Fischer’s Theorem and the Mind’s Big Bang

Bobby Fischer described the evolution of his capability to play the game of chess by saying , after years of singular devotion, that “by the age of eleven, I just got good.” There’s something quite profound at work here, with import beyond the game of chess.

Let me explain.

Ian Tattersall has written a splendid book on human evolution, Masters of the Planet: The Search For Our Human Origins, where he argues “we are an altogether unprecedented presence on our planet,” a claim that is oddly controversial, and that the thing that makes us human, the thing that makes us unprecedented, is our manner of processing information. Tattersall explains this cognitive capacity thus; “if there is one thing that above all else unites all human beings today, it is our symbolic capacity: our common ability to organize the world around us into a vocabulary of mental representations that we can recombine in our minds, in an endless variety of new ways. This unique mental facility allows us to create in our heads the alternative worlds that are the very basis of the cultural variety that is so much a hallmark of our species.”

Tattersall, plausibly, goes on from this to argue that symbolic thought had a singular, quite recent, origin and that it could not possibly have arisen through a gradual process of evolution and nor could it be construed as an adaptation. Rather, some reorganisation of the mind, for distinctly physical reasons we know not what, gave us the capacity for symbolic thought but we did not make good on that reorganisation until much later when we saw, for example, a flowering of artistic expression in cave art what some have called “the mind’s big bang.” This would be an example of what the biologist Christian de Duve has called “singularities” in the history of life on Earth.

For some reason at some point in history we just got good. The reorganisation of the mind/brain gave us an underlying cognitive capacity for symbolic thought but that capacity was not utilised for a considerable stretch of time until it burst asunder, and that quite recently. The same would apply to language, Tatersall surmises. Let us call this “Fischer’s theorem.”

One thing that interests me in this regard is science, and its flowering in the scientific revolution. Let us suppose that science is based on some innate cognitive capacity, and one that is not to be associated with a general faculty of reason. It cannot be so for reasons David Hume gave, which we might regard as arguments from the poverty of the stimulus for a faculty of scientific cognition rather than as arguments for epistemic scepticism. Pierce’s notion of abduction, so long as we do not confuse it with inference to the best explanation, is a good working candidate for such a faculty.

Now, following Fischer’s theorem, that capacity would have always been there for It too would have formed part of the reorganisation of the mind that gave us symbolic thought, language, and creative expression. It is one of the essential features of that reorganisation, for it is what enables us to make the world intelligible through theoretical science.

But that did not emerge until very, very recently through the scientific revolution when “we just got good.” The scientific revolution was a big bang of the mind.

This is handy for the factors responsible for us getting good in the case of symbolic thought and language arose at a time that is largely inaccessible. However, the case of science is accessible for this came but yesterday or even better still this late morning. Just what is it about the evolution and progress of ideas up to Galileo and the rest that had the natural philosophers of the scientific revolution come good? What social and cultural factors enabled the underlying cognitive capacity for science to be realised? What might these questions tell us about the reorganisation of the mind that gave us the capacity for science?

These are central questions, but we come to see their importance only by first grasping Fischer’s theorem which you can’t really do if you remain wedded to a whiggish outlook on the evolution of science. Of course, what this means is that we may well have not exhausted the cognitive capabilities that the reorganisation of the mind/brain has given us.

We may well yet “get good” in domains we but have the dimmest idea we possess. Could it be that the reorganisation of society along non authoritarian and non hierarchical lines would enable us to undergo a type of spiritual transformation of the self whereby we get good not just literally, in terms of Fischer’s theorem, but also normatively? That is a question that can only be answered in the doing.

I do realise this has little to do with Trump’s walking away from the US’ commitments under the JCPOA with Iran. I do realise I have promised more on this. Let us be good and patient for all comes in good time.