Friday 1 January 2016

The example of 'evolution' as an illustration of imagination (via meditation) as the final arbiter in science

As mentioned in the previous post, I have been working for some months on a concept of group selection using complex systems theory - and got to the point where the idea was complete, and the paper was about 85% done.

But then I got stuck, because as I got the idea clearer... there was something that felt wrong.


The way this proceeded was that the core of the paper was a concept of the network of communications among a human group became a cognitive entity ('group brain') capable of thought; and this would them impose upon the individuals of that group in order to shape behaviour - including naturally selecting among them, genetically.

I needed to get this clearer in my mind, by visualisation and by analogy - in other words, I needed to be able to imagine it. And to imagine it required what could be termed meditation - in other words a purposeful, focused, quiet kind of reflective thinking - the aim of which was to remove interferences, and to get this idea clear, isolated, as a thing which I could contemplate and evaluate.

When I did this, I found that it didn't really make sense to me - I could not see how this network of communications could do the work I needed it to do - I could not see how it performed cognition, or where its centre lay, or how it could use or make memories... most problematic I could not see how this could be stable enough to do selection across a timescale of several or many human generations.

In sum, this group entity - this group brain - just did not have the properties necessary... at least, so far as I could imagine.


So, in the end, I could not finish the paper - I could not put the last piece into the edifice; and indeed this failure to complete the idea threw into doubt everything that went before - because a partial theory isn't really a theory at all - it has no more strength or value than an arched bridge minus the keystone.


And then I was also reading Owen Barfield's reflections on 'evolution' - his analysis of evolution - which began with philology; in the old meaning of the word philology which was something like 'history of ideas' - i.e. the conceptual history of the idea of evolution in the context of the cultures which used it. This was far from the first time that I had read Barfield on evolution, but it was the first time that I understood the nature and meaning of the distinction he was drawing.

Barfield demonstrated that evolution was originally (and properly) something more like we would call 'development' - a situation that begins with a potentiality and which unfolds by a process of transformation, or metamorphosis.

Evolution was about the change of forms, gradually, continuously, and by all intermediate stages.

In sum, in old-style evolution everything was there to begin-with that was there after evolution - and what had happened was that the earlier state had transformed into the later state.


By contrast, Barfield described how post-Darwinian evolution was a discontinuous sequence of replacements of one form by another form.

Darwinian evolution was about introducing something new into the system from outside. It was based on change by the injection of new information, and change by means of swapping the new for the old.

So, in Darwinian evolution, we start with one kind of thing, and end-up with another kind of thing, and the difference is that something extra has been added that was not there before.

(The point at which this new information was added was the point of discontinuity - this might be a genetic mutation; or, in principle, some other heritable input.)


At the end of grasping the distinction in the meanings of evolution, I realised that I had not solved the problem I set out to solve - although I still knew that there was something going-on which, if not group selection defined in the Darwinian paradigm, had to do the same job as 'group selection'.


Furthermore, I got an imaginative grasp of evolutionary history which revealed that I was making a set of metaphysical assumptions about the evolution of 'complexity' and of 'groups' - and these metaphysical assumptions might not be correct, or there might be better ones.

My earlier metaphysical assumptions - standard to modern evolutionary theory - had been:

1. Alive things evolved from dead things
2. Complex things were incrementally built from simpler things (including that groups were more complex than individuals)
3. Matter came first, and mind (cognition, including consciousness) arose from it (including that 'mind' was in some way a product of increasing complexity)

Yet there are an almost opposite set of possible metaphysical assumptions which I might have instead deployed:

1. Everything is alive (in varying ways and degrees)
2. Things began as diffuse and uniform, and 'condensed' to become more solid and differentiated
3. Mind came before matter (e.g. spirit existed before it was incarnated)

This second set of principles is close to my own 'religious' convictions (my faith) - in other words it is the second set of principles which I regard as True, and not the first.

So how could I expect to understand 'group selection' correctly, if I was building my understanding in a metaphysical universe that was almost the opposite to the one I believed was real?

The theorising was bound to be false, surely?

No wonder that I could not imagine my theory - it did not hang-together with my understanding of reality, it did not make sense.


(This was what Thomas Kuhn dubbed a paradigm shift. The evidence, the problem remains the same - but the underlying framework within-which the problem needs to be solved has been transformed.)


So, the task has now become one of explaining the same set of evidences ('facts') using a completely different set of assumptions: a different model, logic, grammar, bottom-line.

Everything changes, yet everything remains the same -- The meaning and purpose of everything changes, the problem to be solved and the evidence available for its solution remains the same (although with different interpretation and emphasis, and perhaps with new evidences becoming relevant). 

It is a big project and an exciting prospect!


Unknown said...

Fascinating. I think it is an extremely important and understudied (or at least "underconsidered") part of scientific enquiry to really unpack the assumptions and the implications of the key concepts which we are taught as part of our curriculum (many, if not most, of which then remain as common conceptual currency in the production of scientific work). In this case, "evolution". While to many, it may seem that evolution necessarily implies gradual changes ("natura non facit saltum" I believe it is), that this has now become the main consensus is actually the provisional result of generations of debate and intellectual polemics.

This is a point in favour of the case to require students of the sciences to learn the history of the ideas underlying their disciplines, and not just the set of provisional results which hold at the time that they are studying it. I'm not a scientist by trade, so I a may be off the mark, but from my own experience in secondary school and some of my scientist friend's experience in University, the history of their discipline is almost entirely neglected, or only given a cursory, trivializing glance.

Nathaniel said...

And of course, keeping with Kuhn, anything "revolutionary" you pursue will be widely rejected and refuted by the rest of the community, but that does not mean it is not true!