11 April 2007

While I was walking down the talud for the last time in Tiel before I moving to Arnhem, I pondered on what enlightenment was. And before long, I was back squarely at evolution. Because a dilemma was tickling me.

Don't the two things seem quite different in their make? Enlightenment is this mysterious, mystical, almost even religious concept of the mind, whereas evolution is all about scientific exploration; physics and molecules. How could we combine these two separate things into a single, coherent theory? After all, it seems that the two seem incompatible as they both seem to view life from widely differing angles.

Following my train of thought; I began -quite unaware of the coming question at that time- to describe what enlightenment was. It occurred to me that it wasn't mastery over the aspects of this world, which up until then I had subconsciously assumed. An enlightened person needn't at all be in control of himself or always make the right decisions concerning it, though they often do go hand in hand for reasons I will get to. Rather, I thought of enlightenment as a road, an infinite road, that people could walk, constantly gathering more knowledge and a better understanding of the universe. Enlightenment itself however, does not consist of walking that road or reaching its end (which doesn't exist in the first place as it is impossible to understand everything and all there is), it is seeing the road. The sharp pang of enlightenment that people experience isn't that they suddenly have the solution to a problem, but understanding that there's a road towards it. That perception is the glorious event of waking up, stepping out of Plato's shadow-filled cave, and knowing that there is a road to travel. And once walking the road, of course, knowledge and answers will come.

The observation that sparked this thought was that people generally have a tendency to want to see the world in black-and-white terms. I once described this as the mind's inherent desire to revert back to simplicity. We all know that there is no such thing as pure 'good' and 'evil', and yet we all tumble over ourselves following decisions based on the Enemy, the Axis of Evil or the Supreme Good, on a small, every-day scale and a large, global one. Seeing shades of gray or even the full spectrum of colour is a luxury we have to put a lot of effort behind, constantly being thwarted by our own instincts. Leaving the morality behind this and how dangerous and foolish this is alone for now, I'd like to review how this ties into evolution and that mystical path of enlightenment.

Enlightenment seeks of course to remove the mind of such abstract notions of black and white and pull it into the world of colours and relativity. Metaphorically putting it as a path that must be perceived is a handy way of viewing it. And I believe that this spiritual metaphor can be easily tied into evolution. The question at hand is as follows: why does our mind want to see everything in abstract terms, making enlightenment (which, metaphors aside, is nothing more than gaining a more acute understanding of life, the universe and everything) such a difficult thing to achieve?

My theory is this. As man evolved, it gained many tools of the mind with which it could better survive, including but not limited to: memory, simulation of our environment and the future, and (possibly as a consequence from the lot) consciousness. It is the simulation part that we are concerned with here; after all, what is our view of the world if not a simulation of reality? Reality is completely beyond our ability to perceive flawlessly and so we create a flawed simulation, constantly adjusting it and trying our best to approach what is 'real'. It is quite likely that we get better at this throughout the generations. We are most likely far better at simulating what goes on around us than men of 500 years ago. And our future offspring will be able to out-compute us to a remarkable degree.

The answer to our question has presented itself, then. Our difficulties with enlightenment and thinking outside simple black/white terms are because our ability to simulate reality simply isn't that good yet. The mind is ill-equipped to approach reality that accurately and is always trying to make things more abstract and bite-size, which was all it needed a relatively short time ago, when man was still hunting mammoths and gathering berries. The people that better manage to prick through veil of obscurity have a simulation-edge over the rest, who remain ever in the cave, looking at shadows of themselves. Except that we now understand that the cave metaphor is lacking: there is no on/off switch to enlightenment. It's an endless road to simulation perfection, both within the lifetime of a person and over the generations; a process that has everything to do with our genetic evolution (as well as our memetic one most likely, but I haven't delved into that).

Concluding, this is only a single theory that might explain the, to the naked eye, incompatible ideas of evolution and enlightenment. Stripped from its metaphorical, mystical garments, we are left with a very concise idea and an interesting theory that should give you the assurance that future generations won't be as dull-witted as we sometimes still are.