Cathedrals of Scent

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2014-02-09 – My friend Chris posted an interesting article on Facebook: “What’s the Point If We Can’t Have Fun?” by David Graeber. The article contrasts one utilitarian view of evolutionary psychology with a view that it calls mystical. If the utilitarians can’t explain play with cost-benefit analysis, then ipso facto every electron in the universe must have a mind of its own (a very “minimal” mind, to be sure, but this mind operates at the subatomic level).

If it’s not black, it must be white. Of course! No shades of gray. No colors.

The problem struggled with in the article, of course, is where consciousness comes from. The utilitarian view approaches this gradually through what the article calls emergence. New qualities emerge when a system gets more complicated. Chemistry emerges from physics, biology emerges from chemistry, and psychology emerges from biology.

Unfortunately, according to the article, the utilitarian view stumbles because there is no good explanation for play. If it’s all survival of the fittest, how do we get gentleness? Or fun?

So naturally, if we can’t explain it, we have to introduce a mind to direct the festivities. In this case the mind is not a god, but some sort of piss and vinegar that animates matter down to the subatomic.

I don’t think mysticism or “panpsychism” is the only alternative.

A better alternative to me is to take down the utilitarian view just a notch. And, in fact, the utilitarian view has been crumbling for decades. The utilitarian view is an economic view that says that we all (humans and all organisms) act only to maximize utility as a nineteenth century philosopher might view it.

Economics no longer holds to this view of utility and much research is devoted to describing “nonrational” economic behavior. If economics has abandoned this view, why haven’t evolutionists?

The answer is that most have abandoned this view as well. The more subtle view embraces and explains cooperative behavior as well as competitive behavior, but the newer view doesn’t produce sound bites like “survival of the fittest” so the argument seems to always go back to that.

As stated in this article, the emergent view says that organisms lack consciousness through most of the evolutionary journey until, bam, a certain threshold is reached and you have humans who can write blogs. The emergent view seems too drastic a change. Apes can’t write blogs, so they are not conscious. A more valid view would be to say that, sure, human behaviors and human consciousness are attributes that only belong to humans.

But dogs have dog consciousness.

The problem is that human observers, be they nineteenth century philosophers or be they more enlightened twenty-first century evolutionary psychologists, have a hard time accessing the world view of dog consciousness. We can note a few behaviors and make a few guesses, but that’s all they are.

What we can guess is that, among other things, a dog’s world is much more defined by scents than our world. Just as a dog would have trouble understanding our world of color imagery (having less acute color sense than a human), we have a similar difficulty understanding the world of smells. We know this is important to a dog because of all the sniffing that goes on, but nuances are beyond us. We also observe that dogs are not just passive appreciators of scent, but they actually construct their scent world through behaviors we call “marking.” We think dogs are establishing boundaries through their marking, but to a dog, their marks may be cathedrals of scent.

There is another way nineteenth century utility theory breaks down. Biological organisms do not maximize wealth (though wealth maximization may sometimes be a byproduct of behavior). Biological organisms behave because of internal states that we call reward and punishment. Neuroscience has identified chemicals that correspond to reward and punishment. Behaviors become habitual because they are generally rewarding. And behaviors that result in punishment are habitually avoided. This system of rewards, punishments, and habits often is misaligned with wealth maximizing opportunities.

The nineteenth century philosopher is frustrated by this and calls it irrational behavior. But the fact is that humans and other animals do things that feel good, often without regard to the external motivations that they are supposed to pay attention to.

Some of these irrational behaviors are called “play.”

So sure, animals play because it feels, good. We do most, if not all, things for this reason. Feel-good behaviors that align with external economic rewards are called purposeful. And feel-good behaviors that don’t align are called fun.

2 responses to “Cathedrals of Scent

  1. Pingback: Making the Invisible Visible | Eightoh9·

  2. Pingback: Are Dogs As Smart as a Two-Year Old? (And Is That a Good Thing?) | Eightoh9·

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