My thinking right now begins with the idea my brain (and yours, too) has an approximation of reality digitally represented within its physical existence. It all hinges on two things. The first is the notion that there is such a thing as absolute truth, if you take it to mean that there is a consistency to things, an immutable quality (or multitude of qualities) that permeates the perceivable universe. The second is the idea that our neurons are malleable enough to gather information about the world and code it into some sort of usable storage. Both are utterly defensible. In simple terms, our little neurons work together to construct a complex model of the perceivable universe, which is knowable and constant. What got me down this path is thinking that there was no fortune, evolutionarily-speaking, for the flawed mental model, but only to a point. After that, the flawed model may be the key to happiness. (And the little annoying tap on the shoulder.)
I suppose the evolutionary background for this is the idea that starting back in ancestral time and moving forward, those individuals who had the most “realistic” neural models of reality stood a better chance of surviving than those whose models were, shall we say, deficient. Perhaps the bad models were overly general, classifying all berries as edible, thus resulting in the demise of their purveyors. Or maybe they were overly specific in their grouping of entities; they could not generalize that a large, agile cat, though it might not have stripes, might be dangerous. The genes that made these inferior mental models were, so it would seem, stopped dead in their tracks. Literally.
But it goes further than that. Evolution is about escalation. It’s safe to assume that the totally inferior models would have fallen away early in the mental evolutionary process. But there would still have been the matter of scarce resources, which lead directly to competition. That is to say, once the simple things killed off the stupid people, there was still a competition for limited resources. And, once again, the accuracy of the neural model would have been the chief arbiter of survival.
The basic details of reality would, at that point (some theoretical space in time), have been fairly consistent among the existing humans. Most everyone would share a similar mental model for the difference between poisionous berries and edible berries (or at least the notion that there are different types), or the similarity between tigers and lions. But more complex aspects of reality, such as the tendency of humans to deceive one another, especially in certain situations, might not be shared. And those types of differences would have to have been heavily influential on the genetic makeup of the populations that followed. Basically, the suckers didn’t make it.
And here we are. It seems clear that our mental models are now the result of genetic predispositions in the hands of significant cultural influences. Who knows when the shift from primarily genetically-influenced minds to minds built by genetics mixed with culture happened. All we know is that, now, nature and nurture are heavy-duty bedfellows. The notion of a human mental model of reality is greatly affected by this.
I’d venture to say that most humans, at least western humans, share a very complex mental model of reality, some of which is genetic, and some of which is cultural. However, there are also vast differences, and many of them are completely fabricated, and most (if not all) of those are cultural. In fact, the point of this wandering is to say that we are now, and probably have been for quite a while, living in a time when the direction of our shared mental model is straying markedly away from reality. Our culture is driving, and it cares not where absolute truth wants to go.
It’s not that we’re straying purposefully. It’s just that some aspects of reality have actually been changed. For example, for most of man’s existence, it has been an axiom that if you didn’t take steps to provide for your own food, you were going to starve to death. Nowadays, in some places (most western cities), you can do just about nothing, and you’ll never starve. That’s a big change to the basic mental model of reality that has existed in the minds of humans for millennia. And when an axiom of reality shifts, it isn’t nuts to suppose that lots of them have shifted. This is how we get to fantasy land.
It’s been a looong time since little differences in our mental models have had any significant impact on our survivability. The creation of institutions (both government and economic) pretty much gutted that risk factor – by shifting reality in some areas and promising to shift reality in other areas. As long as we don’t die, there are really no consequences for believing erroneous things, such as that the minimum wage helps poor people, or that Allah demands the annihilation of the west. We’re able to disconnect from reality more and more as our institutions grow in their influence upon our everyday lives. And we would have it no other way. Indeed, this could very well be part of the force behind our tendency to cling to institutions. (The other being the need for concurrence, but I don’t want to digress.)
Our minds, being good at building models, which ultimately are nothing more than categories (and all of the characteristics that describe them) filled with definitions of specific entities, are masters of abstraction. They assimilate disparate ideas into concepts that define their relationship, and then use the new concepts as disparate ideas to be included in still broader terms. When you get high enough on the abstraction ladder, you are creating reality. You’re imagining ideas that may or may not be true, and you have no practical means to tell the difference. And so long as these ideas don’t fail you (i.e. nothing contrary to the concepts happens to you), you have no reason to suspect their inaccuracy. So your mind constructs a fantasy. The question is whether this is a good thing or a bad thing.
Whenever I travel to third-world countries, I’m always reminded of how far my fantastic version of reality can venture from the real thing. Actually, maybe it’s better to say that my flimsy version of reality – the one that holds up most of the time but could fall at any moment – is a far cry from the more sturdy version of reality that I see when I travel. But no matter how much “perspective” I may gain from my forays into the land of bare necessities, I’m always glad to pull into my driveway, the perfectly smooth concrete driveway in my fantasy land where food, health, shelter, and lifelong companionship are a given. And not the basics – the high end stuff. It’s a given, all of it. I’m happy to excuse thoughts of mortality and deprivation as mere glimpses into a reality that I don’t experience. Indeed, I have to. We all do.
I met an old American Indian guy this past weekend who has a little village set up as a tourist attraction. While my two-year old son was running wild from tee-pee to tee-pee, this old guy was telling my wife and I how his ancestors lived off the land. He showed us all the things they made from the animals they hunted. Story after story of ingenuity and independence. I finally commented that the Indians must have been really tough folks to have lived like they did. He came back with a fitting closing to this post. He said, “To be us now and look back to their life, yeah it looks tough. But to them, not knowing what we know now, life was easy. Easier than it is now. The earth provided everything they needed, and they spent their time on the good things – enjoying the life they were gi
I’m not advocating some dumbass “get back to nature” lifestyle. That’s nothing more than placing bets on the cards you wish you had instead of the cards in your hand. I’m just saying that it’s useful to recognize that our version of reality, though it may be durable, is likely to be something entirely different from what reality is (and always has been) for most humans. Considering the possibility that something like a Hurricane Katrina or a 9-11 could come along and re-introduce us to man’s most experienced reality, it’s not a bad idea to spend a little time pondering what to do if the fantasy fails. This is not sky is falling kind of stuff; just a little light contingency planning.