Notes for the Book: a Hierarchy of Awareness

Here’s another theme that will inform my book, if I survive to write it.

Our understanding of the universe, our understanding of physics and biology, of deep history, is biased by the way we learn to understand and think about the world from our earliest awareness as an infant. Key books I’ve read over the past decade that inform this theme are by Jesse Bering and Andrew Shutlman, but these ideas are implicit in many others.

  • As an infant and child, we form ‘intuitive’ theories about how the world works, based on genetic proclivity (e.g. the detection of agency that enables the infant to respond to its parents, and later to perceive intent in random events that are the basis for superstition and divinity) and the experience of the world at certain scales. People who grow up and never examine those naïve assumptions consider them ‘common sense.’
  • As an adult, one can learn how the world actually works, even if (as Shtulman indicates) educated adults never entirely overcome those innate proclivities. One can, furthermore, consciously learn science, become aware of humans’ innate psychological biases, and train oneself to detect and avoid rhetorical fallacies. (At the level of human interaction, one indulges in these biases and fallacies because the point is to win, not to be right. Trying to be right is science.)
  • Next perhaps is pursuing science into realms where it’s impossible to develop intuitive understand, e.g. quantum mechanics, which we know works because we have QM equations that make predictions that have proven true over and over, for decades. In effect, we surrender any personal, intuitive, understanding to the algorithms of the equations, because they work, and they indicate a level of reality completely separate from the part we interact with and think we understand.
  • Finally, perhaps, are the deeper issues which may be impossible to understand on any level – why the universe is the way it is, e.g. the fundamental physical constants. They seem arbitrary. If they are not, perhaps we will never understand why. (One answer of course is, if the constants weren’t as they are, we wouldn’t be here to ask the question; thus the multiverse hypothesis.) In this area is the intriguing notion that SF sometimes speculates about: would truly alien aliens think differently than us? Could they be more intelligent than us, as we are to dogs? And perceive things clear to them but incomprehensible to us, as we understand things incomprehensible to dogs? And if they do have some hyperintelligence, how did that intelligence come about? Did it evolve or was it engineered?

The last points are where science fiction explores; and an example is the hyperintelligence that visits the Earth in Fred Hoyle’ 1957 novel the Black Cloud, which I reviewed recently for Black Gate. ( Not only does the Cloud perceive deep problems of the universe, when it tries to transfer its knowledge to human beings, they die. There is the suggestion of a greater reality beyond anything humans can perceive, or understand. Hoyle’s book was an early exploration of this theme; there are many later.

On the third bullet, I’ve acknowledged in my memoir essays how I “hit a wall” of intuitive understanding, both in physics and in math, at certain points, in my undergraduate education. The geniuses of the world are those who perceive complex truths intuitively, as if they are obvious. This is a general theme in science fiction, too. Most people live their lives by rote, relatively speaking; the geniuses who perceive higher truths are a tiny minority.

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