May 4, 2017
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Thursday, May 4, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Noetic effects of the Fall and the naturalistic worldview's failure to explain the limits of reason
Many people seem to be perplexed by why their own thinking sometimes fails them and furthermore, the intellectual elites in this country are absolutely not only perplexed, they’re apoplectic about what they see as a failure of intellect in the society at large. This becomes their blanket explanation for the rise of alternative media, for the breakdown in terms of cultural consensus, and of course for the failure of the mass population of this country to follow all the cues that are very strategically being sent by the intellectual elites. Now there’s some in the intellectual elites who are asking, can Americans think any longer? That raises the prior question, did Americans ever think at all if thinking is defined as thinking as the intellectual elites would have Americans to think?
You’ll notice there’s a clear pattern here. The pattern is that right thinking is described as thinking as we are ought to think. Now when you look at this conversation, especially in terms of the secular conversation on the left, there’s some really interesting insight here, and I do mean that. This is a deeply troubling issue to many people; it should be for Christians also a deeply troubling issue, not for the same reasons and not falling out in the lines of the same worldview.Show Full Transcript
You look at a magazine like the New Yorker, it’s hard to come up with a more distinguished intellectual and literary periodical in America than the New Yorker. It is one of those absolutely mandatory reading items for those who inhabit Manhattan and those who want to be part of that conversation. The New Yorker is where much of the cultural conversation in the United States happens, certainly as representative of the city of New York, the very city that’s on the masthead of the magazine. But Elizabeth Kolbert, a very prominent cognitive scientist here asked the question,
“Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds: New discoveries about the human mind show the limitations of reason.”
So here’s the premise of the article right there in the headline: Somehow reason, it turns out, isn’t quite so trustworthy as the elites had expected it to be. Now let’s just pause for a moment. This is actually the great hope of what was known as the Enlightenment, that great movement that saw such a revolution in human thinking, especially in the 18th century. And we’re all the heirs of the Enlightenment. At its liberal extreme, a very secular extreme, the most radical proponents of the Enlightenment argue that supernaturalism would pass away, that all claims of intellectual authority based upon revelation would give way to the clear, clean solitary operation of human reason. The elevation of human reason indeed to idolatrous levels was one of the characteristics of the radical Enlightenment and it continues right down to the present. And if you think about it, it’s because many of the options have simply been removed. If you’re looking at the American academy today, you can count European universities and colleges within that same universe, it’s virtually implausible to believe that any argument could in any way cite any revelatory authority with any self-respect whatsoever. So instead reason one way or the other is all that is left.
The article in the New Yorker raises a panic therefore: what do we do if reason doesn’t work? What do we do if supposedly rational and purely reasonable arguments do not win the day? And that, if you consider the left, is exactly how they see America. Their arguments should be heeded, their reasons should be understood, their intellectual authority should be followed, and yet that’s not exactly the case, and they see a breakdown of reason and rationality.
Elizabeth Kolbert goes back to several studies done in universities; even in the 1970s they were already demonstrating what she says is the limitations of reasons. She cited one particular study done at Stanford University indicating that in this study students who had their beliefs refuted refused to abandon their beliefs. This was something that runs in the very face of the idea of the modern university. But as Kolbert says,
“The Stanford studies became famous. Coming from a group of academics in the nineteen-seventies, the contention that people can’t think straight was shocking. It isn’t any longer. Thousands of subsequent experiments have confirmed (and elaborated on) this finding. As everyone who’s followed the research—or even occasionally picked up a copy of Psychology Today—knows, any graduate student with a clipboard can demonstrate that reasonable-seeming people are often totally irrational. Rarely has this insight seemed more relevant than it does right now.”
Then she says,
“Still, an essential puzzle remains: How did we come to be this way?”
Now this kind of article is really interesting. Remember that this research is done at Stanford University, primarily on students, primarily on students at Stanford University. Stanford University is one of the most highly selective universities in the United States. You’re talking about a very reasonable group here. You’re talking about some of the most highly intelligent college students in America, and yet as Kolbert says, every single graduate student with a clipboard can demonstrate that very intelligent people can think in ways that are profoundly, well, not to put too much of a spin on it, wrong.
One of the researchers put it this way,
“Once formed impressions are remarkably perseverant.”
Now if you are working on this from the position of the academic elites, you’ve got to be totally committed to the worldview of naturalism and thus evolution has to be the explanation for everything. Kolbert writes in a new book, “The Enigma of Reason” published by Harvard University Press,
“The cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber take a stab at answering this question. Mercier, who works at a French research institute in Lyon, and Sperber, now based at the Central European University, in Budapest, point out that reason is an evolved trait, like bipedalism or three-color vision. It emerged on the savannas of Africa, and has to be understood in that context.”
Well now we’re on to something really interesting. Here you have the argument that human reason is an evolved trait, just like the ability to walk on two feet. And human reason evolved in a particular context and this was the Savannas of Africa and, well, you need to tell the story here the way they tell it. Human reasoning evolved because there were critters in the grass who wanted to kill us and the only way we could hunt them successfully without being hunted was to band together and reason—here comes the argument—reason was an evolutionary trait that allowed people living in such a context to band together with mutual beliefs and mutual trust and mutual relatedness in order to undertake mutual tasks such as killing that which needed to be eaten without being eaten oneself.
These two scientists, Mercier and Sperber, write,
“Reason is an adaptation to the hypersocial niche humans have evolved for themselves. Habits of mind,” they write, “that seem weird or goofy or just plain dumb from an ‘intellectualist’ point of view prove shrewd when seen from a social ‘interactionist’ perspective.”
That social interactionist perspective is what these writers are arguing for. They’re writing that reason really isn’t just about the plain, simple, unadulterated use of reason as something like a mathematical formula, but rather human beings are relational. This interactionist perspective means that our reason is never solitary, it’s operating along with the reason and rationality of others. This leads to what is now in our common vocabulary today as confirmation bias, the fact that even when human beings are presented with evidence against their impressions and their beliefs, they’re very slow to give up those beliefs; they hold tenaciously to those impressions. They can even turn evidence against their own beliefs into evidence for it if they are not careful and if that is not checked by some kind of ongoing conversation.
These two evolutionary scientists point out, and this is easy to understand, that confirmation bias can be deadly. Kolbert writes,
“If reason is designed to generate sound judgments, then it’s hard to conceive of a more serious design flaw than confirmation bias. Imagine, Mercier and Sperber suggest, a mouse that thinks the way we do. Such a mouse, ‘bent on confirming its belief that there are no cats around,’ would soon be dinner.”
Mercier and Sperber also came up with the term “myside bias,” by this they tend to explain that human beings evaluate arguments on the basis of whether or not someone agrees with themselves. “Almost invariably,” said these two authors, “human beings were very good at identifying the intellectual flaws in someone else’s argument, but far less adept at identifying the intellectual flaws in their own.”
From a Christian perspective, an even more interesting turn in the article comes when Kolbert cites Steven Sloman, a professor at Brown University, and Philip Fernbach, a professor at the University of Colorado, they are also cognitive scientists, they have written a new book entitled, “The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone.” And this is a really important book because here you have two cognitive scientists who argue that it is wrong to think of the isolated individual thinking in terms of just his or her mind and the operations of their own personal reason. Instead, these two authors argue that all knowledge and all operations of reason are social. This fact, at least in terms of this article in the New Yorker, would help to explain why people vote as they do. And let’s face it, that’s really the question behind this article, the panic amongst many on the left is that it is voting that has finally got their attention, it’s American politics that has caused their concern for what they see as an intellectual disaster.
Once again, these two cognitive scientists also explain this in terms of evolution. It goes back to something very similar to the previous argument; they’re basically arguing that social knowledge was important as human beings first began to evolve because it was that kind of social knowledge that enabled us to trust one another and also to be effective in bands as human beings assigned themselves different tasks.
Now here from a Christian worldview perspective we simply come to understand that if one is operating out of a naturalistic worldview, evolution not only has to be affirmed, it’s the only worldview understanding they have, but it has to explain everything and the fact that anything shows up amongst the generation of human beings now living somehow by their own reason has to be explained by something that was an evolutionary trait, a successful trait for human reproduction. That’s the entire engine of the evolutionary theory. But this also shows disastrously its limitations. Because after all, if you can only explain why human beings are rational, intelligent, conscious creatures in the first place by trying to come up with some kind of evolutionary explanation, well, you’re going to end up with a very frustrating inconclusion of the kind of studies that are referenced here, and also what you can only describe as a sort of helplessness in terms of this kind of intellectual breakdown.
This is where the Christian worldview comes back and offers not only a far superior explanation, but the only true explanation. The biblical explanation is that we are intelligent, conscious, rational creatures not because of some kind of evolutionary accident—not at all—but because we are creatures of a Creator, the only creatures made in the Creator’s image. The Creator made us conscious beings and gave us intelligence and reason precisely because it was his intention that he be glorified by his human creatures knowing him and worshiping him.
But the biblically minded Christian is in full agreement with Elizabeth Kolbert and all those authors cited in this article that something has gone wrong with the human intellect. The question is, what has gone wrong? If you’re operating out of a naturalistic, evolutionary worldview, your ‘what has gone wrong’ has to be also blamed on evolution. Somehow evolution has prepared us for a different set of intellectual realities than we now face. That’s basically the sum total of this kind of argument. And of course, that’s a pretty pessimistic argument because there’s no way to fix that. And what we’re looking at in the Christian worldview is an extremely different approach.
The Christian worldview also acknowledges that something has gone disastrously wrong with the way we think. But it doesn’t explain that in terms of some kind of survival trait in evolution that is no longer useful, it explains it in terms of sin. And this is where the biblical narrative takes us from Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 to Genesis 3, and in Genesis 3 we come to understand the catastrophic effects of the Fall, even as Scripture throughout the entire canon makes very clear with disastrous implications to the way we think. Every part of us is affected by sin, every part of us is corrupted by sin, and that’s something we need to recognize. Of course, even as the image of God itself is corrupted by sin, it is not eliminated, it is not obliterated by sin. You have the major theologians of the Christian tradition such as Augustine and Calvin and Luther who have been at great pains to demonstrate the reality of sin and yet also to make very clear that we the creatures made in God’s image have not had that image obliterated, rather corrupted, and that is why we have to be rescued not by reason, but rather by revelation.
And in that revelation we come to discover that what we call the noetic effects of the Fall, that is the intellectual effects of the Fall, are many. In an address I gave at a Desiring God conference several years ago, I identified 14 different effects of the Fall on our intellect. In the articles we have just cited and the books that are referenced, there is the effort of the secular mind to try to come up with some explanation as to why human intellect fails, but the Scripture actually explains it pervasively and comprehensively. I identified 14 different kinds of intellectual faults that are directly attributable to the Fall. These are call the noetic or the process of knowing effects of the Fall.
The first is ignorance. The very fact that ignorance exists is evidence of the Fall. Adam and Eve were not affected by ignorance. We can be affected by an absolutely fatal ignorance.
Distractedness is a second noetic effect of the Fall. We cannot maintain our concentration. These days there is a lot of attention to attention deficit problems. But, of course in this sense, to be a fallen human is to have an attention deficit problem and every one of us, knowing our attention, is fully aware of that. We are distracted very easily.
The third intellectual fault is forgetfulness. One of our main frustrations is we no longer know everything we knew. And that’s not only forgetting eighth-grade algebra, that is also forgetting something that we read just an hour ago. We do not remember as we wish we would. Prejudice is a fourth problem, every single human mind affected by sin is affected by prejudice.
We have unknown tendencies and trajectories within our own thinking that reflect prejudice and the worst and most insidious part of prejudice is when it is unseen. That’s when it is most deadly.
The fifth intellectual fault is faulty perspective. We do not see as we should. Just take a painting, if you turn it sideways or upside down, at least in terms of representational art, it changes the picture entirely. Sometimes given our own faulty intellectual operations we fail to have the right perspective and thus we misjudge reality.
Intellectual fatigue is a sixth problem, this is one that affects us all. We grow tired. Our minds, our reason, will grow tired. We are also a psychosomatic unity, so our mind is not disembodied, rather we are mind and body together and that means that fatigue affects us, even the operations of our mind.
Inconsistencies are a seventh problem. Inconsistencies mean that something is wrong. The law of non-contradiction means that two contradictory truth claims cannot both be equally true, but every one of us, no matter how consistent we seek to be, in our own inability to be totally consistent is affected by inconsistencies.
Failure to draw the right conclusion is an eighth problem. We can be presented with absolutely correct data and still draw the wrong conclusion. That is very frustrating and we see that in others, we need to be able to see it in ourselves as well.
Intellectual apathy is a ninth problem. We sometimes simply don’t care enough to intellectually engage. That too is an effect of sin.
You also have dogmatism and closemindedness. Some people simply come to the position that they hold to their conclusions and those conclusions are impervious to any further conversation or evidence. That too is a problem, because we should never close our minds. The Christian worldview, by the way, mandates that we hold tenaciously to Christian truth, but that’s not over against the evidence, but rather on the basis of the evidence. That’s why the Christian worldview insists that the mature Christian is not someone who runs from the question, but someone who runs into the questions with confidence that God is speaking in Scripture and on biblical authority those questions can be answered also in conversation with others in the history of the Christian church who have struggled on the basis of Scripture with those very same questions.
We also have the problem of intellectual pride. That’s a sign of sin where we grow so confident in the operations of our own reason, we can grow overconfident to our own embarrassment. Pride can show up in every dimension of our lives, including our intellectual lives. Vain imagination is another and this is simply the fact that we can even fantasize reality in a way that supplants the real reality, so to speak. We can imagine a world and we can live in that world, and that is often a major problem.
The final two intellectual faults are miscommunication and partial knowledge. Miscommunication we can understand, this is true whenever you put two human beings together and even as those evolutionary cognitive scientists argue that the ability to reason together as part of what made human society possible—there’s some truth in that to be sure—the reality is that as capable as we are of communicating, we are also capable of miscommunicating. And then partial knowledge, we know only in part, actually this is one of the most important biblical affirmations. We are told that now we see, as Paul said, through a glass darkly. We look forward to that day when we shall see him face-to-face.
The death of expertise or panic of the experts? Intellectual authority in America
And next we turn to the New York Times, an article on a new book entitled, “The Death of Expertise” by Tom Nichols. This is another one of the books that demonstrates the tenor of our times. Nichols is arguing that in contemporary America we see a rejection of intellectual expertise, the intellectual authorities that should be heeded are no longer heeded. Here again you see panic primarily from the secular left in the fact that the authorities they believe Americans should follow, especially the intellectual authorities, have been displaced. They’re no longer following those authorities. Now a sign of this is the fact that the mainstream media has lost its monopoly upon, for instance, the news business, the rise of alternative news sources, indeed the internet itself has served to undermine authorities, especially when the authorities had previously come in the three major television networks and in the big masthead newspapers that it had such outsized influence, but that influence has been melting.
Michiko Kakutani, writing in the New York Times, tells us that,
“Nichols reminds [readers] how a ‘resistance to intellectual authority’ naturally took root in a country, dedicated to the principles of liberty and egalitarianism, and how American culture tends to fuel ‘romantic notions about the wisdom of the common person or the gumption of the self-educated genius.”
Now let’s just look at that for a moment. Here you see what is revealed as disdain on the part of the elites for the average American in terms of how the average American thinks. Now let’s ask the question honestly. Would there be any evidence that would explain that disdain? Of course there could be. That is to say, it is no doubt true that the vast majority of Americans do not think as they ought to think, they do not think as carefully as they should think, they don’t even think as regularly as they should think. But that’s not what’s really going on here. What you really have here is panic amongst the elites that their own intellectual authority is no longer being followed. It’s explained in this book by what’s identified as “The Death of Expertise.”
Now let’s face it, the death of expertise will come with a cost and comprehensively, it won’t work. For instance, it doesn’t work when it comes to many areas of medicine. Most people still trust what their doctor tells them and they want to go to a doctor with demonstrated education and expertise. But this isn’t a problem that occurs only on the right in America, even a book like this has to acknowledge it’s a problem that takes place on the cultural left as well. One of the frustrations when it comes to the medical world is that so many people on the left are denying what they are arguing on the basis of their expertise concerning such things as genetically modified food and vaccinations.
Christians can benefit by thinking about one point that Tom Nichols makes in his book, he talks about what he calls “the ‘backfire effect in which people redouble their efforts to keep their own internal narrative consistent, no matter how clear the indications that they’re wrong.”
Well, my guess is that whether one’s on the left or the right, we are more apt to recognize the ‘backfire effect’ in the other rather than in ourselves. But this is where Christians need to understand something as we come to a conclusion. We should not in our thinking be marked by the ‘backfire effect,’ that is the fact that we hold tenaciously to our beliefs simply because they are our beliefs. Rather, as the Bible instructs us, we should check our beliefs according to Scripture. For Christians, the ‘backfire effect’ should be corrected by Scripture effect.