- Written by Jonathan Clatworthy Jonathan Clatworthy
- Published: 17 June 2015 17 June 2015
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How can you trust your mind? You make mistakes. You dream. How do you know when you are getting it right? If you ever do? This is a brief history of the rise and fall of the human mind, arguing that the best account depends on creation by God.
As far back as history takes us, societies accepted that they did not understand how the world works. It was too complicated. They believed it was being run by gods who knew more than they did.
How much could they expect to understand? That depended on how their minds had been designed. Some early Christian Gnostics argued that human minds had been created by evil or ignorant gods who systematically deceived people about the nature of reality. Logically, this is irrefutable: in judging the reliability of our minds, we have nothing to guide us except our minds.
Catholics disagreed, and eventually triumphed: the mind was a good gift by a good God, reliable enough for the purposes God intended. The logic was credo ut intelligam, ‘I believe in order to understand’. For over a thousand years the Church was the main sponsor of learning. Modern science became possible at the end of the Middle Ages because of the monotheist consensus that God has enabled our minds to understand the world around us.
Later the logic got turned upside down. The reliability of the human mind came to seem self-evident, so it no longer required a theory about God. Instead of starting with faith in God and deducing the reliability of the mind, early Enlightenment thinkers started with trust in the mind and tried to prove the existence of God. That way round, the arguments could be picked apart. Perhaps God did not exist.
Complexity of the universe
The apotheosis of the human mind eventually faced two challenges. The one we usually find easier to cope with is the complexity of the universe. Early modern scientists thought it was much simpler than it turned out to be, and until around the end of the nineteenth century most scientists thought they would eventually get a pretty well complete account of it. Today the consensus is that the universe is far too complex. Every new discovery reveals further complexity. What scientists understand is only a miniscule proportion of what remains unknown.
Most of the time this does not matter. The main practical implication is that scientists can no longer confidently deny the existence of the unobserved. We may think it unlikely that telepathy works or that guardian angels exist, but we can no longer expect science to disprove them. Compared with the universe, our minds are really quite limited.
The more challenging development is Darwinian evolution. Darwin could see the problem but it took a century for evolutionists to take it seriously.
Just as our bodies have evolved from other primates, so have our minds. Mental processes help animals to survive and reproduce, so over time brains have grown and mental processes have multiplied. In humans they have developed furthest of all.
This explains why our minds help us survive and reproduce, but nothing else. How can the human mind, an adaptation of ape mind, presume to know the secrets of the universe when apes know so little?
The current evolutionary answer is to distinguish between adaptation and exaptation. Adaptation means that one feature of a species develops over time to make the best use of its environment. For example a bird’s beak may develop to pick up the most common seeds most efficiently. It happens over the generations: the offspring with the best beaks survive more often than their siblings. Exaptation happens as a by-product: the bird’s new shape of beak turns out to be useful for some other, completely different, purpose. In the same way adaptation enables human minds to become good at survival and reproduction, and then exaptation allows us to become good at understanding genetics and galaxies.
Unfortunately it is a circular argument. Exaptation may enable all this understanding, for all we know, but it may not. After all it is only human minds that have produced the theory. Evolutionary biologists tell us that self-deception has evolutionary advantages; exaptation can give us false beliefs as well as true ones. In the end we have no way to stand outside our minds to check what they are telling us against what really exists. From a modern evolutionary perspective, for all we know the Gnostics may have been right.
Many critics, from a variety of non-realist and constructivist perspectives, are now drawing out the implications. Perhaps the physical universe is just something our minds invent. Or perhaps there is something there, but we know nothing about it. Perhaps everything we think we know is pure fantasy. By claiming too much for the human mind we rendered it useless.
Although only a small minority of people take these theories seriously, they have immense influence. By allowing us to interpret everything in some kind of non-realist way they grant us permission to relativise, and thus disbelieve, pretty well anything we want to disbelieve. When we see on our television screens the Syrians whose homes have been bombed, we do not positively deny that they exist, or even that they suffer as much as we would have; but the fact that non-realist theories abound allows us not to care so much. I wonder whether Iain Duncan Smith’s conscience is assuaged in this way, as he refuses to publish the numbers of people killed by poverty as a result of his benefits changes.
Despite these temptations most of us think our minds are pretty reliable. The reason is that we have a life to live. From a practical perspective, we need to assume that our minds reveal truth. Granted that we do not know – since our minds are merely adaptations of ape minds – the only practical response is to trust our mental abilities. All our knowledge depends on this act of faith.
Once we recognise that this is what we need, more questions arise. Can we justify this act of faith? A normal scientific procedure would be to propose hypotheses that would justify it, and then test the hypotheses against what else we think we know.
In effect this is what happened in a haphazard way over the course of millennia, as different traditions proposed different accounts of humanity and divinity. What sorts of gods made us, for what purpose, and what powers should we therefore expect to have? Some hypotheses seemed to work better than others, and in the later Middle Ages there was a monotheistic consensus strong enough to support confidence in the human mind and thereby make modern science possible.