Caterpillars and Philosophy

If you put a caterpillar on the rim of a bowl, it will walk around and around in a circle. The rim of the bowl stimulates its nervous system in the same way that a branch does, so it responds as if it were on a branch, by walking along it until it reaches a leaf to feed on, or another branch. Placed on the sidewalk, the caterpillar will wander aimlessly. Its instincts only generate adaptive behavior when it is in its natural environment.

This experiment demonstrates that:

  • Caterpillars are not very smart.
  • Instincts have to match the environment or they don’t work.
  • A behavior that solves small problems might not solve bigger problems. In other words, scale matters.

The caterpillar is very good at walking along the rim of the bowl, but it can’t solve the bigger problem of getting somewhere.

Humans can find themselves in similar predicaments. For example, consider a heroin addict. Each day he is focused on getting his next fix. Once he gets it, he relaxes and enjoys the pleasure of the drug. But when it wears off, he has to get the next fix or go through terrible withdrawal symptoms. Perhaps he lacks awareness that the pleasure of the fix causes the pain of withdrawal, and that he is getting nowhere in life. Or perhaps he lacks the will to choose his destiny at a scale beyond a single day. Either way, his life consists of going in circles and getting nowhere. Each day, he focuses on solving the small problem of getting his next fix, without solving the bigger problem of where he is going in life.

Is the ordinary person much different? For the most part, people go through their lives solving small problems without developing awareness or exercising will on a larger scale. The ordinary person thinks more about what toothpaste to buy than he does about the purpose of life.

The conditions of modernity have, inadvertently, placed man outside his natural environment. Heroin addicts have the excuse that their instincts evolved in a world without heroin, just as the caterpillar’s instincts evolved in a world without circular branches. Instincts can lead to perverse consequences in a world that they are not adapted to.

That is why philosophy matters. Philosophy is the attempt to expand awareness and will beyond the small problems of ordinary life. It is the attempt to expand the frame in which we think. In that larger frame, we might discover new problems, and hopefully the means of solving them.