Evolution of Reality

I enjoy and recommend Robert Wright’s Nonzero Newsletter, which presents thought on both American politics and thought itself.

Tiny green plants on red tile roof, cloudy day

In a 2017 post of this blog, I quoted Wright’s 1988 article in The Atlantic Monthly about Edward Fredkin. Somewhat differently from Fredkin, I spelled out my title, “What Philosophy Is,” without actually being a professional philosopher. I touched on a theme that I shall take up now: that thinkers today could benefit from knowing the thought of R. G. Collingwood.

In Wright’s newsletter this week, the thought that is thought about is more precisely thought about “reality.” The person thinking about it (besides Wright and interested readers) is billed as a “cognitive scientist.”

Stone house lit by sun, bare trees in front

I would say I too am a cognitive scientist, just for being a logician. Every science aims to produce cognition that is satisfactory on its own terms; thus a science of cognition will be neither purely descriptive, nor normative in the sense of imposing standards from outside. A science of cognition as such will be criteriological, in the sense of Collingwood, which I have discussed in “A New Kind of Science.” Logic is the traditional name for the study of theoretical cognition; the study of practical cognition is ethics.

So I say, as somebody who began pondering Collingwood’s voluminous œuvre more than thirty years ago, albeit with little attention to the more recent thinkers now called analytic philosophers. As far as I can tell, a proper reading of Collingwood could straighten them out. They may respond that I lack their training and knowledge; but how will they know this matters, if they have not read Collingwood for themselves?

Two figures assembled from gnarled wood

This week, as far as I understand from Wright’s interview with him, cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman accepts a syllogism that I formulate as follows.

  1. (See below.)

  2. What evolution favors is not our perception of reality as such (called “reality as it is,” “objective reality,” “actual reality”), but whatever traits we may have that

    • are determined by genes,

    • promote the propagation of those very genes.

  3. Therefore, as evolved beings, we cannot expect to grasp reality as such.

This makes a certain sense, but prompts the question: What did we think reality was in the first place, before our study of evolution straightened us out? Beyond this, there is the missing major premiss: Evolution itself is real. How do we know?

Here is some of what Hoffman thinks, in his own words from Wright’s interview:

I’m happy to contemplate the idea that the notion of causality itself is not a fiction, but that the specific causality that we all know and love—namely that [of] a physical object like a billiard ball hitting another billiard ball and making it move—that that’s genuine causality, that I think we will have to give up.

So when the white ball hits the eight ball into the corner pocket, we can say that the cue ball caused the eight ball to move, and for practical purposes, that’s fine. It’s a useful fiction. But strictly speaking, it’s a fiction.

Of course it’s a fiction that the cue ball causes the eight ball to move. It is we who cause the latter to move, by means of the former. We are the agent, and a cause needs an agent. In speech and thought, we may find it convenient to transfer our agency to the cue ball (though here I speak theoretically, not actually having spent much time with billiards). I imagine anybody would agree that this transference is, in Hoffman’s term, a fiction.

Archway of brick and stone

So I imagine; but then I see in the world a lot of (what I think is) confusion about causation. I have tried to address this in my post “On Causation,” which is based on an article by Collingwood that ended up in his Essay on Metaphysics (1940) as an example of how to do metaphysics.

The post mentions Collingwood’s argument that our notion of causation in the natural world is a remnant of Neoplatonism. Our notion of evolution might be explained in similar terms. In any case, it is a fiction that evolution “favors” anything. According to Hoffman again,

the assumption in the field has been that the perceptual strategies that will actually be favored by that kind of natural selection are perceptual strategies that see reality as it is. Not exhaustively—very, very few people would claim that we see all of reality as it is—but that those aspects of the world that we do see, we do see accurately; and we see the ones that we need to survive and reproduce.

Hoffman takes issue with the particular assumption discussed. I take issue with the assumption that any kind of “perceptual strategy” can be “favored” by an abstraction called “natural selection.” This assumption is anthropomorphism.

Passage downhill between green roof and hammam dome, tower in distance

Perhaps it is inevitable. As Collingwood says,

We cannot help thinking anthropomorphically; but we are provided with a remedy: our own laughter at the ridiculous figure we cut, incorrigibly anthropomorphic thinkers inhabiting a world where anthropomorphic thinking is a misfit.

That’s paragraph 14. 61 of the New Leviathan (1942), alluded to in my post about the “Reason” chapter, but actually quoted in the post about Chapter XVIII, “Theoretical Reason.” Collingwood’s theme is that the science we do—our study of the world—will reflect how we think about one another and ourselves. He concludes Chapter XVIII with paragraph 18. 92:

It is in the world of history, not in the world of Nature, that man finds the central problems he has to solve. For twentieth-century thought the problems of history are the central problems: those of Nature, however interesting they may be, are only peripheral.

Collingwood may be justified here, writing as he is in response to a war that is said to have arisen from problems not resolved by an earlier war. No historical problems are ever permanently resolved, and it is dangerous to think they are, as he writes in Chapter XXVI, “Democracy and Aristocracy.” Victory over the Nazis did not eradicate fascism, as unfortunately we are seeing now. I think this is a reason why part of the Nonzero Newsletter is called “Mindful Resistance.” It is a reason why I have found the New Leviathan worth studying. The last book that Collingwood saw to press is itself an instance of mindful resistance.


The photographs above are from the Nesin Mathematics Village, during the two winter weeks of January 27 and February 3, 2020, when I taught courses on the ordinal numbers. I took the photos with my feature phone, mentioned in “Computer Recovery” as an alternative means of web access to the laptop I have used to compose the present post. I took the photos on February 7 and 9; I included three similar photos from the former, cloudy, day in a tweet. I also have a dedicated camera, which would have taken better photos, had I brought it with me.

One Comment

  1. Posted February 20, 2020 at 1:27 am | Permalink | Reply

    I agree about Wright & his Mindful Resistance Newsletter: a useful, thoughtful resource.

One Trackback

  1. By Salvation « Polytropy on February 24, 2020 at 7:06 am

    […] « Evolution of Reality […]

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