Sunday, May 3, 2015


An atheist's definition of intelligence

This is a clip from a talk - well a sermon - by a fellow named Neil deGrasse Tyson.  I had not heard of him before a friend sent this to me.  He speaks well and is personable, but after a few days of ruminating on his talk I began to wonder at the foundation underlying the opinions expressed here. He uses percentages of highly educated people (those with graduate degrees is his definition here) who believe in a personal God.  I note he does exclude, whether deliberately or not I don't know, those who have a more intellectual perception of the divine as an amorphous force rather than a personal God. In his schema, the higher up the IQ scale the well educated go, the less likely they are to believe in a personal God.  Thus he presents statistics (with no indication of their source, though that may have appeared in a full version of  his talk) that 40% of highly educated (again his definition) people do believe in a personal God, but among the most intelligent, this drops to 7%. His twist is, that he is surprised that the number of the most intelligent who do believe in a personal God is so high.  He expected none or maybe some statistically insignificant percentage.  Then he ruminates on the obverse of a coin I have often considered, that perhaps some people are wired in their brains to believe in a personal God and no amount of evidence can change that.  My take has always been that atheists are persons who are missing some wiring connections in their physical brains that would have allowed them to believe in God.

Anyway, this long paragraph is really to set the context for something tangential to his argument, but which is nonetheless damaging to his rationale. His definitions of 'highly intelligent' and the most intelligent in society restricts this last, highest category to scientists. For some time now, I have been meditating on intelligence.  I watched this video of an English psychiatrist who has written a book drawing on the newest research into the functions of the left and right brain hemispheres. Prior to this research the belief was that the right brain dominates artistic ability of all sorts: painting, poetry, writing, music and so on, while the left brain controls practical abilities such as science, auto mechanics, engineering, construction etc. The more nuanced view today, apparently, is that everybody uses their entire brain, but that the right side governs a contextual view of life, while the left brain directs focussed looks at life. This is similar to the old view as art of any type often, but not always, requires a sense of the overall context of the place of humanity in the world, while science, engineering, plumbing, auto mechanics all require that a person focus narrowly on a problem or enhancement within the whole in order to improve or repair. From this point, he notes that in the modern world, the activities and understandings governed by the left side of the brain are rewarded and therefore dominant in how we organize our lives today, our societies.  He goes on to enter the world of social History and believes that this is a product of the industrial revolution, which required at its base, a division of life's activities into discrete categories that could be focussed on while ignoring to a large extent the whole.  Thus for example, in my field, the history of religion, you study one religion and only secondarily look at its relations with other religions.  Religious studies' textbooks are always presented with chapters devoted to singular religious faiths, and within those chapters, the religion presented is itself carved up into rituals, texts, social life and so on. It is exceedingly rare these days to find any sort of history text or scholarly monograph that attempts to put all this together in context - in any field of history. I have tried to overcome this approach in my own teaching, but I have no idea whether I have succeeded in this, or not.

This has resonated with me in terms of the atheist link above, where Mr. Tyson considers those individuals who are scientists to be the elite of the intelligentsia, and those who are most narrowly focussed to be the elite of the elite.  His definition of intelligence rests on this narrow focus, this giving of overarching privilege to the left hemisphere of the brain.  Here I am reminded of the comedy series 'The Big Bang Theory' which mocks this sort of intelligence. The genius is this show about experimental physicists is a character, Sheldon Cooper, who is barely functional in the world of human relationships as his entire intelligence revolves around his narrow field of study and anything outside that is secondary and external, and to him, risible.

Next I began considering the idea of EQ (Emotional Quotient or Emotional Intelligence) as opposed to IQ. Intelligence quotient tests were devised in the early 20th  century and EQ or EI  dates from the late 20th century.  IQ tests purport to test intelligence and are also purported to be an indicator of future success in life.  This all begs the questions, what is intelligence and what, indeed, is success.  Is a great artist who dies in poverty a success or a failure? EI purports to measure the degree to which an individual relates to others.  Both are based on the idea that you can measure human beings and both require socially embedded definitions of 'success' or 'failure', usually determined by 'how much money you make' or 'how famous you are' or 'what degree of power' you have. In other words both, although usually presented in opposition to one another, are based on the left brained view of life, and neither, though EI comes closer, look at context, or view life holistically.

All the forgoing has deep implications for the state of religiosity, and religious institutions today. Religion, any religion, consists firstly of a holistic view of existence.  It doesn't matter if you are a Buddhist who rejects any idea of God or gods, or a devout Muslim or Christian, your essential worldview is holistic. It requires you to put all the pieces together, or rather it assumes that existence is integrated and not a machine composed of parts that can be engineered separately. I wonder if the current state of religious belief in the western world has more to do with this dominance of a particular understanding of intelligence? If religious faith is not about a cause and effect and focussed views of life, but a holistic understanding that life is more akin to a functioning organism, then both the decline and contemporaneous continuation of faith are understandable.