For centuries, people have been wondering about their existence and place in the universe. These fundamental questions can be classified in six categories, each defining a particular philosophical domain:
1. What exists? What is reality?
Ontology: defining the constituents of reality
2. Why is the world the way it is? Where do we come from?
Metaphysics: determining the origins or ultimate causes
3. Where are we going to? Will the world come to an end?
Futurology: forecasting the future
4. What is good and what is evil? What should we strive for?
Axiology: a system of goals, values, and ethics
5. How should we act? How can we tackle our problems?
Praxeology: a method for practical action
6. What is true and what is false? How can we know?
Epistemology: a theory of knowledge
The answers to all these questions together determine a worldview, i.e. a comprehensive philosophical system, a coherent vision of the whole. A worldview gives meaning to our life, and helps us to understand the world around us.
A coherent worldview is particularly important in the current era of accelerating scientific, cultural and social developments, in which all the old certainties are put into question. The confusion and fragmentation associated with this often lead to pessimism and uncertainty, and the need for psychological guidance in the form of a clear and reliable system of thought.
Unfortunately such a framework is all too often found in fundamentalist ideologies, or in irrational beliefs and superstitions. Science should be our weapon in the fight against irrationality and fundamentalism. Unfortunately, contemporary science seems to contribute to the confusion by the avalanche of often contradictory observations and theories that it overloads us with. That is why we need to develop a coherent, new worldview that is solidly rooted in the most advanced scientific concepts and observations.
Our ECCO philosophy tries to show how the different scientific and philosophical insights can be integrated in a coherent framework. This framework is based on the notion of evolution as a spontaneous force or drive for the self-organization of increasingly complex and intelligent systems. This evolution leads from particles to atoms, molecules, cells, organisms, humans, and societies to the emerging "global brain".
Let us summarize this philosophy by the way its answers the fundamental questions:
the most fundamental components of reality are actions and agents, i.e. elementary processes and relations, not independent, static pieces of matter. Out of their interactions, organization emerges. As these systems become more complex and adaptive, they start to exhibit cognition or intelligence, i.e. the ability to make informed choices. The fundamental concepts in our ontology are further defined in the Glossary of ECCO Concepts.
if we go back in time, towards the origin of the universe, systems and agents become ever simpler, until they lose any form of complexity or organization. The organization we see around us now can be explained by the processes of blind variation, that has been producing random combinations of agents and actions, and natural selection, that has retained only those combinations that are "fit", i.e. adapted internally to each other, and externally to their encompassing environment. Since natural selection or self-organization is a spontaneous, automatic process, there is no need to postulate external or supernatural causes or forces to explain the origin of the phenomena we see around us.
this process of on-going complexification and adaptation can be extrapolated towards the future. This allows us to predict that in the medium term conflict and friction within human society will diminish, cooperation will expand to the planetary level, well-being will increase, individuals will become ever more integrated with the socio-technological systems that surround them, while individual and collective intelligence will spectacularly augment. In the longer term, this increase in cooperation and evolvability is likely to expand beyond the planet into the universe. However, since evolution is a process of trial-and-error that is not accurately predictable, we should be ready for various unexpected problems and setbacks along the road.
the inner drive or implicit value governing all life is fitness, i.e. survival, growth and development. In the present human situation, this fundamental value can be translated as a universal and sustainable quality-of-life, well-being or happiness. Evolutionary, psychological, and cybernetic theories allow us to derive a number of more concrete values from this overarching value, i.e. properties that are necessary for long-term well-being. These include openness, diversity, intelligence, knowledge, cooperation, freedom, personal control, health, and a coherent worldview. In the longer term, fitness implies increasing adaptiveness and evolvability beyond human society as we know it. Actions that promote these values are intrinsically good, actions that suppress them are bad.
to maximally achieve these values in real life, we will need to overcome a variety of problems and obstacles. Cognitive science, cybernetics, and complex systems science suggest various tools and strategies to tackle complex problems, and to stimulate and steer self-organization so as to be as efficient as possible. These methods include feedback control, anticipation, hierarchical decomposition, heuristic search, stigmergic coordination, and memetic engineering. At the level of society, these methods define a strategy for effective governance, for the maximization of collective intelligence, and the minimization of friction and conflicts.
in order to solve problems, we need adequate knowledge. Knowledge is not an objective reflection of reality, though, but a simple model that makes useful predictions. Different problems may require different models of the same reality, without any one being the "true" representation. However, models that make more wide-ranging and accurate predictions are intrinsically better. Cognitive science, cybernetics, and neuroscience help us to understand how the brain learns from experience and makes predictions via the self-organization of neural patterns, and the feedback between perception and conception, observation and theory. Similar mechanisms may be implemented as computer algorithms to extract new knowledge from unstructured data, and thus discover better concepts and theories.
An evolutionary philosophy has direct implications for a happy and healthy lifestyle. By understanding how we as humans have evolved, we will get a much better understanding of how we can function optimally.
Natural selection has shaped our body and mind for life as paleolithic hunter-gatherers (HGs). Hominids have been living in that way for millions of years after they diverged from the chimpansees. Agriculture only appeared about 10 000 years ago in the Middle East, and even later in most other parts of the world. Therefore, our genes have not really had the time to adapt to the lifestyle of farmers or industrial workers: they still prepare us for a life of hunting and gathering.
This means that there is a fundamental misadaptation between our present lifestyle and the one that our genes expect. This discord can explain a host of so-called "diseases of civilisation": coronary heart disease, obesity, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer, depression, chronic stress, anxiety, ADHD, etc. These diseases needlessly degrade body and mind, while significantly reducing our life expectancy and sense of well-being.
On the positive side, this insight now allows us to improve our quality of life. We first need to better understand how our paleolithic ancestors lived. We can then choose the elements of that lifestyle that are most appropriate to adopt in our present circumstances. As summarized below, there exists an extensive and quickly growing literature on changes in diet, exercise, and contact with nature that are inspired by the paleolithic lifestyle. Many of those have already been proven to increase our well-being, although further empirical tests are of course needed.
There is an aspect to the HG lifestyle that has received relatively little attention, an aspect that I have called "life as an adventure": the life of a hunter-gatherer is a sequence of smaller and larger challenges, positive as well as negative, with the main characteristic that most challenges are unpredictable, of short duration, and of extremely diverse type and intensity. In contrast, agricultural and industrial societies prescribe a highly regulated life, where tasks and duties are predictable, constant, uniform, and rule-bound.
While HG challenges can be very stressful, e.g. running away from a bear, falling from a tree or crossing an ice-cold river, this stress is typically acute, i.e. intense and of short duration (seconds to hours). The rush of adrenalin is followed shortly by a pleasurable feeling of relief. The stress of modern life, on the other hand, is typically chronic, i.e. of low intensity but long duration (weeks to years). Examples are waiting for an evaluation report, preparing a PhD thesis, or enduring the daily traffic jams. This produces continuously high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which tends to break down muscle, suppress the immune system and promote obesity, anxiety and depression.
The modern approach to tackling challenges is based on formulating far-away goals, detailed planning to reach them, discipline and regularity in implementing the plans, and a strong sense of duty in order to keep on track and stick to the plan. This entails a constant worry about whether you are doing the right thing.
Hunting and gathering, on the other hand, cannot rely on planning, as it is impossible to predict precisely where or when a significant opportunity (e.g. prey to catch, or fruit to collect) or danger (e.g. a predator) will be encountered. This leads to a much more spontaneous, opportunistic style of problem solving, characterized by features such as intuition, improvisation, exploration, adaptation, and play.
There is plenty of evidence that this more playful HG style of living is what our brain was actually selected for, and what it is best at. Moreover, applying this lifestyle stimulates brain and body to further develop themselves. On the other hand, suppressing it, by sticking to unflinching rules and duties, produces chronic stress and its attendant health problems. This means that we would be happier, healthier and more effective if we could live more in the HG way.
That may seem naive and utopian, but the present state of our science, technology and economy perfectly allows such a more relaxed attitude. The strictly disciplined following of rules may have been necessary to build up the wealth we have now. But nowadays our technology has become so powerful that we can delegate that type of activities to machines. It is precisely the following of formally defined rules that machines are good at, while the more creative, "adventurous", intuitive aspects of problem solving are better left to humans.
Here is a summary of the life-style changes recommended to achieve the health and happiness of a hunter-gatherer:
1) eat plenty of the foods HGs ate: meat, fish, vegetables, fruit, nuts, eggs, ..., preferably from natural sources. These contain high concentrations of all the important nutrients that the body needs to grow and repair itself: proteins, fats, carbohydrates (in relatively small amounts), vitamins, antioxidants, minerals and fibers. No need to count calories: with these foods you will quickly be satiated, build muscle, and eventually lose fat (especially in combination with muscle-building exercises).
2) avoid foods that HGs did not eat: all sorts of grain-based products (bread, rice, corn, cereal, pasta...), sugars, milk-based products, most vegetable oils, and highly processed foods with lots of additives, such as cookies, doughnuts, sweets, or hamburgers. These foods contain mostly lots of calories, but very few nutrients, and often plenty of "anti-nutrients" (substances that tend to interfere with your metabolism).
Particularly dangerous are the foods with a high "glycemic load", i.e. containing lots of easily digestible carbohydrates that are quickly converted to high levels of glucose in the blood. This leads to the release of insulin, which promotes the storage of glucose as fat. A chronic activation of this process produces the "metabolic syndrome", which is the precursor of most of the present "diseases of civilisation", including obesity, diabetes, coronary heart disease, cancer, chronic inflammation and Alzheimer.
3) skip meals from time to time: HGs did not eat at fixed times of the day, and sometimes went hungry for a day or more, but then compensated by "feasting" with a big meal. The practice of "intermittent fasting" without reduction in total amount of calories has been shown to significantly improve a variety of health indicators, such as cholesterol and glucose levels, triglycerides, and obesity.
4) move regularly according to the principle of power law variation: plenty of rest, lots of low intensity activity such as walking, cycling or swimming, regular medium level activity, and from time to time a short burst of very high intensity activity, such as sprinting, jumping, or lifting heavy weights.
Avoid repetitive, enduring high-intensity training such as jogging or power training several hours a week: such overtraining breaks down rather than builds up muscle tissue, is unhealthy in the long run, and anyway boring and difficult to sustain for the rest of your life. Marathons and similar extreme exertions in particular are counterindicated: the continuing aerobic exertion uses up the proteins in muscle mass, floods the body with free radicals and the stress hormone cortisol, and gives the body the signal to store more fat as energy reserves for future exhaustion.
5) make your exercises as varied and as interesting as possible, taking inspiration from the kind of movements that HGs or children tend to do: climbing, throwing, balancing, jumping, crawling, lifting, carrying, wrestling, ... Instead of using exercise machines that only allow a single type of movement, use a variety of objects, such as stones, chairs, tree trunks, etc., to lift, push or pull: the variety of forces stimulates body and brain to become more coordinated, makes you better prepared for something unexpected, and thus increases your sense of being in control.
6) spend as much time as possible in nature (exercising or relaxing), or at least change your environment so as to make it appear more "natural" (e.g. by putting plants in your office, or a poster with a forest landscape). Dozens of studies on biophilia (our inborn attraction to nature) have shown that this increases mental health, happiness, and recovery from illness.
7) regularly catch sunlight (without getting burned of course): sunlight is necessary for our skin to produce vitamin D, which according to recent research plays a much more vital role than previously thought, e.g. in supporting the immune system, preventing cancer, and building strong bones. Moreover, lack of (sun)light has been shown to be a cause of depression.
This is particularly important in winter, when sunlight tends to be weak. The resulting lack of vitamin D and reduced immunity explains why the "flu season" typically extends over the darkest months.
8) expose your body to the elements: walk (or even run) barefoot, use minimal clothing or supportive material, take hot and cold baths/showers or saunas, don't be afraid to go out in bad weather... The human body is not only made to withstand these physical stresses, it is stimulated by them to become stronger.
For example, barefoot walking strengthens muscles, tendons and general coordination, reducing the probability of developing acute or chronic problems, such as flat feet, knee injuries, or backache. Cold baths have been shown to boost the immune system, while saunas promote the release of "heat shock proteins" that protect and repair damage in the body's cells.
9) don't be afraid of dirt: modern society tends to be obsessed by hygiene, reminding us to constantly wash, clean, shower, and disinfect. However, our immune system must learn to distinguish dangerous pathogens from innocuous germs and own cells ("self'), and to effectively fight the pathogens. To achieve that, it needs exposure to a variety of common micro-organisms. Without such exposure from an early age, you are more likely to develop allergies, auto-immune diseases, and an immune system that is ill-prepared for the really dangerous germs (the hygiene hypothesis).
Moreover, typical products used for hygiene, such as soaps, shampoos, deodorants and antiseptics, are full of irritant and potentially toxic chemicals. Common soil micro-organisms, on the other hand, live symbiotically on our skin and in our intestines, helping to protect us from serious disease. Epidemics typically do not spread through contact with "dirt", but through social interactions (such as breathing in the air that someone else breathed out a minute ago), helped by weakened immune systems...
10) play, explore and try out new things: don't let your life be governed by routines, plans, rules or expectations, but experiment with new challenges and explore new places, ideas, activities and things, in a playful, spontaneous manner. The best inspiration may come from how children play and explore, always being ready for something new to try. This makes sure that you constantly learn new skills and are ready to take up unexpected opportunities, while increasing rather than eroding your sense of mental and physical capability. New challenges and a playful attitude moreover are a powerful antidote against boredom, worrying, and depression.
11) rest, relax or sleep whenever you feel the need: your body and mind need time to recover from the exertions, repair damage, and build new capabilities. If you can avoid it at all, don't force yourself to follow a tight schedule: you will not become more productive by working longer hours and constantly being on your guard, but merely exhaust your reserves. A good night of sleep, a relaxed game or chat with friends, or a diverting vacation will boost your energy and creativity, making you much more productive in the long run.
12) be in the present: stop your mind from constantly thinking about the past or the future—planning, worrying, feeling guilty or generally being preoccupied with anything except the here and the now. Fully experience and savour the sights, sounds, smells and feelings that surround you.
If this is difficult for you, you may find help in meditation or yoga exercises to quieten and focus your mind. Alternatively, you can pursue "flow" producing challenges (like most forms of involved play or paleolithic-style exercises). These will effectively keep your attention focused on the activity itself (but may leave you less open to other experiences).
The results of these interventions should be easy to see in a short time: more energy, less stress, stronger muscles, less fat, reduced levels of glucose, insulin, inflammation and triglycerides, better mood, more good-looking body, less illnesses, better coordination, more self-confidence, ... In short, you will become quickly and significantly healthier and happier thanks to the evolutionary paradigm!
Note that implementing all these recommendations at once may seem like a tall order. Therefore, you may want to go slowly, starting with a few changes here and there. This is no problem: any step in the right direction (especially replacing high-glycemic foods with protein-rich and antioxidant-rich foods, and shifting to a paleolithic style of exercise) will already make you feel significantly better, and thus motivate you to make further steps in the same direction.
Also take into account that your body may not prepared for some of the more drastic changes, such as high intensity exercises, barefoot running, or prolonged sessions in the sun or cold. Just take it slowly, step by step, so as to gradually build up your resistance...
Finally let's not forget to
13) care for the next generation: keep small children always in close physical contact with a caregiver (most often, but not always, the mother). This means a lot of carrying, cuddling or breast-feeding, and letting them sleep in the same bed (or at least in the same room). On the other hand, allow them to explore an play freely as they grow older and feel emboldened to move farther away. This nurturing but permissive approach is how HGs look after children. It is also the basis for the "secure attachment" that is necessary for their later social and emotional development, including their feelings of morality and compassion.
Keeping babies out of sight of a carer (e.g. in a separate room) is intrinsically very stressful to them, and absolutely unnatural from a HG perspective: paleolithic babies could not survive without continuous attention from others. On the other hand, keeping older children restricted to a "safe" place (typically their home, playground or school) suppresses their natural drive to explore, exercise and experiment and their need for contact with nature, while giving them the message that the world is an intrinsically frightening place. Plenty of studies have shown that unstructured play in nature is highly beneficial to children.
For more details on these recommendations, I refer below to a broad list of papers, books, websites and videos that develop these themes, and provide the scientific evidence.
Good starting points are the following:
The following are books intended for a wide audience, without a lot of scientific detail:
Forencich, Frank (2006). Exuberant Animal: The Power of Health, Play and Joyful Movement, AuthorHouse.
For the scientific evidence behind these recommendations, here are some of the many references:
Contact with nature
Paleolithic lifestyle, exercise and health
Here are the breathtakingly beautiful videos of Erwan Le Corre (best watched in high definition), illustrating the Paleolithic lifestyle with just images and music.
Here is the first part of the 1980 movie "The Gods Must be Crazy", a humorous look at the contrast between the HG life of the Kalahari Bushmen and modern society:
It is a common assumption, being stressed in many religions and political systems, that individual happiness should be sacrificed for the "greater good" (whether of the group, society, humanity as a whole, or some higher-order emergent system such as the planet or the global brain). The logic of preferring global, collective, long-term solutions over local, individual, short-term ones appears inexorable, especially from a systemic-evolutionary perspective. However, the implicit assumption behind this form of moral reasoning is much less obvious: that individual happiness would be intrinsically inconsistent, or in competition, with the greater good.
What we have learned from studying happiness, both theoretically via evolutionary theory, psychology and cybernetics, and empirically by analysing vast amounts of data on what makes people happy, is that those two perspectives, local and global, are surprisingly consonant. In other words, what is good for the whole tends to be good for the individual components, and vice-versa.
The most fundamental reason is that happiness is an evolved, biological signal that tells us whether things are going in the right direction. If that signal were systematically off-mark, we would be constantly making wrong decisions, engaging in behaviors that are ultimately deleterious for individuals, groups, and species. This means that we would be quickly eliminated by natural selection.
Of course, we all know cases in which biological signals are off-mark, because they were selected for circumstances very different from the present ones. Most extremely, a heroin addict who gets a new shot will get a very strong positive signal of pleasure, even though his habit is likely to kill him in the medium term. However, there is a difference between immediate, short-term signals such as pleasure and pain, and the much broader, long-term "happiness".
Let me emphasize the essential difference between happiness and pleasure. Because of physiological saturation mechanisms, pleasure is a state that cannot be sustained: whatever the pleasure you derive from eating a good meal when you are hungry, once your belly is full, the pleasure dissipates--however much you try to eat additionally. The more intense pleasure of an orgasm is even more short-lived, and cannot be repeated more than once or twice a day.
Happiness, on the other hand, is often defined as the balance of pleasure and pain over an extended period. Another common measure is life satisfaction, i.e. the degree to which you are pleased with your life as a whole. Because of the saturation mechanisms above, there is no easy way to increase happiness by increasing the amount of pleasure you get. Most methods to artificially increase pleasure, such as heroin, overeating, or sex addiction, not only fail in extending pleasure beyond the natural saturation point, they create pain, displeasure or stress as side effects, meaning that the overall balance becomes negative.
Empirical studies find that the successful pursuit of happiness is actually antithetical to such instant gratification. Happiness depends on your overall life or activity pattern, i.e. the way you interact with the people and environment around you. Happy people are those that are autonomous, free, feel in control, are involved in social groups and projects, have a sense of purpose or goal-directedness, feel part of a larger whole, get the material and social support they need... All of these require investment of energy for the long term and broad scale, not immediate, individual satisfaction.
The simplest and in many ways most coherent model of happiness is Csikszentmihalyi's notion of flow, which requires three things: goal-directedness, feedback, and challenges matching skills. However, flow only covers short-term activities, such as playing or performing a sport. What it still lacks is the requirement that the goals should be meaningful or satisfactory in the long term: you can get a lot of satisfaction from playing computer games or climbing mountains, but in the end that hardly improves your overall situation.
If now you add the empirical criteria that characterize happy societies (health, wealth, freedom, education, equality, social participation, sense of larger purpose, etc.), you get a pretty concrete picture of how you can make individuals happy, but in such a way that society too maximizes its well-being and long term evolutionary fitness.
Indeed, the essence of flow is to continuously increase your skills in tackling problems, so as to be maximally in control in whatever difficulty is thrown at you. There is no endpoint to this process: it is truly evolutionary, focused on continuing self-improvement (or what Maslow calls "self-actualization"). Therefore, maximizing individuals' happiness here and now seems to be a good strategy for maximizing the "evolvability" (to use John Stewart's term ) and cooperativeness of society.
What makes it even better as a strategy is that:
While this may seem almost too good to be true, it is important to remember the remaining obstacles to achieving this ideal.
The most obvious obstacle is that many people, especially in the Third World, still don't have the necessary material means to satisfy their most basic, physical needs, such as health and nutrition. However, global society is evolving at a quick enough pace to tackle all these problems in a relatively short future. (Actually, we already have the means to tackle them here and now, if only we had the political will and an efficient system of governance for implementing it).
The more difficult obstacle is that most people have not yet understood (and even less implemented) the difference between happiness (in the sense of sustainable well-being as sketched above) and quick gratification. That is why they still invest most of their energy in mindless consumption, competition for status, and cheap thrills (such as most TV programs offer). Csikszentmihalyi and others have convincingly argued that these activities produce the exact opposite of happiness (independently of them moreover being bad for the planet). John Stewart's recent research on the "future evolution of consciousness" addresses this problem, among others by exploring techniques from Buddhism to teach people how to detach themselves from their drives for quick gratification.
Maslow's theory of self-actualization gives us even more reason to be optimistic. It states that as basic needs are better satisfied during childhood, they stop controlling behavior during adulthood, thus enabling and inciting people to explore their "higher" needs of personal development and self-actualization (which are in practive synonymous to happiness as I sketched it). This means that as society further develops economically and especially socially, what John calls "evolutionary consciousness" will come more easily and naturally to people, without the need for them to follow strict disciplines like the ones prescibed by Buddhism...