By mainstream evolutionary theory, developments generally aid survival within prevailing conditions, and there is no reason to imagine human cognition should be any different in this respect. Logically, we should have improved our survival chances by better understanding the world in which we live. But this is too simple: survival does not necessitate our human abstract form of understanding, and such understanding does not guarantee survival.
Instead of simply assuming human powers of understanding to be beneficial, their evolution can in fact be seen as cancerous inasmuch as the species has dramatically multiplied its numbers and altered its conduct in manners threatening all life on this planet. That we can simultaneously hold such plausible but very different views of human development suggests muddled thinking in need of reappraisal. What is the nature of that thinking?
Objective thinking assumes discoverable static qualities of the universe. Our laws of science and laws of nature are postulated as truths that endure despite a state of constant change.
But this position is easily criticized inasmuch as objectivity actively looks for unchanging features whilst largely ignoring dynamic and seemingly random aspects of reality. To the extent that we only recognize that which we seek, the search for the static and enduring can therefore be seen as an endemic form of bias. Meanwhile, the fact that we happily employ paradoxical ideas such as a state of constant change suggests something awry about our normal conceptions of reality. As an evolved species, we may have found abstract thought tremendously beneficial, but have we understood its true nature and longer term consequences?
The evolution of human cognitive processes has certainly empowered us in manners unseen elsewhere in nature. But evolution has no known plan. Therefore, failing to assess our unique evolutionary trajectory is arguably highly irresponsible – our technology having rendered us by far the most dangerously powerful species on the planet. Are we treating such formidable powers with due caution?
Notably, the world in which human abstract thought first took root is not the world of today. Planet Earth is a significantly altered world – as a direct result of human ideas and related industrial activity. Against such a background, the forms of thinking and knowledge that were once beneficial to mankind do not necessarily remain so today.
Nonetheless, by largely dismissing the human mind, the believed laws of nature and science appear superficially sound and constant, and are regarded as sound guides for human development. So much so that such discounting of the mind is now reflexive within most scientific procedures – subjective ideas being seen as nothing more than worrisome sources of possible bias.
However, this is in itself a worrisome position, as no ideas of reality can exist outside the mind, and the ideas of the human mind are themselves in constant evolution.
Given the mind is an essential element in any form of understanding, discounting or dismissing it as a possible problem logically infers that any supposed understanding of anything at all must be inherently problematic. If we do not trust the ruler, it is obviously foolish to trust its measurements.
The intractable role of mind
For better or worse, we are stuck with the human mind as the inescapable vessel of whatever abstract thoughts we embrace as understanding. And as a tool that we recognize as potentially flawed, we might do well to view abstract thought as only potentially beneficial within any given circumstances, rather than as capable of embodying any supposed objectively authentic knowledge. We might want to nuance the value of abstract thought such that it is no longer seen as absolute knowledge, but more as something helping us achieve limited ends within a universe that if we are honest, remains ultimately beyond our comprehension. It is in any case utterly impossible to think of anything at all outside of the mind.
From this perspective, the most beneficial future development of human knowledge should not be seen as the mere accumulation of yet more facts, but as an exercise critically examining the nature of knowledge based on abstract thought – ideally with a view to better understanding its strengths and weaknesses. Within such a process, far from trying to remove the mind from human investigations, it should be given center stage.
Going beyond the simple amassing of more knowledge, the quality of that knowledge can perhaps be refined to better gage its value and relevance to today’s world. Given the external world we inhabit has been changing dramatically for millennia, we would actually be quite foolish not to vet and adapt the quality of thought to better address current challenges. And as the first and only species to have yet evolved our special cognitive skills, it is surely naive not to check their value in terms of net real-world impacts to date.
Reckoning with evolution
Failure to critically examine the assumptions within conventional ideas, and willfully ignoring their increasingly detrimental social and environmental effects, can only block the ability to comprehend the challenges we now face. We cannot defy the forces of evolution by imagining technology can wholly outwit them – the very forces that created us. Much as our developed form of knowledge may have made us stunningly powerful, only fools conflate power with wisdom.
In recognizing evolution as a process that effectively demands adjusting to altered conditions, we only seal our doom by refusing to learn and evolve our thinking in line with the new conditions we have created. This is especially true given that, in terms of direct planetary impact, the development of the human mind is probably the most significant and pivotal evolutionary development ever seen.
As a consequence, the biosphere on which we utterly depend is increasingly in jeopardy from numerous assaults of mankind’s very own making. We are confronted with the ugly results of our own unthinking and rampant exploitation of whatever seems circumstantially beneficial. Without somehow unmaking our ideas of mankind as the center of everything, and without accepting our now-conspicuous vulnerability in the face of a bigger reality, we logically face disaster, if not extinction. But this is nonetheless the course currently being pursued.
Failure to move beyond our hypnotic fixation on the raw power of human thought and its objective model of reality – failure to identify these as the genesis of our existential threats, and failure to transcend them – will prove suicidally stupid. The only significant thing proven by the entire course of human history will be that abstract thought was ultimately an evolutionary dead end.