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The Integration of Knowledge


Carlos Blanco

The Integration of Knowledge explores a theory of human knowledge through a model of rationality combined with some fundamental logical, mathematical, physical and neuroscientific considerations. Its ultimate goal is to present a philosophical system of integrated knowledge, in which the different domains of human understanding are unified by common conceptual structures, such that traditional metaphysical and epistemological questions may be addressed in light of these categories. Philosophy thus becomes a "synthesizer" of human knowledge, through the imaginative construction of categories and questions that may reproduce and even expand the conceptual chain followed by nature and thought, in an effort to organize the results of the different branches of knowledge by inserting them in a broader framework.

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9. Knowledge and the Development of the Human Mind


Knowledge and the Development of the Human Mind

9.1 Technology, Ideas and Social Change

Evolution has granted the human brain a remarkably wide range of flexibility. Indeed, the possibility of a hiatus between the reception of a stimulus and the emission of a response stands as a powerful neurobiological basis of our aesthetic and intellectual creativity. In the words of Joaquín Fuster, “the liberty to create is a result of the immense plasticity with which evolution has endowed the human brain.”1 The power of self-reflection stems, to a large extent, from such a relative and growing indeterminacy favored by an organization as malleable as that of the human brain. For I cannot “come back to myself,” as the classical understanding of consciousness demands, if I am obliged to respond immediately to any stimulus stemming from the external world. Thus, I cannot exhibit a truly creative behavior if I do not enjoy independence of the world.

Only a deeper understanding of how memory, information, emotions and the parallel processing of mental activity converge will allow us to gain a deeper insight into the nature of human creativity, capable of transcending the traditional antagonism between an idealized depiction of genius and a more naturalistic framework for explaining the conditions behind the genesis of novel products in the human spirit. While we lack a precise neurobiological model of the exact ←449 | 450→mechanism through which a new idea emerges, it is reasonable to expect that a combination of elements drawn from a variety of disciplines (psychology, history, sociology, philosophy, etc.) will shed light on the phenomenology of the creative process. Thus, even if an analytically precise knowledge of the cognitive operations is still remote, at least we can hope to gain useful approximations for deciphering the general features of the systems involved.

Indeed, learning to clarify the neurobiological basis of creativity, along with a more thorough study of the social circumstances that foster or frustrate the emergence of creative ideas, should enhance our understanding of the strategies that lie within our reach to promote forms of divergent thinking, capable of enlarging our fantasy and widening the realm of the possible. Once more, analogy, seen as the capacity to perceive of homological relations between objects and properties, represents a very fruitful window to creativity.

Some ages and places have witnessed marvelous artistic, philosophical and scientific effervescence: the literary peaks of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom, the torrent of mathematical, ethical and anthropological fertility displayed during the splendor of Greek civilization, the unique fecundity that blessed the Islamic golden age, the plethora of sublime works created by the Italian Renaissance, etc. Talent calls talent; with its particular magnetism, creativity attracts creativity, those spirits avid of novelty and new challenges. Yet, neuroscientific research can teach us to acquire a growing degree of mastery over this unequaled resource of the human species. Thus, creativity will no longer need to depend on spontaneous bursts of genius or nostalgic reminiscences of an aetas aurea, perpetual consolation of utopian wills. For if we can understand how the cerebral mechanisms of creativity operate, why some individuals are born with the ability to develop more creative ideas and actions and how we can cultivate intelligence and originality, we will be able to stimulate our dormant energies without having to await the advent of a new golden age. Its irruption will be in our sole hands. Deciphering the specific genes, neurotransmitters, circuits, forms of synaptic reinforcement, brain areas, etc., in short, the material elements that decisively influence the evanescent capacity to enlighten original and enriching ideas, offers the torch that, in imitation of Prometheus’s, safeguards the sacred fire of the gods, in this case the precious jewel of creativity.

Through science we can learn to unify mind and cosmos. For it is the same human reason, in its scientific and philosophical dimensions, that ultimately helps us to elucidate the continuity existing between the natural and the human domains, by employing the powerful explanatory tools provided ←450 | 451→by physics, chemistry, evolutionary biology and neuroscience. Thus, a valuable bridge between the natural sciences and the humanities can be built by exploring our outstanding capacity to creatively adapt ourselves to the environment and adapt the environment to our own interests, expectations and aspirations. Again, this self-invention represents one of the most fascinating features of the human mind.

In this way, the study of the creation and communication of new ideas should be crucial for future research in psychology and epistemology, as it can reveal relevant connections between the individual and the social spheres. Ultimately, these questions point to the essence and possibilities of the human mind. Each conquest in the realm of abstract thinking is a triumph of the mind in its exploration of a potentially infinite realm, that of possibilities, that of imagination, that of universality; that which can be filled with meaning and expressed through symbols that, if correctly harmonized, can even anticipate the real working of nature. And, indeed, by inventing conceptual structures the human mind is actually discovering itself and the scope of its possibilities.

Creativity therefore appears as our principal asset for acquiring new and fertile knowledge, and it is hard to think of any great transformation in human history that has not been fueled by knowledge. Certainly, thanks to a deeper knowledge of material processes, humanity has been capable of increasing its power over the different forms of energy available in nature.

The brilliance of a culture can be said to shine in two main areas: first, in the levels of technical efficiency, which is so intimately connected with the possibility of knowing objective truths about the world; second, in the realm of its symbolic life. The first sphere concerns the development of reason, of the unveiling of the necessary connections between phenomena through causal principles, of the relentless vigor of a logic that is indifferent to individual preferences; the second stems from a combination of frequently conflicting impulses that exist in the human mind, and it invokes the transcendental role played by emotions, expressivity and imagination in human life, channeled through artistic creativity in its various forms. Reason unites human beings in a common space; emotionality, imagination and expressivity, the rubric stamped by each individual, the fine and unrepeatable contribution of every human being to the great plot of the universe and history, may actually bless any culture with glimpses of freedom and creativity. When both powers of the human mind are combined in search of perfection and progress, we become capable of conquering territories of reality that allow us to build worlds beyond the world given by nature or imposed by the nebulous ←451 | 452→shadows of the past. In this space of possibilities one may contemplate a wonderful tool for alleviating the total amount of suffering in the universe and for enlarging the horizons of our thinking.

Of course, the history of human progress obeys a feedback mechanism between knowledge and material development (which ultimately consists of our capacity for exploiting the different manifestations of energy). Sometimes rational inquiry has led humanity to discover new forms of energy; on other occasions, it is the development of material forces that has propitiated a dramatic increase in our possibilities of expanding the radius of knowledge.

Indeed, the centrality of energy as the key element to understanding the material development of a human group has been stressed by various anthropological models. As has been mentioned before, a good instantiation of this approach can be found in the laws of cultural development proposed by Leslie White gravitate around energy as the central factor for sustaining and fostering any form of societal organization. In his own words,

everything in the universe can be described in terms of energy. Galaxies, stars, molecules, and atoms may be regarded as organizations of energy. Living organisms may be looked upon as engines which operate by means of energy derived directly or indirectly from the Sun. The civilizations, or cultures of mankind, also, may be regarded as a form or organization of energy. Culture is an organization of phenomena -material objects, bodily acts, ideas, and sentiments- which consists of or is dependent upon the use of symbols. Man, being the only animal capable of symbol-behavior, is the only creature to possess culture. Culture is a kind of behavior. And behavior, whether of man, mule, plant, comet or molecule, may be treated as a manifestation of energy. Thus we see, on all levels of reality, that phenomena lend themselves to description and interpretation in terms of energy. Cultural anthropology is that branch of natural science which deals with matter-and motion, i.e., energy, phenomena in cultural form, as biology deals with them in cellular, and physics in atomic, form.2

Hence, White’s “law of cultural dominance” states that a cultural system capable of exploiting the energy resources of its environment in a more efficient way will tend to expand and gain dominance over other cultural systems. Technology, understood in terms of the tools invented by the human mind to capture energy in increasing degrees of complexity, would therefore stand as the driving force of human development.

Clearly, the satisfaction of human needs demands the use of material forces, condensed in the concept of energy. However, the notion of energy may be too ←452 | 453→ambiguous for explanatory purposes. Indeed, by establishing that any competitive advantage involves some kind of material superiority, we may be falling into a circular argument, because this higher degree of progress could have been elicited by the cultivation of symbolic or “mental” realms which, in principle, can be legitimately differentiated from the process of development of material forces. Julian Steward’s idea of a “cultural core,” that would include not only economic and technological factors but also social, political, religious, psychological and ideological elements (“conscious” dimensions, for even if they are the products of false consciousness, they are still manifestations of consciousness), thus seems more realistic, even if Steward ultimately subordinates these spheres to the “hard” infrastructural matrix, determined by the efficient use of energy.

In this way, although change is fueled by technological transformations, the question concerns the role played by the subject behind any technological innovation. Sometimes, serendipitous discoveries may underlie some of the most successful technologies developed by the human species. Learning how to control fire could have been the result of chance. Nevertheless, it is also true that on countless occasions single individuals or specific institutions have triggered fundamental contributions on our capacity to transform energy. How should we explain this fact? Is it the product of an automatized and inexorable reaction before environmental pressures, like scarcity? But why have all cultures not evolved in the same direction, even if they faced similar stimuli, pressures and challenges? Why have they offered creative solutions to identical problems? Shouldn’t we visualize creativity as the trace of their idiosyncrasy and their shared knowledge, thus privileging the cognitive elements behind social change?

In sum, White’s thesis is incomplete. Indeed, we must also ask why one human community has acquired the ability to use energy more efficiently than another. Chance does not explain everything. Again, it is probable that inventions that have proved essential for human progress have actually obeyed pure contingency, but as soon as a culture is consolidated and exhibits undeniable manifestations of technical skill, it is necessary to investigate what values, institutions and social structures have encouraged or hindered these advances, visible, mainly, in the use of more sophisticated forms of energy, whose power the human being learns to manipulate for his own benefit. In effect, it seems clear that in more complex societies, with more individuals capable of participating in the creation and exchange of ideas, and having generated qualitatively more suitable ideas susceptible to mutual and non-linear combination, improvement and enrichment, the possibilities of intellectual development and scientific innovation grow dramatically, beyond any imaginable limit. New ideas, new forms of understanding ←453 | 454→present ideas and new ways of associating the new and the old ideas can certainly elicit unexpected innovations in all fields of inquiry and action, a true combinatorial explosion which is, like any great creative outcome, essentially unpredictable, even if it can be subject to a fair logical comprehension in terms of cognitive and social elements. Beyond a series of critical thresholds concerning material resources, ideas would thus constitute the main driving force of human development, revealing the unavoidability of paying attention to the cognitive and social infrastructures that enable these ideas to appear and disseminate.

Thus, the factors that underlie the development of a culture (the absence of which will lead to its stagnation or extinction) can be encapsulated in two families:

1. Progress in the use of different forms of energy in the most efficient way.

2. The flourishing of a rich world of ideas, especially in three areas: the expansion of individual freedom and responsibility (with the consequent need to establish a robust, flexible and sophisticated legal order); the creation of vigorous social bonds; the impulse to creativity—individually and collectively—by cultivating the symbolic life of a people.

Nevertheless, this duality of causes, which multiply the possibilities of development within a culture, converges into a profound conceptual unity: knowledge. A society that finds itself in possession of more knowledge and of a higher quality, and which is at the same time capable of assimilating it with greater depth, will shine in the domain of technique as well as in the realm of the spirit. A culture that knows more is capable of producing more, of understanding more, of exploring more, of innovating more, of reflecting more on its own identity, of crossing the boundaries defined by inherited traditions and customary atavisms, of dissipating fears and gaining confidence in its possibilities, of understanding itself and identifying the source of its most pressing problems, etc.

Thus, which factor holds the primacy in igniting social progress: technology or ideas? Any form of technology can be regarded as the material manifestation of an underlying idea, and an idea without practical applications, either for expanding the horizon of our knowledge, cultivating our symbolic expressivity, extending our power (i.e., our capacity of acting upon ourselves and others) over the universe or broadening our contemplative faculty, becomes an empty game. Deliberately or unconsciously acquired, ideas precede any technological development and any advancement in our theoretical inquiry into nature. Just as the accumulation of empirical observations would prove itself incomplete without the invention of a unifying idea capable of encompassing evidence into a suitable ←454 | 455→conceptual structure (like the notion of gravity, or that of laws of nature), the availability of material resources would be of little value without creative ideas for envisioning ways of utilizing and combining those material elements.

Furthermore, no single analysis of social phenomena can ignore the importance of power, understood broadly as any stock of capacities possessed by a certain social group (or the overall capacity that a society has for acting). How power is distributed in society is connected with the way in which knowledge is spread. Power is certainly mediated by the material conditions of a community, but it is also determined by the beliefs shared under the form of social relations. Power is thus the result of a bottom-up causal line, stemming from the material potentialities of a society (what it can actually accomplish), and a top-down dimension defined by the ideas that shape the individual minds of its members, like their conception of subordination and merit. If in some sense collective, ad extra power is the inevitable result of the material conditions (what a certain society can actually do, given its material and cognitive resources), ad intra power is also the mutable fruit of arbitrary conceptions about how power should be conceived and exerted. Indeed, there is no rational inexorability in the existence of rigidly stratified relations; the same material infrastructure could perfectly enable a fairer distribution of power.

Hence, in the circumstances allowed by the level of technology, knowledge and wealth (the capital of that society, viewed as the integration of its total amount of power: information, capital accumulation, etc.; its cognitive energy is certainly the main component of this sum), different social conceptions can of course fit. Therefore, the prevalence of a less democratic form of organization cannot be interpreted as the necessary outcome of the material level achieved by a society, because the system is clearly degenerate in regard to is social relations, such that different conceptions could be allowed by the initial set of material conditions. It is then clear that only a historical examination of how power has been used and transmitted can shed light on its present status. This approach does not succumb to a genetic fallacy, because unlike in the analysis of objective truths from logic, mathematics and the natural sciences, in the study of the human world one cannot dispense with this historical stance, with the historicity of our interpretations of how social relations are justified. Indeed, human beings set their own frames of reference; subjectivity thereby becomes a new form of objectivity, and social relations and cognitive networks constitute what we usually call social reality.

It is thus imperative to unfold how different societies have conceived of power in its heterogeneous aspects, because in most cases the way in which power is now assumed to exist is a historical product, a concept variable and capable of adopting ←455 | 456→new faces. Within the range defined by some ineluctable material constrains, which establish a set of boundary conditions in space, time and energy (i.e., in the total amount of power available for a certain human group), the number of interpretations of how the capacities of a society should be displayed is vast, even if finite.

Throughout history, the distribution of social power has generally been a matter of competition and antagonism. Indeed, different aspirations to power have fought for supremacy within a certain context, often leading to stratification and oppression, even if on other occasions competition has favored creativity. However, a very relevant social force has also stemmed from the ability of individuals and groups to cooperate. Whereas from a historical perspective it is very difficult to identify a single trend in the relation between competition and cooperation as drivers of social progress, the question that our time needs to pose can be formulated in the following way: is it possible that we may have reached a time in which cooperation can stand as the only driving force in society, or at least in which the relative importance of competition can be minimized? Can cooperation and the spirit of altruism be the sole dominant forces in social relations? Have we actually attained a situation in which harmony, rather than struggle, can elicit the deepest and most creative powers of the human spirit?

This possibility may seem utopian. Nevertheless, when one looks into the past, many of today’s concepts, images, institutions and capabilities would have appeared illusory. Among those potentially infinite possibilities, one clearly points to the ability of displaying the creative powers of the human being through a form of cooperation that, instead of sacrificing the interests of some individuals for the sake of other’s, has learnt to reconcile individual differences in the most fertile way, so as to foster social evolution towards a stage of plenitude.

9.2 The Explanatory Value of Information

Our previous emphasis on the acquisition of knowledge as the major conceptual driver of human development should not make us forget that if anthropology becomes exclusively focused on the psychological conditions and the symbolic aspects of a culture, it will easily lose sight of the objective nature of knowledge, embodied in technological innovations that permit to satisfy increasingly complex needs.

Of course, the precise relation between the symbolic, spiritual or “mental” realm and the technological or “material” dimension within a human ←456 | 457→group is difficult to clarify, both theoretically and empirically, given how deeply intertwined both spheres are and how difficult it is to disentangle them for the sake of analytic rigor. Sometimes one dimension may clearly prevail over the other, but one can generally consider technology as the culmination of the symbolic life of a people. Indeed, a culture able to propitiate significant technological advances must have evolved mentally (or spiritually, understanding by “spirit” the capacity to elaborate meanings and values—the German concept of “Geist”) in a certain direction.

The human being, in short, can be regarded as homo faber and homo symbolicus; furthermore, as homo interrogans, homo cognoscens, homo quaerens, for in his creative search, he strives to transform the world and to build his own world.

Hence, one of the fundamental features of human nature would reside in this capacity to formulate questions about our own identity and in this aspiration to transcend our limits. From a material, bottom-up approach, this tendency can be contemplated as a higher manifestation of biological evolvability, or capacity to adapt oneself to the environment in increasingly complex and unpredictable ways; from a top-down, cognitive perspective, this ability evokes one of the most distinctive characteristics of the human mind in its capacity to constantly overcome any given intellectual limit through the combined power of reason and imagination, and it can be interpreted as the signature of an apparently perennial dissatisfaction that defines the existence of so many human beings. Both ways of addressing this fascinating dimension of human existence, this state of constant “avant-garde” with respect to itself, this unceasing ability to challenge the world and ourselves, are actually convergent. Indeed, the highest degree of adaptability is attained precisely through the display of mental creativity, in which adaptation to an external environment is channeled through the adaptation of the environment to our own mental expectations. This appropriation of the world through the conceptual structures designed by our cognitive faculties grants us an unforeseen capacity for adaptation and, moreover, for “adapting” adaptation to ourselves. It thus fosters the possibility of humanizing the world through knowledge and imagination.

Returning to the previous point, a culture can accumulate knowledge not by mere historical contingencies (sometimes this may be the case, but chance is ultimately irrelevant, because its beneficial effects are usually neutralized by its detrimental results; at least it escapes rational analysis, and it therefore loses its illuminating character as explanatory factor) but after having established a series of ideals, institutions and shared values that ignite its creative flame.

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Any human culture is found to exhibit a set of analogous structures, reminiscent of a noumenon that manifests itself through different phenomena, in accordance with the responses that each culture offers to the emerging needs, challenges and conditions that it experiences. In this way, technology, the practical use of objective knowledge about the world, can be said to run along an essentially incremental path, because there is a clearly defined frame of reference: that of efficiency, that of the maximization of productive power. Inventions build upon each other. However, history teaches us that the progress of a culture goes through multiple ups and downs; progress is not always cumulative in an exponential sense, and on some occasions knowledge can be lost, as happened after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in Europe or after the collapse of the Abbasid caliphate in the Middle East. In this regard, it should be emphasized that technological progress is not deterministic; rather, it depends on the psychological, symbolic and spiritual life of a culture (again, on its “mental” or cognitive dimensions). Although every human group displays some common features, many of them rooted in our biological constitution, each culture is subsidiary to the creativity of its individuals and the demands of the historical context.

Through technology, a culture satisfies basic needs. Nevertheless, new needs inevitably appear, thereby fostering further technological innovations. Once more, this combinatorial explosion generated by a mixture of bottom-up needs and top-down mental creativity can be visualized as a potentially infinite and not strictly rectilinear race, driven by environmental pressures and intrinsic motivations. Indeed, sometimes the products of human creativity influence not only the superficial manifestations of culture but also its more basic structures, its latent universals.

Thus, the human mind is not determined by the social substrate from which it arises: it is itself a creative energy for culture. Material needs induce new cultural productions, but our spiritual creations also promote the emergence of new needs. This feedback between the spiritual and material realms is the true driver of cultural development. Again, speaking in terms of a “spirit” does not imply succumbing to outdated dualisms: the spirit is any symbolic creation of a culture, the world of its ideas and values, the scope of its mind and cognitive abilities, far more powerful and inspiring than wheels, agriculture and steam engines. Human beings can imagine goals and reflect on what they want to be beyond heredity, nature and tradition. Human beings can therefore build themselves, and this process of self-development can be conventionally included in the realm of the spirit, even if its cultivation requires the satisfaction of some pressing biological needs, as Malinowski and the functionalist school rightly stressed.

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Indeed, it is superfluous to point out how fragile the enterprise of human civilization is, how dependent it is on material pressures. Regardless of how much faith we may have in the power of technology, we are always vulnerable creatures blessed with the fabulous gift of articulated language, but small and weak viviparous, lying at the mercy of the arbitrariness of a nature that does not watch over our happiness. Sublime material and spiritual constructions have crumbled like feeble castles of cards, destroyed not only by war and indolence, but shaken by the scourges of a compassionless nature. Like any other biological species, our power vanishes when environmental conditions of a force far superior to human capacities threaten our subsistence, to finally precipitate all their fury on us. Then, the brightness of our creativity resembles a dim light, incapable of enlightening the Earth.

One of the most beautiful features of human beings lies, of course, in their inexhaustible capacity for adaptation and unending appetite for curiosity and development, for learning and inventing, even to the most adverse circumstances. We are accustomed to transform necessity into virtue, and as we contemplate the course of history, we learn to admire how our ancestors strove to reverse unfavorable conditions and succeeded in benefiting from the most unfortunate and unsettling vicissitudes. For example, it is known that climate changes not only accelerated the evolution and extinction of the various species of genus Homo but also led to the abrupt end of some of the Late Bronze Age most eminent civilizations, causing massive migrations and triggering serious social conflicts. Archaeologists have discovered that by the twelfth century BC, once-splendid civilizations, such as the Mycenaean and the Hittite empires, evaporated from historical records. What fatality could have so abruptly erased these distinguished cultures? It is reasonable to believe that one of the principal factors points to the Sea Peoples,3 a series of enigmatic groups coming from the European continent that, driven by material necessity, might have migrated to the Eastern Mediterranean in search of subsistence. While repelled by Ramses III in the Nile Delta, other powerful civilizations were nonetheless unable to resist their migratory pressure and succumbed with astonishing rapidity.

Nevertheless, some climate changes may have also accelerated human development. Indeed, the birth of the great civilizations between 3000 and 1000 BC cannot be explained without taking into consideration the favorable environmental conditions enjoyed by the opulent and vigorous kingdoms that flourished in Egypt, Mesopotamia, China and the Indus Valley. But, similarly, the end of these benign circumstances unleashed the decline of other distinguished cultures. So susceptible and vulnerable are the foundations of human creativity and prosperity, ←459 | 460→reliant on climatic stability, extremely sensitive to slight alterations in the axis of terrestrial rotation, etc.

Technology, viewed as the embodiment of practical knowledge and loosely defined as the capacity to transform nature through instruments, is, after all, the main factor that seals the triumph of culture over nature. Again, technology is a product of the spirit; it is the true universal and objective element distributed throughout all cultures and indicative of their degree of development. Without technology, culture cannot be created, because the human aspirations for growth and improvement are always confronted by nature. Therefore, technology and culture are consubstantial to each other: technology is the medium that allows culture to express itself, to imagine and to create itself incessantly. And, conversely, technology does not generally emerge accidentally: it is the spiritual life of a people—its culture—what promotes technological innovations. In this way, the major achievements of civilization are bounded to technology and culture, but so are the greatest misfortunes of humankind: wars for the control of resources, the emergence of fanaticism or, in more recent times, deep ecological problems and the urgent challenge of safeguarding the future of the next generations.

Higher cognitive abilities have bestowed upon our species unquestionable evolutionary advantages. Indeed, they have granted us the possibility of adapting ourselves to more versatile environments, in such a way as to finally adapt the environment to our needs and preferences. Something similar happens with the development of rationality and the acquisition of new and deeper forms of knowledge, leading to a profounder understanding of the world. For if a culture needs or aspires to grow and climb new summits of progress, it can only do so by gaining increasing degrees of knowledge about the world, the human being and history. Knowledge is thus a form of assimilating the world, a mechanism which can be regarded as equivalent to processing and pondering the different layers of information found in reality. Every living being, from the most rudimentary bacteria, assimilates the world in its own way, first through elementary types of metabolism, to finally conquer the deepest and most complex level of incorporation: that which is embodied in rational knowledge, in the intellectual grasping of the universal patterns of the world and in the elucidation of their mutual connections. Culture can therefore be examined as the human strategy par excellence for collectively assimilating the world and extracting the highest value out of the information at their disposal. From this perspective, culture shines as a function of the information that is available for a certain human community, or as the degree of “free” information that can be discovered in nature. This free ←460 | 461→information is capable of being fruitfully used to satisfy human interests, thereby becoming “bounded information,” or information utilized for human purposes.

The last approach essentially coincides with that of Leslie White, at least in the importance of emphasizing the efficient use of energy as a fundamental analytical tool for comprehending the divergent degree of cultural evolution between different human groups. However, it introduces a key modification, a subtle nuance; for it is not simply the energy available to a human group, but, in its deepest and most genuine aspect, the information that can be used for our benefit. Indeed, the explanatory virtue of speaking in terms of “information” rather than “energy” resides in its greater semantic breadth. As we have tried to illustrate, the development of a culture is not governed solely by its technical progress in controlling the different forms of energy that exist in nature but by an increasingly sophisticated knowledge of the surrounding reality and the intimate human world. Information does not refer univocally to physical energy and mechanical work: it also points to knowledge, to the intellectual strength of a particular human group, visible in the vivacity of its symbolism, the richness of its art, the scope of its thinking and of its ability to expand its intellectual horizons, etc. With the emergence of philosophy and science, culture reaches the highest conceivable advantage in the use of information, which is that offered by rational knowledge, by the gradual clarification of truth, by the possibility of elucidating the profoundest relations between the mind and the world.

In a definition of information like the one that can be found in Shannon’s theory, this magnitude is interpreted in entropic terms (i.e., in terms of disorder and energetic degradation), and therefore in connection with a measurement of the quantity of uncertainty for a given variable.4 Of course, Shannon’s theory is purely quantitative. It pays no attention to the semantic content of that particular information. Nevertheless, it provides us with a highly illuminating philosophical intuition, according to which more information implies less likelihood of transmission, that is to say, higher degree of complexity in the message and therefore greater “quantitative value” (an event that always takes place is less likely to provide substantial and valuable information). The information is thus linked to the reduction of the levels of uncertainty within a specific system. Or, in equivalent terms, information then minimizes uncertainty and maximizes utility.

The quantity and quality of free information can be seen as the measure of the degree of development reached by a certain human group; as an estimate of its “work capacity,” of the possibilities of material and spiritual realization that a culture has unleashed. But, unlike it can be inferred from the standard formulation of White’s thesis, this function does not have energy as its only and ←461 | 462→principal variable. Rather, it consists of the product of energy and knowledge. Indeed, the level of development of a culture can be expressed as the result of the information that is available at a given time. However, in this approach information (I, inversely proportional to entropy) is defined as the product of at least two functions: physical energy (E) and knowledge (K).

In consequence, the level of development of a culture can be encompassed in the available information I, itself the product of two functions: physical energy E and knowledge K:5

I = f (E).g (K)

In this way, more knowledge fosters unexpected opportunities for discovering new forms of energy, and with better knowledge, less energy is needed to attain the same stage of information; a more efficient and extensive use of energy promotes, in turn, the possibilities of acquiring greater levels of knowledge and understanding about nature and culture. The synthesis of energetic efficiency and cognitive progress defines the level of information that is available for a culture.

Once more, a revealing analogy can be drawn with certain thermodynamic magnitudes. The four fundamental thermodynamic potentials are the internal energy (which measures the energy associated with the random motion of the molecules of a system), the enthalpy (whose variation is useful for calculating the energy absorbed or released by a system), the Helmholtz free energy (which expresses the work obtainable in a closed system at constant temperature) and the Gibbs free energy (an extensive state function that provides the equilibrium conditions for a chemical reaction carried out under constant pressure and temperature, thus offering a fairly good idea of the useful energy that the system has for performing chemical reactions). The degree of free information of which a culture can dispose is a notion closely connected with the Helmholtz and Gibbs free energies in thermodynamic systems. It simply measures the capacity of “reaction” exhibited by a certain human community, its material fecundity and spiritual effervescence, themselves associated with the skill in the use of energy and the level of intellectual creativity.

According to Shannon’s theory, if the degree of disorder of a system—its entropy—diminishes, then the transmission of useful information must increase. This process can be understood in terms of an increment in the level of “objectivity” of the message, given that the amount of useless information has been reduced. Thus, a decreasing level of entropy would be conceptually equivalent to an increasing level of objective information, an approach clearly compatible with the definition of rationality proposed in the first chapter of this work.

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Notwithstanding the legitimacy of this perspective, the utility of which has been defended throughout the entire book, it seems in any case fair to admit its intrinsic incompleteness and improvability, at least concerning the analysis of life and its relation with entropy. Indeed, in the biological kingdom it is possible to appreciate an important feature that contradicts some of the previous tenets: namely, that life does not attain increasing levels of order by simply objectifying the reality that constitutes it and by eliminating any trace of the subjective (seen as potentially chaotic and arbitrary, and therefore as antithetic to the quintessence of rationality), but by developing higher degrees of “subjectivity,” in terms of expanding degrees of internal activity and autonomy.

Hence, in life we run into a fruitful philosophical paradox. For along its evolution, although entropy decreases while order increases, subjectivity (which, again, is in principle conceptually opposed to objectivity and thus to order) can nonetheless flourish. Indeed, in life low levels of entropy and high levels of subjectivity do not seem incompatible. Of course, as soon as we are able to advance in the scientific understanding of life and consciousness, it will not be utopian to dream of “objective explanations” of subjectivity; an objectivity in which the innovative self-production of highly complex biological entities in constant interaction with the environment provides us with almost countless degrees of elasticity.

To return to the previous points, it is important to insist that the contributions to knowledge achieved by the great civilizations of the past offer a profound and luminous clue for evaluating their accomplishments and the strength of their technical and symbolic life. Certainly, it is in the realm of abstract thought, of pure rationality, where the most universal landmarks of a culture actually shine. Furthermore, increasing power of abstraction stands as the root of all efficiency. Indeed, one finds that the higher the human capacity for abstraction, the greater the scope of our productive and technical achievements. For efficiency is generally subsidiary to the possibilities of abstraction. To give an example, the alphabet not only represents an astonishing progress in the path towards higher levels of abstraction, but also an inevitable advancement towards greater degrees of efficiency, because with a smaller number of signs we can express virtually all sounds emitted by the human voice. Similar cases took place with the invention of the positional numbering system and the creation of money as instrument for codifying the value of exchanges.

In regard to ancient civilizations, about which it is easier to extract conclusions of historical transcendence in order to adequately contemplate the extent of their prowess, one can draw the following schematic picture, which summarizes their ←463 | 464→main theoretical and practical inventions (some of which happened independently of each other):

Mesopotamian civilization (Sumer, Acadia, Assyria and Babylon): wheel with axis, agriculture, sophisticated irrigation systems, domestication (livestock), state bureaucracy, first manifestations of metallurgy, phonographic writing, early literary expressions, large-scale adobe architecture, the sexagesimal system, the rudiments of astronomy, the first legislative codes (like Hammurabi’s) …

Egyptian civilization: phonographic writing, solar calendar, large-scale stone engineering (pyramids, temples, obelisks, etc.), complex irrigation and flood prediction systems, efficient administrative bureaucracy, scribal schools, use of papyrus, development of widespread international commercial networks, medical etiology, the first known forms of naval engineering, artisan use of glass, a vigorous literary corpus, poetry, eschatology, monotheism, ability to solve basic arithmetical and geometric problems (including a good approximation to the value of π), the first peace treaty of history (with the Hittites), etc.

Indian civilization (from Harappa to the Gupta empire): a refined urban organization, contributions to metallurgy and handicrafts, writing, the first manifestations of an elaborate metaphysical reasoning, introspective spirituality, holistic religiosity, a philosophy of compassion (Buddhism), the positional numbering system, etc.

Chinese civilization: writing, metallurgy, a thorough system of state and civil service bureaucracy, relevant contributions to medicine, spirituality of harmony and virtue, porcelain art, papermaking, the abacus, important technological innovations (mechanical clock, compass, gunpowder, etc.), etc.

Phoenician civilization: the alphabet, an elaborate naval construction technique, extensive global commercial networks, etc.

Classical Greek civilization: argumentative philosophy, theater, the agora as a space for public reflection, demonstrative mathematics, axiomatization of logic, rational cosmology, heliocentrism, encephalocentrism, rational medicine, sport competitions, gymnastics, democracy, reflection on political theory, cosmopolitanism, the creation of academies and lyceums for higher education, analogical computing (the enigmatic mechanism of Antikythera), systematization of the art of oratory, etc.

Roman civilization: contributions to large-scale engineering (such as the construction of notable aqueducts and bridges), a complex network of roadways to connect cities, legislative systems precursors of modern law, a sophisticated urban organization, with sewer systems and residential blocks, the cultivation of rhetoric and poetry, etc.

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Of the various and significant manifestations of human inventiveness, two creations stand out in the prehistory and recent history of humanity; two advancements that have triggered a burst of progress without whose multiplicative advantages our species would not have conquered many of its present milestones: the Neolithic revolution, with the development of agriculture and the domestication of animals, and the industrial revolution, which gave us a hitherto unknown physical power, by releasing vast energies that had so far escaped human control.6 Ulterior revolutions in the control of electromagnetic energy and of the energy stored in the atom can be regarded as prolongations of this first incursion into the sources of mechanical energy. Indeed, by virtue of these two major revolutions in our capacity of controlling energy, both the population and the average life expectancy increased considerably. Hence, these revolutions would have been responsible for the most relevant increments in human productivity. Arguably, any path capable of revealing future technological revolutions of a similar caliber will also determine the evolution of our species.

While a more highly developed culture is able to use energy more efficiently, it should be remembered that technological inventions, by themselves, do not guarantee progress, understood as the capacity to attain higher levels of well-being, creativity and knowledge. There are inexorable “energy thresholds,” and without overcoming them it is virtually impossible to contemplate certain goals that satisfy the creative impulse of a certain human group. Indeed, dreams are only realized once a specific material level has been reached, because the ideals of a culture are based on the robust but intricate columns of material productions. A single mind can, of course, propel a culture into glorious stages of material and spiritual development, but what the visionary conceives in his solitude needs to cross the hard path of technological innovations, capable of shaping the luminous horizon that he has envisaged. Once the critical point posed by an energy threshold has been surpassed, the development of the spiritual world no longer depends univocally on technology and material production. Rather, after gaining an “escape velocity” that allows it to conquer a certain level of autonomy with respect to material pressures, it can expand copiously.

Furthermore, underscoring the relevance of technology does not imply adopting a developmental scheme as rigid as that of Marvin Harris and many cultural materialists. The wish to identify rules of transformation that translate any emic description (i.e., the explanation from the point of view of the native, the idiosyncrasy of a culture) into an etic formula (the “objective” explanation, in terms of environmental and economic infrastructures) frequently succumbs to the temptation of denying any active role on the side of the mind, of human ←465 | 466→creativity, of the conscious exercise of our capacities; a process that inexorably involves other members of the human species and which needs to take into account the influence of the social environment upon individual development.

Such approaches lead, in short, to the eclipse of the role of culture, conceived as a mere reaction to external pressures, intertwined in a permanent search for equilibrium between society and the environment in which a given group navigates. This deterministic assumption diffuses the power of human will; from such a perspective, it seems that any great civilization would have been prisoner to exogenous forces. Thus, nothing truly free and creative could have ever flourished in history. Like gigantic machines at the mercy of environmental pressures, cultures would walk blindly, shaken not by the wind of history and the conscious action of the human being but by ecological forces that always overlap any human aspiration. In these frames, criteria as important as those of “selection” and “adaptive need” are nonetheless enthroned as explanatory concepts of universal and uncritical validity. Yet, their omnipresence may actually turn them into solutions eager to find answers instead of real answers to specific problems arising from sociological and historical research.

Thus, the famous triptych, “material infrastructure-social structure-ideological superstructure,” if adopted without further qualifications, runs the risk of suffering from obstinate simplicity. The life of a culture is not always stratified in that direction. Of course, such a rudimentary and mechanical scheme can sometimes become a successful explanatory model, at least for the more basic levels of human activity. However, it presupposes that human beings have constantly acted in a narrowly logical and mechanistic way, taken as the utmost expression of rationality. But in reality, reason has only been discovered gradually and tortuously, as a dense veil timidly torn at each stage of history, while in very long periods of the human enterprise unreason, emotion, tradition, prejudice, chance or imposition have been the driving forces for many social groups.

Indeed, the material infrastructure does not always define the social organization of a people and the miscellany of its prevailing values. The idea that the infrastructure determines the superstructure should be seen as an unverifiable dogma, which underestimates the role played by the conscious action of individuals and groups in the great plot of history. Without some sort of reference to the values assumed by human beings it is impossible to fully understand a culture and its evolution. Frequently, it is the case that the convictions held by a group, or the charisma exhibited by a certain individual, or the discovery of a new scientific truth, or the confrontation with a traumatic experience that elicits individual and collective reflection, become the forces that trigger cultural change. For sure, ←466 | 467→many great human transformations have begun in the realm of ideas, of the spirit, to later revert on the province of social structures as a top-down influx.

Again, on the side of material development, it is clear that any great technological revolution depends upon the discovery of new forms of energy that can be efficiently used by humanity. But, as has been argued, in some relevant cases, purely cognitive revolutions have shaped the way in which humanity understands itself and have prompted an unprecedented chain of intellectual and social changes. The work of Copernicus, Darwin and Wallace shows the vast power that progress in knowledge can bring to liberate humanity from prejudices and dogmas in its quest for truth.

The question, therefore, does not only concern the material level attained but the specific spiritual circumstances that underlie the degree of development achieved by a human group. Indeed, humanity would have hardly advanced along the paths of rationality, equality and freedom without political revolutions like the English Glorious Revolution, the French Revolution of 1789 and the revolutionary events of 1848. Qualifying and completing our previous statement, it then seems necessary to admit that not only the Neolithic revolution and the invention of the steam engine have increased the rates of human well-being. Certain phenomena that can be regarded as ideological in nature, given that they emanate from our spiritual creativity and capacity to imagine ideas, conceptual frames and social goals, have also contributed to a new and humanizing social order. Furthermore, exceptional individuals like Buddha, Socrates, Jesus, Saint Francis of Assisi, Luther, Nietzsche, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King have changed the course of history through thinking and action. The scope of their accomplishments cannot be constrained to the context in which they were forged, as if they embodied the inexorable unfolding of a temporal stage. Of course, it is impossible to understand the message of Buddha without analyzing Hinduism, a religion against whose metaphysical and social foundations Prince Gautama rebelled in the period of the second urbanization in India, or Socrates without the influence of Greek sophistry, or Jesus of Nazareth without the social and theological context of Second Temple Judaism and the apocalyptic currents that ignited the spiritual life of first century Palestine. However, these minds added a creative mark that inevitably exceeds the range of the inherited elements, thereby propitiating a creative leap that can be recognized in many domains of human activity.

In short, the key to comprehending the development of a culture seems to rest on the knowledge it has been able to accumulate, in its characteristic symbiosis of matter and spirit, of technology and symbolism, which allows us to ←467 | 468→transform the world and build our own world. The two fundamental dimensions of culture, its material bases and its spiritual or symbolic foundations, converge in knowledge, in the results of human understanding and of its capacity for action. Thus, culture can be regarded as the element that human beings add to nature, as the set of material and symbolic creations that permit us to gain new realms of reality beyond that which nature has bestowed upon us; as the creation of worlds beyond the world.

If one accepts the presence of a creative impulse in human beings (which is, indeed, a reasonable assumption, given the spontaneous ability to imagine, reason and invent that seems almost universal throughout individuals, cultures and ages), an ability potentially capable of overcoming any cultural and psychological determination, then it is possible to distinguish three great levels of analysis in order to capture the essence of development:

1. The biological level, which is the fruit of the evolutionary forces and stands as the basis of the human condition.

2. The cultural level, channeled through the technical and symbolic conquests of humanity.

3. The level of reason and creativity: indeed, the potentially universal content concealed in every work of the human being; the consummation of biology and its insertion in the space of pure intelligibility, of rational thought. Thanks to reason, the universe is no longer apprehended as an empty fact, as a reality deprived of meaning, but as law, as order, as intelligence and form, as the architecture that harmoniously assembles the mosaic of pieces previously dispersed through times and spaces.

9.3 Knowledge, Imagination and Mental Frameworks

Given the transcendental role that we have attributed to knowledge in fostering and shaping the development of a culture, it is worth reflecting on the nature of this important philosophical category not so much from an epistemic point of view (as has been the case in most chapters of this book) but from a combination of psychological and sociological approaches. Here, the goal will be to briefly discuss the type of mind and the game of cognitive faculties that are normally needed for expanding the present state of knowledge and eliciting individual and collective development. If in the previous sections these questions have been addressed from a predominantly abstract and philosophical perspective (aimed at explaining how knowledge is attained and validated), now it is pertinent to incorporate some ←468 | 469→more descriptive considerations that may be helpful for understanding the sociology of the human intellectual enterprise.

Indeed, a preliminary remark compels us to acknowledge that there is no single route leading to knowledge. Beyond the occasional relevance assumed by serendipity in the intellectual development of humanity, to a first approximation knowledge can be reached mainly through analysis, that is to say, through the logical elucidation of how nature works. This analytic mind is keen on understanding the mechanisms of nature. It fragments reality as a way to discover its fundamental patterns. Nevertheless, though it gains in rigor and efficiency, it can also diminish the quality of our perspective and lose sight of the relevant picture. A synthetic mind, on the contrary, is prepared for the unification of the different elements of reality and the various branches of knowledge in order to achieve an interdisciplinary account of reality, but it can lead to inaccurate generalizations, detached from a fair comprehension of the fine structure of reality. It is precisely in the combination of analysis and synthesis where the most fruitful way to knowledge seems to rest.

In any case, the acquisition of any form of knowledge is mediated by the use of intelligence. In broader psychological terms and from a phenomenological point of view, it is in fact possible to characterize intelligence as the ability to find relations between objects and properties. Or, equivalently, intelligence can be described as a faculty that, when given an input, is able to identify associations between this input and other objects and properties.

This capacity adopts two fundamental manifestations: one of an analytical nature and one of a synthetic character. In the case of the analytical, inferential or “sequential” intelligence, the mind learns to draw conclusions based on the logical potential of the premises, by discerning rational patterns, “molds” in which it is possible to assemble pieces of information that share certain commonalities. Thus, it unveils the inexorable or plausible connections the development of which permits us to detect a series of outcomes and corollaries that can be deduced or induced from the initial assumptions. Synthetic intelligence, on the other hand, reveals itself as a conspicuously amplifying phenomenon. Instead of being exclusively governed by rules of logical consequence, by that which is “given,” it imagines the new and it creates a novel scenario by transcending the boundaries between objects, properties and systems. In this way, if analytic intelligence is capable of deconstructing objects and properties (or any system of objects susceptible to analysis) in order to discover its ultimate constituents and fundamental principles, synthetic intelligence finds connections between different realms; it therefore reconstructs objects and properties to build a new system. To do so, it ←469 | 470→inevitably has to select certain features of the elements in play, precisely those that exhibit a higher potential for connectivity. While it is undoubtedly based upon the pillars of more or less ingenious links binding the elements (empirical or logical) that are present, it also aims to create a new system, or a new configuration for that system.

Hence, analytic intelligence seeks to reach the atoms of a system, its ultimate units, while synthetic intelligence is more focused on the general patterns and principles of behavior, on the connections between atoms, on the large-scale entities and processes. Yet, and in an essentially analogous way, synthetic intelligence also needs to discriminate and choose which elements must be raised to a higher epistemic status for establishing connections and drawing a broader picture. Thus, the quest for principles of selection becomes a necessary step both analytically and synthetically. So, not surprisingly there is an ultimate convergence between the analytic and synthetic uses of intelligence, given that the two of them attempt to reach the fundamental guiding principles of system, even if one applies a top-down strategy and the other a predominantly bottom-up approach.

Furthermore, it can be said that synthetic intelligence is meant to outline a problem rather than to solve it, to sketch a new landscape than to explore the present one, to construct than to dissect. Of course, the quality of any manifestation of intelligence will shine in the speed, depth and extent at which it can set connections or create new conceptual frameworks, but a correct discrimination between the analytic and the synthetic forms is important for understanding human intelligence and the full catalogue of its skills.

Intelligence clears unknowns about certain domains of reality and thought, but it does not always create a new reality or a new mental framework. From this perspective, intelligence should be distinguished from creativity. Elucidating the structure of a system differs from creating it. Innovation requires the establishment of a new system. It may demand the collaboration of intelligence, but it overflows from the pure act of understanding, of unraveling the true meaning or the authentic scope of a given system. Creative talent transcends intelligence. One can understand everything without enlightening new ideas or inventing inspiring analogies that shed light on unforeseen problems. One can solve all the problems of mathematics and pave the way for integrating functions hitherto elusive, but without inaugurating a new area of research that expands the confines of this science by discovering or inventing connections between systems and fields of inquiry. One can understand a philosophical problem, and even exhibit an astonishing speed at dealing with its subtleties, yet without raising a new and significant metaphysical question, or a new perspective, or a new approach to a certain realm of thought.

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Intelligence is often overshadowed by details, drowned in the endless analytical dissection that decomposes without erecting a new and more splendid building. A great artist dominates the details, but above all he triumphs as a visionary, as a holistic mind that pays more attention to the integration of the parts than to its fragmented individuality. Likewise, scientific geniuses master the inexorable details of their discipline, but they are at the same time capable of transcending them.

On many occasions, the history of a science evolves gradually, through the industrious accumulation of evidence. Successive generations of scientists laboriously add a new stone to the temple of human knowledge. Without this noble and sacrificed work, a considerable number of great scientific theories would probably not have been formulated, because most of them stand on the courageous shoulders of a multitude of inquirers who have delved into physical reality, so as to scrutinize its ultimate components. Nevertheless, the scientific genius is not limited to identifying the pieces of the mosaic. Rather, he arms the puzzle bequeathed by others. Copernicus proposed a new system of the world. He did not reveal the existence of a new planet; he was not Herschel who, thanks to his telescope, his tenacity and his intelligence, discovered Uranus. Yet, the Polish master deciphered the structure of the solar system. Thus, he sketched a new painting with the shapes and colors that others had transmitted to him. Galileo explicitly delineated the scientific method and integrated countless observations that had already been verified by his predecessors in the enterprise of human knowledge. Darwin offered a theory capable of collecting and fertilizing a myriad of previous zoological and geological findings. At his time there was no taxonomy as complete and detailed as that of Linnaeus, but he was able to discover the meaning of the classification of living species suggested by the great Swedish naturalist in the eighteenth century. The thick veil that concealed the tree of life was therefore opened. Einstein himself did not create out of nothing; he did not invent the idea of relativity of all inertial frames of reference or the principle of the constancy of the speed of light in vacuo. In the crucible of his theory, he fused notions that were already fluttering—sometimes clamorously—in the books and papers of Poincaré and Lorentz, but of which Einstein learnt to extract their ultimate consequences. And the idea is what counts, since it embodies the seal of true genius. Its development requires a very specific type of talent. Einstein was aided by mathematicians like his faithful friend Marcel Grossmann to elucidate the field equations that best describe a brilliant intuition germinated in his intellect: general covariance and the connection between the curvature of space-time and gravitation. But he penetrated into such a beautiful, fruitful and ←471 | 472→vigorous paradigm through simple thought experiments, the priceless imprint of his genius.

Given the number and scope of the challenges that humanity is facing in our time (environmental degradation, the risks posed by nuclear weapons, poverty, increasing social inequality, the rise of religious and ideological fanaticisms, the problems associated with social networks and privacy, the growing mistrust in scientific evidence, the difficulties for defining universal ethical frames, the need for rethinking education, etc.), it is clear that we should not underestimate any cognitive resource capable of augmenting our power of understanding. We need analytic minds, synthetic minds and, moreover, imaginative minds. The overcoming of any given context and conceptual system will only be achieved if analytic power is combined with intuition, the gate to creativity. If we merely look for analytic certainty, we will easily fall captive to intellectual inertia, and we will not make the effort of building new paradigms that may expand and refine our understanding of reality.

Indeed, courage to critically examine the premises and frames of reference with which the human mind is working demands the collaboration of faculties like intuition, imagination and synthetic gifts that are not always present in many purely analytic enterprises. Again, logic is the preeminent expression of rationality: a set of premises and rules of transformation that allow us to go from one statement to another. Imagination, even if not strictly illogical, nonetheless obeys analogy, the creative establishment of connections and similarities that cannot be—at least immediately—proven in a sequential manner.

The overcoming of a mental framework needs to take into account the limits and contradictions of our systems of thought. Only if we become aware of the presuppositions of our conceptual guidelines can we aspire to improve our understanding of nature, society and subjectivity, thereby reconciling views that nowadays seem impossible to harmonize.

Of course, and as far as we know, there is no perfect conceptual system. In fact, it is clear that the so-called theory of everything (or “final theory”), of which contemporary physicists like Steven Weinberg dream, cannot eradicate the traces of contingency, creativity and indeterminacy that prevail in several domains of reality. The first reason is that our knowledge of nature is always constrained. Once more, until the twentieth-century physicists thought that two fundamental forces sufficed to explain material processes. Today, we are aware of the necessity of at least four fundamental forces to comprehend the behavior of the universe. How can we know that we have actually understood “everything”? What is the meaning of “everything” in this context, if we cannot exclude the appearance of new elements in the domains of theory and reality? Indeed, who can exclude the ←472 | 473→possibility of asking for an even deeper foundation of our present knowledge? How can we be sure of having obtained the final answer if we cannot be sure of having posed the final question? The second reason points to some important limits in our capacity to know and think that have been discovered by science itself. These two fundamental borders are, as has been argued, Gödel’s incompleteness theorems and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle; the first refers to the internal structure of logical thinking, while the second poses an external barrier to knowledge.7 It therefore seems highly implausible that we may ever develop a final theory of everything.

No one can anticipate which surprises the study of matter and mind will bring to the intellectual enterprise of humanity, what new roots and branches of the vast tree of knowledge will be revealed. But ambiguity and ignorance are roads to progress. Only by feeling ourselves unsatisfied with the current paradigms, only by suffering the onerous shadow of ignorance about so many mysteries that attract our attention, can we aim to advance.

Imagination and knowledge about the present state of a certain discipline or human dimension, if rightly matched, underlie the great triumphs of human creativity. And creativity is the hidden resource of humanity. Hidden, because it cannot be easily reduced to an algorithm, to a general rule, to a recipe; resource, because the great achievements of the human longing for knowledge and material improvement are the fruits of creativity.

We all must become acquainted with the great advancements of the past, but we have to avoid the uncritical assumption of inherited opinions if we really want to contribute to human progress. Sadly, this aspiration is severely limited by the constraints of rigid educational systems. In them, the transmission of facts, ideas and discoveries generally obeys a dangerous illusion of immutability, and the most important elements of learning are not always taught dynamically, by helping to develop an appetite for knowledge and a critical mind that allow us to understand how these facts, ideas and discoveries were actually achieved and could be expanded.

Furthermore, the acquisition of knowledge is probably the greatest ethical tool of humanity, because in the individual’s longing for knowledge, an open mind and a humble spirit stand as necessary steps. Relativizing our assumptions and admitting our ignorance is certainly the first stage in building a more tolerant world. And knowledge, beyond its ethical consequences, manifests a profoundly aesthetic dimension: that of the experience of the beauty and harmony exhibited by the truths that the human mind has been able to unveil about how this unceasingly expanding universe works and how, from simplicity, unimaginable complexity can emerge.

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1. 1J.M. Fuster, The Neuroscience of Freedom and Creativity, 154.

2. 2L.A. White, “Energy and the evolution of culture,” 335.

3. 3Cf. E.H. Cline, 1177 BC: The year civilization collapsed. In any case, it is hard to believe that the Sea Peoples were entirely responsible for the collapse of some of the greatest empires of the time. As Cline underlines, a complex concatenation of causes –including climate factors- is probably behind that dramatic series of events.

4. 4Cf. C.E. Shannon, “A mathematical theory of communication.”

5. 5Cf. C. Blanco, Más allá de la cultura y de la religión, ch. 3.1. Thus, this formula, if expanded and accurately expressed through a correct evaluation of the exponents thereby needed, would adopt a form rather similar to the Cobb-Douglas production function in macroeconomic theory, which uses labor and capital as basic inputs.

6. 6Cf. I. Morris, Why the west rules-for now: The patterns of history and what they reveal about the future; E. Brynjolfsson – A. McAfee, The second machine age: Work, progress, and prosperity in a time of brilliant technologies.

7. 7As Martin Rees has written, such a potential final theory “would not signal the end of challenging science.” Indeed, “every lump of material, whether living or inanimate, is governed by Schrödinger’s equation- the basic equation of quantum theory that describes all atoms and assemblages of atoms. In practice, though, we can’t solve this equation for anything more complicated than a single molecule. The complexity of the solution depends on how many atoms are involved, and also on the intricacy of their internal structure (for instance, a living cell is vastly more complex than a regular crystal made of the same number of atoms). Moreover, even if we had a hypercomputer that could solve Schrödinger’s equation for a complex macroscopic system and reproduce that system’s behavior, the computer output would not yield any real insight. The insights that scientists seek require different concepts” (Our cosmic habitat, 153).


Blanco, C. (2016). Más allá de la cultura y de la religión. Madrid, Spain: Dykinson.

Brynjolfsson, E., & McAfee, A. (2014). The second machine age: Work, progress, and prosperity in a time of brilliant technologies. New York, NY: Norton.

Cline, E. H. (2015). 1177 BC: The year civilization collapsed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Fuster, J. M. (2013). The neuroscience of freedom and creativity: Our predictive brain. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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Morris, I. (2010). Why the West rules-for now: The patterns of history and what they reveal about the future. London, England: Profile Books.

Rees, M. (2017). Our cosmic habitat. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Shannon, C. E. (2001). A mathematical theory of communication. Mobile Computing and Communications Review, 5(1), 3–55.

White, L. A. (1943). Energy and the evolution of culture. American Anthropologist, 45(3), 335–356.

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