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.

Lectures from the Faith and Cosmology conference

Now available – the four excellent lectures from our Faith and Cosmology conference (15th November 2014) on YouTube.


Fr Andrew Pinsent – ‘Cosmology and Being’ 

Prof Bernard Carr – ‘Cosmos and creation’

Dr Peter Bussey – ‘Cosmology, how physics and theology meet’

Jamie Boulding – ‘The multiverse and participatory metaphysics’

Review of The Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity

J. B. Stump and Alan G. Padgett, eds., The Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012).

I have lived and taught with this book for a year now, using it extensively in our new MSc programme in Science and Religion.  I can honestly say that it is a superbly useful resource at this level, alongside other similar titles: the even more voluminous Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science (2008, ed. Philip Clayton and Zachary Simpson) and the much more compact (but no less insightful) Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion (2010, ed. Peter Harrison).  These three titles cover much of the same material, at a similar depth, and even making use of some of the same authors. At first sight then, there is relatively little to distinguish these three titles, but it is important to note my earlier caveat ‘at this level’. Like the other two books, the Blackwell Companion is heavyweight and scholarly, which means that readers new to science and religion dipping into the book may struggle to find a quick answer to old chestnuts like ‘Has science disproved religion?’, or ‘What does Richard Dawkins think about this?’  On the other hand, those more familiar with the controverted and contorted academic dialogue between science and religion will find that the Blackwell Companion provides new opinions and fresh approaches.

The most obvious point that distinguishes the Blackwell Companion from its older siblings is that it concerns the dialogue between science and Christianity, instead of the more usual generic ‘religion’.  This already illustrates how times have changed in recent years, since scholars have become sensitive to the fact that the ‘science and religion’ dialogue in the past has almost always tacitly meant ‘science and Christianity’, and that when other religions are brought to bear openly, the questions and answers change considerably.  It is not only that different conceptions of God are at stake across the world religions, but different conceptions of reality too.  Hence, the fact that the Blackwell Companion self-consciously focusses on Christianity means that it is able to engage in greater depth with specific issues.  This is an important point, since, as the editors note (p.xix), now that the science-religion field is maturing into the second generation of scholars, it is time for a more ‘fine-grained analysis of the issues’.  Added to which, the scientific fields involved in some of these areas (e.g. cosmology, and the cognitive sciences) are moving very rapidly at present, and an up-to-date and fine-grained approach is by far the most appropriate.  Accordingly, rather than containing mostly single articles on important topics like Big Bang cosmology and fine-tuning, or theology and Darwinism, the Blackwell Companion stands out by presenting a number of different views on each.  Thus, Part IV contains five articles on modern cosmology and physics, while Part V contains seven articles on evolution (including two that argue the case for and against Intelligent Design).  While there is inevitable overlap in content in some of these articles, one gets much more of a sense of the breadth of opinions at play than in the usual handbook approach, where crucial topics are often covered by one general-purpose article.

In addition to its fine-grained approach in crucial areas, the Blackwell Companion has also tried to broaden the boundaries of the traditional science-religion field.  In a still male-dominated field (p.xix), it is very welcome to see a number of chapters on feminist angles, and on the role of women in science.  ‘Science’ is also broadened beyond the natural sciences, so that human sciences (principally psychology, sociology, and economics) are included.  Finally, I was delighted by Part XI, which devotes chapters to six of the most important contributors to dialogue between science and Christianity from the last fifty years (Teilhard, T. F. Torrance, Peacocke, Barbour, Pannenberg, Polkinghorne).  Not just ‘key issues’, these chapters give one the chance to begin to get inside the minds (and different approaches) of ‘key thinkers’.

But for all its strengths, there are inevitably some areas of weakness in a volume like this, which seeks to cover an immense sweep of thought and practice.  ‘Practice’ is at least as important to Christianity as is thought, but apart from the section on bioethics (Part VII) – and a very rich article on transcendence by Alexei Nesteruk – Christianity comes across in this book largely as an intellectual exercise.  Of course, to some extent this reflects the scope of the scholarly field at present, which is far more interested in investigating religion in its encounter with science as a cerebral, rather than a spiritual and practical, discipline.  And the editors, relying on the traditional ‘philosophical and historical approach to the topic’ of science and religion (p.xix), have by and large not challenged this paradigm.  So we find little evidence in the Blackwell Companion, for instance, of the many and varied explorations in the visual and literary arts of the encounter between Christianity and science/modernity.  More noticeably though, the focus on philosophy and history has meant that Christianity in its explicitly confessional dimension has suffered disproportionately in this volume.  Christian Scripture (and especially Genesis) is mentioned here and there, but is rarely engaged with at any length, despite its significance in the history (past and present) of science and Christianity.  And while Part X is devoted to ‘Theology’ (with a short section on the Trinity by Polkinghorne in a longer chapter, and a very helpful chapter on miracles such as the resurrection of Jesus, by Padgett), it is not until we come to chapters on specific individuals – particularly Teilhard, Torrance, and Pannenberg – that we find extensive confessional discussion of important Christian doctrines, where the roles of Christ, and of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, feature intensively.

Partly, these reservations illustrate the point that, while this second-generation field is actively focussing on specifics raised by the previous generation, the boundaries of the field are still wide open – still ‘up for grabs’ to a large degree – and very much dependent on the particular mediating discourses brought to bear to allow science to converse with religion.  The first generation has been very much caught up with history and philosophy, but there is every reason to suppose that other solutions will bear fruit in time. As I said at the outset, this Blackwell Companion has proved itself to be an indispensable companion to me as I try to set out the current shape of the field for the third generation, but I cannot help but wonder how different such a volume will look in their time.

This review was published in Modern Believing 55 (2014) 78-81.