IDEAS / Bill Meacham : Ways of Knowing

Cartoon by Piraro. Image from Sandwalk.

Ways of Knowing

The whole thing is about life perpetuating itself, about what we will do, how we will act, in different situations.

By Bill Meacham | The Rag Blog | June 27, 2012

Each age has a metaphor for how humans work. In the 17th century it was mechanical: the heart was a pump, the lungs were bellows, the muscles and bones were like pulleys and levers. In the 21st century the metaphor is electronic computing: the brain is a computer, and our minds are composed of mental modules, much like software modules, each of which does a job and interacts with others to get things done.

There is some truth to these metaphors. The heart really does pump liquid, and the lungs really do draw in and expel air. Similarly, brain research has discovered portions of the brain that are active when we discriminate colors and shapes or think about a mathematical problem or respond to moral problems.

The convergence of brain research, information theory, cognitive science, and behavioral psychology provides insights into how our minds work. In particular, cognitive science explains how thought and emotion work in terms of information and computation, and evolutionary biology explains the complex design of living things as the product of evolutionary selection. Evolutionary psychology combines the two.

Evolutionary Psychology

Evolutionary psychology takes the mind to be an organ, a bit like the kidney or the stomach, and provides a theory of how our minds evolved to have the functions that they do.(1) It does not so much discover facts about human nature as provide a framework within which to understand facts found experimentally by other branches of psychology. It also suggests experimentally-verifiable hypotheses about how the mind works. Many such hypotheses have been corroborated, thus lending credence to the concepts.(2)

Evolutionary psychology explains how the various mental modules evolved in response to challenges humans encountered in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA), the environment in which our ancestors lived for hundreds of thousands of years.(3) Between the invention of writing, agriculture, and cities to the present (early twenty-first century A.D.) humans lived about 500 generations.

The time before that, the Pleistocene epoch, when proto-humans evolved into the humans we know today, was about 80,000 generations, 160 times as long. Although human culture has advanced significantly in the past 500 generations, it is built on mental capacities that are evolutionarily designed for a much different environment.

This ancestral environment varied physically, but much of it was probably open savannah, with rolling hills and occasional forest. People all over the world are drawn to images of that type of landscape regardless of the environment they actually live in.(4)

More important was the social environment: small bands of humans numbering from 20 up to a maximum of about 150 in which each person had to cooperate with the others to provide sustenance and survival, but also had to compete with others to acquire food, status and sexual mates. These early bands of humans were probably much like the hunter-gatherers found today in the remote forests of the Amazon or the jungles of Africa or Indonesia.

Today such bands have been pushed to the margins of habitable lands by the advance of industrial society, but in the past our ancestors lived, no doubt, in much richer and more lush surroundings. Their lifestyle has been called “a camping trip that lasts a lifetime.”(5)

The mental abilities we find today in humans all over the world evolved to solve adaptive problems faced by our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Those mental abilities, oriented toward action in the world, are both cognitive and emotional.


The central premise of evolutionary psychology is that the human mind is a system of mental modules — “organs of computation”(6) — that enabled our ancestors to survive and reproduce in the EEA. Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, pioneers in the field, point out that the single resource most limiting to reproduction is not food or safety or access to mates, but information, the information required for making behavioral choices that lead to survival and reproduction.(7) The mind as we know it today is the result of a long series of cognitive successes, successes in acquiring and processing information.

The mind, embodied in the circuitry of the brain and nervous system, is not a single organ but is composed of many faculties that solve different adaptive problems. An adaptive problem is a cluster of conditions that recurred over evolutionary time and that constituted either an opportunity for or an obstacle to reproduction.(8)

For example, the arrival of a potential mate — which happened countless times over 80,000 generations — is an opportunity for reproduction. How the mind recognizes and responds to a person of the opposite sex is a function of algorithms embedded in the mind as a result of how successfully our ancestors responded to similar situations.

In order to recognize a person of the opposite sex, of course, you must first perceive that person. On a level closer to physical as opposed to social reality, how human visual perception works is in part a function of mental algorithms evolved to respond to the properties of reflected light. (Another part is the structure of the eye itself.)

Examples of obstacles to reproduction are such things as the speed of a prey animal and the actions of a sexual rival. In these cases and many others the way the human mind processes information is a result of how our ancestors solved such adaptive problems and survived to pass on their abilities to their offspring.

We can view the current state of the mind as the result of a very long process of testing randomly-generated alternative designs for coping with the physical and social environment — each of which embodied different assumptions about the nature of the world — and retaining those that succeeded most effectively; that is, those that reflected most closely the actual structure of the ancestral world.

Cognition in this sense is not necessarily or even primarily a conscious process, one available to introspective attention. Conscious, voluntary and deliberative thinking — called “cold cognition” by Cosmides and Tooby,(9) the kind of thinking we do when we work out a math problem, for instance — is only one kind. Much more prevalent is the information processing that takes place unreflectively in everyday life, in perceptual judgments, in forming immediate responses to situations, and guiding our activities.

When a child gauges the intensity of his or her parents’ annoyance or approval, the child is not going through a conscious thought process. Instead the child is using an algorithm or computer-like program that is built in to the mind, a capability or faculty that is already available for use.

The mind is not a blank slate, written upon by experience. It is a collection of modules capable of solving specific problems. When a problem for which it is suited arises, the relevant modules are activated and guide our responses, immediately and intuitively.

On this model, the mind is a set of capabilities for problem-solving and for guiding behavior. The capabilities are a result of the evolution of the human race, but the specific content of how the problems are solved or how the behavior is manifested depends on the circumstances of your life.

For instance, all humans have the capacity for language, but which language or languages you speak depends on the culture and community in which you are raised. Similarly, all humans have the capacity for moral intuition regarding how one should behave in a social context, but the specific set of moral rules you find compelling depends on the society in which you live.


Cosmides and Tooby call the mind “multimodular,” composed of “domain-specific expert systems.” The human mind is “a diverse collection of inference systems, including specializations for reasoning about objects, physical causality, number, language, the biological world, the beliefs and motivations of other individuals, and social interactions…”(10) These inference systems get coordinated through emotion.

Domain-specific expert systems such as those for regulation of sleep or detection of predators need a context in which to operate. If it is dark and you are tired, you should sleep; but if a predator is nearby you should stay alert in case you need to flee or fight. (By “should” I mean merely that these are the typical activating conditions for the expert systems.)

What causes an individual organism to activate alertness when danger might be nearby at night? The answer is emotion, in this example the emotion of fear. Cosmides and Tooby assert that emotions are actually a type of cognition, cognitions writ large as it were. They are high-level programs that orchestrate the activation of many subordinate programs:

Each emotion entrains various other adaptive programs — deactivating some, activating others, and adjusting the modifiable parameters of still others — so that the whole system operates in a particularly harmonious and efficacious way when the individual is confronting certain kinds of triggering conditions or situations.(11)

Psychologist Steven Pinker says it more succinctly:

The emotions are mechanisms that set the brain’s highest-level goals. Once triggered by a propitious moment, an emotion triggers the cascade of subgoals and sub-subgoals that we call thinking and acting.(12)

That’s not what we usually think of when we think of emotion. We usually think of a felt quality such as fear or anger or elation. Evolutionary psychology says these are indeed aspects of emotion, but not their defining characteristic. What defines an emotion — in fact, what defines any evolved capacity — is its function. And the function of emotion is to coordinate multiple subsystems such that an organism reacts appropriately to a stimulus, where “appropriately” means in a way that caused its ancestors to survive in the presence of similar stimuli. It is instructive to look at Cosmides and Tooby’s specific examples of emotion:

cooperation, sexual attraction, jealousy, aggression, parental love, friendship, romantic love, the aesthetics of landscape preferences, coalitional aggression, incest avoidance, disgust, predator avoidance, kinship and family relations, grief, playfulness, fascination, guilt, depression, feeling triumphant, disgust, sexual jealousy, fear of predators, rage, grief, happiness, joy, sadness, excitement, anxiety, playfulness, homesickness, anger, hunger, being worried, loneliness, predatoriness (an emotion pertaining to hunting), gratitude, fear, boredom, approval, disapproval, shame(13)

Not all of these are what common usage calls emotion. Some of them — fear, anger, joy, guilt and the like — certainly are, in the sense of being felt qualities or states. Others, such as coalitional aggression and predator avoidance, seem like strategies rather than emotions.

Many, such as fear of predators, being worried about something, and sexual attraction, are primarily ways of being oriented to an external object or person, to something or someone other than oneself. Others, such as guilt, shame, and pride, are oriented to ourselves as we imagine others feel about us. All of them have in common that they coordinate a large number of separate cognitive subsystems. Cosmides and Tooby provide an extensive list:

perception; attention; inference; learning; memory; goal choice; motivational priorities; categorization and conceptual frameworks; physiological reactions (such as heart rate, endocrine function, immune function, gamete release); reflexes; behavioral decision rules; motor systems; communication processes; energy level and effort allocation; affective coloration of events and stimuli; recalibration of probability estimates, situation assessments, values, and regulatory variables (e.g., self-esteem, estimations of relative formidability, relative value of alternative goal states, efficacy discount rate); and so on.(14)

Every emotion has four aspects:(15)

  • Physiology — what happens in our bodies when we are feeling or are under the influence of the emotion.
  • Behavioral inclination — what the emotion disposes us to do.
  • Cognitive appraisal — what the emotion tells us about what it is directed towards.
  • Feeling state — how the emotion feels to us.

An emotion is not reducible to any one of these four; it includes them all. Pinker says “[N]o sharp line divides thinking from feeling, nor does thinking inevitably precede feeling or vice versa…”(16)

Of these four, the most fundamental is behavioral inclination. The whole thing is about life perpetuating itself, about what we will do, how we will act, in different situations.


Several things are interesting philosophically about this view of cognition and emotions:

  • Despite a long history of thinking of ourselves as the “rational animal,” much of our cognition is not rational, in the sense of being thought through as we might think through a proof in geometry. Only a small part of our thinking is cold cognition. Most of it is hot cognition: quick, intuitive flashes of judgment.
  • These intuitive flashes of judgment are also emotional. The emotional component impels us to action.
  • We can feel or be under the influence of an emotion without knowing it.
  • Emotions (in the sense of feeling state) have a cognitive component. All emotion has some element of judgment or interpretation. Emotions are ways we know ourselves and our world.
  • All emotions have an intentional structure.(17) They are oriented toward something; they have an object. The broader emotions, which we call moods, are oriented toward the world in general; specific emotions such as fear are focused on specific real or imagined things or events. Some of the specific emotions — fear and disgust, for example — are about the physical world. Others, such as trust, sympathy, gratitude, guilt, anger, and humor, pertain to the social and moral worlds.(18)
  • Every emotion has implications for action and has an effect on our readiness for or actual undertaking of an activity or a course of action.

These assertions about emotion can be verified by phenomenological analysis. Existential philosopher Robert Solomon, coming at the issue from an entirely different perspective, says that “emotions [are] our own judgments” and “the very source of our interests and our purposes.”(19) You can, if you like, corroborate this by examination of your own experience.

In sum: There is a lot going on in our lives to which we mostly don’t pay attention, and we are far less rational than we like to think.

(To be continued…)

[Bill Meacham is an independent scholar in philosophy. A former staffer at Austin’s 60s underground paper, The Rag, Bill received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Texas at Austin. Meacham spent many years working as a computer programmer, systems analyst, and project manager. He posts at Philosophy for Real Life, where this article also appears. Read more articles by Bill Meacham on The Rag Blog.]


(1) Pinker, How the Mind Works, p. 23.
(2) There are numerous examples of experimental verification. See, for example, Griskevicius et. al., “Blatant Benevolence and Conspicuous Consumption: When Romantic Motives Elicit Costly Signals.” Trivers, in “The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism,” cites many instances of experimental evidence for hypotheses arising from evolutionary psychological theory. See Pinker, How the Mind Works, p. 505, for elegant anthropological verification of hypotheses regarding reciprocal altruism.
(3) The EEA is not a single place but a statistical composite of the properties of the ancestral environment that exerted selective effects on human ancestors. Tooby and Cosmides, “The Past Explains the Present”, p. 386.
(4) Dutton, The Art Instinct, pp. 14, 19 – 22.
(5) Orians and Heerwagen, “Evolved Responses to Landscapes,” p 556.
(6) Pinker, How the Mind Works, p. 21. See also Cosmides and Tooby, “Evolutionary Psychology and the Emotions”, p. 98.
(7) Cosmides and Tooby, “Evolutionary Psychology and the Emotions”, p. 99.
(8) Ibid., p. 96.
(9) Ibid., p. 98.
(10) Ibid., p. 99.
(11) Ibid., p. 92.
(12) Pinker, How the Mind Works, p. 373.
(13) Cosmides and Tooby, “Evolutionary Psychology and the Emotions”, throughout. (14) Ibid., p. 93.
(15) Idem.
(16) Pinker, How the Mind Works, p. 373.
(17) By “intentional” I do not mean the ordinary usage of planning to make something happen. “Intentionality” is a technical term meaning the “ofness” or “aboutness” inherent in experience. Being conscious always entails being conscious of something; you are never just conscious without an object. The term comes from a Latin phrase, intendere arcum in, which means to aim a bow and arrow at (something). This image of aiming or directedness is central in most philosophical discussions of consciousness.
(18) Pinker, “So How Does the Mind Work?”, p. 4.
(19) Solomon, The Passions, p. xvii.


Cosmides, Leda, and Tooby, John. “Evolutionary Psychology and the Emotions” in Handbook of Emotions, 2nd Edition, pp. 91-115, ed. Lewis, Michael and Haviland-Jones, Jeannette M. New York: Guilford Press, 2000. Available as an on-line publication, URL = as of 26 May 2009.
Dutton, Denis. The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure and Human Evolution. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009.
Griskevicius, Vladas, et. al. “Blatant Benevolence and Conspicuous Consumption: When Romantic Motives Elicit Costly Signals.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2007, Vol. 93, No. 1, pp. 85-102.
Orians, Gordon H., and Heerwagen, Judith H. “Evolved Responses to Landscapes.” In Barkow, Cosmides and Tooby, The Adapted Mind, pp. 555 – 579.
Pinker, Steven. How the Mind Works. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997.
Pinker, Steven. “So How Does the Mind Work?” Mind and Language, 20(1), 1-24. Available as an on-line publication, URL = as of 23 June 2009.
Solomon, Robert. The Passions: Emotions and the Meaning of Life. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1993.
Tooby, John, and Cosmides, Leda. “The Past Explains the Present: Emotional Adaptations and the Structure of Ancestral Environments.” In Ethology and Sociobiology, 11, 375-424. New York: Elsevier Science Publishing Co., 1990. Available as an on-line publication, URL = as of 26 May 2009.
Trivers, Robert L. “The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism.” The Quarterly Review of Biology, Vol 46, No. 1 (March 1971), pp. 35-57. Available as an on-line publication, URL = as of 3 November 2009.

The Rag Blog

This entry was posted in Rag Bloggers and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *