The Core Argument
Second Edition, 2010
Warning! Because I am re-writing this book, the later links are all bad. I’m fixing then as part of the rewriting effort.
The red marker shows my current progress.
Because the first animals had the ability to move around in their environment, they needed to sense the environment and, more important, recognize critical patterns, such as predators and prey. These needs were met with the development of nervous systems, which were basically just pattern-recognizing networks of neurons. Nervous systems grew more complex for a while, but then topped out with the dinosaurs. The mammals who replaced them added a new element to nervous systems: sequential processing. Sequential processing is really rather unnatural; it takes quite a lot of jiggering to make it work. Neurons are made for pattern recognition and so don’t do sequential processing very well, and so it took bigger brains to handle sequential processing, but it turned out to provide so many benefits that it was worth the extra metabolic load. Evolution continued to meander about, trying out all sorts of variations. First, one order of the mammals, the primates, climbed into the trees and established an arboreal lifestyle. To do this successfully, they developed greatly enhanced visual processing. Later, some of the primates came back down from the trees and exploited a new ecological niche; they were the hominids, who had to develop new mental tricks to survive in the new environment.
Chapter 2One genus of the hominids, the Homo Genus, enhanced their success on the ground by adding complex social relationships to their behavioral repertoire, which of course required new social relationship processing. Then one subgroup within this family, the humans, added even more sequential processing power and enjoyed a serendipitous synergy of all these capabilities, became much smarter, and suddenly began expanding rapidly to fill many ecological niches. Along the way it developed a number of “mental modules”. Unfortunately, their technique, now known as the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, created all sorts of new problems involving sex. The upshot of all this was Homo Sapiens, who first developed language, a vastly advanced form of sequential processing. Along with language came a new kind of thinking, which was so useful that it ended up taking over the overall operation of the brain. Because language penetrated each of the previously independent mental modules, it connected them together, and they began interacting with each other.
Chapter 3At this point, it was just a hop, skip, and jump to agriculture and civilization. The early ancient civilizations didn’t make much progress in thinking. The really big leap came when they started to put language down on paper in the form of writing. Initially, writing was just a way to create bills of lading,
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but the Greeks were the first to put all the pieces together and move writing into a central position in society. Writing opened up all sorts of intellectual doorways, and the Greeks eagerly opened every door they could. In the process they founded western civilization.
The biggest contribution the Greeks made was the syllogism, the simplest and most precise expression of sequential thinking. Syllogisms can be combined in long chains, thereby permitting detailed exploration of extremely complex intellectual problems. One might have expected the syllogism to take the world by storm, but it fact it took more than a thousand years for the style of sequential or syllogistic thinking to catch on. But when it did, science was born. Technology followed science like mud follows a flood, and pretty soon we were awash in technology, which we used to create vast amounts of material wealth, and also to conquer the world. By the dawn of the twentieth century, Reason had triumphed.
But pattern-based reasoning hadn’t gone away -- it’s still a part of us, and plays an important role in our thought processes. Indeed, pattern thinking is more deeply ingrained into our brains than this new-fangled sequential stuff. Indeed, two of our most logical intellectual endeavors, science and law, pass the buck on their most fundamental questions to pattern-based reasoning. Thus, we tend to rely on pattern thinking most of the time, and we resort to sequential thinking only when we are compelled to do so. This has created a war between the two thinking styles, sometimes described as a war between logic and emotion, but there’s much more going on here than just Mr. Spock’s angst.
It turns out that we have already developed several schemes for coping with the mismatch between sequential thinking and pattern thinking. Stories, for example, are a way of expressing pattern thinking through the sequential medium of language. And we often reduce complex sequential problems to some sort of drawing or picture, which allows our pattern-based visual processing system to take a crack at the problem.
There’s one other form of thinking out there that represents the next step in sequential thinking: subjunctive thinking. This might be called "virtual thinking"; where sequential thinking imagines a line of nodes, subjunctive thinking sees each node as a branchpoint from which a thousand possibilities emerge. The workload of keeping track of all those possibilities is too much for the human brain to handle, but now we have a medium that is ideally suited for subjunctive thinking: the computer. Thus, the computer will permit the full exploitation of subjunctive thinking in the same way that writing permitted the full exploitation of sequential thinking. We are about to enter a new period in the human story every bit as brilliant as that of classical Greece.
After reading all this, you might be tempted to ask, "Where’s the proof?" If so, here’s the answer.