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.
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.