Friday, February 20, 2015

Does the Flynn Effect Show the Success of Scientific Enlightenment and Thus Refute Strauss?

According to Leo Strauss, there is a fundamental dispute between premodern philosophy and modern philosophy.  Ancient and medieval philosophers generally believed that there was a permanent conflict between the philosophic life as the quest for truth and the moral, religious, or political life as based on opinion.  As based on traditional opinions about the good life, no society could tolerate total freedom of thought and speech for philosophers in their quest for truth, because that quest would subvert the unquestioned opinions supporting social order.  Consequently, the premodern philosophers believed that a truly rational society--a society fully open to the rational pursuit of truth--was impossible.  This made it necessary for premodern philosophers to practice esoteric writing to convey their secret teachings to potential philosophers, while protecting themselves from persecution, and protecting society from being harmed by philosophic inquiry.

By contrast, according to Strauss, the modern philosophers have generally believed that this conflict between philosophy and politics could be resolved in a society with popular enlightenment, so that in a rational society, there could be complete freedom of thought and speech.  To achieve this, the traditional social order based on false moral, religious, and political opinions would have to be overthrown.  Esoteric writing would have to be practiced as part of the intellectual conspiracy for overthrowing traditional social orders.  But once the revolution was successful, esoteric writing would no longer be needed.  And, indeed, as Arthur Melzer has shown, esoteric writing did seem to disappear sometime around 1800, because by then the modern scientific enlightenment had succeeded in those largely liberal or open societies where complete freedom of thought and speech was no longer perceived as a threat to social order.

Strauss generally seemed to embrace premodern philosophy as superior to modern philosophy.  If that is so, then the apparent success of modern scientific enlightenment in achieving such liberal or open societies would seem to refute Strauss, because this would seem to indicate that the premodern philosophers were wrong in believing that no society could be fully open to the philosophic or scientific life of inquiry into the truth.

One dramatic indication of the success of the scientific enlightenment is the Flynn effect.  Political scientist James Flynn has pointed to the remarkable fact that over a century of IQ testing shows that average IQ scores have been increasing at the rate of 3 points every 10 years, which means an increase of two standard deviations every 30 years.  That suggests that compared with Americans today, most Americans at the beginning of the 20th century were mentally retarded!

Moreover, the increases in IQ scores have been almost exclusively in the two subtests that most require abstract reasoning--Similarities and Matrices.  The average scores for the subtests of Information, Arithmetic, and Vocabulary have not changed very much.  Here's an example from the Matrices section of an IQ test:

An example of a question from the Similarities section would be "What do dogs and rabbits have in common?"  If you correctly answer, "Both are mammals," Flynn says, you are thinking abstractly, and you are thus thinking like a scientist in classifying organisms by their type.  If you had said, "You use dogs to hunt rabbits," you have been thinking concretely and practically.  According to Flynn, the rising IQ scores for Matrices and Similarities over the past century show that people have learned to think more abstractly and theoretically rather than concretely and practically.  That is to say, the Scientific Enlightenment has succeeded in teaching more people to think like scientists.

To show how the thinking of people in modern societies has changed from the thinking of people in traditional societies, Flynn points to the research of the psychologist Alexander Luria in studying the reasoning abilities of Russian peasants in the early 20th century:
"The illiterate Russian peasants Luria studied were not willing to take the hypothetical seriously.  He said, 'Imagine that bears come from where there is always snow and imagine that if bears come from where there is always snow, they are white.  What color would the bears be at the North Pole?' and they would respond something like, 'I've only seen brown bears.  If an old man came from the North Pole and told me I might believe him.'  They were not interested in the hypothetical, or abstract categories.  They were grounded in concrete reality.  'There are no camels in Germany.  B is in Germany.  Are there camels there?'  They said, 'Well, it's big enough, there ought to be camels.  Or maybe it's too small to have camels.'  We have wonderful data from the Raven's Progressive Matrices tests from 1950 and 2010 showing that the Raven's games are entirely correlated with freeing your mind of the concrete reference of the symbols in order to take the relationship between the symbols more seriously."

What Flynn sees here is that in the societies shaped by modern scientific rationalism, people are being taught to view the world through "scientific spectacles," and thus they are leaving the prescientific world of traditional societies.  Moreover, in becoming better in their abstract reasoning, people in scientifically enlightened societies are also becoming better in their moral reasoning. 

Flynn tells the story of how he and his brother tried to persuade their Irish father to give up his traditional prejudices about black people.  They asked him: "What if you woke up one morning and discovered your skin had turned black?  Would that make you any less of a human being?"  He responded: "Now, that's the stupidest thing you've ever said.  Who ever heard of a man's skin turning black overnight?"  An uneducated man like their father was not inclined to think abstractly or hypothetically, and thus he was not open to being persuaded by abstract moral reasoning.

There is evidence that rising IQ is producing moral enlightenment.  So that there is a moral Flynn effect.  People with high IQ are less likely to commit violent crimes, more likely to be cooperative with others, and more inclined to adopt the tolerant values of an Enlightenment philosophy that stresses reason and individualism rather than traditional prejudices.

The evidence and argumentation supporting this idea of a moral Flynn effect was first stated by Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature.  Pinker's reasoning has recently been elaborated in Michael Shermer's new book The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2015).  The idea of the "moral arc" is taken from a line in Martin Luther King's famous speech in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965 at the end of the march from Selma: "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

Does this apparent success of the modern Scientific Enlightenment refute Strauss in his premodern belief that an enlightened or rational society is impossible?

Melzer seems to deny this.  He denies that Strauss practiced esoteric writing, because there was no longer a conflict between philosophy and society, and so Strauss saw no need to try to overturn the modern liberal enlightenment, which is to say that he accepted the success of the modern liberal project as the refutation of the premodern belief that the conflict between the philosophic life and the practical life could never be overcome in an open liberal society. 

If this is what Melzer is implying, then he's identifying Strauss as a Midwest Straussian (in the terminology of Catherine and Michael Zuckert), who believed that modernity is good, and the premodern philosophers have been proven wrong.


Anonymous said...

This is interesting, but somewhat beside the point.

"Intelligence" and "philosophy" are not exactly the same thing.

The Flynn Effect might be a piece of evidence in favor the political project of the Enlightenment. And it would undercut a lot of traditional philosophic rhetoric about "the wise" and "the vulgar", etc. (Although you find this kind of language in early moderns as well as ancients - and it is most common among medieval authors.)

But the classical disjunction between philosophy and politics is not really a question of test scores. The same point would hold true for anti-Enlightenment philosophers in the modern period (although for somewhat different reasons).

Think of it this way: Strauss might have doubted that everyone could reach Einstein's level of intelligence. So if one day everyone matched Einstein's IQ level, that would be a very interesting development, and it would probably have implications for philosophy. But since Strauss never classified someone like Einstein as a philosopher in the first place, that development would not go the core of the relationship between philosophy and society, as Strauss saw it.

Larry Arnhart said...

So you're saying that moving away from concrete and practical thinking toward abstract and theoretical thinking and toward rational skepticism about traditional prejudices has no connection to philosophy?

Anonymous said...

No, that's not what I'm saying. I state above that the kind of developments you describe would have implications for philosophy.

To elaborate on that point a bit: a widespread move "away from concrete and practical thinking toward abstract and theoretical thinking and toward rational skepticism about traditional prejudices" would likely make people more receptive to philosophy - less likely to persecute philosophers, more likely to study it, or appreciate a few basic points derived from philosophy, etc.

But none of this would address the heart of the disjunction between philosophy and society, as Strauss saw the issue - and I'm pretty sure that Melzer would agree as well.

To repeat: "intelligence" and "philosophy" are not the same thing. The former is a precondition for the latter, but you can be extremely intelligent without being particularly philosophic.

This point isn't a knock on intelligence, either. A smarter world is a better world - for philosophers, and everyone else (if supporting the Enlightenment makes you a Midwest Straussian, then count me in). It just means that intelligence and philosophy aren't the same thing - and, again, I'm sure that Melzer would agree with this. (I've never met him, but I've read his book, although I don't have it in front me to cite from at the moment.)

Larry Arnhart said...

That's good. I see your point.

But I am wondering how we should understand "the disjunction between philosophy and society."

Strauss interpreted premodern philosophy as teaching that this disjunction was such a deep conflict that no stable society could tolerate freedom of speech and thought for philosophers, and thus the need for esoteric writing.

He interpreted modern philosophy as teaching that the success of Enlightenment could overcome that conflict, so that society could tolerate freedom of speech and thought for philosophers.

The Midwest Straussian would say that this modern Enlightenment project has really worked, and therefore premodern philosophy as Strauss interpreted it has now been shown to have been mistaken.

This seems to be Melzer's conclusion. But I'm not so sure this was Strauss's conclusion, given Strauss's deep commitment to premodern philosophy as superior to modern philosophy.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me like we're both being a bit slippery about whose views are really at issue here (premodern philosophers, the Enlightenment, Strauss, Melzer, Midwest Straussians, etc).

So let me try to be a bit more specific: you may be right about Strauss (I'm not sure). But I think you're mistaken about Melzer (as best I can recall his book).

Basically, I don't think that Melzer is giving such a clear endorsement of the Enlightenment, because he would say that even in an Enlightened society popular opinion/custom remains an obstacle to philosophy - and one that is now harder to recognize, because it often comes in the guise of quasi-Enlightenment.

Acknowledging this point needn't force one to denying that Enlightenment is really happening (i.e., a Flynn Effect), and it needn't force on assert that Enlightenment is a bad thing.

It just means that intelligence and philosophy are not quite the same thing, so simply by making people more intelligent, you haven't removed all the obstacles to philosophy - and, if there really is a fundamental disjunction between philosophy and society, some obstacles will always remain. One can admit this point without rejecting the Enlightenment, I think (or at least that's how I read Melzer - but maybe not Strauss).

Galtonian said...

You wrote that the idea of the "moral arc" is taken from a line in Martin Luther King's famous speech in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965. Actually it was originally from a 19th century Unitarian minister, Rev. Theodore Parker, from an pro-abolition speech given in 1858: "I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight, I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice."

The Flynn Effect probably does represent increased familiarity with abstract thinking, particularly within the lower class segments of society; however most experts now think that the Flynn Effect does not involve actual increases in g-factor type general intelligence.

The story about trying to convince the father to imagine having black skin is pretty lame because actual racist views involve the notion that Blacks are different from Whites not just in their skin color but in the fact that they tend to have lower IQs, increased impulsiveness, and higher predilection toward violent crime. Thus racism involves belief in innate differences in the brain, not mere attention to skin color differences.

Mobius Trip said...

It seems ironic that there is a correlation between improved IQ and “better moral reasoning.” Improved IQ seems requisite for extended abstract thinking, but to confuse this with a better form of thinking seems to conflate facts and values, hence what I take to be the core of the debate between ancients and moderns.There will never be a complete form of any kind of rational behavior. This is one sound conclusion we can make due to the work of Kurt Godel, and apply his incompleteness and undecidability theorems to a political frame.

One pitfall to elevated IQ’s is that people become dependent on what I believe Strauss would call the Sociology of Knowledge. They may contemplate other “moralities” due to their intellectual predilection, but are limited in ability to verify that which they hold as an object of thought. Thomas Kuhn described a similar process in “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” where science is divided into “puzzle solvers” and those who give birth to new paradigms. This makes an enlightened group of puzzle solvers subject to either degenerating paradigms or out right deconstructive strategies.

No doubt that there is a dynamic tension between the described frames. Perhaps Strauss was aware of this, and hence is called either an Eastern, Midwest, or Western Straussian.

Anonymous said...

Its scientifically proven that IQ and morality has nothing to do with each-other, an example is a serial killer, a serial killer can have very high IQ and no pre frontal lobes physical equivalent of a super ego and thus commits horrible crimes because of the sub emotional system of the reptilian brain. And so the rise of IQ is more likely the rise of a robotic race of soulless mutants that will detach the human from the soul.