MWP 1.4.g Objectivity, Adaptivity and Evolution

Full text level

As a further approach to understanding the nature of objectivity in Middle Way Philosophy, it may be helpful to introduce the concept of adaptivity. It needs to be stressed that this is just a model of explanation that may prove helpful to some readers, rather than a conceptually essential point. It must also not be mistaken for a reductive explanation. The Middle Way cannot be understood solely in terms of evolutionary adaptation, because it addresses conditions in general – not just those of survival and reproduction. However, to consider the Middle Way in terms of such adaptation may nevertheless be illuminating.

According to the general theory of evolution (which is broadly supported by a wide range of biological evidence, even if differences remain on the details of the evolutionary process), biological organisms (or at least, those with sexual reproduction) adapt to their environments by a process of genetic mutation followed by natural selection. A particular organism develops characteristics that are slightly but randomly different from those of its parents, and those characteristics that are well adapted to the environment and make an essential difference to the organism’s survival will be passed on, whilst those that impede the organism’s survival will not.

The resemblance between this process and the negative feedback loop described in 3.e was noted by both Dewey and Popper. For Popper, the focus here was only on scientific theories, which he saw as being exposed to the conditions of the universe through testing just as new organisms are tested by their exposure to their environment.  Inadequate theories, like ill-adapted organisms, will die out, but those that survive the test will become established[1]. Dewey, as I have already discussed, also applied this feedback loop to moral drives.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb alternatively focuses on the point of optionality that emerges just after that of frustration[2]. At that point we could adopt any of a number of possible alternative beliefs to the one that has just proved inadequate, and we have not yet entrenched ourselves in a new belief. An organism with more possible new ways of developing or behaving is in a better position to select the one most appropriate to the context. According to Taleb, having more options also helps us to develop antifragility, that is, an adaption to a wide range of possible circumstances, including those that are currently unforeseen. The more we are subjected to minor frustrations or stresses that oblige us to open up our options, then, the more antifragile we are likely to become. These concepts of optionality, adaptivity and antifragility will be explored in more detail in IV.2.b-d.

However, it is not theories that are primarily tested in the evolutionary analogy that I am making here, because theories do not exist independent of their interpretation and application. The testing of a theory requires a range of judgements by scientists in relation to what they experience (see 4.c), meaning that the testing is a testing of the objectivity of the scientists in relation to the theory, even though their eventual judgement is about the theory. It is the theory in the minds of the scientists that develops in response to new options and then passes or fails the test of conditions. It may then undergo further tests in the minds of others who consider the findings of the scientists. If the theory prevails, however, one could say that it is adapted to its conditions – conditions of survival in the minds of the scientists given the range of experiences scientists are having in relation to it.

We can perhaps see the comparison more strongly in relation to individual factual objectivity and moral objectivity. If we do not have the practical knowledge required for us to survive in a certain environment (e.g. what plants are edible and which poisonous), we will perish. Similarly, if we do not have values that enable us to address conditions in that environment, we will also perish. So, for example, when the Easter Islanders became obsessed with the value of erecting enormous statues that had to be transported using logs, and they cut down the last trees on their island in order to get the logs, the effects on their long-term survival were devastating[3]. Finding a clear survival value associated with aesthetic objectivity is trickier, but perhaps aesthetic objectivity supports a general appreciation of our environment and an attention to it that is beneficial.

So, the concept of objectivity generally can be understood in terms of an adaptivity that, at a basic level, helps us to survive. Beyond this basic level, however, objectivity may also help us to thrive, either as individuals or as societies. This doesn’t just mean to be healthy and reproduce ourselves, but also to be happy, fulfil our potential, and develop our skills and technologies. This helps us to compete with other individuals or other societies. However, it should also be stressed that the success of such objectivity is not inevitable and also depends on luck: an organism that is well-adapted to quite a wide range of conditions may nevertheless be wiped out by events that still fall outside its range (such as a falling asteroid, an ice age or an extreme drought).

But if objectivity is generally adaptive, this leaves a central question about the adaptive effects of metaphysics. If objectivity as I have defined it so far has adaptive value, then metaphysics must have a maladaptive effect because it interferes with our addressing of conditions. But if that is the case, how did metaphysical belief ever evolve, and why has it been tolerated for so long?

One hypothesis I can offer in relation to this (and it is no more than a hypothesis) is that metaphysics has had an adaptive value during earlier stages of the development of human beings. While we still thought of ourselves primarily in relation to groups rather than as individuals, loyalty to the group was the prime requirement for survival. Individual thinking was much more likely to result in death than in a greater chance of survival. Metaphysics, not being subject to challenge from experience, provides a strong sense of group identity by giving the group the impression that it has special, ‘true’ beliefs that are different from those of every other group. Some metaphysically-justified beliefs (such as Jewish dietary laws revealed by Yahweh) seem to have no evident function other than simply uniting the group with a sense that it is special, and excluding outsiders.

However, in the last 2500 years or so, we have seen the gradual development of an individual perspective in certain places and times. These were particularly ancient India at the time of the Buddha, ancient Greece, and Western civilisation since the enlightenment. In these contexts, individual critical perspectives have emerged, and enabled some judgements to be made on the basis of experience rather than merely in obedience to the group. As a result, objectivity has grown, and so has the effectiveness with which we address conditions, and the competitive advantage of groups with this individual perspective over other groups.

A more complex development of this hypothesis is alternatively suggested by my reading of McGilchrist, who sees the left hemisphere dominance associated with metaphysics to be dangerously increasing. I would suggest that metaphysics has functioned as a support for the introduction of greater left-hemisphere dominance, even though it was the overall contribution made by the periods of left-hemisphere dominance, with a new consolidation of representations, that contributed to objectivity rather than the metaphysics. Given that metaphysics gives apparently impregnable support to the left hemisphere, its use may have helped the left hemisphere to establish a dominance that has proved adaptive in other ways. The explicit development of representations helps us to adapt to our environment as long as that environment remains reasonably stable and predictable, and metaphysics has helped the left hemisphere to maintain the dominance that enabled this development of representations to take place. So, for example, the Protestant Reformation was accompanied by a strong attachment to particular metaphysical claims, such as the literal revelatory truth of the Bible and the value of internal individual experience over external form. However, the greater left hemisphere dominance that commitment to these metaphysical claims supported also enabled other, generally helpful and adaptive, developments by the left hemisphere such as greater stress on individual judgement, critical thinking, capitalism, and greater separation between church and state.

On this hypothesis, one can think of the development of Western civilisation rather like that of a retreating sea (somewhat like Matthew Arnold’s “Sea of Faith” in his poem Dover Beach, in fact). In general the sea of metaphysics is on the retreat, but it retreats through a series of advances, each of which goes a little less far than the one before. Each of those waves represents a new assertion of the left hemisphere over the right as it advances, but an overall integration as it recedes and the particular metaphysics that it represents is undermined by scepticism. Standing on the beach, we are not in a good position to appreciate immediately that the tide is going out, for with each new wave we fear instead that it is coming in: yet each new wave of metaphysics is slightly less group-dependent than the last and takes for granted more integration both of individuals and society. Thus, as McGilchrist charts, there has been a Graeco-Roman wave, a Reformation wave, an Enlightenment wave, and a modern wave, each representing a renewed left hemisphere dominance[4]: to which I would add that there are also new types of metaphysics attending and powering each wave: Stoicism, Protestantism, Enlightenment Philosophy, and modern relativism. With each “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” as Arnold puts it, we are confronted more with our immediate experience and the mediating function of our right hemisphere, as well as becoming just a little more free.

So, I agree with McGilchrist about the waves, but with Arnold about the direction of the tide. It is not periods of advancing left hemisphere domination we need to fear, for these consist in the left hemisphere successfully addressing conditions in new and complex ways, which will then just need to be more fully integrated. It is the periods of static left hemisphere dominance we need to fear, where human beings remain locked into fixed ideas and rigid relationships, and they are least able to respond to new conditions with either hemisphere, as was evidently the case in the Middle Ages. What we have today, in addition to a wide range of techniques involving both left and right hemispheres, is a better developed capacity for sceptical argument that can prevent any one brand of metaphysics from digging itself in for a long occupation of human society.

Helpful as I believe this hypothesis could be to explain how the Middle Way can be seen as adaptive in the context of Western history, not too much store can be set on it. It is a sketch of a way that the matter could be understood, but generally a side issue from the argument that objectivity is dependent on the Middle Way. It should not be hardened into a theory of history, for theories of history make claims about the future course of all conditions, in addition to the human response to them. Whilst I think we have reason to believe that the general human response to conditions is becoming more adequate, we do not know what these conditions are going to throw at us even in the next five minutes, and nor can we predict whether this trend in adequacy will continue or reverse in the longer term.


[1] Popper (1994)

[2] Taleb (2012)

[3] Diamond (2006) ch.2

[4] McGilchrist (2009) chapters 8-12

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.