March 3rd, 2010 - Eric Ford-Holevinski

Is being smart overrated? With respect to intelligence people are easily able to perceive where they fall compared to others. If you talk to a person for a few minutes, no matter how elegantly or poorly he speaks, you can quickly tell how many cylinders he's running on.

I once read a magazine story listing things we wish we had -- beauty, fame, wealth, genius -- that wouldn't be as much fun as we expect. For example, beautiful people are only vaguely, unconsciously aware of their attractiveness. They like to hear compliments like everyone else, and when they look in the mirror they consider themselves average and normal.

The same was argued for intelligence: a genius is only able to perceive his own brilliance when he runs up against the lesser powers of other people. A rocket scientist doesn't think of what he does as so difficult and complex, but when he tries to explain it to his poker buddies, they return only dumb stares.

To this I say, not so fast. While it's undeniable that some people are brighter than others, just how much is hard to measure. Einstein was a genius, but he never had the illusion that his work in physics was child's play, and that everyone else was too dumb to get it. He worked extremely hard on his theories.

The extent to which intelligence is distorted by training and experience is enormous. Had Einstein been trained as a surgeon, he might have been a talented surgeon, but even he could only pursue one course. He couldn't be both a master physicist and a master surgeon.

Even people who seem stupid in some ways can be quite sharp in others. Think of the top-flight student who acts like a fool in social situations, or the uneducated man with an encyclopedic knowledge of all things sports. People who don't know the multiplication table can tell you the personal details of countless celebrities and know hundreds of song lyrics by heart. One might say we measure intelligence more by what others choose to burn their mental fuel on than by the sheer horsepower of their minds. But is that sensible, or just arrogant?

In his book, A Conflict of Visions, Thomas Sowell describes two groups of people. Those with the "constrained" vision, which I will call the "Tragic" vision here, believe many elements of human nature are fixed and that human potential is limited. For example: there's a limit to how much we can empathize with others, how much we can act without self-interest, how much knowledge, wisdom and expertise one person can absorb. Our capacity for good is finite. After all, most of our principles of morality and ethics were well-established thousands of years ago, yet people commit immoral acts every day. There is never a true solution to any problem: people can't be both free and equal, peace can't be preserved without arms. There are real differences in the demands and needs of different people and cultures. As such, personal life, politics, and the fabric of society all contain numberless compromises.

The other group of people bear what Sowell calls the "unconstrained" vision, which I will call the "Rationalist" vision here. This worldview holds that human potential is unlimited; that the power of reason, which is infinite, can conquer man's demons and transform him, eventually, into "a new kind of man." Any person, confronted with the correct argument, will see what is right and true and adjust accordingly. If this is true, there is no need for compromise, because no problem can't be overcome by a sufficient application of intellect. If true, there is no reason for war, because it can only be a misunderstanding. The only cause of crime is desperation.

Is it any surprise, then, that people who subscribe to the Rationalist vision place an extremely high value on intellect? They tend to believe that if smart people with the right ideas were in control, these enlightened individuals could fix all of our problems, forever: war, poverty, crime, etc. They view the human race as one giant mathematical equation just waiting to be reasoned through.

Naturally, people of the Rationalist view are often smart themselves: bright people see in their own intelligence a god-like spark. They tend to think they could do anything, if they really tried... including govern other people. Everyone thinks he knows better than everyone else, and the smarter you are, the stronger this impulse is. The idea of a small group of people (say, a court, parliamentary body or strong executive) using higher reason to craft change that will redeem society sounds not only possible, but highly desirable. Anything that delays that salvation becomes unbearable, as the world they feel entitled to is withheld.

Most of us think our personal worldview, developed over the course of years and years, is fairly objective, natural, and representative of reality. It's no more deliberate than speaking in one language or another. Applying these visions helps people interpet the world, both present and historic, though seldom consciously. If you read in the newspaper that some country just developed a nuclear weapon, you don't have to stop and think about how you feel about it: you instantly have a reaction. And if you read about the past, it's the same. If you hold the Rationalist vision, for example, you would argue that the Founding Fathers were wicked for failing to abolish slavery in their time, because slavery is obviously evil, and always was. If you hold the Tragic view, you would respond that the Founding Fathers had no choice but to accept slavery as a compromise, because they knew American independence and unity were impossible in their time unless they did.

People of similar interests and brain power tend to flock together, thus as smart, Rationalist types meet other smart, Rationalist types, they confirm each other's ideas and inevitably conclude that people who adhere to the Tragic vision -- whom they rarely interact with -- must be either less intelligent, deceived, or wicked. Perhaps even "anti-intellectual."

Those of the Tragic vision have often learned from painful experience that human beings can only be so good, themselves most of all. They've seen the unpleasant and humbling consequences of choices they made. They've seen the countless mistakes their friends and family make every day, the lapses in judgment, the thoughtless cruelty... and they've decided not only is no one in the world that wise and angelic, but no one ever will be. And the idea that any one person or group of people thinks they are so, is terrifying. The kind of person who thinks he's talented enough to steer the ship of state is exactly the person who ought to be kept as far from power as possible. The perfect world will never come, and the best mankind can hope for is to hold onto what's good for as long as possible. To conserve it, so to speak.

The Tragic vision asserts that everyone holds only a small piece of the total knowledge in society, and is only capable of holding that small piece. For centuries Western culture has exalted the multi-talented "Renaissance Man" like Theodore Roosevelt or Henry VIII, but even the most gifted people can't equal the knowledge and wisdom disseminated among the millions of individuals in a whole nation. Thus, Stephen Hawking may be sharper than most plumbers, but a plumber with 30 years of experience, who has "seen it all," has a kind of knowledge in his work that Hawking will never possess.

Thomas Sowell avoids making a judgment, in that book, about which worldview is really correct, although he makes his own opinion clear in other books and in his columns. Personally, I admit I was once invested in the Rationalist vision (though I never thought in such terms back then), but as I grow older I'm increasingly attached to the Tragic view. I was raised in Ann Arbor, a University town, where everyone pats himself on the back for being so intellectual and educated. It's a beautiful town, for sure. But my dad always used to say, "Ann Arbor is not the real world."

I think the chief mark of Rationalist people is discontent. They are never happy with the world as it is -- the world as it was handed to them. It's not the world they would create, and they're stuck with it. So they insist on change, progress for its own sake. A decade without change is a "lost decade," time without progress is wasted. As long as some bright minds are constantly tinkering with our society, things will get better. Many believe a revolution is the fastest way to leap closer to perfection. But because there is a limit to human potential, and only so much change can happen so fast, the new model is barely better than the old one -- if not worse -- and brings compromises of its own, which is maddening to Rationalists. And even if they created the new system, they can't face the crushing possibility that its flaws are a reflection of their own human flaws. So they blame someone else: "This wasn't what I wanted; other people interfered." It's back to the drawing board. There is no omelette.

The curse of being smart is that you can rationalize anything. It's hard to see your own flaws and shortcomings when you can explain them away with ease. I know this all too well, myself. Everything is due to "circumstances" if not directly someone else's fault; people and things you admire are also without fault. So, when something goes wrong out in the world -- say, your candidate loses an election, a book you submitted for publication is rejected, a girl you like spurns you -- it's easy to blame it on stupidity. "Don't the people know what's good for them?" "Doesn't she realize I'm the right man for her?"

That's why irony was invented.

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All work © 2010 Eric Ford-Holevinski