Yeah…we aren’t actually that smart

Lately, it seems like I’ve been encountering the same situation over and over again: I keep seeing (or conversing with people) who are very comfortable with making extremely bold claims about things in which they have no expertise. Everyone, it seems, “already knows everything.” This is, I think, a pretty big problem, and its a problem from which I am (unfortunately) not immune.

Descartes actually provides an interesting analysis of precisely what goes on when we err in this way:

Whence, then, spring my errors? They arise from this cause alone, that I do not restrain the will, which is of much wider range than the understanding, within the same limits, but extend it even to things I do not understand, and as the will is of itself indifferent to such, it readily falls into error and sin by choosing the false in room of the true, and evil instead of good.

-Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy

What I’ve been wondering in this: How can I address this problem when I see it? It doesn’t really seem like I can say, “Listen, you aren’t actually that smart” and expect the conversation to end well. Sure, I can communicate this same idea with a little more tact, and that would probably be effective, but I guess I’m more interested in the source of the problem itself.

To put it in Descartes words, “Why is it that our will is left unrestrained? Why do we extend it to things we do not understand?” I just realized that I guess I’ve sort of tried to answer these questions here, here, here, and here. These answers, however, have only focused on individualistic explanations of the I’m-always-right-phenomenon. There’s more to be said about the (specifically) sociological causes of this phenomenon.

Paul Tillich and one my professors, Bruce Janz, have said some insightful things on the matter, things which bear a certain resemblance to one another. Tillich discusses, in The Courage to Be, the means by which we avoid anxiety. According to Tillich, anxiety is often avoided by converting anxiety to a fear, a definite object that can be dealt with in various ways.

Tillich’s claim is that we often see neurotic anxiety when the objects of fear (stemming from anxiety) become outdated. At this point, people begin to experience anxiety again and the old fears and old means of dealing with those fears are clung to. This neurotic anxiety is, perhaps, a partial cause of what Descartes calls the “unrestrained will,” although if this is the case, we ought to call the “unrestrained will” something else. The will, in this case, is precisely that which is restrained, although it is not restrained within the realm of understanding or truth. Rather, the will is kept within the bounds of the familiar fears to keep one from encountering anxiety.

The problem, and this is where Janz’s remarks come in, is that we live in a society in which our worlds of meaning are constantly disrupted, which we might say is the definition of post-modern society. Worlds of meaning, of course, include those fears and those means of dealing with fears. If those worlds are constantly under threat, then we can make sense out of the absurdly intense attachment we have to being right: We are just trying to deal with anxiety (moral, spiritual, and ontic) in a society that keeps ruining the means by which we can deal with that anxiety.

…Or maybe we’re just do dumb that we don’t even know that we’re that dumb. I wonder if there’s a way to test the former of these two hypotheses empirically. Its an interesting issue because it doesn’t seem like we can get back on the road to finding truth without understanding precisely why so many of us are stuck on some other road.

Well, between now and time that someone figures out how to test this (or I stumble upon someone’s work who has looked into this issue), may I be given what I need in order to find that narrow road and to encourage others to embark upon that journey to Truth, which is Divine.

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One Response to Yeah…we aren’t actually that smart

  1. Linsy says:

    Well, I don’t think you have to be an expert at something to make a truth-claim about it. So if that is what you mean, I disagree.

    But it seems more likely that you’re talking about people that you can just tell are oozing with pride whenever words come out of their mouth. Right?

    I had an interesting thought with the anxiety thing…

    I might not be understanding what you were saying so correct that if you see it, but it seems you were saying that people just want to believe something without putting in the work of wrestling with it. So once they feel the “anxiety” that comes with a difficult question, they just parrot what they have heard others say or go with the majority. (I think I have heard you say this before, but don’t know if that is what this post is about)

    But what I was thinking was: The people who often seem to struggle the most with pride when they speak are people who actually do enjoy studying and gaining expertise on things. (I’m mainly thinking of theology) So I don’t think intellectual anxiety is why we struggle with pride. Sin is why.

    .(I’m mainly writing this to start conversation, not disagree with your post 🙂 I don’t understand your post lol. But thought I may have picked up on some things you were saying based off of previous conversations with you)

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