birth of reason

Every intellectual climate is founded on assumptions that seem plausible but that have never been fully justified or even explored. Among the assumptions on which a great deal of both scientific and non-scientific thinking currently rests is that the ultimate explanation of human nature is to be found in our biology. Although a devout materialist and a great admirer of Darwin (whose portrait hangs in my study), I doubt that this is true.

However, the differences are not to be understood in terms of anything unique about homo sapiens – it is not clear that anything human is unique to any single species – but rather in terms of the progressive separation of intelligence from any underlying biology. I define intelligence as activity that knows itself to be that activity and is that activity by virtue of that knowledge. (Though this seems abstract for a scientific definition, I have always been surprised at how well it fits the concrete realities of intelligence.)

But of course, intelligence could not have sprung fully formed from life in general. Indeed, there is ample evidence for its evolution. This can be summarised as an S-curve:

S-curve of evolution

I use the term ‘instinct’ loosely here, to refer to any mode of organic activity that is incapable of regulating itself through self-awareness – essentially the absence of intelligence. It would not be an adequate definition if I were trying to study instinct itself, but as I am only trying to understand something that instinct is not (i.e., intelligence), it works well enough.

However, anyone familiar with Piagetian models of development will understand why I choose the term ‘sensorimotor’ to describe a more indefinite period linking pure instinct (if there ever was such a thing) with intelligence proper: in this long, long epoch, as in the corresponding period of individual development, the mapping of structure onto functioning and vice versa is progressively broken down and reorganised into more abstract and versatile structures capable of supporting diverse kinds of activity; and conversely, the ability to carry out any given kind of activity through a multiplicity of different structures.

The logical, natural and historical conclusion of this process is the unification of all structures of activity into a single structure that is capable of any kind of functioning, but also the ability to look at any kind of functioning and organise a structure for carrying it out that is limited solely by its fitness for that particular purpose.

The evidence that inspired me to take this approach was simple and universally available, but conflicts so completely with science’s contemporary wisdom that it is all but universally ignored.

  1. Intelligence possesses many attributes that sit uncomfortably with any conventional notion of biology. It would be extremely difficult to identify any kind of activity in which human beings (as the exemplars of natural intelligence) engage that is not open to – or routinely controlled and often changed by – a critical self-awareness. Indeed, it is the most typical ‘organic’ functions such as reproduction, feeding or seeking shelter that display the most astonishing variety, and that change over timescales or with a flexibility that make it perfectly obvious that there is no possible sense in which they could  be described as ‘programmed’ in any ordinary biological sense. And if I were asked for a perfect example of this kind of activity, I would choose science itself.
  2. intelligence is equally plainly not the product of any conventional evolutionary process, as it emerges all across the organic spectrum. Widely quoted research has uncovered characteristically intelligent patterns not only in human beings and our most closely related primate cousins but also in bird and cetacean species it would be preposterous to link with ourselves. Yet going by the capabilities of grey parrots, assorted corvids, dolphins and in all likelihood quite a few other distantly scattered species, it looks like the intelligence they exhibit is not just quite like our own but absolutely identical. They seem to develop through the same sequences and seem to make the same characteristics mistakes, so what else are we to conclude? Plainly no such identity could possibly have arisen through any conventional ‘convergence’; surely the only sensible conclusion is that intelligence operates on a quite separate dimension from life in general, and we should stop treating it as little more than a bundle of quite interesting talents?

There are a few other lines of argument, but these should be enough. If these simple, obvious and widely accepted facts cannot be refuted, then it’s time we stopped assuming that the right answer is bound to be some permutation of the standard biological arguments.  Courtesy of Piaget and his supporters, we can do a lot better than that.

So what does The Birth of Reason actually say? Well, it goes a good deal further than simply trying to embarrass conventional wisdom. A full chapter-by-chapter synopsis can be found here, but in brief:

  1. All the essentials of human nature, including the various forms of human activity, experience, feeling and relationships, are the product of our intelligence. The originality humanists like to ascribe to human nature is neither illusory nor secondary, and it is only because we are intelligent that we are conscious, historical, rational beings, or that we have creativity, values, individuality or any notion of (let alone capacity for) truth or freedom. These features and characteristics are moreover more than merely the by-products of greater nervous capacity or a purely quantitative extension of biological structures or functions: we do not have art or morality or politics or science just because we have bigger brains. Intelligence represents a qualitative shift, based on a radical break in structure and function from its biological precursors and substrate, directly analogous to the break between life and the chemical reaction.
  2. An activity can be defined as intelligent when it knows itself to be that activity and when it is that activity by virtue of that knowledge. It is this capacity for insight, evaluation and criticism, and the consequent capacity for explicit self-regulation, that gives human beings and other intelligent species their unique capacity for radical action, radical self-knowledge, and so radical self-development. That is, it is only by virtue of our intelligence that we are either rational or, in T.H. Huxley ’s famous words, ‘the only organic being in whose very nature is implanted the necessary condition for unlimited progress’.
  3. Intelligence is made possible by the radical independence of its component structures from any particular type of functioning, and the synthesis of those structures into a single totality. Because of this novel form, not only can intelligence apply any skill or insight it thinks appropriate to any problem or situation, but it can also stand back from and reflect on its own activity and nature. Not only can it generate original forms and combinations of actions and experience but it can also develop new skills and insights – and thereby develop itself – in any and every direction and to an unlimited extent. In short, there is nothing intelligence must do, and nothing it must not do. Because intelligence is committed to nothing, it is capable of anything. Insofar as an intelligent being remains subject to residual biological fragmentation and constraint (which human beings certainly are), its capacity to short-circuit and circumvent them through cultural and technological extensions and self-reconstruction is fundamentally unlimited. However, whether any given intelligence actually can do any given thing obviously depends on a good deal more than such abstract capabilities! As I have argued elsewhere, a fully developed intelligence is the work of history, not babies.
  4. This situation can be starkly contrasted with the position in which the non-intelligent organism finds itself. Though often capable of considerable learning and flexibility, organic structures are constrained by the anatomically or physiologically obligate dissociation of their component structures from one another and the more or less fixed association of those structures with particular kinds of functioning. This not only limits an organism’s ability to make the best (hypothetical) use of its powers and abilities but also precludes the free development of their (hypothetical) potential.
  5. Once it has come into existence, intelligence is as independent of its biological origins and substrate as the specifically living features of the organism are independent of any particular chemistry. Although there is a sense in which hunting and nesting consist entirely of chemical reactions (or that the body is nothing but a chemical factory), they have no chemical meaning, they could not have been brought about by any particular chemical process, and there is no unique chemical formula for mating or nesting, not even for a given species or a particular organism. As with the relationship between physical actions and chemical reactions, the novelty of life arises not from the prescriptions of chemistry but from the radically new forms of activity – adaptation, organisation and reproduction – that emerge when otherwise indifferent chemical structures are arranged in particular ways. Likewise there can be no biology of reason, history or consciousness. One might as well try to work out how Einstein’s arrived at relativity by analysing the equation E = mc2.
  6. Despite its radical difference from any biology, intelligence arose through ordinary biological processes, evolutionary and epigenetic, and remains as irreducibly material as any rock or rose. However, in order to understand how this independence is achieved, it is necessary to look at the (so to speak) strategic and structural aspects of evolution and development, as opposed to the normal functional and tactical focus of conventional Darwinism.
  7. The existence of entirely real continuities between biological and intelligent structures does not contradict this fundamental discontinuity. In particular, the transitional position of the great apes and other marginal candidates for true intelligence no more renders intelligence biological than the existence of viruses makes life a chemical reaction. Indeed, continuities are to be expected throughout the existence of natural intelligence: the present immaturity of human nature requires that we resort to our own biology to solve many practical problems; the parallels and analogies in the problems intelligent and non-intelligent organisms face make it highly likely that we will adopt analogous or even identical solutions; and of course any natural intelligence continues to rely on its biological substrate.
  8. Given its independence of its biology, it is inappropriate – indeed quite pointless and misguided – to continue to seek biological explanations for human nature. Although theories of the origins of human intelligence can look nowhere else but to biology, theories of its nature are absolved of any obligation to seek organic premises for their arguments; indeed, it makes no sense even to look.

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