Intelligence increase (dynamic ontology)

Lyle Burkhead (
Tue, 21 Jan 1997 23:55:50 -0500 (EST)

I recently read *Evolving the Mind: on the nature of matter and the
origin of consciousness* by Graham Cairns-Smith. His thesis is that
we are assuming too quickly that consciousness *cannot* be material.
We need to expand our understanding of what matter is, and then it
may turn out that "material consciousness" isn't an oxymoron after all.
Those of you who have read his earlier books, be warned: this one is
different. He doesn't present a theory of the origin of consciousness,
like his theory of the origin of life. In this book he is just speculating,
probing, trying to decide what is the right question to ask. It might
have been better if he had waited a few years before publishing this
book. However, my purpose here is not to review the book.

He makes a provocative remark in the first chapter. First he quotes
Faraday, as follows:

MF: Thus, for instance, the weight or gravitation of a body depends
MF: upon a force which we call attraction; and this force is not
MF: something away or separate from the matter nor the matter
MF: separate from the force; the force is an essential property or part
MF: of the matter, and, to speak absurdly, the matter without the force
MF: would not be matter. Or, if we recognize matter by its hardness,
MF: what do we other than recognize by our sensations a force
MF: exerted by it?

Then he comments:

CS: Although today we cannot but believe in atoms, none of us are
CS: atomists any more, not in the Greek tradition. Newton had
CS: helped the trend away from the clear-cut atoms of Democritus,
CS: Lucretius and Descartes: he supposed that there were forces
CS: operating at at distance between atoms by analogy with the
CS: huge gravitational forces which seemed manifestly to operate
CS: across millions of miles of space. Since Newton we can no longer
CS: insist that anything has a clear location. Where is the moon?
CS: Out there a quarter of a million miles away? Well you might say
CS: that most of it is out there, but what sense is there in saying
CS: that the moon is in one place but has an influence here
CS: in raising the tides twice a day, because, oh yes, it has an attached
CS: gravitational field. (How is it attached -- with stitching?)
CS: Is is not better to say, as Faraday did, that material things consist
CS: of fields, more intense in some places, less so in others?

We all start out with a basic ontology, i.e. an (implicit) theory of
what kinds of things there are. As children, we have a vague idea of
what an entity is, and how entities affect each other. Our basic
ontology is partly neurological -- our brains are wired in such a way
that we perceive objects with boundaries -- and partly cultural -- we
absorb certain ideas about entities and causes from the first language
we learn.

Progress is made in science when men like Newton and Faraday refine
their ontology, i.e. come up with a more fine-grained idea of what an
entity is. The moon isn't that thing we see in the sky; that's part of it,
you might say that's the center of it, but it is "here" as much as "there,"
and we have to expand our idea of what an entity is so that this concept
makes sense to us.

Since extropians are less concerned with making progress in science
than with increasing their own intelligence, we can express this
in a more subjective way: we increase our intelligence by refining our
ontology. When we have a more fine-grained understanding of
what an entity is, what space is, what causality is -- then we are more

In other words, *speed* of thought has very little to do with it.
If you speed up somebody's thought processes but leave his ontology
the same, he will just miss the point a hundred times faster.