Ghost of Christmas Past?
As you read this you are aware of the fact that you are reading. At the same time, you are also aware of many other things going on inside and around you — your breathing and the room you are in, for example. Self-awareness is a marvel of evolution.
Despite the uniqueness of self-awareness, perhaps the most consequential fact about you and me, as individuals, is that we are biological creatures. As such, our biology limits the amount of complexity we can be aware of and wrap our minds around at any given time. An additional constraint is the extent of your personal knowledge base. You cannot be aware of something you know nothing about.
Such biological and knowledge constraints are part of the reason early cultures developed creation myths. Blanket narratives addressing the quintessential questions forever besieging our self-awareness. How did the world begin? How did the first humans emerge? Why is the world and life the way it is?
Like most oral cultures, early Hawaiian’s, for example, had a creation myth. For them, it started with a great void and darkness. Then, spontaneously out of the void, the god of creation emerged and set about to create the sky and the earth, each with its own god.
When the god of creation had completed that task he then set about to create other gods for the sea, the forest, food, volcanos, war and so on. Once satisfied the god of creation told the other gods to seek out the material required to construct a great Chief to rule the earth.
These other gods searched until they found a great mound of rich, red earth overlooking the sea. With this earth the god of creation fashioned a figure of a man and breathed life into it. Soon the man walked about and spoke to the gods, and the gods were pleased. It is from this man that are descended all the priests (kahuna) and other chiefs (alii). And, so it was.
While this Hawaiian creation myth and its supernatural gods might be unfamiliar to you, everyone has heard some version of it. Indeed, after a lifetime of research, famed comparative religion scholar, Joseph Campbell, ultimately concluded that all mythic creation narratives were variations of a single story. A common tale designed to eliminate the worrisome complexity of what was unknown to make some sense of what seemed known.
Thus, creation myths are themselves a marvel of self-awareness. Scenarios contextualizing and explaining the origin and evolution of everything. Simple, complete stories linking the past to the present — and perhaps the future.
And, that was the point — simple and complete stories. It is, in part, why extraordinary numbers of people still accept these magical, though clearly superficial, explanatory scenarios.
Today, revealing and sorting out this complexity to find a simple, complete story about creation and its relationship to today and tomorrow is a career that consumes astrophysicists, cosmologists, physicists and philosophers among others. Again, a seemingly timeless, universal human quest symptomatic of who and what we are as self-aware humans.
Similarly, we create civilization myths about how governing systems emerged and evolved to be hierarchically dominated by elites. Myths about elites selected by us, for us, because they are the wisest and thus most capable of leading us.
While the narratives for both creation and civilization myths are convenient contemporary confabulations, the specifics of such myths are not important. What is important is the unique skill we have as a species to develop scenarios — articulated images of the future.
Like self-awareness, our proficiency in scenario development is an evolutionary marvel. Yet, scenario development has a much longer evolutionary history than self-awareness.
Indeed, it appears scenarios have had a central role in the daily actions of all biological organisms. For example, while feeding and procreation are innate biological drives, every intentional effort to find food or a sexual mate starts with some electrochemical, biological process that effectively runs a scenario — probabilistic assessment — about the potential for success of an intended act. Biologically, this is critical. Get it wrong and the game of life might be over for an organism.
So, arguably, the single most valuable gift of biological evolution to humanity, and thereby to civilization, was the combining of scenario development with self-awareness. Yet, ironically, civilization is fortunate that humanity has been so forgiving of the monumentally erroneous, bad and wrong scenarios produced historically by its various governing systems.
However, the likelihood that civilization is permanently immune from the existential consequences of governing systems pursuing erroneous, bad and wrong scenarios is probably zero.
I Think, Therefore I Am — Or maybe not
Inasmuch as biology long ago had scenario development and assessment skills, and the fact that evolution often repeats what has previous worked well, it should not come as a surprise that our human brain-mind system — as far as we know, the apex of biological evolution — operates in a similar scenario-oriented manner.
In this respect, the brain is continuously engaged in aggregating sensory data via the nervous system to develop and offer to its mind updated scenarios about the well-being of its host body. Meanwhile, the mind is busy running scenarios to assess whether the updated scenarios from the brain warrant being acted upon and to set overall action priorities.
So, despite the historically recent appreciation of scenarios as a useful intellectual exercise — as in education, scientific method, decision-making and machine learning — perhaps the most overlooked fact about being a self-aware human is that, individually and collectively, the vast majority of what you, me and everyone else is doing most of the time in our daily lives –
imagining, planning, storytelling, forecasting, speculating, anticipating, lying, problem-solving, ideas, creativity, strategies, romance, fears, science, religion, guilt, health concerns, business development, investing, sports competition, conflicts, preparation, legal arguments, making laws and policies, negotiating, governance and so on
ultimately all boils down to conjuring up and assessing scenarios.
The simple truth is that, given the universal substrate of quantum uncertainty and the overwhelming non-causal intricacies of complex adaptive systems surrounding our existence, scenario development and assessment are all we really ever have to work with intellectually. Facts, despite being facts, are but temporal and or shorthand building blocks for more scenarios. And, it is no coincidence that scenarios, as probabilistic outcome assessments, are the primary strategic trait built into the code — the DNA — of machine learning and artificial intelligence systems.
There is an aspect of how our human cognitive brain-mind system works, however, that is exceedingly consequential inasmuch as it complicates and clouds the utility of our scenario skills. Specifically, it is that the mind’s scenarios emanate from a biologically old, emotionally-based reptilian system. This is in sharp contrast with the scenarios coming from the brain that reflect real-time sensory data. Thus, broadly speaking, the brain’s scenarios constitute a more rationally-based system.
This brain-mind scenario dichotomy is consequential because, as Kahneman and other have noted, the vast majority of the time our mind’s emotional scenarios have the upper hand and dominate those generated by the brain.
Inasmuch as survival and reproduction are the paramount goals shared throughout biology, they constitute hardwired existential emotional drives. Thus, biologically, as a matter of natural selection, the evolution of mind’s dominance makes sense. Whether it makes sense for a 21st century human civilization is a different issue and more relevant concern.
Consequently, despite our 21st century hubris, individually and collectively, the emotional influence of these biological drives are legacy imprints that are always present when we are developing and assessing scenarios. This is true for us as individuals but, more importantly, for civilization’s governing elite.
The question is, to what extent is this a major problem for civilization? I would suggest it is a huge, probably existential one.
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