Evolutionary theory tells us that we are not adapted to truth. Instead, we are adapted to useful fictions which facilitate the fluid coordination of human activity. Useful fictions such as religion, capitalism, and science became so useful that they facilitated the cooperation of increasingly large groups of people. In a sense, they became so useful that they were true.
For this reason, social science has been notoriously less successful than natural science. There is no standard model, no periodic table of elements, no canonical system of taxonomy, for the human social world. The empirical and quantitative approach to the social science has had limited success. We learn a lot from mathematical models, from collecting data, from doing empirical field work. But the empirical/rational/analytic approach to social science is unable to provide a sense of meaning, purpose, motivation in people’s lives. It treats people like data points, or like atoms. The scientific approach to social things doesn’t always hold weight because we are not adapted to the literal truth, we are adapted to useful fictions.
This is where a little know branch of social science enters in: phenomenology. Phenomenology was created by Edmund Husserl in the early 20th century. Phenomenology is a scientific approach to the pre-scientific. It is a rigorous evaluation of the common-sense, everyday experience of the world. The discovery of phenomenology is that our everyday, first-hand, direct experience of the world, is the whole of reality. It encompasses absolutely everything there is. But this is a useful fiction. What we see in the world is not the world as it is (whole), what we see is the world in terms of our purposes. We frame the world according to what we are trying to do. So we actually perceive a very narrow piece of the actual world. Phenomenology affirms both of these seemingly opposite conclusions- our experience is the whole of reality, and our experience is severely limited.
Contemporary evolutionary theory and cognitive science is consonant with this view of phenomenology, and adds more to the picture. Donald Hoffman asserts that the brain actively constructs the physical world. We do not see reality as it is, the world is far too complex. The brain actively constructs and simplifies the objective world for our perceptual purposes. He adds that our experience of the world is a data structure, it is a kind of error-correcting, data compression. We compress the objective world into our experience, we radically simplify it. Hoffman contends that felt consciousness, the experience of the world is fundamental, that is the most basic, objective reality at some level.
The problem with the rational/empirical approach to social science is that it seems to be working out okay. It seems to tell us a lot about society. But it doesn’t give people motivation, purpose, or meaning. And this is what people need most from science right now, because science has ultimate epistemic authority in society. People are running out of ideas about how to keep the economy going, people are running out of ideas about how to keep people off of drugs, people are lonely and feel a sense of desperation. It is time to look for a social science that is individualized, distributed/decentralized, and mutually correcting. Not a top-down, totalitarian theory, but a bottom-up, emergent theory.
Phenomenology gives people a sense of motivation, purpose and meaning because it tells us there is a goal to strive for: symmetry. The symmetry between internal and external environments is what all of our motivational systems are oriented towards. This is when our plans, goals, and intentions are being completed, brought into experience, when the inner and outer realities reflect one another. The ultimate goal of phenomenology is to experience the whole of reality, all at once, and it tells us that this is the true nature of our experience.
Evolutionary theory gives us the rational reason why this is a useful fiction. Our own direct experience is the only thing that we will ever know. We know that our experience is not whole, not complete, not final. But we are evolved to think that it is. Completing our plans, seeing through our intentions, bringing our wishes into reality, makes us feel as if our experience is the whole of reality, as if we are the only one who exists. And this makes us more attractive, our ideas spread and replicate. Symmetry with the external environment allows us to survive and reproduce. It is the ideal state of human adaptation. It is also what allows us to coordinate and cooperate. We feel that our own awareness is symmetric with that of the other person, we see things the same way.
Everyone is, consciously or unconsciously, striving for symmetry. And this means that they are striving to simplify, compress, reduce, the complex external environment down to simpler terms. They are striving to make it into a concise narrative, suited for their evolutionary purposes. We are striving to focus in on what we are trying to achieve. But we are faced with an immense sea of complexity, which is the external world, with all its layers, aspects and problems. And so we sum over everything we can conceive and reach a “good enough” conclusion, we reach a useful fiction that allows us to adjust to and control the environment.
But this useful fiction is not just a fiction, it is useful, and therefore it reaches down to the most fundamental, evolutionary structure of the world. It allows us to achieve goals, execute plans, realize intentions. Symmetry involves taking responsibility for our field of experience. Anything that comes into our field of experience is meaningful, significant, and important because we are evolved to see our own experience as the whole of reality. Every occurrence is a symbol or representation of some more fundamental social reality. There is an interdependent substructure of consciousness.
Since we are all dealing with the same objective substructure, all of our compressive experiences are synchronously correlated. We continuously simplify the world. And through mimetic processes, people simplify each other’s simplifications. We enter a virtuous feedback cycle in which there is a contagion of simplifying narratives, compressing more and more information into simpler and simpler structures. Eventually, we converge on the simplest possible narrative that compresses the most possible information. Once we enter this virtuous feedback cycle, then we will converge on something like a standard model of society. Our useful fictions converge on the ultimate useful fiction which coordinates all of human activity.