Deriving Awe

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Story of Evolution, Evolution of Stories
Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2004
Second Web Paper
On Serendip

Deriving Awe

Reeve Basom

Having become deeply compelled by the ability of evolutionary theory to tell a story that consumes or subsumes all others, I have followed the story of change back beyond the origin of life, beyond the formation of the solar system, back to a point where the first something came into existence. Though it may not do so for everyone, the story even allows me one more step along this rewinding trajectory, a step toward rejecting the need for any intention or plan by upholding the power of random change to produce order. I have found it very useful to tell a story in which the absolute truth is randomness. This is not to ignore the phenomenally intricate, ordered and interdependent systems that organize matter in our universe, but rather to understand creation in terms of an infinite dimension of possibility through which navigation occurs fueled by random change. My story, then, becomes one in which the Beginning is really just the beginning of one path through the infinite dimensions of possibility, or what Daniel Dennett calls design space (Dennett 1995). Order or design does not rely on the Word or intention but is produced as changes accumulate and become directed by one another, restricting and refining a particular branching journey among the possibilities.
Thus, reaching backwards along the story of evolution I grasp randomness and a Wordless beginning. Reaching forward into new designs and increasing complexity I suddenly encounter human agency and imagination and I am catapulted into the possibility of transcending design space.
"If a brain were truly capable of non-algorithmic activity, and if we have such brains, and if our brains are themselves the products of an algorithmic algorithmic process (natural selection in its various levels and incarnations) creates a non-algorithmic subprocess of subroutine, turning the whole process (evolution up to and including...brains) into a non-algorithmic process after all. This would be a cascade of cranes creating, eventually, a real skyhook" (Dennett 1995)!
This argument suggests that natural selection of random change (AKA cranes) has created a skyhook- something that exists independently of and has the power to manipulate evolutionary processes. It defends the refusal to believe that human agency, free will, meaning, responsibility, etc. are all reducible and ultimately adaptive illusions. Yet, however desirous we are of such a defense, the very ability to know and interpret that we seek to uphold as a human transcendence of evolution must also cause us to recognize the flaws in this attempt to secure a degree of evolutionary removal.
The first round of my cross-examination is a response to the idea of a skyhook created by cranes. A skyhook, as I understand it, is not created by the machinery of evolution. If it is created by a crane then it, too, is a crane. As storytellers who are able to "use models to create what would not otherwise have come into existence" or to imagine that which was not previously imaginable (Grobstein 2004), we can manipulate genes, prolong life, create artificial intelligence, and accelerate change in many other ways. We can see these as skyhooks, as heretofore impossible leaps in design space, or we can imagine that there are locations in design space at which a different location is distant through every route except one. From such a position access is greatly increased to that point which, from all other nearby positions, is a very distant location in design space. The infinite dimensions of design space should allow for this possibility. Moreover, that which is not previously imaginable is not synonymous with that which is not previously in design space. Design space is not limited to the imaginable, most obviously because imagination is human. Finally, the conversion of an algorithmic process to a non-algorithmic process is a skyhook only if it trumps not only biological evolution but also the entire evolutionary process of natural selection acting on random change. Humans may have evolutionarily unprecedented powers of navigation through design space, but we cannot change the inevitability of our own extinction, or (if there are some who would argue that we can) at least not the heat death of the universe. We are causal only so far as we are constrained by fundamental evolutionary algorithms.
The second major thrust of this cross-examination is an effort to reconcile the disparate "truths" of meaning and meaninglessness. "Admiration and awe is all very fine, but I want to be an agent, to MATTER, not only to be shaped by but to shape" (Grobstein 2004). Yet, if evolution is the explanation, then mustn't we discredit morality, comfort, goodness, personal responsibility, etc. as illusions? If we can imagine a robot programmed with enough intricacy that it collects and modifies algorithms in such a way so as to appear to have developed agency and free will, then we can imagine ourselves (Dennett 1995). However, in our case, this programming is the vastly improbable product of random change. The proposed skyhook capabilities of humanness may only be cranes that have created skyhook disguises for themselves, but they are the fabulous product of a "net historical opportunity" that is unreplicable and unintentional (Jacob 1977). Human senses of agency and meaning may be reducible to algorithms, but they do have power within the context of human experience. We must accept two separate realms in which to consider truth, a human context and an absolute context. The trouble with absolute truth is that we can never remove ourselves far enough from our very particular and vanishingly probable humanness to be able to know something that is absolute, something that encompasses all the possibilities. Anything we find can only be absolute in the context of human meaning. It is here that we arrive at the conflation of truth on a human scale with truth on an absolute scale.
Though I may hold with Dennett's version of unengineered design emerging from randomness, and though my sense of absolute truth may not rest on intention or meaning, I nonetheless find myself in the essentially human position of seeking that which is beyond me, the unknowable, the all powerful, the irreducible. What I discover and cling to through the story of evolution is the power of randomness, the unknowable and irreducible vastness of possibility and the absolute awe of being part of such an incredibly intricate and virtually impossible piece of design. By virtue of, and entirely contained within, my evolutionarily derived humanness, these experiences are meaningful. Our particular, vanishingly probable evolutionary niche is so complex that it allows us to imagine, to believe in, transcending evolution. Even if this sense of removal is entirely a product of contingency, have we any less cause to do as Dennett does and "stand in affirmation of its magnificence" (Dennett 1995)?

Works Cited

Dennett, Daniel
1995 Darwin's Dangerous Idea. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Grobstein, Paul
2004 "Dennett's Ideas (Dangerous or Otherwise) About Evolution and Life:
and/or Paul's Admiration/Suspicion We Can Do Better Than This." Lecture notes for Story of Evolution/Evolution of Stories, 24 February.

Jacob, Francis
1977 "Evolution and Tinkering." Science. Vol. 196, num. 4295.

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