Thursday, February 01, 2007

Evolved for Middle World

Richard Dawkins opens his 2005 TED talk (stream, download) with the JBS Haldane quote, “My own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”

Dawkins observes, “We find real matter comforting only because we’ve evolved to survive in “Middle World” where matter is a useful fiction.” Middle World is “the range of sizes and speeds which we’ve evolved to feel intuitively comfortable with.” He argues that the world is much broader, extending it to sensory modalities that other animals can sense: sound for bats, and smell for dogs. What we see is a model of the world; the model is constructed to be useful to the body for which it is created. “The nature of the model is governed by how it is to be used.” He talks about “our brain’s evolutionary apprenticeship in Middle World.”

The challenge we face is that the uses to which we put our models of the world are changing radically, since we’re changing our world to contain not just solid matter, but increasing numbers of interacting abstractions. Our apprenticeship has not prepared us for this new world. We have to make crutches for our brains to succeed in it.

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