jimmy said, “Nice try, Mr. Fly, but I know you didn’t make that entire pile!” Just as Newton recognized that he stood on the shoulders of giants, we should recognize that we stand on the unimaginably long history of evolutionary success. Our actions, thoughts, and choices are not truly our own. Don’t be the arrogant fly!

In Evolution We Trust!

If evolution is my new god, what does it mean to worship in this context? Well, luckily evolution is not a vain god, so does not care or even know what I do, because it is not sentient. Nonetheless, I can be in awe of the result. A simple idea pairs with a physical universe to produce this stunning diversity of life, overflowing with amazing tricks! Without possessing any brain (or free will), evolution is the world’s most impressive problem solver, hands-down. It’s not especially elegant: just stubborn, demanding, and patient: the ultimate experimentalist. I respect that.

We should recognize that we are utterly incapable of replicating even the simplest accomplishments of evolution (without any plagiarism). Compared to us—mere crumbs of its making—evolution is omnipotent. We are humble before its feet.

It is not necessary for us to fully comprehend the wisdom embodied in evolution’s products shaped over deep time. We probably just can’t. It’s something of an accident that we can even catch this much of a glimmer. Humility is called for: we have no reason to expect that we will ever master evolution’s holy secrets, or operate with comparable wisdom.

By worshiping evolution, we put ourselves back in the hands of the gods. We accept that we belong to the world, rejecting the modern notion that the world belongs to us, and that we are meant to rule it (a refrain from Ishmael). We place our trust in evolution. It got us this far, in tandem with millions of other species. Deep reverence is warranted.

On the other hand, belief in free will is akin to a direct challenge to the authority of “god”—elevating ourselves to godly status so that we are at the helm and call the shots. The consequences are visible all around us: when we act as the arbiters of good and evil, we do a poor job of it and the community of life suffers to the point of possible collapse. Humility is the antidote for the sin of pride (hubris).

Belief in a mechanistic universe without free will is not to be confused with the unrelated phenomenon I describe as robotic thinking. Quite the opposite, in fact. Such a view requires substantial imagination to break free of the natural (and understandable) left-brain hubristic sensation that we are our own masters. I marvel at the emergent complexity and relationships surrounding me. I do not feel the least bit defeated by the knowledge that I am a pile of atoms. Their arrangement is far from random, crafted by billions of years of relentless trial and error, capable of innumerable impressive feats. So what if physics decides what happens next (with heaps of uncontrollable indeterminacy thrown in)? I don’t know what I’m going to do or what happens next, so my experience cannot possibly feel deterministic or pointless. I’m grateful for the opportunity to play my part, which is apparently pushing for success of the community of life—happily aligned with the emergent aims of my new god. I can take pleasure in a job well done or in doing the “right” thing by fellow humans and the community of life. I don’t need to feel like the exclusive owner or motivating force to value the result. I don’t insist—under threat of tantrum—on being the pilot of the plane that takes me somewhere great.

Being a pile of atoms is only dispiriting if your identity—to your own misfortune—hangs on being more than that: more godly, perhaps. I celebrate the fact that I am no more than “stuff,” as I’m not just any pile of atoms, but a unique one capable of experiencing emotion, enjoyment, love, awe, and all the rest. I get to revel in a marvelous world of other unique creatures. All of this! How can I not worship the result? It’s truly mind-blowing and amazing! Evolution: you’re the best! Praise be unto you!

[Note: next week’s post will be a re-expression of the ideas in this post, but written from scratch for a broader audience. Apologies in advance for rehashed ideas. I hope they complement each other, to some extent.]

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25 thoughts on “My God: It's Evolution!

  1. You've sparked an interest in reading Thomas Berry and the Great Work, and catching Nate Hagens' conversation with Mary Evelyn Tucker. Although Berry and De Chardin had a scientific, evolution-based foundation, I suspect their work may have the flavor of human supremacy. You've moved us along from that.

    Mary Ellen Tucker:

    It's why we made "Journey of the Universe", okay, to be honest, to say that our grandparents didn't know this well. And even our parents; that this is a 13.8 billion year unfolding process, 10 billion years just of galaxies and stars. The web telescope is giving us these amazing images. 4.6 billion years of Earth evolution. One billion years for the first cell. I mean, every sentence there needs unpacking in both the science of it and the awe of it. And that sensibility, I feel, is one, generating sensibility for human energy to be aligned with, work with, to do what Thomas Berry calls The Great Work.

  2. Excellent article, so true about how we can't grasp the timescales.

    "Surely, [our] ability to choose between various options signals something bigger [than] a collection of atoms. Well, this isn’t wholly wrong in my view: it’s just that the “something bigger”…the missing piece…is evolution." Agreed.
    There can only be a physical cause for everything. That does not apply to thoughts, though. My thoughts are not random, they are directed – by me.

    Consciousness is an aspect of nature that is not understood, and hardcore materialists have a big problem with that fact. This stems from a desire to understand, and ultimately to control, all aspects of nature. The irony is, that's the very same mindset you've been railing against in recent posts. The one that brought about industrial civilization and modernity.

    All those indigenous peoples whose wisdom you so admire (Native Americans, Australian Aborigines etc.) came to the conclusions you're slowly reaching now, thousands of years ago. Do you think they're staunch determinists and free will deniers? Somehow, I doubt it – they're not even atheists, for God's sake!

    Some scientist types just can't accept there are things we'll probably never know.
    What caused the 'Big Bang'? How did life originate? Is the universe infinite?
    Relying on a wholly deterministic picture, such questions simply frustrate them.

    How does consciousness arise? How far 'down' does it go? Animals, yes, but plants? In some way, they too must have awareness. Maybe they perceive time on a different scale to us.

    In the reductionist's world, all things (including people) are merely objects in physical space. This leads inevitably to amoral 'game theory', but that's not how people behave in real life.
    Saying we 'should' behave in a more 'moral' way is attempting to have it both ways by 1. implying choice (i.e. free will), and 2. appealing to something outside the reductionist model (i.e. morality itself).

    A point you've failed to address is: without free will no one is responsible for their actions, as everything is already determined.
    But the future is *not* set. Only 'now' exists.

    Our choices may be heavily influenced by evolution – but we are still the ones who make them, in the end.

    • I'll address this point by point, but then end this thread, as it seems unlikely to reach accord (deja vu from last week's exchange).

      Thoughts are part of our physical universe, running on nothing other than physics. No exemptions. Your meat-brain shapes them, yes.

      You misunderstand my point entirely: I see belief in free will as an effort to control/own, which I rail against. I'm trying to remove godly agency from human supremacists and put us back in the world, as intricate components of the whole amazing dance.

      Animist people saw themselves as part of the natural world, not fundamentally different from other animals and even plants, which isn't far from where I'm at. Free will might be too hubristic for Indigenous tastes. Living in the hands of the gods cedes control to more "fated" outcomes.

      As for not knowing everything, you're preaching to the wrong dude, here. Look for: "We probably just can’t" and "or even human-graspable." I expand more on the limits to our knowledge in next week's post (already written). Consistent with many other messages from me: accept limits!

      I am happy to believe that all animals and even plants have awareness. Look for "bio-intelligence" in the post Putting Science in its Place.

      I see morality as arising out of our evolution-shaped brain structures supporting social behavior. The way people behave in real life is as social animals shaped by evolution. Neither free will nor anything outside a material universe are called for.

      Even in a purely physical universe ("deterministic" modulo quantum, etc.), evolution is not prohibited from creating beings that make decisions consistent with social norms. Those decisions have consequences–socially and physically, and the "deciders" pay for their decisions through enforcement of norms or physics. No magic. Responsibility exists even with determinism, because beings that don't have the means (e.g., cognitive) to minimize their chances of suffering bad (even deterministic) consequences in a complex world don't make it to the final round.

      We make decisions, yes, in our very own brains. We can own them in that sense, but have less control over how our neural network processes challenges than the illusion suggests. Reactions are surprisingly predictable.

      In short, I feel systematically misunderstood, here. I suspect my responses will not change that, but maybe others will benefit from the contrasting views.

  3. Excellent, again. I only recoil at some of the ways you describe evolution. This may be my own misunderstanding of evolution so what follows is just an opinion.

    You seem to be trying to turn evolution into something greater than it is. Perhaps as a way to reconcile human belief in a creator god with the physical world? I don't see evolution, powerful though it is, as anything other than random changes filtered by natural selection.

    Though evolution has shaped how every organism acts and behaves, it doesn't have some target goal to achieve. It propagates attributes that give an organism, and so gives the gene at the core of that attribute, more success in reproduction (and in staying alive to procreate).

    Evolution is not acting to create balance. Any organism will consume whatever resources it can access. If the ecosystem is purturbed (e.g. due to disease or a natural disaster), it may allow one organism to dominate, which can lead to overshoot until a new balance is restored in some way. For instance, the reindeer on St Matthew Island weren't a new species of reindeer, they were dumped into a climax ecosystem that now had a new lichen predator which was so successful, it overshot its resource base and died back as a result. But it wasn't evolution that corrected the imbalance, it was finite resources being over-harvested. The same reindeer species still exists and would do the same thing in the same circumstances.

    When you mention that evolution will land on something sustainable, this is only an illusion unless it includes a modifier of time (sustainable over some extended period). Evolution probably only operates when something isn't sustainable. In fact, if an ecosystem reaches a climax state, evolution itself may purturb it, giving one species an extra advantage which then causes other changes to the mix. Although evolution is acting across all life, it is doesn't do so by coordinating mutations across multiple species so I can't think it will even land on something sustainable, which implies no further changes.

    Thanks for these essays, they are most refreshing.

    [PS You have an extra "a" in "into a that of a bat" and a missing "a" in "when reveled"]

    • I agree with your assessments. Indeed, evolution is not a literal entity that has aims, any more than gravity has a goal. But, yes, the idea is to appreciate the emergent complexity as the result of the evolutionary mechanism.

      So, in this light, evolution does not have a goal to create balance, but unbalanced capabilities self-terminate by the harsh rules of selection. In other words, evolution would not be able to create a world of all sharks, and nothing else. Evolution provides the mechanism by which niches are filled (tending toward balance).

      Finally, yes, a time period is required to make a statement of "sustainability," because it is not an equilibrium process–always a slowly moving target.

      [At least I had conservation of "a"]

  4. Just wondering Tom if you've ever read "Thank God for Evolution", by Michael Dowd (PBUH)? It was written before Michael's pivot to post-doom concerns, and I recall seeing a video of him being mildly critical or dismissive of his own book. Nevertheless, I think it's a still a good contribution to ecotheology that might be of interest to you and readers of your fine blog.

    • Thanks for suggesting Michael Dowd's publication, one among many. His thinking evolved to a similar way of thinking about life. The post-doom movement accepts our existential predicament and seeks to prepare people psychoemotionally for dealing with socioecological collapse. As an ecotheist, he represents a philosophical position similar to Tom's–as well as my own.

      • I guess the question arises, what created evolution?

        That said I am of a similar position to you, an ecotheist grateful for the opportunity to experience the community of LIFE with the mystery of evolution at the heart of it ☯️

        • Some things we will never know, and that's okay. We can still embrace them, as it seems you do. To me, asking what created evolution is not far from: who decided one plus one is two. Evolution is almost as basic at heart: successful (in full context) survives, failure does not.

    • I am not familiar with Dowd's work. But now that I check out the postdoom site, I see much of value, worth checking out. I now realize that I had come across an audio recording of his some time ago: he appears to have accumulated a large body of audio recordings of his reading pertinent material from various authors.

  5. Thanks, Tom, for explaining your concept of evolution as the prime factor accounting for all that exists. I've come to a similar conclusion in the last few years, and greatly appreciate your well educated and deliberated concepts, which you share with a balance of evidence-based information and humor. I, too, was raised a Methodist. I was lucky to attend a large southern-city church that was rather low-key on evangelism but high on social justice. I have since evolved to embrace a philosophical tradition that may have begun with Lucretius (On the Nature of Things) and more recently world-views like pantheism that focus more on nature and natural processes, i.e., evolutionary processes. As animals, we humans are simply one species in the evolving web of life. I truly appreciate your writings. Thanks!

  6. Another excellent essay, Tom. I also like the way you deal with contrary replies: clearly and briefly.

    I agree that plants and other life forms must sense externalities and respond to them in the process of living. How else could they maneuver the keep energy inflows? Whether or not that constitutes "awareness' depends on definition in my view. If they are on auto-pilot without grasping that they are adapting, then maybe they aren't aware. Consciousness and self-consciousness are further iterations of this.

    You might enjoy _The Spirit in the Gene_ by Reg Morrison, Foreword by Lynn Margulis (microbiologist and co-developer of gaia Theory) review:

    It ties together evolution and mysticism (religions) with the latter being selected when social cohesion, courage enhancement, and teamwork were critical for the survival of our ancient ancestors.

    You are likely familiar with Jerry Coyne's work on his blog Why Evolution is True. We atheists are estimated to be fewer than 20% of the current 8.1B, and I call myself a mutant. 😉 Perhaps deselection will work on the majority with unrealistic expectations if those beliefs are becoming maladaptive…an Achilles Heel.

    • Of course lifeforms are aware. We are not zombies.
      The problem of consciousness has not been solved, much to the chagrin of hardcore materialists.
      It's uncontroversial to say consciousness seems to arise from the physical world. How is unknown, at this point.

      As for atheism, it's another form of faith. The only logically sound position to take on the existence or otherwise of God is: 'I do not know'.
      Anything else is assuming knowledge you can't possibly have.

      The thing becomming maladaptive is intelligence itself. That's what built industrial civilization, which is now destroying the substrate we exist on.

  7. Have you read Kevin Mitchell's "Free Agents"? I'm almost all the way through it. He argues that free will is a result partly in how noisy the signals are in our nervous system. The different amounts of noise in various parts of the brain create free will, among other things, and evolution determined how much noise there is in any circuit. Too much or too little and the organism is in trouble, to the tendency is to survive be creating just the best noise environments over generations. Steve Kurtz, comment above, might pass on my review of the book when I finish it in the next few days.

  8. Excellent essay. Makes a lot of sense to a "Darwinian Buddhist" like me. Everything we experience is the product of vast, unfathomable, impersonal causal processes. Evolution, as you say, is the "Deep Time" dimension; then there's a "historical" dimension (e.g., where did this toxic individualism so rampant in our society come from?), and, for each of us, a personal-formation dimension (our own particular family & community histories.) Best we can do is to understand small pieces of it (e.g., "why do I have this tendency to get so angry over trivia?") and develop practices to help me and others suffer less. Thanks for your work; always seems to make a lot of sense to me.

  9. You said: "I see morality as arising out of our evolution-shaped brain structures supporting social behavior."

    Exactly! And because morality requires the existence of agency (free will), humans will always "believe in", that is act as if they have, free will.

    For me, one puzzle about evolution is whether it always exists where there is an energy gradient or only where living things exist in an energy gradient. This also brings up the question as to whether there is any real difference between living things and non-living things. Is this just an artifact of human language or is there something that distinquishes living matter from the rest of the universe? Everything is just matter and energy after all. How can the molecules that make up something alive be different from those same molecules in something that's not?

    • The difference is that living matter is alive. Tautological, I know. To the best of my knowledge, the distinction arises between collections of (otherwise inanimate) matter that acquire the functionality necessary to generate copies of themselves. I have not (yet) seen a rock (except, perhaps, one running downhill) collect the material necessary to make an exact (or even an inexact) copy of itself.

  10. Regarding life in "the hands of the gods":

    A problem (for the individual) arises at the moment when "our" survival as a species conflicts with "our" survival as an individual. Species that are not self-aware are free from the need, at some critical moment, to decide to sacrifice (or not) their individual life for the good of their family, tribe, species.

    The fox that does not catch the quail today, and again tomorrow, and again the day after that, does not sit in his den thinking about how unfair it all is: After all he (the fox) is just as deserving of survival as that damn quail, so shouldn't there be something…someone…who makes sure that I (me!) am not the one who dies of starvation, just so that my brothers (who, after all, are the same age as me, and come from the same mother) don't have to???

  11. Imagine an instance where you made a difficult and important decision, where you had previously wrestled with strongly conflicting feelings and values. If time could be repeatedly reset to just prior to the point where you made your decision, so that the decision could be replayed over and over again, is it possible that you could ever choose differently on any replaying, despite the fact the precursor circumstances–including within your own mind–are utterly identical? If there is no possibility you could ever choose differently, given the precursor circumstances, then how is that to be distinguished from absolute determinism? If it is possible you could choose differently, despite the identical circumstances, then how is that to be distinguished from the interjection of a purely random factor? Or is there a third option besides "choosing differently is impossible" and "choosing differently is possible"?

    • Presumably, the entire universe at the moment of reset is the same every time, including every atom and state of motion/energy, including in your brain. Then, I think the machine has no choice but to execute the same decision, except allowing the possibility for different outcomes of quantum superposition states, according to some probability distribution (breaking absolute determinism through what we call indeterminacy). So, that's sort-of in between, although I'm not sure it's valid if every physical condition is exactly reset, which might enforce the same quantum outcomes based on all the entanglements. In either case, it's physics operating beyond anyone's control–i.e., no free will to override the physics rules. That's my take, anyhow.

      • Is any element of indeterminacy distinguishable from randomness? I guess I'm not seeing how this would be an in-between option between absolute determinacy, and determinacy combined with some fraction of randomness.

        But yes, the logical next question would be what does "free will" even mean when your choices are either absolutely determined, or can sometimes be flipped by uncaused, uncontrolled, randomness? Maybe the problem with figuring out how "free will" fits into the big picture is that the term itself has no coherent meaning.

        • I wasn't sure if your "purely random factor" might allow for some override agent (free will), but it seems that's not where you were coming from. The world appears to operate on "determinacy combined with some fraction of randomness." Our experience feels undetermined: the randomness alone kills perfect predictability. But even without that we can't crunch the numbers to trace out future outcomes, even if the rules are known.

          Free will may indeed be a useless concept (see James R. Martin's comment on the Resilience re-post of this article). That's why I like the question: free of what? Physics? The comment referred to here also addresses the conflation of free will with agency and volition. I've said all along that we can process how to navigate choices available to us, which feels like "freedom." That's what brains are for: evaluating options and making choices that have (in the long term) adaptive advantage. It's all shaped by evolution and every physical interaction/input in a marvelously sophisticated and amazing way, defying understanding of our brains that were not shaped by a need to understand such things.

          • Even in the case of an utterly deterministic universe, I'm not sure that would assure that perfect predictability was possible Say, for example you are given a choice between a red box and a blue box, and whichever box you choose, you get to keep the contents of that box, and you are assured you will like the contents of either box. But as a bonus, you will also receive $1000 if you choose the box other than the one which it has been predicted you will choose. And the prediction will come from a prediction engine with perfect knowledge of all the factors which feed into your decision. But suppose to aid you in your decision, you will be told in advance which box the engine has predicted you will choose. Would the prediction engine be able to render a prediction in that scenario–where the very act of making the prediction serves to defeat the prediction?

  12. Thanks for this essay – "Evolving" would be my choice of a single word to describe the universe, perhaps "fractal" a close second. Just an uncountable number of chaotic interactions across a universe of particles and energies that we (crudely?) approximate using "the laws of physics". "Laws" which are societal artifacts subject to evolutionary pressures like everything else from biological organisms to societies, to ideas, to atoms, to galaxies – all co-evolving to the future: what works, happens – and vice-versa.

    Reminds me of Octavia Butler's Earthseed tenet in "The Parable of the Sower":
    "All that you touch, you change. All that you change, changes you. The only lasting truth is change. God is Change."
    Sad that a novel about a dystopian near-present with such prescient concepts ends with interplanetary colonization.

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