wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Daniel Dennett

Freedom Evolves

Domesticated animals can afford to he stupid and still have lots of offspring, for they have in effect out-sourced many of their cognitive subtasks to another species, us, on which they have become parasitic. Like the tapeworms that have 'decided' to trust us to handle all their locomotion and food-finding tasks for them so that they can drastically simplify their nervous systems, which they no longer need, domesticated animals would be in tough shape without their human hosts to live off. They are not endoparasites, living inside us, but they are still parasites.

We have arrived in the vicinity of the freedom of the bird, which can fly wherever it wants. Why does it want to fly where it wants to fly? It has its reasons. Its reasons are embodied in the settings of all the switches in its brain, and are endorsed, over the long run, by its continuing survival. Mostly, the things it cares to gather information about are the things that matter the most to its immediate well-being. The more pressure its ancestors have recently been under from wily competitors, the more likely it is to carry an investment in expensive equipment for countering that family of threats. When sailors first; arrived in their sailing ships at remote islands in the Pacific inhabited by birds whose ancestors had not seen a predator in many thousands of years, they found birds so incurious, so unafraid of the large moving things approaching them, that the sailors could swagger right up and grab them. These birds could fly perfectly well, but no stealth was needed to capture them. They could fly wherever they wanted, but they didn't have very astute wants; there were reasons in the offing that they didn't know enough to make their own. They had plenty of bare opportunities to save themselves, but they lacked the information needed to act on them. These species of birds are largely extinct now, of course.

The arms race of predator and prey as well as the competition among conspecifics for mates, and for the means for mates—food, shelter, territory, local standing, etc.—has given our biosphere hundreds of millions of years of R&D across a broad spectrum of parallel processing in millions of species at a time. At this very moment, trillions of organisms on this planet are engaged in a game of hide-and-seek. But for them it's not just a game; it's a matter of life and death. Getting it right, not making mistakes, matters to them—indeed nothing matters more—but they don't, as a rule, appreciate this. They are the beneficiaries of equipment exquisitely designed to get what matters right, but when their equipment malfunctions and gets matters wrong, they have no resources, as a rule, for noticing this, let alone deploring it. They soldier on, unwittingly. The difference between how things seem and how things really are is just as fatal a gap for them as it can be for us, but they are largely oblivious to it. The recognition of the difference between appearance and reality is a human discovery. A few other species—some primates, some cetaceans, maybe even some birds—show signs of appreciating the phenomenon of 'false belief'—getting it wrong. They exhibit sensitivity to the errors of others, and perhaps even some sensitivity to their own errors as errors, but they lack the capacity for'the reflection required to dwell on this possibility, and so they cannot use this sensitivity in the deliberate design of repairs or improvements of their own seeking gear or hiding gear. That sort of bridging of the gap between appearance and reality is a wrinkle that we human beings alone have mastered.

We are the species that discovered doubt. Is there enough food laid by for winter? Have I miscalculated? Is my mate cheating on me? Should we have moved south? Is it safe to enter this cave? Other creatures are often visibly agitated by their own uncertainties about just such questions, but because they cannot actually ask themselves these questions, they cannot articulate their predicaments for themselves or take steps to improve their grip on the truth. They are stuck in a world of appearances, making the best they can of how things seem and seldom, if ever, worrying about whether how things seem is how they truly are. We alone can be racked with doubt, and we alone have been provoked by that epistemic itch to seek a remedy: better truth-seeking methods. Wanting to keep better track of our food supplies, our territories, our families, our enemies, we discovered the benefits of talking it over with others, asking questions, passing on lore. We invented culture.

It is culture that provides the fulcrum from which we can leverage ourselves into new territory. Culture provides the vantage point from which we can see how to change the trajectories into the future that have been laid down by the blind explorations of our genes.