Middle Sized Objects
In this section I want to talk briefly about science and the background of physics and biology from which we, as apparently thinking feeling beings, have emerged. Then I’ll be moving on to a discussion of more recent histories when it becomes more valid to talk about things like psychology, language, feeling, understanding, knowledge and thought. What I will be arguing is that these cognitive phenomena, which are perhaps most closely associated with the being of human, have their origins and take their forms from the inanimate and impersonal matter of the world.
To paraphrase Stephen Pinker, the stuff of thought is the stuff of physics.
We are, as Richard Dawkins memorably put it, ‘Middle sized objects moving at middle speed’ (2003:19) and this size and speed is an important part of what makes us what we are and how we think. The scales at which all of creation operates stretches in size from the Planck length to the horizon of visible space, a scale of some 40 or so powers of magnitude, and as Joel Primack and Nancy Abrams relate in ‘The View from the Centre of the Universe’ , we occupy a tiny proportion of this scale somewhere in the middle; a place on the continuum of being with its own local interpretations of universal laws; its own biological customs and practices. From an evolutionary perspective we have been middle sized objects for a very long time, since before we had an opposable thumb, since before we had language, since before we had consciousness, since before we had the complex non-conscious processes we have today. We were middle sized objects moving at middle speed when our entire psychophysiological repertoire was limited to flight or fight, breeding and eating. It is as middle sized objects that our being asserted itself such that our physiology, and indeed our psychology has designed itself to function within that particular range and scale of operation, to solve problems and exploit opportunities offered within that range and scale. Driven by the attractions of pleasure (nature’s reward for survival-enhancing behaviour) and the distress of pain (the stick that nature holds in her other hand), those of our ancestors who were best able to respond to these coaxings would be those who survived the longest, and therefore were most likely to leave their imprint in the genetic record.
The processes of evolution are contingent and conservative, and there is no place within its mechanism for wild experimentation and flights of fancy. Should nature occasionally have the urge to assert herself as avant garde artist, the beautiful mutants that would result from such bohemianism, less well equipped to solve the problems of medium sized objects moving at medium speed, would never make it into the museum of natural history we carry in our genome. For this reason we have never evolved eyes capable of seeing into the heart of the atom, or into the reaches of outer space; our hands bypassed the evolutionary pathway that led to their being able to feel x-rays or the gusting of the solar wind. in survival terms we have nothing to lose and nothing to gain from such extended sight and surreal touch. We can hear the roar of a lion and the wimpering of a potential next meal, but not the background hum of the universe. We can hold apples in our hands, and we can hold the hand of a lover, but have never had need to grasp a quark.
The fact that we live in a world of quarks and x-rays, and that the ability to sense these entities directly (or at least as direct as embodiment allows) might be useful is, unfortunately, irrelevant. The glacial speed of evolutionary development means that whilst we may think thoughts appropriate to the 21st century, we think these thoughts with ancient brains. We are Fred and Wilma Flintstones living in the universe of George and Judy Jetson. That we do seem to be able operate beyond the realm of our stone age senses is the mystery that Einstein spoke about. Our unique ability to think senselessly gives the lie to Haldane’s pessimism at the queerness of quarks and the inexpressibility of x-rays.
What I will want to move onto later is a discussion about the nature of these thoughts, which seem so adaptively perverse, and how it is that we do seem to be able to unproblematically entertain them (even if we don’t always understand them). I will also want to consider how we are able to entertain thoughts and ideas which have no physical referents in the material world at all, the abstractions not only of physics but of politics, society, culture and ‘the self’. Before we go there though I want to stay with Fred and Wilma, or at least with Lucy and the Hobbit for a while, to consider what might be going on in their heads. What kind of thinking might have taken place in the brains of these great (to the power of 10 thousand) grandparents of ours, housed in those squat brown bodies walking the plains of what is now West Africa.
On youtube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WcQVTAZbQkI
Dawkins, R. and L. Menon (2003). A devil’s chaplain: selected essays. London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Primack, Joel R. & Abrams, Nancy Ellen. (2006). The View from the Center of the Universe: Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos. Riverhead Books.