09
Oct
11

This Is Your Brain On Rationality

The excellent blog ‘Still Skeptical After All These Years‘ (SSAATY) has produced a lively discussion about human intelligence. ‘This Is Your Brain On Spirituality‘ links to ‘The Premise‘, from the book ‘The “God” Part of the Brain‘ (Matthew Alper). Jim One awakened me from my blogging slumber, and my comments are too long to impose upon his commenting space. This post is the result.

Rational
adj., Devoid of all delusions save those of observation, experience and reflection.
- ‘The Devil’s Dictionary‘, Ambrose Bierce

‘The Premise’ is an interesting expression of the evolution of intelligence. It carries the burden of stimulating those misguided folks who take the ‘god’ part of the brain to be something that must have been created by god, or God. That article, and comments on SSAATY - especially by Anson and HLG - have a touch of specificity about the subject. Since I am required by the terms of my Birth Contract to engage in conversations on science topics, here’s my succinct explanation:

That “survival trait” of intelligence has a major component in correlation. Other components, such as memory, are also involved. Other species have intelligence. They use tools and manipulate their environment. They employ memory. The human advantage over other species is most pronounced in the inherent capacity to correlate.

Correlation is not reflex – a sensor-neuron-to-motor-neuron linkage. It is a constant activity of the brain. Watch someone wave a wand over a deck of cards, then pull a flower out of the deck: your brain will, absolutely automatically and irrevocably, establish the thought that a wand-wave makes flowers appear in unexpected places. Even a tendency to form preposterous correlations could have significant evolutionary advantages. The cost of missing a good correlation (red plant = poisonous) is disproportionate to the cost of a false correlation (animal sacrifice = good crops).

Almost all human history has involved this automatic intelligence – an ‘unthinking’ intelligence that becomes blatant as superstition. The modern (perhaps thousands of years – a short time in biology) rise of rationalism is the result of achieving a critical level of intelligence. The human (and, to a lesser extent, other species’) brain is self-aware. The progress of correlative ability has extended to something like ‘correlations of the correlations’. We now recognize that thinking in primitive ways can involve such errancies as ‘post hoc ergo propter hoc‘ – we are aware of our own fallacies.

Rationalism’s biggest success has been science – modern science, that is. The Scientific Method is to reasoning what the U.S. Constitution is to organization and governance. The Constitution is designed to work with our inherent nature, minimizing its worst propensities and maximizing its usefulness. It has checks and balances. Science is a method for limiting the brain’s tendency to form correlations willy-nilly. It also has checks and balances for the same sort of issues that the Constitution controls. It is a meta-intelligence that makes our inherent capability vastly more useful than it has previously been in human history.

Rationalism, by confining our biological intelligence, expands its social and cultural value. This is why science, medicine, and technology seem to have accelerated geometrically – it is not our intelligence which has increased dramatically, but our command of intelligence which is improved. There is a stark difference between the science of 1880 and the science of 1920 – a difference more in how intelligence was utilized than in the mere progress of results.

There is a stark similarity in the non-scientific thought of 2011 and that of 1911, or of 1011! Non-scientists can learn to do more than to merely respect the Scientific Method. Rationalism, and its companion Skepticism are vital elements of critical thinking which everyone can learn.


2 Responses to “This Is Your Brain On Rationality”


  1. October 10, 2011 at 8:38 am

    This is excellent. Your explanations are always perfectly clear, and this is one of the best. I think synergy is definitely part of the process, but synergy can only build on the increase in self-discipline and the command of rationality; alone, synergy is exciting but relatively fruitless.
    I suspect that most or all of the major components of modern science arose from several roots at once, though of course we only remember the first. Relativity was perhaps discovered by Henri Poincare just before Einstein; and non-Euclidean geometries were on the verge of being discovered by several people independently. Those are just the examples I know. I am tempted to believe that there are intellectual seasons and ideas are like fruits that ripen and are inevitably picked by those lucky enough to be there at the time. Or perhaps a better image is that there is a kind of intellectual inertia, a momentum in a certain direction that carries us along with it. Maybe these are all just other ways of saying synergy.

  2. October 9, 2011 at 2:58 pm

    I agree with your analysis, Jim Too, but I would like to add to your conclusion. You said,

    ” . . . it is not our intelligence which has increased dramatically, but our command of intelligence which is improved. There is a stark difference between the science of 1880 and the science of 1920 – a difference more in how intelligence was utilized than in the mere progress of results.

    I would elaborate on “how” intelligence was utilized by suggesting that it was a matter of synergy, the elements of which were not only the reinforcing progression of knowledge in the various sciences but also expanding populations of educated individuals and the increasing efficiency of communication and travel. It is evidence of synergy, I submit, and no mere coincidence, that both Darwin and Alfred Wallace came up with essentially the same concept at the same time.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


♥ Help for Haiti ♥

[http://i76.photobucket.com/albums/j4/elsacade/boxcontents_large.jpg]

Basic Understanding

A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves.
- Edward R. Murrow

Intellectual Property Notice

All original material Copyright James R. Stone 2010, except where specifically noted. Some images licensed under Creative Commons, or GNU Free Documentation License, or unlicensed and public domain.

More About . . .

I use Wrinkled brand skin conditioner to keep that worldly-wise, I-have-put-up-with-more-crap-than-you-can-dish-out, old-codger look.

You don't want to ask
about my cologne.

America Held Hostage

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 22 other followers


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: