The most interesting part of Jordan Peterson’s second lecture, in my opinion, is a little aside that Peterson made about the story of the Tree of Knowledge.
And I wanted to contrast that with what we know about the evolution of human consciousness.
First, let me say, the evolution of consciousness is a really tricky subject [Seem my previous post on spandrels]. For example, it doesn’t make sense why we evolved to be as intelligent as we are. We have brains that are capable of building computers and rocket ships. But, until 5,000 years ago we didn’t have any technology that was more complicated than an arrow. It doesn’t make obvious sense why nature selected for this incredible hardware in a stone age environment.
But first, Peterson’s lecture. So, the story – just to remind everyone, is that in the garden of eden, there was a tree of knowledge of good and evil. And a serpent convinced Eve to eat the fruit, and then eve convinced Adam to eat the fruit, and then they realized they were naked. This brought evil into the world and led to Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden of Eden.
Peterson notes that the traditional explanation is that sexual shame is why they realize they are naked. But, Peterson argues that it’s more likely self-consciousness in general that the nakedness refers to. For example, if you have a dream where you are naked in public – it’s usually not a sexual dream. It’s a dream where you fear being exposed, having your weakness revealed. And so when Adam and Eve realized they were naked, it reflects that the knowledge they gained was the self-awareness. The insight to realize they were naked, and the theory of mind to realize that others could see their nakedness and their vulnerability.
Now, let’s compare this to the best evolutionary theories that we have about how consciousness evolved. As I mentioned before, human intelligence doesn’t make sense from a natural selection viewpoint. Not only does it not explain why we would be as intelligent as we are, but it would also not explain why we have this deep subjective mental experience.
This is something I became aware of when I listened to Sam Harris discussing with David Chalmers on his podcast a few months ago. They were talking about the evolution of consciousness, but they constantly danced around this one thing. And these are smart guys. They’re not fools. So when I noticed that there was this one thing that they were completely ignoring.
Anyway, I’m going to explain that, but let’s get back to the original question of – why did intelligence evolve. As I mentioned before the brain doesn’t make sense from a natural selection viewpoint. The modern mind is capable of a huge number of tasks that early humans didn’t need to do, whether it’s mathematics or composing music or poetry.
So, the mystery is – what was the problem that existed 40,000 years ago that you needed an IQ of 100 to solve. The environment didn’t have a problem like this – so natural explanation doesn’t explain it.
And the answer is: they are for understanding other human beings.
Our brains evolved, not to help us build spears, or to build huts, or to learn writing, but to understand the people around us. We evolved big brains so that people couldn’t trick us and steal our resources or our partners. We evolved big brains so that we could understand (and sometimes deceive) others, and survive when times were lean. We evolved big brains so that we could know when our spouses or our allies were telling the truth, or when they were cheating on us, or lying to us, or planning to betray us, so we could prepare an appropriate response.
Obviously, that’s a complicated, and difficult task. It required the human brain to be capable of recursion (aka, thinking about someone thinking about what you’re thinking), and to be extraordinarily flexible. People, after all, are tricky things.
Compared to the complexity of people and of tribal politics, building a spear was probably pretty easy, and so it was natural that our flexible, brilliant brains would start figuring out the natural world in their spare time.
And so, rational, logical intelligence in humans (as distinct from social or artistic intelligence) evolved as the side-effect of a brain that had to be both extraordinarily powerful (in processing power) and also flexible and recursive.
And it’s the recursiveness of human consciousness that I think gives rise to the other mysterious thing about consciousness that I think people don’t really recognize. David Chalmers gets into this a bit in his interview with Sam Harris, but he doesn’t quite realize the unique thing about human consciousness is that we are aware of it.
This is the idea that THINKING something and being AWARE that you are thinking something are TWO DIFFERENT THINGS. And that is what makes human consciousness truly remarkable.
So if you take Descartes’s famous statement “I think therefore I am” – you realize that he’s wrong. Computers think. Calculators think. What makes human consciousness unique is that human beings don’t just think, but we are able to observe our own minds as they are thinking. We are capable of insight into our own thoughts and consciousness and that’s not trivial. That’s a WEIRD feature.
So why are we aware of our own thoughts? Because in order to win this evolutionary arms race, in order to win this recursive game of deception, we needed to equip ourselves with an ultimate weapon. We evolved the ability to understand our enemies so that we could defeat them, and our enemies (the snakes around us) evolved the ability to understand us. So we evolved the ability to understand ourselves, to see our own thoughts so that we could know our own weaknesses, our own motivations, to know the gaps in our own knowledge.
And when we did that, we became aware of our own nakedness. And we suddenly became exposed to the realities of good and evil. Conscious now of our own thoughts, we could no longer push things out of our awareness. We, alone amongst all the animals, became aware that we were destined to die. We were no longer simply acting out instincts programmatically, we were forced to choose, and to understand the consequences of our choices.
And because of this, we had to feel suffering. Because I think it’s the subjective experience of pain which creates suffering.
So there we have it. Why did consciousness evolve? Because the snakes around us caused men and women to increase their intelligence in an evolutionary arms race. This caused us to develop self awareness – “to realize our own nakedness”, and created the phenomenon of suffering – bringing evil into the world.
Now, I’m not suggesting that the ancient people who wrote the bible knew anything about the evolution of consciousness. But it stands to reason that they understand the relationship between man’s unique intelligence, his self awareness, and his capacity for evil.
Click here for my notes on the first lecture – Introduction to the Idea of God.