Brexit and Evolution


Here is a troubling thought. The average mammal species lasts for about a million years. Humans have been around for 200,000 years, and human culture, it’s thought, may have been around for about 50,000 years. If human beings are around for as long as the average mammal we are only about 6% of the way into our cultural evolution. The trouble begins when we start reflecting – as the philosopher John Schellenberg has done – on what the epistemological consequences of this might be. What becomes clear when we take up this deep time perspective, says Schellenberg, is that for all we know, we are in a state of intellectual immaturity; our biological and cultural evolution has only come so far and may have a long way yet to go.

Now think about how much our understanding of just about everything has changed over what will (hopefully) be a tiny fraction of total human development. Around 2400 years ago Aristotle held that some people were “natural” slaves – a view that most of us would consider an abomination today – and this was Aristotle: a towering intellect. Modern democracy too is, from the deep time perspective, a very recent cultural achievement. Even some progressive Enlightenment figures like Voltaire still envisaged the perfect society as being a dictatorship. Examples like these aren’t hard to come by.

This is what taking a deep time perspective does. Despite our tendency to think we’re almost there, reflecting on how much our understanding has transformed in the past should prompt us to reflect on how much it may yet transform in the future, particularly when we realise we have much further to go (temporally speaking) than we have yet come.

Schellenberg uses thoughts like these to probe our thinking about religion. Might there be a whole gamut of religious possibilities as yet unexplored? Do we have any reason to think that the religious commitments of future generations will bear much of a resemblance to the religious commitments of humanity in 2016? These are interesting thoughts, but they’re not what I want to pursue here because, when you think about it, the deep time perspective doesn’t just apply to religion, and it doesn’t just apply to cultural evolution.

One place it applies is metaphysics. Metaphysics is hard. People who spend their working lives trying to understand the fundamental nature of reality push their intellectual abilities to the limit to do so. Chimps, on the other hand, have an IQ of 40. And chimps, we can all agree, are not capable of successful metaphysical theorising. (Yes, studies have shown that chimps can do some basic arithmetic, develop a vocabulary of around 25 words etc., but they’re completely useless at modal logic, grasping the necessary a posteriori, or saying anything sensible about mental causation.) Humans, on the other hand, have an average IQ of 100. Some humans have IQs much higher than this; Terence Tao, a mathematician who won the Fields Medal in 2006 is said to have an estimated IQ of 230 (though the way that most IQ tests are actually scored means that a perfect 100% corresponds to an IQ of 130–160). Now assume that humans are capable of successful metaphysical theorising. If that’s the case then the 60–120 IQ points we have over chimps are what make all the difference. Having an IQ of 100–160 is precisely the cut off point at which creature become capable of successful metaphysical theorising. But, on reflection, it looks like an incredibly fortuitous bit of happenstance that the IQ range we happen to have is exactly the point at which creatures become able to answer metaphysical questions. Another philosopher, Peter van Inwagen, has made exactly this point:

If we believe that we are able to solve the problems of metaphysics, then we must believe that we are just barely able to do this; we must believe that if our intellectual gifts were only slightly less impressive, we should be unable to do it. … And isn’t this a rather implausible thesis? Why should the intellectual abilities that we happen to have be just barely adequate to the task? Why should we expect such a stroke of luck? (Peter van Inwagen (2015), Metaphysics. Westview Press: 288.)

Part of what’s going on here, is that we see ourselves as being at the top of the intellectual pile. (Academics are perhaps particularly prone to this.) But what if we didn’t compare ourselves to chimps, but to aliens or angels with IQs of 250, 500, 10,000, 100,000,000…? Just entertaining the spectre of beings far more intelligent than ourselves makes us aware of how profound our own cognitive limitations are. As the chimp is to the human, so the human is to the alien, and so that alien is to a yet more intelligent alien, and so on. Once we’re cognisant of that, it’s harder to entertain the idea that out of the whole spectrum of possible levels of intelligence, we have been serendipitously placed at just the right point on that spectrum for successfully arriving at deep metaphysical truths. What metaphysical possibilities will tens of thousands of future years of intellectual development unveil? What metaphysical possibilities are simply beyond the powers of comprehension of a bunch of creatures with a measly median IQ of 100?

But what does all this have to do with Brexit? Well, the surprising-to-pundits vote to leave the EU means that we’re currently going through some pretty serious political upheavals. And this has caused us all to think a little harder and more sustainedly about political questions. But here’s the thing: political thought is plausibly in the same boat as metaphysical thought. Chimps are terrible at it (yes, they live in structured societies of sorts, but ask them to theorise about it…). And we take ourselves to be pretty good at it; at least, we do as individuals: one tends to take oneself to have correct political beliefs, even if we think other people are catastrophically wrong. In other words, it’s a subject where we take ourselves to be fortuitously located at the precise point at which creatures become cognitively capable of arriving at the answers. Not only that, political questions are infused with philosophical ones. For one thing, they are not merely straightforwardly descriptive questions about how things are, but normative questions about how things ought to be. Answers to political questions depend on answers to philosophical ones about what we ought to value or hope for, and how to weigh one valuable thing against another. They depend on answers to questions about what sorts of relationships we ought to have with whom; what coöperative bonds and duties we have to one another, and what rights we can claim for ourselves. The political is intertwined with the axiological, and with the normative more broadly. Normative questions, plausibly, are in the same boat as metaphysical ones.

They’re the sort of questions regarding which a deep time perspective will provide pause for thought: maybe we haven’t arrived at intellectual maturity; maybe thousands of years of intellectual progress or thousands of additional IQ points would reveal our beliefs to be immature, in the way that Aristotelian natural slavery or undemocratic governance seem immature to us today. And if normative questions are in this boat, and political questions depend on normative ones, then political questions are stuck in the boat too. And if all that’s the case, it’s a chastening thought, because it means that my efforts to think seriously about politics might be much like chimp’s efforts to think seriously about modal logic.

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New Post in Philosophy, Science and Religion

Since I’ve not long started the new Lectureship in Philosophy, Science and Religion, we thought it would be a good idea if I said a few words about myself and what we hope to achieve over the coming years. My background is in philosophy of science and online learning here at the University of Edinburgh, and I’ve been employed as part of a new Templeton-funded project to develop a new MSc and MOOC in Philosophy, Science and Religion. Our aim is to see two to three online courses and the MOOC available this year, with the launch of the MSc taking place in 2017. It’s a joint project with PPLS, who have experience in this area, and already have a number of very successful online MSc programmes.

There’s a public appetite for a better understanding of these topics. People are increasingly aware of the enormous impact – both for good and ill – that science and religion, in all their various forms, have on our political practices, our conceptual frameworks, our moral commitments, every aspect of our lives; and there’s felt need to gain some reflective understanding of these forces. By bringing them explicitly into view we can reason about them, rather than merely be driven by them, and perhaps shape them for the better.

There’s also a real interest in the public sphere about how science and religion intersect (or really of how sciences and religions intersect). Public discourse has been dominated by the somewhat dilettantish efforts of the New Atheists; which are marked by hostility to religious thought, and the thesis that there is a rudimental conflict between science and religion. This discourse has trundled on with much understanding of the theological and philosophical thought that’s actually crucial to examining these issues in a perspicacious way. That’s something we think we can improve on, by bringing together people who know the science, know the theology, and know the philosophy, all in one place.

So we want to speak to issues like these, and not only cultivate new scholars with the sort of interdisciplinary expertise needed to address these things, but also raise the level of public discourse more generally. As well as all this, an important part of the motivation for branching out this way into new teaching methods has to do with inclusivity. An online programme will open up a really excellent, graduate-level education to groups of people for whom this simply wouldn’t have been an option a few years ago: people, for instance, with disabilities, family commitments, who come from lower income groups, or for whatever reason can’t relocate to Edinburgh.

All very exciting stuff as far as I’m concerned; not least of all being in such august company within the faculty, and working with a very smart group of grad students.

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