It has come to my attention yet again that my society and culture are operating with less than optimal intelligence. This would be a meta-level of analysis derived from several different data domains, including our dysfunctional government (as measured by the pragmatic goals of caring for social needs, maintaining our infrastructure, and proper stewardship of our planet), a loss of civility, what is called the polarization of politics and other issues of divisiveness such as dishonest efforts to win elections and accrue wealth/power, fair and equal justice for all, worsening inequality of wealth, falling science IQs, and rabid rise of conspiracy theories. Some blame this on our electronic mediums, and surely, I think, these accentuate our faults more than our virtues, but are not the actual source of the problem. Some blame human nature and its legacy of aggression and greed, but, as it turns out, our nature is much more cooperative, egalitarian, curious and honest. It seems more apt to say that our cultural and social developments have gone down a road into a future now where our intelligence has become polluted, i.e., compromised. We have wandered into some perverse La Brea tar pits of our own inept creation. Will we escape them? I personally doubt it, but in the spirit of spitting into the wind joyfully, let explicate my vision.
My complaint is not that we have become simpletons; simple people actually display a good deal of common sense, honesty, humility, compassion and humor. Nor is that we have become shallow, though many more today seem hardly able to get their feet wet in the intellectual pool. My complaint is more that our intelligence suffers from several depressing Ds: dilapidated, derelict, delusional and decrepit. While we are not simpletons, we have great difficulty dealing with the slightest complexity, i.e., we talk and think in simple sound bites and think we have covered the topic. Oops! We have a thought, which is really a cognitive figure emerging into consciousness from a subconscious ground, and forget that the figure-ground relationship is definitive. This deficit degrades much of the due diligence required for clear thinking. We accept statements and stories without considering their wider context, a context which can amplify or reduce their importance and which can provide much fodder for further cogitation necessary for critical thinking. Yes, we have lost some ability to think critically but that, I assert, is due to more primary deficits.
I have recently run across several instances where someone asserted that one’s perception is what matters. Well, perception does matter. I only wish that they had been talking about perception at the time, but what they really expounded upon was someone’s narrative. Now this is tricky, in the sense that it requires some patience with complexity. Let me use a fairly simple and neutral example (as opposed to one involving racial or gender issues), science theory and practice.
In recent posts I have mentioned how many scientists, including Einstein and Susan Oyama especially in detail, understand that theory, i.e., narrative, largely determines how facts are interpreted and what facts are looked for/found empirically. The usual example here is from Thomas Kuhn’s idea on scientific paradigms; the observations of the sky was ‘explained’ by Ptolemaic ideas. We perceive the sun arcing across the sky. The ancient narrative was that the sun went round the earth; now we moderns have a more accurate narrative. Einstein conducted only thought experiments, yet his theories have led to practical findings of light bending around galaxies and time dilation affecting GPS satellites that require mathematical accommodations to stay accurate.
The point here is that our minds perceive according to our accepted narratives, and changing narratives is not simple or easy, nor do narratives extend into the future with failsafe adequacy. Even though many of us now carry forward with narratives recognizing the pervasive racism and gender discrimination of our culture, contrary to what might have been the orthodox views taught us growing up, perceiving actual incidents is not straightforward—we sometimes see racism and discrimination where a fuller narrative would reveal other factors. For example, a person might be fired for discriminatory reasons or for performance ones. Sometimes our narratives are prejudicial against such facts and subtleties.
How do our electronic mediums affect this? In the 1950s/1960s thinkers like Norbert Weiner and Gregory Bateson developed cybernetics and that theoretical framework allowed us to study how systems function. One key construct was the notion of positive and negative feedback controls. Negative feedback works to keep the system functioning around a mean; think about your house’s thermostat working to keep your house at a certain temperature. Positive feedback, however, works to amplify. Sometimes this serves to elevate helpful concepts and messages, e.g., the pay it forward movement, but at other times it produces a vicious circle wherein some crank idea goes viral, e.g., conspiracy theories like pizzagate or Obama born in Africa. In my youth I heard a good deal about the Golden Mean and the value of keeping steady, not too high or low. Is that still taught, and if so, what does it mean in our electronic age? Cultural waves rise and subside, some grow appropriately, ecologically through reasoned considerations but others become tsunamis, all too destructive of coherent, rational discourse. I think our electronics usage exacerbates the latter phenomena.
A further point comes to mind here. Many media types, e.g., news and sports publicists, play on a burgeoning cultural tendency to amplify whatever they are talking about. I hear this in many musical performances, e.g., compare the strained emotionality of country pop to the more authentic classical country or Americana. I watch sporting events and news shows that frame everything by hype. Every sporting event is a gladiatorial thunder dome (“two teams enter, one team leaves”) and every political debate is a “circular firing squad”. I would mention how every news story is, no matter how stale or moldy, “breaking” (and yes, we all know the news is broken) or how they hype a single story for hours without providing anything new or, the horror of it, more context, but I think this is not just a lost cause, but a leading cause of our intellectual decrepitude. To be clear, it is not fake news, just news very poorly done and quite incomplete.
Again I think all of this highlights our failure to appreciate the importance of the story-context relationships. We construct reality through a figure-ground process. We rely on orthodox narratives and other heuristics to facilitate this process. Still we should understand by now (indeed, since Aristotle and Plato) that the figures we resolve are not final and are un-interpretable absent contextual considerations. This prevents us from responding in measured ways. An old colleague who was an expert in treating sex offenders worked mightily to train judges, attorneys, law enforcement, legislators and the public that “one size does not fit all”. Some sex offenders are more, indeed some few much more, dangerous than others, and some pose little (but not zero) threat at all to re-offend. Differentiating legal consequences and treatment options is only rational. The ‘one size does not fit all’ applies to many all too common incidents of racism and sexual harassment and abuse. Marching in Charlottesville, chanting white supremacist slogans and instigating violence is different (though still racist) from the governor having a black face person in his yearbook from over 30 years ago. How may we deal with the differences? Consider the contexts of the actions. Similarly, Al Franken was hounded from the Senate because of a puerile photograph from some years back despite having no history of abusive behavior and plenty of history otherwise, while others (and you know who they are) with an extended history of abuse/harassment are excused to carry on. We currently have very limited options, e.g., courts for legal matters, for understanding the differences and implementing measured actions. Why? Because we don’t even understand that these are in some serious sense false equivalencies, that there is at least a continuum of egregiousness, and that we need a reasoned method for their evaluation. One size does not fit all.
My list of our intellectual derelictions goes on to cloudier areas. We moderns often lose sight of the complexity of life, of how Gaia is a whole organism that provides a nurturant ecology for life’s continuance. Yes, many of us hold this narrative close to our hearts, but how is it that Americans, who once led the scientific community and whose educational system was exemplary, now have the highest percentage of climate change deniers? How is it that diseases that were once well managed are re-emerging now due to the anti-vaccine delusion which itself seems contagious? How is it that fewer Americans seek STEM careers while other peoples sacrifice much to order to gain them? (Oh, let me not forget how many of us denigrate scientists and others as nerds.) How can we tolerate the political appointments of people who are woefully ignorant and anti-science to head up agencies that demand a high level of scientific and technical expertise? Because we think a thought about a scientific finding and then think that the complexity behind such findings is irrelevant to our firmly held figure of belief.
But wait, there’s more: We seem uninterested in discriminating between actual/authentic and virtual/façade. We seem unconcerned about the effects of population growth on obvious matters like water and land usage and unaware of the understanding that population density leads to increased anonymity and that anonymity permits egregious behaviors, e.g., political and economic malfeasance, to flourish. When humans lived together in a community where individual contact happened more widely and readily, many social constraints acted to mitigate selfishness. Make the one per-centers live with those they exploit on a daily basis (take the kings out of their castles) and watch their shame rise just like in other primate societies, or have their asses handed to them in a sling. (Thanks to Frans de Waal in his interview with Terri Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air for this keen observation of us primates).
Finally and what I have mentioned here many times over the years, we fail to appreciate our ignorance. Our addiction to simplification and hyperbole, our tunnel vision focused on one figure exclusive of contextual ground, and our impatience with complexity really only hide our failure to appreciate our ignorance. That scientists deal constructively with ignorance as a matter of course many choose to forget (Choose, you may ask? Why yes, all of this is willful albeit cultural ignorance). When at their best both science and religion appreciate our ignorance before the mystery of the universe and understand the consequent necessity of cherishing the fragility of knowing and the importance of a process for establishing a consensual and adequate basis of fact for action. (Science is better than religion at this because, as I have again written about many times before, science sees mistakes as opportunities for learning and not sins).
In a recent post I said that the sine qua non of intelligence is appreciation of one’s ignorance. We only understand so far and so well at any one moment. That we do not move through life more mindful of the issues inherent in our search for understanding and the shaping of our actions self-creates our own intellectual tar pits wherein our minds are trapped and stultified so that death comes to our culture. Can we escape? Sure. Will we here in America? Doubtful. Hopefully some other people will rise to the challenge we seem to have abdicated and nurture healthy intellectual and social traditions. What people and what culture will understand anew what true intellect requires and instigate a renaissance for the information age? ? ? ? I hope they step up soon.
And so having spit once again into the wind, I happily travel on.