Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Faithful genius - a contradiction?

How often have you had it pointed out that some famous highly intelligent person has a faith?  Usually it is a polite way to say that this person is much cleverer than you, but they still have faith, so why don't you.  How can you know better than them?  They often reel off a list of names including John Polkinghorne (retired Cambridge particle physicist and now Anglican priest), Martin Rees (Astronomer Royal and the 'compliant quisling' in Dawkins' parlance) and Albert Einstein (who was possibly a deist but fairly obviously not a theist).

Is it a contradiction of terms to be a faithful genius?  Absolutely not.  From time to time I have had conversations with people on this subject, and we all seem to agree.  Atheism tends to increase with education but it is not necessarily correlated with intelligence.  As an example, anyone who is converted or deconverted in their life will experience a complete change in their outlook, as if by clicking an internal switch.  They are still the same person with the same IQ but something has changed in their mind.  Often they don't even know what caused the change to happen.  Other times something like Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion" is the catalyst (as it was for me).

At last I have come across a possible explanation.  I have never read any books by Michael Shermer but I think I should start quite soon.  Shermer is a science writer (with a degree in psychology and biology) and the founder of The Skeptics Society.  His book titles have included "Why People Believe Weird Things" (2002), and his latest book is called "The Believing Brain".  His interviews on podcasts are always interesting and informative.  This week I heard him speaking with Robynn 'Swoopy' McCarthy on the podcast called 'Skepticality'.  (I'm never quite sure why Swoopy is 'co-host' when she seems to do all the actual hosting, but I expect there is an explanation.)

It seems to be widely accepted that everyone sees patterns in the world and everyone uses those patterns to decide what to believe.  It is clearly a strong evolutionary trait to infer that certain patterns might imply certain threats and to run away from them.  Those who recognise patterns and run away tended to survive and those who did not were more likely to be eaten by predators.  (This explains the phenomenon of pareidolia, (seeing faces in random patterns etc.)  It does not mean that we are all irrational.  We just have to accept the limitations of our own cognition.  I recommend that you try listening to Episode #157 of Skepticality, to hear the highly rational Schermer's own account of the experience of alien abduction, and his subsequent understanding of the subject.

Shermer's idea is that even brilliant geniuses spot these patterns and are deluded by them as much as the rest of us.  However, the more intelligent the observer, the better they are at creating an explanation to confirm their flawed intuition.  It doesn't mean that they are any more likely to be right about their beliefs but it does mean that it will be harder to argue against them.

This explanation seems to me to be rational and reasonable.  Is it true?  Who am I to decide.  But if there are logical flaws in my explanation, I am sure that someone will comment (perhaps even by using my own page "Delusional Logic" against me).

1 comment:

Paula Kirby said...


My own hunch is that the answer lies in emotion. I have the strong impression that emotion exercises a much stronger power over humans than reason does: emotion comes naturally, reason and rationality have to be worked at, practised, honed. (As Gary Marcus explains in his excellent book, Kluge: the haphazard evolution of the human brain, this is attributable to the fact that, because of our evolutionary history, our pre-rational brain gets first bite at the cherry when it comes to our thought processes.)

Even intelligent people have their emotional needs, of course; and when you then add in all the diabolical features of religion that could have been actively designed to switch off our critical faculties when it comes to religion (see Dan Dennett's Breaking the Spell), I think it's not so very difficult to understand why even intelligent humans have their religious weak spots. That doesn't alter the fact that they are weak spots, of course, or that the intelligent, otherwise thinking person is letting him or herself down when giving him/herself up to them.