The “evolution of the mind” and Christian cognitive dissonance

The “evolution of the mind” and Christian cognitive dissonance October 17, 2013

Over at The Jesus Blog, Anthony Le Donne posted an interesting thought on why Christians can have such cognitive dissonance about evolution: it has to do with the “evolution” of the mind in the general culture over the last century and how some patterns in Christian thinking aren’t coming along for the ride.

Le Donne is playing off an idea moral philosopher James Flynn (Are We Getting Smarter?: Rising IQ in the Twenty-First Century) that today’s average IQ scores are much higher than at the turn of the 20th century. Of course, there are all sorts of factors that might account for this shift, but Flynn focuses on one I’ve never thought about:

We live in a far more complex world than earlier generations, and so

we’ve had  to develop new mental habits, new habits of mind.  And these include clothing that concrete world with classification and introducing abstractions that we try to make logically consistent, and also taking the hypothetical seriously.  That is, wondering about what might have been rather than what is.

Apparently, if you tested people back then by today’s norms, they would average an IQ of 70, on the cusp of mental retardation. Conversely, people today measured by earlier standards would average an IQ of 130, genius level.

Le Donne comments: “Flynn suggests that 21st century people are beset with a world of abstraction and thus our abilities to classify, infer by analogy, and problem solve are beefier than our grandparents. His thesis is generalized. He is appealing to studies of averages and average folks.  Of course, we can all come up with exceptions to this rule.  But Flynn’s point about the average person’s moral imagination is hard to deny: we emerged from cultures that had very limited intellectual and ethical horizons.  Moreover, we were suspicious of fancy new ways of rationalizing.  If it wasn’t ‘common sense’, it was suspect.”

Le Donne asks: “So what happens when an entire generation of Christians are given better mental floss, more avenues for exegesis, and unprecedented access to a Yale-quality education?  It should come as no surprise that the result is cognitive dissonance.”

Read Le Donne’s post and watch the embedded video by Flynn carefully. They are making no value judgment but observing a trend. Maybe older more “concrete” patterns of thinking–which are the patterns many Christians are raised with–are not adequate for what our minds are required to process now?

Food for thought.

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  • Peter, I read the article and saw the video and thought they both raised some very applicable points to the issues of what Le Donne referred to as “the intellectual ghettos of Christendom.” But I didn’t see him as concluding that the older, more concrete pattens of thinking were to be entirely disregarded. The reference to “chronological snobbery” by C.S. Lewis is what I am mostly thinking of here. His last two paragraphs said:

    “The real danger here is that we with higher theological IQs are tempted
    to hold our forebears with contempt. One wonders if C.S. Lewis’ phrase
    “chronological snobbery” might be relevant here. Conversely, there is a
    danger for those who guard our grandparents’ thought patterns to accuse
    us of knowledge without wisdom. Please listen to Flynn’s talk
    carefully: Billy Graham does not border “mental retardation”; Rob Bell
    is not a genius.

    I would suggest that the ‘preservation’ of Christian ideals must be
    measured by our ability to make peace with one another. This includes
    making peace with our past and those who remain suspicious of the
    ongoing evolution of the Christian mind.”

    • peteenns

      Well put, Chuck.

  • Thanks for posting this Pete. One thing to note is that the Flynn effect is a product of education and employment changes for the average person. The key issue is the IQ of the average lay person, not Rob Bell or Billy Graham, has changed.

    Your post on the rise of apologetic approaches that could be seen as secular and unbiblical points to the direction William Lane Craig and others are taking in trying to make inerrantist Christianity compatible with a more educated public. They spend more time presenting answers to skeptic’s questions than any of their predecessors, because the internet gives an equal voice to atheists and skeptics. You see more and more churches that offer ‘answers to skeptical questions’ seminars, and will “defend” inerrancy by stating how many copies of the manuscripts have been transmitted.

    A growing number of post-evangelicals want to move away from inerrantism, and the challenge for people like Rob Bell is to establish that there is a “real” form of Christianity outside the bounds of evangelicalism. In a world where people share HuffPo pieces on social media and Yale courses are freely available, lay people will expect scholars to have freedom of expression online, and preachers to be more honest about their knowledge of critical scholarship. When Thomas Nelson censored Rachel Held Evans’s mention of her vagina, she found a much larger audience online.

    Young people growing up exposed to different ideas though their education and on the internet will not want to have anything to do with a heavily restrictive and patronising church, and figures show that millennials are leaving the church like never before.

  • fjsteve

    “They are making no value judgment but observing a trend. Maybe older more “concrete” patterns of thinking–which are the patterns many Christians are raised with–are not adequate for what our minds are required to process now?”

    Come on! How is that not a value judgment?

    • peteenns

      I meant to say that they were not talking down to people 100 years, saying (or implying) they were dumb, etc.

  • John Bonnett

    James Flynn’s arguments on cognitive change are fascinating, but as an intellectual historian they also set off a number of alarm bells for me. I’d be loathe to give them much credence until I’d read the book and given it a good vetting, and read reviews by colleagues who have given this and prior work a similar vetting. Here is why. To start, Flynn’s argument is dangerous because it is precisely the type of argument that makes us feel good. We’re creatures of complexity; our predecessors are not. We engage in abstract, classificatory thinking; our predecessors did not. Maybe. But I’ve seen examples in intellectual history where similar arguments were made that were simply and badly wrong. The sociologist Marcel Granet, for example, once argued that the ancient Chinese were incapable of engaging in abstract thought in a manner commensurate with Europeans because they used pictographic forms of notation. It was the sort of argument that did violence to the legacy of a philosophically, economically and technologically advanced culture, one that for most of its history has outstripped the accomplishments of the West, and no one obviously believes that now. Further, Flynn’s arguments — as described here and elsewhere, and let me make that clear, I’m engaging with reported arguments — are focused on the 20th century. I’m wondering how they will fare when set against, say prior information explosions in history, such as that which occurred in the 19th century with the rise of the steam press, the mass media, and an educated public? My understanding of Flynn is that most of the action with respect to cognitive evolution took place post-1950. If so, what fundamental difference separates our information explosion, and its effects, from those that transpired in the 19th or even the 15th centuries? Is it possible that Flynn, in pointing to a movement from the concrete to the abstract, is simply revealing an incapacity to understand how his objects of study expressed the abstract? I don’t know, but they are questions I’ll be bringing to my study of Flynn, and I hope others will as well.

    • peteenns

      Though not my field, John, I have a gut feeling you are giving a good balance here. For what it’s worth, though, at least in what I cited (from what Le Donne quoted), Flynn is not contrasting modern people with all those in the past, but with the western population of about 100 years ago. That’s not to say that his point is a slam dunk….

  • Muff Potter

    Torture the data long enough and it will confess to anything.

  • Kenny Gee

    You might want to do a little research involving studies done by professors at public universities in the past decade. You will find that science has proven that the human mind is deteriorating generation after generation rather than improving. After you research these studies you might reconsider you presuppositions in this article. Just a thought!