Reason and Intelligence

This will be brief.

The other day during a particularly fine conversation with a coworker, the subject of “true believers” came up, specifically with regards to Amy Coney Barrett. It is often said people of a certain religiously-inclined mindset, on certain topics, are, well, not that bright. “How can they not see?”

I realized then—or at least finally codified—the basic problem with this.  It conflates intelligence with religious belief and not in a flattering way. Any cursory glance at history will show this to be erroneous. One cannot look at people like Aquinas or Augustine or even Erasmus or Calvin and make an argument that these were not intelligent, indeed brilliant, people.  In conversation with our contemporaries, we find the whole spectrum.  Yes, some folks aren’t very bright, but then others are quite bright, even near the brilliant end of the scale. The question confronting those of us who are puzzled at their adherence to ideas and creeds and conclusions which to us seem obviously dubious, even absurd, has of late been couched in the wrong terms. It’s not intelligence, not even learning.

The factor I conclude that separates one from the other—say, the credulous from the critical (and I’ll stipulate that even that formulation is freighted with certain biases that make it inaccurate)—is a question of certainty.

The one barrier I have come up against time and again in discussions with people who hold opinions of debatable integrity is Certainty.

They are certain. Absolutely so. They have staked out a patch of intellectual or ideological ground and named it inviolable because here, they claim, is absolute truth, absolute reliability, absolute morality. In the face of that certainty, there is no purchase. Unless and until one can move them to entertain the possibility that they are in error, the argument is pointless.*


So here’s my thesis. It has nothing to do with intelligence. Arguing that people (and here we can insert a wide, wide range of belief and opinion, much of which is not even religious, but has the appearance of religious conviction) who hold certain beliefs do so because they are “not that smart” creates a secondary problem, because now you have made a fundamental error in judgment. We are not dealing with intelligence.

We are dealing with a question of Reason.

And by reason, I mean the ability to apply critical analysis.

We have to ask about an ability to reason. And one’s ability to do so is contingent upon many things, but I think it viable to contend that one loses that ability in direct proportion to a failure to suppress certainty.

The unreasonable is a hallmark of a failure to suppress, even for just the space of the dialogue, certainty.

I find myself automatically mistrusting someone who has no doubts. Doubt is necessary to the useful application of reason. Doubt even as a tool of modeling.

I think it might be useful to shift our perceptions in this. Attacking intelligence only entrenches. Fostering a positive capacity to intentionally doubt is conducive to reason.

Something to consider.



* I will also stipulate that they may still retain their opinion and that is fine, but they will have engaged in a process whereby reason has a chance to allow other viewpoints, other conclusions, and perhaps create a more productive ground of mutual respect and consideration.