A superstimulus is something that provides a sensory signal outside of the range we normally experienced in our ancestral environment.
The classic example is chocolate cake. Chocolate cake is sweeter, fattier and more delicious than almost anything existing in nature. Fruit is usually more acidic. Honey doesn’t have any fats to balance the sweetness.
The result is that people love chocolate cake. Like many modern junk foods, they activate our taste buds and hunger circuits in just the right way that we’re driven to overeat.
Goodness as a Direction, not Destination
Evolution has equipped us with a lot of instincts which point us in directions that (tend) to be better for us, but which may not be good at all possible extremes. As long as those dangerous extremes were rare in our history, there wasn’t much pressure to avoid going too far.
Sweetness is just one example. We eat too much sweets because where they did occur (fruit and honey), they were rare enough and transient enough that eating a lot of them was almost always a good idea. Now we live in a place where they’re neither rare nor temporary and we get fat.
Another example is pornography. We normally wouldn’t be presented with so many arousing visual scenes unless it was a good opportunity to reproduce. So people find it appealing, even though too much may be bad for our relationships and sex lives.
Modern news may be an increasing super stimulus. Our ancestors would hear about angering/fearful stories only occasionally, living in small bands of people. Now we are bombarded with events from around the world that make our feelings of injustice and retribution rise. The world is getting better, yet the news is increasingly rage-provoking and depressing.
The concept of superstimuli are well established in many different areas of evolutionary psychology. But I want to consider another possible idea that I haven’t heard expressed before. Our hardwired desire for truth is also susceptible to superstimuli.
- What is the ultimate meaning of life?
- What is the ultimate substance of reality?
- What is the single, unified theory that explains everything?
- What happened before time was created?
Are the kind I think of as being about so-called “ultimate” truths. These are questions that transcend normal matters of, “are the berries on that bush poisonous,” or, “is there a tiger trying to stalk and eat me?”
Why Might Ultimate Truth Be a Superstimulus?
Just pattern-matching, many aspects of “ultimate” truth correspond to the canonical examples of superstimuli:
- We evolved circuits for sensing sweetness. <—> We evolved circuits for sensing deeper truths and patterns.
- More sweetness was almost always good. <—> Deeper and truer patterns are almost always good.
- We now live in an environment where sweetness can be had to a much greater degree than in the past. <—> We now live in a world where truth can be sought out, debated and thought about much more deeply than in the past.
- Our evolved preference for sweetness may no longer be as useful in a modern, sweets-filled world. <—> Our evolved preference for “ultimate” truths, may not be as useful in a world where such questions can be probed to extreme depths/lengths.
This doesn’t, of course, prove that ultimate truths are superstimuli, and that we’re better off ignoring our drive to find them. But it should also leave us open to this possibility.
My Own Taste for the Superstimuli
I don’t have a sweet tooth. I never really liked candy much as a child, and today I’m far more likely to overeat things like french fries or pasta than I am chocolate cake. In evolutionary terms, I may not have as strong a “sweets” urge as others, and that may even be beneficial in a modern world.
On the other hand, I have a huge drive to know “ultimate” answers to questions. Ever since I was a child, I was fascinated by fundamental physics. Philosophical arguments about the origins of the world, consciousness and knowledge continue to fascinate me.
Some people don’t share my love. They think these ultimate questions are boring, frightening or even nonsensical. I always used to view such people with a little bit of condescension, thinking that they just don’t have the appetite to really ask deep questions. Now I’m not so sure. If ultimate truth is really a superstimuli, maybe they’re lack the “sweet tooth” that keeps them from overeating on what is essentially empty calories.
Why Might “Ultimate” Answers Be Empty?
Beyond the pattern similarities between ultimate truths and other superstimuli, I can think of a few potent arguments against going off the deep end with philosophical navel-gazing.
Reason #1: There May Not Be an Answer
Sabine Hossenfelder writes that physicists as a profession may have gotten a little too preoccupied with beauty in fundamental physics. The result? Tens of thousands of theory papers and predictions that have held little experimental weight.
The desire to see a mathematically beautiful explanation for everything may ignore a simple reality: things might simply be, with no explanation and no way of getting at some deeper understanding. Our explanatory abilities for the universe may simply “bottom out” at some base layer which needs to be accepted, rather than further scrutinized.
Even if there are deeper explanations, our quest for ultimate truths may itself be impeding our progress. This is analogous to the idea that calories are still important for human beings, but they become more dangerous in our gluttonous society. Seeking ultimate truths may put us off the harder, more boring work of figuring out how more mundane things actually work.
Reason #2: “Pure” Knowledge Itself May Be an Illusion
Psychologists have known for years that human beings operate with a “folk psychology.” This is a mental model of how our own minds (and the minds’ of others) works, which we find very intuitive, but is often contrary to science. So deep is this folk psychology that we often don’t realize how it impacts our other observations.
One of those folk psychological intuitions is about what knowledge is itself. We tend to think of our knowledge as static propositions that “reach out” and point to something actual in the world and mean something specific.
However, some branches of philosophy and cognitive science are starting to question that idea. It may be that our brain is simply an adaptive organ that creates models of things to inform motor behavior. Those models don’t need to correspond to anything in the real world, as long as the organism carrying them can survive and reproduce.
If referentialism is false, and possibly also cognitivism, then the entire idea of an “ultimate” truth is an illusion. The best we can hope for is a very useful model, for some other purpose, rather than a “pure” understanding which exists detached from any instrumental goal.
Reason #3: The Actual Answers May Be Unfulfilling (or Even Unethical)
Suppose that brains do refer to things and cognitivism is still largely correct. We still have beliefs and those beliefs actually point to things in the world. Also suppose that ultimate truth is actually findable, in principle, and the world doesn’t just “bottom out” on a set of brute facts that have no explanation. Even in this scenario, ultimate truths may be superstimuli.
To see why, look again at our sugar analogy. The reason sweetness is problematic is that our craving for it was good in the past, but going too far it starts to interfere with other goals, such as maintaining a stable body weight and avoiding health problems.
Similarly, we value things other than truth itself. We want our lives to be meaningful. We need to believe in certain things as a society, like human dignity, ethics and beauty. These things need to be believed, to some extent, for the human race to continue to function.
However, suppose that the ultimate answers for things undermined some of these conclusions. That we found answers for these things and they undermined our basic principles for living well in the world, such that the cooperative stories we tell ourselves to function as individuals and in a society became untenable.
Many people who ardently seek truth scoff at the possibility that things we learn which are true could somehow be unethical. Isn’t the truth always good? I’m biased to think that as well, but I don’t see how it’s logically impossible that something could be both true and abhorrent.
Overall, I see #1 as being at least equal odds of being right, #2 as being lower probability, but not far-fetched enough to reject, and #3 as being probably false (but still unsettling enough that maybe my own emotional reaction to it is impeding my judgement).
Combined however, and there seems a decent chance that ultimate truth is a superstimulus. Especially if you consider other arguments I wasn’t able to conclude.
What should you do about that? I’m not sure, but it does suggest that perhaps having a little more restraint about trying to answer such questions (or believing they can be answered) might be wise.