Exaptations of Intuition

22 June 2011


Since I’ve written a number of posts on exaptation, but the term is not widely familiar, I suppose I ought to repeat a definition so the reader isn’t lost for the lack of a single world. The Biology Online website defines exaptation as follows:


An exaptation is a biological adaptation where the biological function currently performed by the adaptation was not the function performed while the adaptation evolved under earlier pressures of natural selection.

Briefly, and in other words, exaptation is when something (say, a structure or behavior) that emerged in one set of circumstances turns out to be useful in some other set of circumstances. These formulations sound a little awkward, but we need to employ formulations like this in order to avoid slipping into teleology. For example, if we say that exaptation is when something intended for one purpose finds use for another purpose, then we have to wonder whose intentions and purposes we are talking about. Teleological thinking is in no sense necessary, but human minds tend to think teleologically (most likely a consequence of our agency detector) and so we must go the extra cognitive mile in order to not mislead ourselves about the nature of the world.

So, given this biological origin of the idea of exaptation, what do I mean by the exaptation of intuition? I will try to explain.

A couple of days ago in Fashionable Anti-Philosophy I mentioned that I am listening to Leonard Susskind’s book The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking to Make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics. One of the themes that is emerging from Susskind’s book is the difficulty of attaining an intuitive understanding of quantum theory, if this is at all possible. While I think that Susskind over overstates his case, he has a good point.

It may not be possible to understand quantum theory on an intuitive level. There are several famous quotes to this effect. Niels Bohr famously said that, “Anyone who isn’t shocked by quantum physics has not understood it.” And Max Born said, “No language which lends itself to visualizability can describe quantum jumps.” One of the most famous quotes in this vein is from Richard Feynman: “I think it is safe to say that no one understands quantum mechanics. Do not keep saying to yourself, if you can possibly avoid it, ‘But how can it possibly be like that?’ because you will go down the drain into a blind alley from which nobody has yet escaped. Nobody knows how it can be like that.”

There is a long tradition of skepticism in philosophy that has given us arguments to show that we either don’t know anything at all (Gorgias), or we don’t know what we think we know (Socrates), or we know a lot less than we think we do (Pyrrho). One recent example of this (which I have cited previously in Transcendental Non-Naturalism, is Colin McGinn’s transcendental naturalism, given exposition in his book Problems in philosophy: The Limits of Inquiry:

“Philosophy is an attempt to get outside the constitutive structure of our minds. Reality itself is everywhere flatly natural, but because of our cognitive limits we are unable to make good on this general ontological principle. Our epistemic architecture obstructs knowledge of the real nature of the objective world. I shall call this thesis transcendental naturalism, TN for short.” (pp. 2-3)

I noted in the post in which I originally reproduced this quote the similarity McGinn’s position to that of Plantinga, so I won’t go into that at present. McGinn’s preferred example of incomprehensibility beyond the “constitutive structure of our minds” is the mind-body problem, a perennial conundrum of philosophy, but we could just as well take the quantum structure of the universe as our example, or the relationship between general relativity and quantum physics.

I remain skeptical of skepticism, even in its most recent and subtle forms. That is not to say that I don’t think that we very often go wrong in our attempts to understand things, but only that we can also keep correcting ourselves and in doing so we incrementally approximate the truth. This is a position that is sometimes called fallibilism, and is closely related to Popper’s conception of science advancing through the falsification of theories. The falsification of theories is an iterative process in which we attempt to preserve what is of value in a refuted theory while going beyond it to plumb the depths of the world and make our account of the same a little closer to being right.

Whatever our failures in understanding the world, we continue to try to understand, and when we continue to try we discover, as Einstein said, that the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible. But not perfectly so. The universe is partially comprehensible and partially incomprehensible, and the horizon between the comprehensible and the incomprehensible is always being pushed further outward by our continued attempts at understanding.

In our attempts to understand that which is at the very limits of our ability to understand, we have to make an effort, a real cognitive effort that is taxing if not at times exhausting, and we have to get creative in our attempts at understanding. The same-old-same-old isn’t going to serve us very well at the limits of understanding, so we have to do something more.

One of the things that we do is to formulate analogies. Susskind’s book is full of analogies, and he rightly explicitly acknowledges them as analogies, picking apart their failures and comparing different analogies that attempt to give us an intuitive leg up on difficult scientific concepts. It is unfortunate that he is not similarly as careful and as critical with his metaphors, since he repeatedly invokes the contemporary idiom of the mind being “wired” (or, worse, “hard wired”) to think and understand in a certain way. As a metaphor, the use of “wired” is more poetry than science, but since Susskind’s anti-philosophy deprives him of many conceptual resources he has pretty much painted himself into a corner and doesn’t have many other options for making his point.

And here, with analogies, we come to the exaptation of intuition, for an analogy is an exaptation of intuition. An analogy attempts to show for us the similarity between two things, and when one of these things is familiar and intuitively clear while the other side of the analogy is unfamiliar and distant from intuition, we are taking the familiar intuition and exapting it in order to to give an intuitive gloss on unintuitive concepts. As the evolution of bodies is often comes about by exaptation, so too the evolution of our minds, and the ideas understood by our minds, can come about by the exaptation of intuition.

Analogy is one method for the exaptation of intuition, but it is not the only method. I discussed some another approaches to the exaptation of intuition (though I didn’t call it this) in The limits of my language are the limits of my world. I suspect that those who teach for a living have a whole range of ready exaptations of intuition in order to make the unfamiliar intuitively clear. There is no reason that this incremental clarification cannot be continued indefinitely, and that is why I remain a skeptic of skepticism, or, rather, that nihilistic skepticism that maintains that nothing whatsoever can be known. Perhaps what can be known is very little, but it is a treasure to us however little it is. One must recall that the idea of zero was once advanced mathematics familiar to only a few specialists, and now children learn this in elementary school. Many similar examples could be adduced.

The technical term in philosophical logic for this making intuitive of that which began in as a precision technical concept is materialization. Even among philosophers the term, and the idea for which the term stands, is not well known. Husserl developed the idea of materialization, and most Anglo-American philosophers don’t read Husserl, and, as we have seen, many scientists (especially, it seems, physicists and cosmologists) avoid philosophy altogether. Here is what Husserl says about materialization:

“One must sharply distinguish the relationships belonging to generalization and specialization from the essentially heterogeneous relationships belonging, on the one hand, to the universalization of something materially filled into the formal in the sense of pure logic and, on the other hand, to the converse: the materialization of something logically formal.”

Edmund Husserl, Ideas pertaining to a pure phenomenology and to a phenomenological philosophy, section 13

And from the earlier Logical Investigations:

“It is now plain that what we may call the ‘materialization’ of this form, its specification in definite propositions, is possible in infinitely many ways, but that we are not completely free in such specification, but work confined within definite limits.”

Edmund Husserl, Logical Investigations, Investigation IV

It is unfortunate that the idea of materialization is not better known, because it is a conceptual resource like that this can go such a long way toward clarifying our understanding, like the transformation of zero from being advanced mathematics to being elementary mathematics. We can allow the ordinary evolution of knowledge to take its sedate pace and a development like this may take 500 years, or a thousand years. That’s fine if you have the time for this.

If we reflect upon what the conscious and explicit application of the scientific method did when applied to technology — which created the industrial revolution and inaugurated a new way of life whose end point has not yet been glimpsed — it gives a sense of what rational activity can do for human life. The conscious and explicit application of philosophy to science might well do the same at some time in the future, and this may be what it takes to surpass the industrial revolution and inaugurate a way of life as incomprehensible to industrial society as the way of life in industrial society would have been incomprehensible to our nomadic or agricultural forebears.

Imagine, for a moment, education accelerated in the same way that industrial processes were accelerated at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and you can start to get a sense of what is possible, and this, too, is an exaptation of intuition.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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