Sensuality and intellectuality

From a perspective of evolutionary fitness

Any goal in a system, which works against a goal of any of its constituents, leads the system as a whole to a fate of failure.

Pleasure and truth seems sometimes irreconcilable, like two poles of reality which have nothing in common. Pleasure is after all a sensation, an overwhelming mindless dive into an ocean of bliss. Pleasure is the virtue of the sensual, in the way that all sensations are measured by how much pleasure they give us. And truth, the virtue of knowledge, in that we measure all knowledge by how true it is. How does the two meet and how do we best make the meeting a good one?


Let us begin by examining the nature of knowledge. When we claim to know something it means something deeper, the word “know” is covering a deeper function. The function of knowing can be seen as mapping. Knowledge produces a map of a system within another system. In our case a map in the mind of the relative positions and functional properties of the physical world. A map becomes better when it allows us to navigate without error. A street map which has all the road and the correct relationships in terms of lengths and widths allows us to move almost without looking. They key to understanding the map is the scale and the legend, if one knows these two then it is possible to translate the knowledge within the map into a knowledge about the physical world. A true piece of knowledge is thus one which is in accordance with reality to a degree so it lets us perform our task. Truth can be more or less precise, but truth always have a context in which it is used. The level of precision should match the need of the context. For instance if I just need to know when the sun rises, it is enough for me to know that a big fiery ball rises up at certain specific times as measured with a clock. I don’t need to know about the movement of the earth in the solar system, even if that would give me the same information. If they believed that a god pulled the sun across the sky in a chariot, it was true enough for them at the time, because it gave them the map they needed to navigate time of day.

Our striving for truth makes us more fit in our context. To believe that tigers are friendly docile creatures who only eat grass would be false to a degree where it killed us. Knowing the spherical shape of the earth improves our chances of survival by allowing us more economical shipping and allowing us new lands. Technology is a side-effect of truth. Knowing about energy conservation, gun powder, metallurgy and thermodynamics would allow you to construct a cannon or a steam engine for instance. But if you believed in something else than energy conservation, and used it to explain what you saw, then probably you wouldn’t.


And now for a short time we turn our eyes to sensuality. We are endowed with a set of senses, the most dominant being sight, hearing and touch. We can see in nature that evolution takes great care to slowly breed the creature for whom its senses are most finely tuned to its requirements for survival. Some animals have great sense of hearing which goes far into the ultrasonic, and some have very detailed sight allowing them to spot prey at long distances. The positioning of eyes, nose and ears are characteristic in our recognition of a species, and indeed the species itself has been shaped over the years by its method for survival. Harder, better, faster, stronger nature calls, and the animal sporting the best set of hardware will always win.

In our everyday interaction with our senses two important concepts pop up: Pain and pleasure. Pain and pleasure are both reactions to sensory input. The sensed is thus not painful or pleasurable inherently, but our reaction to it is. Some of these reactions are purely biological and some are learned. Eating food with a high content of sugar, salt or fat will normally lead to a reaction of pleasure. And this sensation of pleasure will lead us to do it again, it is the organisms response to the brain that it is doing something healthy. In the same sense if we get burned we get a very immediate sensation of pain, which leads us to avoid doing it again. Pleasure and pain is the default method for either avoiding behaviour which is unhealthy or seeking out that which is healthy. In both cases fitness is the overall goal. Our ancestors who did not feel pain at a sufficient level when exposed to fire, simply got burned out of the gene pool. Those who did to a degree where they pulled their hand out, survived and had children. This is a very crude picture, and not meant to be taken literally though, as physical damage arose much earlier than humans began being exposed much to fire.

To create a form of symmetry to knowledge, then we could say that pleasure and pain mirrors right and wrong. Sensually pleasure is sought out, and pain is avoided, intellectually truth is sought out, and falseness is avoided. But in the same sense that truth only needs to be precise enough for the context of its use, then also does pleasure only need to be good enough for the context of its use. We can see this in that eating sugar and fat is very pleasurable, in fact it is too arguably pleasurable, because many find it hard to stop and get very unhealthy as a result. Much more unhealthy than if they had just not eaten any candy and crisps at all. But because evolution ticked off most ancestors in times where food was scarce, then there has rarely been a possibility to impose an upper bound to our eating through the method of survival. In other words, no one has not had children due to their obesity yet (at least not in a quantity where it made a difference). So the context of pleasure must also be taken into account, it needs to be precisely tuned to our surroundings. The same thing can be said about sex, because even though it feels very nice we have been required to invent many rather ingenious method to avoid having children. Namely because it is so pleasurable we need to impose limits as we grow in number and the survival rate of our children goes up in the 90%’s. Risks of overpopulation has not been taught in an evolutionary sense, so our fitness level might drop drastically when the planet becomes overpopulated and resources scarce.

Beneficial and harmful symmetries

As we have cut this artificial line down our understanding of the human condition, and defined ourselves as beings of intelligence and senses - we have found some symmetries. I fully understand their constructed nature, but even so, they serve as a foundation for possible understanding. Now I am going to go a bit further stretching the symmetrical work a little. I only do so because the findings are blatantly apparent in our culture around us.

The intellectual works constantly to aid the sensual. Knowledge is being constructed to plan for future pleasure. We can even avoid a certain pleasure now to gain one which is greater in the future. This is a crucial difference from us and almost all other animals. In effect we apply the virtues of knowledge to those of sensuality. No longer is a sensed input just pleasure or pain, it is now also right or wrong. We filter our pleasures through the knowledge which is supposed to make us healthy. We can say no to food before it makes us sick, and we can choose to work instead of play. We gain the ability to store food for winter and eat it more slowly. This on the overall increases our fitness level immensely.

The sensual also works to aid the intellectual. Pure ideas formed in our mental space by combining pieces of knowledge can be tested through our senses. We can imagine an idea, and go on to construct a prototype and see through our senses whether or not it works. So in this way an idea can give us joy when we see it being true. We can convert the unknown to the known by use of our senses this way. Empiricism is based on using your senses as guidance towards truth.

But there are harmful symmetries at play as well. For instance we might begin to think that all pleasures should be judged through right and wrong. That all free fun should pass through the scrutiny of intelligence. Many pleasures produce neither harmful nor destructive effects long term, so they do not fit in the optics of right and wrong. It is simply that they are pleasurable immediately and nothing else.

Historically sex have been a thing which was a problem in the long term, but was pleasurable here and now. So we learned to judge it from that perspective, but now sex (by use of prevention) is only pleasurable, and have no side-effects.

But harmful symmetries also work by judging our ideas by how much pleasure they give us. That is to say that we assign not truth, but simply value to knowledge which blatantly false. This happens often with religion, mostly comprised of truth which has been wildly imprecise but generally very healthy for our society (take a look at the fitness improving function of the ten commandments for instance). Especially religions was effective at curbing our sensuality when we were forced to live together in large communities. Our species simply wasn’t adapted technologically to live in such density, and our sensuality would quickly turn it into a bloodbath. In response good systemic rules of thumb which religion provides, along with a big bad punishment (fire incl.) served to halt our instinctual behaviour. Today though religion is much too imprecise a truth for us to use it to live by, it becomes obvious as we explore the quantum and the cosmos that reality is different. The map must be more precise if we are to build iphones and go into space.

But often we simply assign value to that which we want to believe. That’s to say the piece of knowledge which would give us most pleasure IF true, is the one we use. And I want to make a distinction here, even if I repeat myself: It is not that we consider it true, we simply cling to it because it is pleasurable. You will notice that people holding on to an idea in this manner will rarely be susceptible to arguments.

With all this in mind we should take care to have a certain degree of mental hygiene. We should wash our minds and our senses. Take care to know that which is true, and then actually look to see if it is true. Utilise our senses daily to ensure we are in accordance with reality, or update our map in a way so that it is more precise. Also we should dive into sensuality as much we can, follow the wills of our bodies and let it be free to explore and enjoy. Only when we know it is potentially dangerous in the long term should we take care to impose the rules of knowledge, the virtues of right and wrong on the sensual.