Monday 21 September 2020

‘What Are We?’ “Self-reflective Consciousness, Cooperation, and the Agents of Our Future Evolution”

Cueva de las Manos, Río Pinturas

Posted by John Hands 

‘What are we?’ This is arguably the fundamental philosophical question. Indeed, ‘What are we?’ along with ‘Where do we come from?’ and ‘Why do we exist?’ are questions that humans have been asking for at least 25,000 years. During all of this time we have sought answers from the supernatural. About 3,000 years ago, however, we began to seek answers through philosophical reasoning and insight. Then, around 150 years ago, we began to seek answers through science: through systematic, preferably measurable, observation or experiment. 

As a science graduate and former tutor in physics for Britain's ‘Open University*’, I wanted to find out what answers science currently gives. But I couldn’t find any book that did so. There are two reasons for this.

  • First, the exponential increase in empirical data generated by rapid developments in technology had resulted in the branching of science into increasingly narrow, specialized fields. I wanted to step back from the focus of one leaf on one branch and see what the whole evolutionary tree shows us. 
  • Second, most science books advocate a particular theory, and often present it as fact. But scientific explanations change as new data is obtained and new thinking develops. 

And so I decided to write ‘the book that hadn’t been written’: an impartial evaluation of the current theories that explain how we evolved, not just from the first life on Earth, but where that came from, right back to the primordial matter and energy at the beginning of the universe of which we ultimately consist. I called it COSMOSAPIENS Human Evolution from the Origin of the Universe* and in the event it took more than 10 years to research and write. What’s more, the conclusions I reached surprised me. I had assumed that the Big Bang was well-established science. But the more I investigated the more I discovered that the Big Bang Theory had been contradicted by observational evidence stretching back 60 years. Cosmologists had continually changed this theory as more sophisticated observations and experiments produced ever more contradictions with the theory.

The latest theory is called the Concordance Model. It might more accurately be described as ‘The Inflationary-before-or-after-the-Hot Big Bang-unknown-27% Dark Matter-unknown-68% Dark Energy model’. Its central axiom, that the universe inflated at a trillion trillion trillion times the speed of light in a trillion trillion trillionth of a second is untestable. Hence it is not scientific.

The problem arises because these cosmological theories are mathematical models. They are simplified solutions of Einstein’s field equations of general relativity applied to the universe. They are based on assumptions that the latest observations show to be invalid. That’s one surprising conclusion I found. 

Another surprise came when I examined the orthodox theory for the last 65 years in the UK and the USA of how and why life on Earth evolved into so many different species. It is known as NeoDarwinism, and was popularised by Richard Dawkins in his bestselling book, The Selfish Gene, where it says that biological evolution is caused by genes selfishly competing with each other to survive and replicate.

NeoDarwinism is based on the fallacy of ascribing intention to an acid, deoxyribonucleic acid, of which genes are composed. Dawkins admits that this language is sloppy and says he could express it in scientific terms. But I’ve read the book twice and he never does manage to do this. Moreover, the theory is contradicted by substantial behavioural, genetic, and genomic evidence. When confronted by such, instead of modifying the theory to take account of the evidence, as a scientist should do, Dawkins lamely says “genes must have misfired”. 

The fact is, he couldn’t modify the theory because the evidence shows that Darwinian competition causes not the evolution of species but the destruction of species. It is cooperation, not competition, that has caused the evolution of successively more complex species.

Today, most biologists assert that we differ only in degree from other animals. I think that this too is wrong. What marked our emergence as a distinct species some 25,000 years ago wasn’t the size or shape of our skulls, or that we walked upright, or that we lacked bodily hair, or the genes we possess. These are differences in degree from other animals. What made us unique was reflective consciousness.

Consciousness is a characteristic of a living thing as distinct from an inanimate thing like a rock. It is possessed in rudimentary form by the simplest species like bacteria. In the evolutionary lineage leading to humans, consciousness increased with increasing neural complexity and centration in the brain until, with humans, it became conscious of itself. We are the only species that not only knows but also knows that it knows. We reflect on ourselves and our place in the cosmos. We ask questions like: What are we? Where did we come from? Why do we exist? 

This self-reflective consciousness has transformed existing abilities and generated new ones. It has transformed comprehension, learning, invention, and communication, which all other animals have in varying degrees. It has generated new abilities, like imagination, insight, abstraction, written language, belief, and morality that no other animal has. Its possession marks a difference in kind, not merely degree, from other animals, just as there is a difference in kind between inanimate matter, like a rock, and living things, like bacteria and animals. 

Moreover, Homo sapiens is the only known species that is still evolving. Our evolution is not morphological—physical characteristics—or genetic, but noetic, meaning ‘relating to mental activity’. It is an evolution of the mind, and has been occurring in three overlapping phases: primeval, philosophical, and scientific. 

Primeval thinking was dominated by the foreknowledge of death and the need to survive. Accordingly, imagination gave rise to superstition, which is a belief that usually arises from a lack of understanding of natural phenomena or fear of the unknown. 

It is evidenced by legends and myths, the beliefs in animism, totemism, and ancestor worship of hunter-gatherers, to polytheism in city-states in which the pantheon of gods reflected the social hierarchy of their societies, and finally to a monotheism in which other gods were demoted to angels or subsumed into one God, reflecting the absolute power of king or emperor. 

The instinct for competition and aggression, which had been ingrained over millions of years of prehuman ancestry, remained a powerful characteristic of humans, interacting with, and dominating, reflective consciousness. 

The second phase of reflective consciousness, philosophical thinking, emerged roughly 1500 to 500 BCE. It was characterised by humans going beyond superstition to use reasoning and insight, often after disciplined meditation, to answer questions. In all cultures it produced the ethical view that we should treat all others, including our enemies, as ourselves. This ran counter to the predominant instinct of aggression and competition. 

The third phase, scientific thinking, gradually emerged from natural philosophy around 1600 CE. It branched into the physical sciences, the life sciences, and medical sciences. 

Physics, the fundamental science, then started to converge, rapidly so over the last 65 years, towards a single theory that describes all the interactions between all forms of matter. According to this view, all physical phenomena are lower energy manifestations of a single energy at the beginning of the universe. This is similar in very many respects to the insight of philosophers of all cultures that there is an underlying energy in the cosmos that gives rise to all matter and energy. 

During this period, reflective consciousness has produced an increasing convergence of humankind. The development of technology has led to globalisation, both physically and electronically, in trade, science, education, politics (United Nations), and altruistic activities such as UNICEF and Médecins Sans Frontières. It has also produced a ‘complexification’ of human societies, a reduction in aggression, an increase in cooperation, and the ability to determine humankind’s future. 

This whole process of human evolution has been accelerating. Primeval thinking emerges roughly 25,000 years ago, philosophical thinking emerges about 3,000 years ago, scientific thinking emerges some 400 years ago, while convergent thinking begins barely 65 years ago. 

I think that when we examine the evidence of our evolution from primordial matter and energy at the beginning of the universe, we see a consistent pattern. This shows that we humans are the unfinished product of an accelerating cosmic evolutionary process characterised by cooperation, increasing complexity and convergence, and that – uniquely as far we know – we are the self-reflective agents of our future evolution. 


*For further details and reviews of John’s new book, see 

Editor's note. The UK’s ‘Open University’ differs from other universities through its the policy of open admissions and its emphasis on distance and online learning programs.


Seth Stancroff said...

This is a fascinating essay, John. The limitations of scientific explanations of evolution are indeed well-established, but I had never considered that in the context of cognitive and philosophical evolution as well. I also do wonder what the future evolution might look like, given the patterns observed here.

Because of the importance we assign to self reflection and reflective consciousness, I wonder what you might say about scientific attempts to understand these cognitive processes. Although certainly in its infancy (and very limited), neuroscience--as well as other cognitive sciences--has been able to identify ways in which the brain functions and have been able to observe different kinds of consciousness using fMRI and EEG machines. These findings have also informed new technologies like Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning. Could it be that part of future human evolution will be gaining the understanding and ability to create reflective consciousness outside a human body (i.e. in a machine)?

Keith said...

Re two observations: ‘But scientific explanations change as new data is obtained and new thinking develops’. ‘Cosmologists had continually changed this theory [about the Big Bang] as more sophisticated observations and experiments produced ever more contradictions with the theory’.

To me, these are signs of some of natural science’s strengths. There’s typically no problem in the scientific community with the notion that one paradigm might replace another, as new hypotheses are explored. However, there needs to be sufficient reason for that to happen. That is, there needs to be abundant evidence — attainment of some preconceived, generally accepted, measurable evidentiary threshold — to successfully dispute accepted models of presumed knowledge. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable expectation; indeed, that deceptively simple expectation around matters of evidence and rigor and testing and open-mindedness (amidst the churn of creative hypotheses) has served science well.

Keith said...

Re, John, this succinct question in the essay: ‘Why do we exist?’

Perhaps equally central to ask of ourselves: ‘Why do we need an answer to that question?’ ‘Why has the question restlessly preoccupied our consciousness for millennia?’ ‘Why is it hard just ‘to be’?’

John Hands said...

Many thanks, Seth. I attempt to answer your question in my next book, THE FUTURE OF HUMANKIND, which I am just completing.

John Hands said...

Many thanks, Keith. What you say in your first comment is exactly how science should progress. However, you will see in Chapters 3–11 of COSMOSAPIENS that cosmologists produced a succession of "theories" (actually speculations) that were not scientific in that they were not testable and often contradicted scientific laws and/or were self-contradictory.

In answer to your second comment, it is because self-reflection became a defining part of Homo sapiens that it is our very nature to ask such questions.

Keith said...

‘It is because self-reflection became a defining part of Homo sapiens that it is our very nature to ask such questions’. I agree, John: Our consciousness thinking about itself, and its place in the universe. Or, put a little differently, our thinking about thinking. In all in, quite remarkable.

Yet our pondering ourselves may be two-edged: Humankind allows itself to feel blessed with the natural ability to ponder and marvel at the possibilities; all the while it seems tormented by an endless search for an elusively definitive answer to the millennia-long question ‘Why do we exist?’ Implicitly evoking notions like purpose and meaning.

The concern lying behind my reframing of the question ‘Why do we exist’, as I did in a comment above, is that humankind seldom allows itself to ponder, with any great earnestness, the following hypothetical scenario:

That humankind may be an incidental species, taking a ride on an incidental planet, circling an incidental star, within an incidental solar system, whirling around in an incidental outer ring of an incidental galaxy, buried deep within an incidental universe. Well, just maybe.

Yet, humankind seems to recoil at that possibility. Sure, there might indeed be more to humankind’s existence. We don’t know. But why isn’t the preceding scenario ever enough? Other than the concept’s implied refutation of such notions as exceptionalism or transcendentalism, I’ve never fully understood. An essay unto itself: Why does humankind need more?

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

It begins with a firm emphasis on systematic observation and experiment, yet seems to me to glide too easily beyond it. There was a narrative, shortly before the fall of Rome, which held that one had advanced beyond primitivism and classical religion, and found oneself now at the threshold of the ultimate ascent of man.

Martin Cohen said...

Thanks, John, for sharing your ideas and sparking this debate here. Can you maybe give Seth a little bit more of an idea what you r argument will be in the new book though?

Re. Keith and the question of 'why do we exist'? Isn't it linked ot hte other big metaphysical issue of 'why is there something rather than nothing'? And I've sometimes thought that this question shows a kind of hidden bias. Because why is 'nothing' the natural state?

Likewise, when we scan the skies looking for signs of other intelligent life, and find 'nothing' we feel both disappointed and surprised. In one sense, it seems, we do think intelligent life is fundamental to the world.

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