- December 12th, 2008
Only a small fraction of humanity is capable of rational thought, let alone rational behavior, in any given historical era. This must have been true for the precivilized era as well as now, or humanity would be much more advanced than it is today. But, you say, we live in a scientific age. Men have walked on the moon, explored the ocean depths, built skyscrapers, and deciphered the human genome. However, it does not follow that a larger percentage of human kind is now capable of consistent rational thought, let alone creative application of scientific thinking to the problems of human existence.
For the time being let us just consider the so called “First World”; that is, those countries where the economies are information and/or manufacturing based, and most people have easy access to the various media and standardized education. (There is in fact, good evidence so called “primitive” peoples exhibit greater ability to think rationally than their civilized cousins, and non-culturally biased tests reveal a higher average IQ in many primitive societies, where the daily struggle to subsist involves more interaction with both the natural world and society, and less repetitive or rote behavior. In short, we create civilization to make it easier both physically and mentally for individuals to survive).
Take, for example, that universal sign of a truly advanced society, the computer. A large percentage, certainly a majority of the population, can fairly competently operate a computer to complete assigned tasks at work, or for recreation or managing the check book and so on at home. This, for the most part, does not take any application of scientific methodology or much creative effort. For the most part we memorize the key stroke patterns that manipulate the software to accomplish the task at hand. One simply is taught or teaches oneself to operate the computer in the same fashion one learns any other existing body of knowledge. More mental effort is required to actually create new software or to program computers to execute tasks they have never done before, and far fewer have these skills. Those researchers who invented the underlying operating systems are an order of magnitude rarer yet. The same progression is similar for the actual hardware of the computer. Many thousands of persons are employed manufacturing the machines who know nothing other than their own small part in the activity - perhaps soldering on a component, or operating a machine which manufactures a particular chip. Far fewer are the engineers who design the components themselves, or the manufacturing processes which are necessary to create the computer. Only a handful of researchers understand the electrical complexities and theory that make this whole technology possible.
The above example could be applied to virtually any technology currently in use in the advanced nations. In the beginning of any new technology a few researchers using rational thought and scientific methods are able to observe and describe mathematically a phenomenon, while other small groups of researchers and inventors are able to apply the new knowledge to creating the new basic technology. These rational methods work whether one is describing advances in metallurgy, chemistry, biology, the organization of electronic circuits, or most any other human endeavour. By the time the technology is in general use by the society the vast majority of people utilizing it have no knowledge and no need for the knowledge of the principles or details behind the useful new tool. Even in demanding fields, such as medicine, this applies. In the medical field the great majority of doctors practice according to knowledge gained from their experiences and apprenticeship in hospitals, universities and medical centers. A much smaller percentage of medical researchers invent new procedures or expand our knowledge of the functioning or healing of the body.
This must also have been the case in pre-history. Archeological investigations show primitive cultures made and utilized the same tools and sets of tools for thousands of years with very few changes. We can identify different cultures by their tool kits. It must have been rare for a stone chipper to have departed from the time honored traditions of his predecessors, just as it is uncommon today for a technician to redesign a tool that seems adequate. But an even greater force acting on the individual is the relative conservatism of human societies. Although it has been shown numerous times the QWERTY letter arrangement on most keyboards is not the most efficient, people still use it as it is about the only keyboard style offered. Attempts over the years to launch more ergonomically elegant keyboards have not had much success.
We suspect the relative percentage of humans capable of sustaining rational inquiry must be relatively constant over the ages. Even so, only with sufficient leisure and the will to persist (many times in the face of violent opposition) will such an individual discover a new principle, law of nature, or make discoveries leading to important technological advances.
If technological progress is more rapid and we are making more new discoveries in scientific fields these days than in previous years it is only because of the increase in population, not the increase in the percentage of humans predisposed to rational methods of inquiry.
Given the above what then can we - must we do as a society to encourage those among us with such abilities, and to allow a larger percentage of border line personalities to develop into critical, skeptical, and rational citizens? People in all societies are always quick to adopt and adapt foreign or new technologies with obvious immediate benefit. A primitive tribesman will not hesitate to exchange his bare feet for tennis shoes or manufactured sandals, or slip on a T-shirt. A more “advanced” society may reject both in favor of traditional dress but still adopt the use of the automobile and electricity, which will then force the group to learn the skills needed to maintain and eventually produce the new technology, eventually changing the society in profound, often unpredictable ways. Generally, humans are much less willing to change their beliefs, customs, and world views.
Because of the inherent dominance of irrationality in human thought processes and behavior we believe it is unrealistic to expect large numbers of people in any society to adopt points of view or habits of thinking similar to history’s great progressive philosophers, scientists, and humanists. After all, in spite of the general improvement of the human condition the last few hundred years in some geographical areas (as a result of progressive measures adopted because of the influence of Renaissance and Enlightenment era thinkers, and the decline of the church’s influence), recent polls still indicate people overwhelmingly still subscribe to supernatural beliefs. Indeed most modern peoples still profess a strong belief in an afterlife, various gods, ghosts, djinns, and other assorted supernatural phenomena. When a huge proportion of educated Americans profess to see a significance in the miraculous appearance of the face of Jesus or Mary in a pattern of tree bark or firmly believe gods impregnate Earthly women in order to produce a half-man half-god to save the world, it is hard to see how we will ever convince a majority of mankind to live with the uncertainty necessary for a rational world view. Some recent insightful thinkers such as Jung and Campbell have argued such beliefs are a result of the actual structure of human consciousness and therefore of the human brain. In an effort to make sense of reality the human mind naturally organizes perceived phenomena into certain repeating patterns. Whatever the reason, strong irrational belief systems have hitherto been the most dependable way to organize and control the masses.
In any case a few people in any age seem to have the unique ability to observe with less cultural filtering, and it is to these we address our thoughts. It remains to be seen whether Homo sapiens will soon become extinct or evolve into a less violent, superstitious, and self-destructive species, but the secular humanist takes the positive view that humans at least have a potential, as evidenced by the continual production of a few rational individuals in each generation. If we can inspire even one young person to question, think more rationally, and challenge the forces of superstitious belief and dogma which surround us, it is worth the effort!