John Schellenberg

John Schellenberg

J. L. Schellenberg is a Canadian philosopher, Professor of Philosophy at Mount Saint Vincent University and Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Graduate Studies at Dalhousie University. His first book Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason, published in 1993, introduced the hiddenness argument for atheism, which became and remains the subject of lively debate. His latest book Evolutionary Religion, published in 2013, put into an evolutionary frame of reference the results of a trilogy on the philosophy of religion published in the previous decade. In June of 2013 the journal Religious Studies published a special issue devoted to discussion of the trilogy.

Intellectual Humility and Deep Time

The 200,000-year history of Homo sapiens is wedged between three and a half billion years of evolutionary development on one side – life’s past – and another billion on the other – life’s potential future. Human inquiry has started to take account of the former fact; we hear a lot about evolutionary changes that have already occurred. But most of us never stop to think about the latter – about evolutionary changes yet to come in the deep future. And so we have absorbed only half the impact of scientific facts about deep time. A billion years is a period of time ridiculously longer than the 50,000 years of thinking and feeling that, on a generous estimate, intelligent beings on our planet have so far spent inquiring into matters we today call philosophical, scientific, or religious – nearly twenty thousand times longer. What new developments in thought and feeling relevant to these areas of inquiry might Earth see in so much time, if intelligent life can be made to survive?

The present project considers how the impact of such unfamiliar thoughts can be processed by relating them to a more familiar idea: that we should cultivate intellectual humility. A hypothesis is suggested: that given the possibilities brought into view by a well-rounded conception of deep time, the inquiry-related requirements of intellectual humility are far more obvious and demanding and much more generally significant than has been realized. Especially on the most profound and complex questions human inquiry today addresses, we may just be getting started. Success might require the cooperation of many generations. And in our own generation, it means not giving up despite our possible primitivity. Pursuing success with intellectual humility also requires encouraging what at first seem unrealistic or hopeless lines of inquiry. For they just might lead to unexpected breakthroughs of understanding that will allow us to evolve further.

But there is another part to the hypothesis: that by applying possibilities of deep time and the deepened imperative of intellectual humility together, specific results can be achieved right now on some important issues in philosophy – skepticism, for instance. Intellectual humility alive to deep time may lead to a new forward-looking evolutionary form of skepticism. At the same time, skepticism’s resistance of belief in the present will become more palatable when we apply the neglected distinction between belief and acceptance, which will show how intellectual commitments remain possible despite skepticism. Moreover, exploration of that distinction just might allow us to make some headway on the issues – presently very contentious and much discussed – of peer disagreement, religious pluralism, and divine hiddenness.