Evolution and Phenomenology

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.



How is human social coordination possible? The condition of social coordination is the ascription of fundamental value. Human beings coordinate around what is most valuable to them collectively. The process of converging on a fundamental coordination value is itself an emergent social process.

The experience of the human being is continuous selection of the most important aspects of the environment. Experience is a reduction of the environment to those aspects which are most significant for its own purposes. So coordination is possible only in light of the fundamental purposes of experience. The fundamental purpose of experience is its incentives or its motivation, which can be understood in terms of rewards and punishments.

What is the most fundamental motivation of the human organism? The motivation of the human organism is to survive. Survival depends on adaptation to the environment. The purpose or the fundamental motivation of the human organism is to reach a state of perfected adaptation, in which it responds to the environment in an ideal way. If the human being’s most fundamental motivation is to reach a state of perfected adaptation, then this is what they value the most, this is what they coordinate their behavior around.

Experience is a continuous selection or reduction of the environment to the most important aspects, those aspects which are most conducive to adaptation. What is adaptation fundamentally? Adaptation is when you become more like the environment, and the environment becomes more like you. It is an adjustment to and control of the environment. The state of perfected adaptation is when there is a symmetry between the internal states and the external environment. This means that our plans accurately map the unfolding of the external environment.

The human being perceives the world in terms of plans and plan structures. These determine how the most immediate, intuitive and instinctual actions relate to the longer term goals and purposes. The plan structures determine how the environment unfolds, what aspects of the environment we perceive. They determine what is important. The plan structures of human beings are interdependent, they interlock and mutually modify each other. The construction of personal plans is an emergent, interdependent social process.

The plan structures and goals determine how we frame the environment and what aspects of the environment we perceive. The environment and the social processes modify our plans, based on where they conflict with other people’s plans. There is a hierarchy of plan structures competing for dominance. Our own plans are embedded within other people’s plans. But there is an overall, aggregate plan structure, which is collectively negotiated and decided by continual dialogue that modifies plans.

Overall, there is a social process for converging on a mutually constructive, reinforcing plan structure. This involves positing an overall goal that reveals the most fundamental motivations and value of the human being. The most fundamental motivation or reward of the human being is to seek an equilibrium of perfected adaptation. This is a state of symmetry with the external environment, in which embedded plan structures unfold in pure thematic continuity. According to this state, all novelty is beneficent and reinforcing.

The collective plan structure is the process of coordinating around perfected adaptation. According to perfected adaptation, reality is efficient, meaning that everything which passes through perception is meaningful and significant. This must be the case because experience is the reduction of highly complex, heterogeneous information to simplified, important elements. Perfected adaptation is an ideal type, it is an object that is posited as the prototype of experience. It is the fundamental motivational system of the human being.

Experience is the reduction of the complex, external environment to a simplified heuristic. All human beings are making this reduction in terms of the fundamental human purpose. This means that all reductions are oriented toward the same fundamental value. There is an intrinsic, biological coordination of human activity. All individuals are reducing or compressing the complexity of their environment in a similar way. They all process their environment according to the same fundamental motivational significance, the symmetry with the external environment.

This means that the internal states of the various individuals are algorithmically correlated. There is fundamentally one human experience which is taking place through variegated, fragmented perspectives. The collective human experience is a complex, synchronous object tending toward the state of perfected adaptation in which there is a perfected collective consciousness. Paradoxically, the most lucid experience of this synchronous object is not in the collectivity of groups, but in the collectivity of individuals, the synchronous coordination of individuated states.

The field of behavioral economics is devoted to proving that human beings have systematic biases in reasoning. Behavioral economics developed in response to the conception of rationality in the discipline of traditional economics. Economics assumes that human beings have stable rank ordered preferences and apply a utilitarian calculus to make decisions. Kahneman and Tversky were among the first who set out to prove experimentally that this conception of rational homo economicus could not be literally true. Their experiments revealed systematic biases in human reasoning which directly contradicted the idea that humans were perfectly rational.

However, there is another explanation for why people have systematic biases in reasoning. Gerd Gigerenzer argued that we are not inherently flawed reasoners as Kahneman and Tversky suggest. But Gigerenzer is also not agreeing with the orthodox economists that we are completely rational. He instead suggests that we use simplified heuristics to reason, that we reason probabilistically.

The philosopher Martin Heidegger described a situation in which people deal with average “everydayness.” We are immersed in patterns of behavior and routines. We see things in terms of their practical usefulness for everyday life. We do not perceive static, material objects. We perceive a flux of useful transitions toward our intentions. We see everything  in the material world in terms of the end toward which we are progressing. Thus there is a systematic bias built in to our experience, but it is an immersive bias, not an error of calculation. The error simply comes from the fact that we perceive things in terms of their usefulness for our ends.

Heidegger’s conception is related to the “flow state” observed in psychology by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. The person who has practiced an activity or skill over and over again, gets immersed into that activity. We develop habits and routines that are deeply embodied and engrained in the nervous system. When practicing our skill, we become absorbed into that action, such that from their subjective point of view, time seems to stop. We enter a state of blissfulness, in which our brain is highly active and engaged.

These immersive states can appear as forms of systematic bias in reasoning, as described by Kahneman and Tversky. But from a practical, subjective, everyday point of view, these states make life worth living. The flow states, the practices of skillful activity, give our life meaning and purpose. They allow us to contribute and add value to humanity.

Our systematic biases in reasoning come not from some error of calculative reasoning, but from the fact that our experience is the only thing we will ever know. This causes us to unconsciously believe that our experience is the whole of reality. All of our evolutionary tendencies are driven toward reinforcing the idea that our experience is the whole of reality. We experience pleasure when this idea is reinforced and pain when it is not. This is a flaw in reasoning, we know that other people exist, we know that our experience is partial and biased. Yet all of our subconscious and unconscious motivations are toward making ourselves the absolute center of reality. We cannot help reasoning in this way because we are so immersed in our own experience.

Yet because we realize this bias in ourselves, we simultaneously realize that other people also have this bias towards perceiving themselves as the whole of reality. We thus realize that our own experience is not in fact the whole of reality, because there are others who believe their experience is the whole of reality. Who’s experience in fact has primacy? It is decided by a kind of cooperative game. The equilibrium is one in which everyone subconsciously believes that his own experience accurately represents the whole of reality, but these wholes mutually reciprocate and correct one another, converging on a steady-state. This is the “efficient meaning hypothesis,” an extension of the efficient market hypothesis.

The efficient market hypothesis says that prices reflect all available information. If there is some new information about a company, for example, if regulators crack down or if the company makes a profit this quarter, that information is immediately reflected by a change in the stock price. There is steady-state equilibrium in which stock prices accurately compress information about actual changes on the ground in the underlying companies.

The efficient meaning hypothesis says that everything which comes into the field of experience is some reflection of the overall distribution of collective, social experiences. The individual is, in fact, a measure, a barometer of the collective distribution of experiences. He both receives and changes this distribution by his own actions and responses. The human individual does not adapt just his immediate environment. He reasons and abstracts from his immediate environment to the future and to other places in the world. His immediate environment is actually an extended immediate environment. He is able to know what is going on at other places in the world and perceive how those events affect him in his current situation and how he affects those events, through the mediation of his immediate experience.

However, this puts the ultimate responsibility for world events into the hands of individuals, a prospect which is both empowering and frightening. If individuals are responsible for world events, then they had better have their acts together.

The efficient meaning hypothesis admits, with Kahneman and Tversky that there are systematic biases in reasoning that come from our adaptive strategy in believing our own experience is identical with the whole, but it also asserts with Gigerenzer that these biases may be adaptively useful heuristics for sorting through the environment. This wholistic reasoning is obviously very complex and hard to do effectively because there are so many variables involved. However, when done effectively it leads to the highest levels of adaptive human performance.

The efficient meaning hypothesis involves a deepening of the Enlightenment conception of the natural rights individualism. Individuals are not just created equal with a self evident right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Each individual is actually an instantiation or a microcosm of the whole of social reality. The biases in reasoning which go along with believing that one’s own experience is the whole of reality is adaptively and evolutionarily built into us. This is the unconscious coordinating mechanism of human behavior. It is not enough to simply try to overcome this error in reasoning, we must biologically adapt to it. We must learn to see our own experience as a hypothetical whole, not an absolute whole, but as a transition undergoing continuous reality testing, converging on an ultimate steady-state.



In many ways, contemporary society is the best situation man has ever been in, there is higher standard of living, increasing tolerance, increasing knowledge and interconnectedness, decreasing poverty, decreasing violence. Yet there is also a constellation of social problems that are all related: the problem of nihilism, the crisis of meaning and of public mental health, mass shootings, suicides, drugs and “deaths of despair,” the problem of the culture wars and the vitriolic political dialogue, the problem of inequality of opportunity and systemic oppression, the problem of what constitutes legitimate authority, truth and knowledge in the sphere of journalism and in science, the problem of peer review in science, the problem of the ethical values that guide science, and of overspecialization in science and in capitalism. All of these problems are related to the spiritual foundations of humanity. Human beings are innately spiritual in the sense that they always strive to overcome their current condition. The spiritual foundations of humanity are the conceptions of humanity’s place in the hierarchical structure of the universe. This is related to the question of whether there is any greater purpose for being the world. There are two broadly proposed solutions to the spiritual crisis: return to tradition and transhumanism.

The return to the old spiritual traditions is broadly an appeal to something like religious tradition or political ideology. In this view, the greater purpose of humanity is solidarity, harmony, and service to one another. Whether through the new age, esotericism, occultism, shamanism, yoga, psychedelic drugs, Carl Jung or Mircea Eliade, music of the 60’s, social conservatism, liberalism, Marxist utopianism, Buddhism, Christianity, it involves trying to recover some “lost wisdom of the ancients.” Trying to get in touch with deeply embodied instincts or practices which are in the blindspot of contemporary, secular natural science. The claim is that there is some spiritual or political knowledge which is not fulfilled by modern natural science. This may even be knowledge from the  contemporary natural or social sciences that is not widely understood or appreciated in the right way. And through rediscovering and conveying this knowledge, it will build up to a tipping point in modern society and initiate a Renaissance in human culture. The hope is that some kind of greater social intelligence will awaken.

Transhumanism claims basically that humanity has given birth to science and technology, and that these will inevitably produce a new kind of intelligence which will supersede humanity. In this view, the greater purpose of human life is to give birth to this higher evolutionary intelligence. Whether through artificial intelligence or genetic engineering, humanity will be surpassed by superhuman intelligences which will either guide humanity or eliminate it. The hope is that we can harness the incredible power of these new technologies toward the good of all people, but this comes at the risk that these technologies will actually destroy us. The momentum toward the outcome of either total renewal or total destruction, is past the point of no return. It is an inevitable trajectory of scientific progress that it will either save the world or destroy it. Once this new higher intelligence comes into being, there will be a clear hierarchy of legitimate authority. The super-intelligent beings will be in command, and they will either help us to renew the planet or else they will wipe us out. The hope of transhumanism is that we can control the initial conditions of the rise of the super-intelligence and thus have some control over the outcome.

My essential argument is that the return to spiritual tradition is the precondition for a beneficent outcome of transhumanism. This is definitely worrisome because the pace of technological progress is extremely rapid and it seems like the pace of social progress is more cumbersome. We seem divided and fragmented on all sides. Furthermore, it seems like it has been this way throughout human history and that there is no hope on the horizon for repairing the divisions. This view is mistaken. I think we only have to look back as far as the Renaissance and the Enlightenment to see a kind of unified human flourishing. It is possible that we will see a re-awakened paradigmatic shift in human perception. What are the grounds of such a paradigm shift which could facilitate a cultural Renaissance?

Yuval Noah Harari correctly (in my view) diagnoses the modern condition as “liberal humanism,” the view that the “voice in the soul” is the primary authority. When we look to make a decision, we say “go with what your heart tells you”. When we ask what is beautiful, we say “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” When we ask a teacher what they are trying to do, they say “I want to teach my students to think for themselves.” We rely on our own individual conscience or intuition to tell us what is right and wrong, good and bad. Yet Harari, being a transhumanist, incorrectly (in my view) says that this condition of liberal humanism will be overcome by technology. Instead of listening to our own intuition, people will increasingly listen to technological algorithms. We will turn to Google or Facebook for dating advice and with life questions. We will turn to biopharmaceutical and bioengineering companies to cure our diseases.

By contrast to Harari, I argue that liberal humanism is not going away. Instead, I argue that liberal humanism will deepen. Liberal humanism’s focus on the individual will become characterized by a deep sociality, rather than an individualist self-reliance or a reliance on external technology, there will be a deeply interdependent, synchronic sociality. I think this will represent a genuine shift in the global social coordination equilibria. Instead of outsourcing our decisions to technological algorithms on Google or Facebook, we will outsource our decisions to the “external” environment. Instead of the individual conscience being the primary authority, the individual will increasingly be seen as the entire whole. Each individual is an instantiation of the whole of reality. This is the key axiom of the Renaissance of liberal humanism into deep humanism.

The whole of reality is not dynamic or static, it is a composite subjective-objective that we are all intrinsically striving towards to fulfill our limited, partial state. This is not objective reality as science knows it, but a pragmatic way of determining how we should act. When each individual is the whole of reality, the “external” environment gives immediate feedback on each choice because the whole, as whole, is interdependent and synchronic, all of its aspects are internally correlated. It is up to us to determine whether the environment is giving us good feedback or not. Every experience is significant and meaningful. This is only true if everyone is acting on that same premise, if it is truly a global equilibrium. If Harari is correct that we are already operating on a liberal humanist paradigm, then how long before we realize its logical next phase and transition to the deep humanist paradigm? My suspicion is that we already tend to operate on the assumption that our experience is the whole of reality. This is why there are prevalent reasoning biases demonstrated by behavioral economics. Instead of reasoning like pure natural scientists, we reason based on feedback mechanisms from the environment combined with the vague intuition of a higher, more complex threshold of potential, beyond experience.

The evidence that experience is an unbroken whole is that personal experience is the only thing or process that we will ever know. If the primary phenomenon is consciousness, then we must take this evidence seriously. We must posit that our limited, fragmented, discursive experience is nevertheless some kind of instantiation of the unbroken, objective whole. Deep humanism is a composite scientific-religious methodology. Experience is a hypothetical whole, it is a compression, a low resolution image of the whole. It undergoes continual reality testing, in order to see how and where it is limited and where it is an accurate mapping. There is a hierarchy of interdependent, embedded levels of spatiotemporal plans and analysis. There is a threshold of complexity above which the individual cannot understand. For this reason, the environment is the storehouse of the complex social cognition. We outsource decisions, problems, plans, to the social environment, which gives us feedback on our choices. In the liberal humanist paradigm, this feedback is slow or perhaps never comes, because people still view their individuality as partial and biased. Once people are acting on the axiom that their experience is the provisional completion of reality, then new paradigmatic ways of interacting are possible.

This Renaissance of deep humanism is the necessary condition for the beneficent emergence of a higher, superhuman intelligence. Some version of the “universal science” will be the intrinsic operating system of any kind of superhuman intelligence, we must be able to speak its language before it emerges. The human perception of the world is so limited and narrow that it focuses on certain aspects, and yet these aspects become so important that they become deeply symbolic of all of the rest of the aspects. It is important the we cultivate the process of continually refining and correcting that focus to more and more perfectly map the whole of reality.