Sunday, April 26, 2009

Stupidity Is Not The Only Impediment to Reason

Stupidity is not the only thing, perhaps not even the main thing, that prevents intelligent reflection. Many individuals with considerable native intelligence cannot, or will not, engage in careful thought because they are too emotionally needy. In other words, they are not too dumb to think straight; they are too unloved, angry, scared, insecure, guilty, depressed, and so forth. Our prisons, for example, are overflowing with intelligent people who, for a variety of reasons, including childhood neglect and abuse, simply will not or cannot think deeply about the costs and benefits of their own behavior.

Additionally, many intelligent people willfully shut off their intelligence in order to gain psychological reassurance from one or another true belief. The folks who joined Jim Jones's People's Temple, the Koresh's Branch Dravidians or Bo and Peep's Heaven’s Gate cult, were not necessarily stupid. Their emotional needs may simply have gotten the better of them, causing them to willingly put intellectual blinders on.

As a matter of fact, there are entire sub-cultures within generally more enlightened cultures that willfully reject learning in order to preserve key beliefs The Amish are a clear-cut example. Reason and understanding are effectively ruled out of key aspects of member’s lives in return for community and religious certitude. Many other religious sub-cultures, some quite large in numbers, also fit this description.

Culture itself can be another barrier to reason. Some cultures facilitate reasoning by providing rich resources for reflection, but others stifle it. After all, many cultures never experienced an enlightenment. Fine native intelligence can be smothered in the cradle by pre-enlightenment social surroundings.

Let us also not forget good old-fashioned laziness. Some folks avoid thinking simply because it takes effort and can generate discomfort. It isn’t that they can’t think; they just refuse to think. They are, in affect, bone idle when it comes to exercising their mind.

We also should not assume, as many do, that increased schooling necessarily equals improved reasoning and understanding. Too often schooling is less about reasoning than it is about conformity and the mere mastery of technical skills. Consider the scientists who eagerly apply their technical competence to the creation of unimaginably vicious weapons. Is the man or woman who applies their knowledge of biology to perfect a vaccine-resistant plague virus, for instance, really reasoning the thing through as well as they should?

And what evidence is there that the average MBA or Ph.D. degree holder, is more reasonable or thoughtful than those who are less well schooled? Sure, they have hopefully mastered a range of techniques, but can they think more deeply and well? Consider Lyndon Banes Johnson’s top staffers. They were supposed to be “the best and brightest” minds of that era. There was Secretary of Defense Robert Strange MacNamara, B.A. U.C. Berkely, M.B.A., Harvard; Special Assistant to the President McGeorge Bundy, Groton, Yale and Harvard; and Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Rhodes Scholar, Oxford and U.C. Berkeley, for example. And what did these well schooled can-do guys accomplish? They bogged us down in a loosing ten thousand day war in Vietnam. Forty eight thousand Americans died; another three hundred and four thousand were wounded and many more were psychologically maimed for life. In fact in the five years following the war there were an additional nine thousand suicides resulting from wartime trauma. On top of all this there were an appalling 5.1 million Vietnamese casualties. Not to mention that one hundred and eleven billion dollars was wasted and America was torn apart domestically. Does that sound like the work of men with superior reasoning?

More recently we have the example of George W. Bush, perhaps the most clueless President in living memory. Yet he has a B.A. in history from Yale University and a Harvard M.B.A. Were his reasoning and understanding improved in consequence of this schooling?

What percent of the general populace has the innate capacity to be think things through in the sense we’ve used it here? Many. What percent of them actually use it? Far fewer.

To examine these and similar issues further, see articles at www.newfoundations.com

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