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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Tuesday, November 1, 2016

What Is Increasing Human Intelligence?

The Flynn effect is a well-documented effect that involves a gradual increase in performance in intelligence tests. The increase seems to be about 3% per decade, and has seemingly been occurring since the 1930's. Some of the implications are startling -- for example, that before many decades have passed, the average person living will have an intelligence level of the average Harvard freshman today.

There have been various attempts to naturally explain the Flynn effect, but none have been very convincing. One attempted explanation has been that nutrition has been better in recent decades. But James Flynn has pointed out that there was a steady growth of IQ scores among Dutch people between 1952 and 1982, even though those taking the test around 1962 should have suffered from worsened nutrition as children during World War II (there was a Dutch famine in 1944). Also, there is little evidence that very many US children suffered from malnutrition between 1940 and 1970. So it's not like we can say, “Only in recent decades have American children started to eat properly.”

People trying to account for the Flynn effect usually consider only the period from 1930 onward. But the apparent increase in human intelligence since 1930 may be only one facet of a larger mystery of unaccountable increases in human intelligence, a mystery that may stretch back many thousands of years.

Consider the blossoming of human intelligence that occurred long ago. Rather suddenly, humans started to grow crops, and not too long after that, humans started to create cities. Before long we had things such as the glories of Greek sculpture, the philosophy of Plato, the mathematical works of Euclid, and the architectural and organizational achievements of the Roman Empire. But we cannot explain the intelligence behind such things by using natural selection as an explanation. As Alfred Russel Wallace (the co-founder of the theory of natural selection) pointed out in the nineteenth century, natural selection can only explain features that are needed for an organism to survive in the wild.

So we have a general mystery that exceeds the mystery of the Flynn effect. The mystery is: why has human intelligence increased at various times in ways we cannot explain?

I will now suggest a highly unconventional hypothesis to explain the Flynn effect. The Flynn effect may be evidence that human intelligence is being gradually increased by some external reality that is a partial or major source of human consciousness. Such a reality may be gradually increasing human intelligence to help us cope with an increasingly complex world, or to help us fulfill some human destiny that requires greater human intelligence.

To understand this hypothesis, I must first explain what is meant by neural reductionism, and why there are strong reasons for rejecting this assumption. Neural reductionism is a theory of the mind and brain that you have probably heard advanced many times. It is the idea that mind or intelligence is purely a product of the brain. A neural reductionist believes that your brain generates your intelligence rather like your liver secretes bile.

But there are quite a few reasons for doubting this simple theory. One reason is that we cannot plausibly account for very long-term human memories through any neurological explanation, mainly because (as discussed here) very rapid molecular turnover in the brain should make the brain an unsuitable substrate for a 50-year storage of memories, or even a storage of memories lasting longer than two years. Another reason is that the physician John Lorber documented many cases of people who functioned well even though the great majority of their brains were destroyed by disease. Another reason is that neural reductionism cannot account for psychic phenomena such as near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences, and extra-sensory perception (the latter something very well-demonstrated in convincing laboratory experiments such as those done by Professor Joseph Rhine, which have never been successfully debunked).

Suppose we consider possibilities other than neural reductionism. It may be that our consciousness and intelligence comes largely or mainly from some mysterious external reality outside of our brains.

Let's imagine a 10-year-old child who enters some data into a smartphone. If you ask the child where that data is stored, the child will say something like: “Why in the smartphone, of course – where else could it be?” But depending on the smartphone app being used, the data may not be stored in the smartphone. It could be the app uses a wi-fi connection to connect to an external web server that connects to a relational database server which stores the data the child has entered into the smartphone. But the child knows nothing of such an unseen infrastructure, so of course when she is asked where her data is stored, she answers that it is in the smartphone. Similarly, our long-term memories and intelligence may depend on some mysterious consciousness and information storage infrastructure that is outside of our brains. But since a scientist knows nothing of such an infrastructure, when he is asked where our memories are stored, he answers: “In the brain, of course – where else could it be?”

And if the child uses her smartphone to do a math problem, and you ask her, “Where was the intelligence that helped you do that?” the child will answer, “In the smartphone, of course – where else could it be?” But the actual facility that helped her may be a remote Google server thousands of miles away. Similarly, if a scientist is asked where is the intelligence that led you to ponder some cosmic mystery, he will answer, “In the brain, of course --- where else could it be?” But our minds may depend on some mysterious intelligence infrastructure outside of our bodies.

brain theory

Once we start thinking along these lines, that our intelligence may come partially or largely from some mysterious external reality outside of our brains, we have opened the door to a radical new hypothesis to explain the Flynn effect. The hypothesis is this: some external reality that is the source of our consciousness may be deliberately causing a gradual increase in human intelligence. This may be to help us cope with an increasingly complex world. Or it may be to help us fulfill some great destiny that is planned for humanity. The same reality may have increased human intelligence at the time when humans first started to build cities.

The idea that human intelligence is being gradually increased by some mysterious external power seems like a reasonable hypothesis. But there may be one thing that argues against the very idea that human intelligence is gradually increasing.

I refer, of course, to the inane drivel that is the 2016 American presidential campaign. 

Postscript: The average person probably has the idea that the human brain evolved until it was large enough to allow for thinking and spirituality, at which point human culture and religion first started to emerge. The link here reports "anatomically modern" human skull remains dated to 160,000 years ago, with what a scientist describes as "full-fledged Homo sapiens features."  But humans did not start engaging in symbolic behavior until about 80,000 years ago. How do we explain that? It's as if humans got some big intelligence boost 80,000 years after hominid brains reached their largest size.