Conceptual Evolution

There are levels to the game of consciousness.

Consciousness is a live stream. You can’t pause it, you can’t rewind, you can’t skip ahead. You can only watch it come rushing by. This is a chaotic state of affairs and frankly a difficult one to navigate. So slicing up this raw sense data into categories is what we end up doing. These categories are what we call concepts. They’re overlaid on top of the livestream. With the help of concepts we can compress data, save it, slice it up, shuffle it around and recombine into newer, more complex concepts. This is what mathematics is, this is what philosophy is, this is what every cognitive activity essentially amounts to. But why do we have concepts in the first place? What do they get us that raw sense impressions don’t?

Concepts, like many other entities across many different scales, evolved because they’re useful. The ultimate litmus test of a concept is its utility. If the glasses the wearer tries on don’t clarify things, they take them off. If the concept doesn’t lead to the passing on of this concept, be it by biological reproduction of that cognition, or by memetic spread, the concept begins and ends there. And in order to facilitate this conceptual spread, several intermediary goals have to be met. The individual carrying this concept in their head has to: secure resources for their safety, form stable social networks with other individuals, navigate a perpetually uncertain environment, etc. So these concepts better have strong shoulders.

But our environment isn’t static. Our environment also isn’t simply dynamic. Our environment is in constant ebb and flow with our cognition mediated by our interactions with it. How we interact with it affects how it interacts with us back. So when our concepts filter reality into a certain way for consciousness, and that filtering process results in different actions, the result is a different set of interactions with our environment. When our environment gets poked differently, it therefore reacts differently. So our concepts not only change the contents of consciousness, but they also change the environment as it appears to us.

Take ethical concepts as examples. We might have started with basic ethical concepts like fairness and reciprocity, we know this is found even in the animal kingdom. Eventually, however, the social fabric we formed around us and the resultant environmental feedback loop we entered into because of this allowed for the situation where more conceptual reproductive fitness could be had if we extended these concepts to new horizons.

We started talking about legitimacy (of rulers), of uniformity under law. Eventually the social reality we formed trapped us into tyrannical symbiotic relationships with other subjects we conceptualized as ‘rulers.’ To protect us from threats to desirable states of consciousness we acted on the basis of a newer, more refined binding ethical concept: rights. Today, we think to best speak about ‘reasons’ for acting over, say, ‘duties’. Tomorrow, who knows what concepts we’ll use? But one thing is certain, those concepts will be such that they are better adapted to the previously unimaginable environment that the last iteration of conceptual scaffold building enabled. 

Our conceptual scaffolding. Concepts closer to raw sense-data in the center, abstractions around the edges.

Over time we end up in a perpetual dance between subject and object, and between subject and subject that tends towards the ascension to more complex concepts, perpetually climbing a spiral staircase towards higher vistas. This is conceptual evolution. And it’s conceptual evolution that provides the key to understanding not only reality as it appears in consciousness, but what reality could appear to be. With this framework in hand we might even begin to scratch at what lies just over the horizon of our conceptual landscape: the transcendent. But more on that in another post.

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