Figments of Reality: The Evolution of the Curious Mind

by Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen
Cambridge University Press, New York, 1997, 325 pp., hardcover, $24.95.

Reviewed by Douglas Chapman

The Grim Reaper has been in evidence in Strange Magazine lately, but Figments of Reality introduces the Grim Sower—symbolizing the large-scale creation and seeming wastage of lifeforms so that the genetic legacies can go on.

But this tendency is only a minor topic here, in a book that works towards a valid method of encountering the universe’s complexities with fewer blinders. What humans can understand, though, must be in some sense a “lie-to-children.”

The authors write: “Because human beings experience reality indirectly, through the medium of their senses, there is room for genuine and reasonable disagreement about the nature of reality.” Science can no longer be thought of as absolute truth.

Subjectiveness rules. Our inner “ringmaster” organizes data, on the lookout for defining features. The processing layers of the mind pull up recognitions of patterns, and language facilities are used to express the patterns recognized. “‘Self’ is not a thing, but a process....”

The authors write of how, to humans, actions take place in external reality, and thus what we call free will is more than merely an illusion—”it is a figment rendered realby the evolutionary complicity of mind and culture.”

In the authors’ view, intelligence, as such, existed as a potential in “phase space” until humankind happened into it and reacted to it—and the resultant feedback loop had gigantic results.

Life potentials can be used in many ways. That humans are the shape they are does not mean that extraterrestrial lifeforms should be the same. For example, feeding from tall branches is different in elephants and giraffes.

Long prehensile noses and long necks are both valid solutions for the same problem.

Evolution is generally considered a fact, but those who disagree point out the elements that are not yet understood. The authors here emphasize the process’s dynamics—which to them is like water filling an invisible landscape. Humans are not yet aware of the “landscape’s” real parameters, shaped by various needs of survival abilities such as flight or speed.

Structures change, and find whatever use an entity can manage. In the evolution of an eye, there never was half an eye, but there were structures between the extremes of a light sensitive surface and a full eye—with varying sensing levels.

Evolution is not as simplified as some have made it. Our present concept of an “Eve,” a female supposedly the ancestor of us all, is a gross example—“...she represents a particular molecular sequence for mitochondrial DNA, embodied in a population of women possessing that molecule, from whom all modern mitochondrial DNA molecules descend.” This sequence likely dates back long before the divergence of humans and chimpanzees.

“Primitive” creatures primitive can have more of our capabilities than we credit them for. A famished cat can use complex communication strategies to let human stewards know what it wants from the immediate future. Consciousness is a continuum, not something absent in animals and present in humans.

Human imagination has created more complex sense—and nonsense—than most, with results more often useful than not, since humans are a species that can bend its own mind. The “realities” that humans choose are sometimes odd ones, though, since “truth” is not the only factor involved in the construction of cultural myths. A large selection is possible. Forteans tend to be aware of this.

Simplex minds think in single “lines” of thought, complex minds explore in the areas immediately around such intersecting “lines,” while multiplex minds search in the unknown territory between them. As the global culture knits closer, the latter mode of thinking becomes desirable—if one can achieve it.

This book considers the ways sentient beings experience and think about reality, and promotes multiplex awareness.

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