You’re an Idiot and a Genius

Someone recently asked me what I had learned in my 54 years on this earth. I realized that it has come down to this:

If you know that you’re an idiot, you can be a genius.

Human beings are idiots. Our brains are a kludge: layer upon layer of evolutionary adaptations to conditions that vanished millenia ago.

Cognitive biases rule the day. My own afflictions have included  congruence bias, expectation bias and the hostile media effect. Even more virulent have been the just world hypothesis (something I believed even before I believed in God) and confirmation bias (the tendency to embrace evidence that agrees with what I already believe and deflect that which does not).

It’s no wonder that many religions caution us not to trust our own brains.

Yet somehow we have stumbled upon ways to overcome our biases. Sir Karl Popper‘s take on the scientific method is entirely an exercise in bias-fighting: don’t even entertain a hypothesis unless you know how it might be disproven, and continue to be cautious even after the hypothesis has survived many attempts to discredit it.

We have discovered the importance of a skeptical, free press. We know that nothing is more dangerous than the suppression of those who disagree with us and have enshrined an invitation to dissent in the first and most beloved amendment of our constitution.

That is how you become a genius — by refusing to trust even yourself. If your epistemology gets beyond “I have a burning in my bosom” you can learn a lot. We must question and test constantly.

Only by lacking confidence can we gain the right to confidence.

Only by listening to others do we become qualified to listen to ourselves.

Only by admitting that we’re idiots can we become geniuses.

9 responses to “You’re an Idiot and a Genius

  1. It certainly is a good thing to notice one’s biases, however I would suggest that as soon as you think you have reached genius status, you are back in the same hole you just dug yourself out of, that is believing your own logic, which as we know, can always be twisted around to sound infallible to oneself. Pride goeth before a fall and all that.

    The trouble with muscling one’s way to wisdom using only on one’s own reasoning powers, is you cannot get up that cliff alone, or at least it will take a long time. You really need a climbing partner, or two. Perhaps it’s time to seek out wisdom from others, now that you have the tools to evaluate what you find more critically?

    Sue

    • >> I would suggest that as soon as you think you have reached genius status, you are back in the same hole you just dug yourself out of.
      I agree. The original formulation of my maxim was this:
      1) You’re an idiot, prone to all manner of cognitive fallacies that make finding the truth nearly hopeless.
      2) You’re a genius, able to find the truth if you keep #1 in mind.

      I tried to make it more pithy by condensing it, but I guess it lost the *keep* in mind part.

      >> You really need a climbing partner, or two.
      Agree again. That’s why I said, “Only by listening to others do we become qualified to listen to ourselves.” But again I failed to emphasize that this has to be continual and never-ending.

  2. Hmm… I was hoping for a response to that last, but perhaps you are busy.

    More to add. Perhaps the quest is not so much about finding ultimate truths, as it is about becoming comfortable living in the questions. I might argue that as soon as one thinks one has figured out any of the answers, (perhaps one definition of “genius”), then the opportunity for learning has been shut off.

    I don’t think any of us live long enough to come close to mastering any sort of understanding of the real questions about life. The best we can hope for is to keep building a more complex and nuanced glimpse of reality. At least, that is how far I’ve come at this point, to seeing what the “goal” might be.

    My experience lately indicates that looking for other teachers, besides one’s own mind, is very beneficial. Some of my best teachers don’t even know they play this role: my high school students, friends at work, people I “know” on the internet, authors of books, and believe it or not, my dogs, have taught me more about how the mind works and about the human condition than nearly anyone.

    Of late, the overall result of what these teachers have taught me has been compassion.

    I wonder what is next?

    • >> Perhaps the quest is not so much about finding ultimate truths, as it is about becoming comfortable living in the questions.

      Sometimes I think I realize what people mean by “living in the questions” but then I lose that understanding. Seeking can be just as much fun as finding (I understand that part), but I still want some answers along the way — not all of them, but some. When I don’t get any answers at all, I tend to give up and move on to other topics. That’s what happened with my interest in UFOs.

      >> …as soon as one thinks one has figured out any of the answers, (perhaps one definition of “genius”), then the opportunity for learning has been shut off.

      Really? When you’ve figured out *any* answers then you stop learning? I know you don’t mean that.

      >> I don’t think any of us live long enough to come close to mastering any sort of understanding of the real questions about life.

      *Any* sort of understanding? I’m still optimistic enough to think that I’ll get that far. 😉 But then maybe I just don’t know what I don’t know.

      >> Of late, the overall result of what these teachers have taught me has been compassion.

      Me too. I’ve been hearing that word, compassion, from my philosophy friends, my doctor, and others.

  3. “The original formulation of my maxim was this:
    1) You’re an idiot, prone to all manner of cognitive fallacies that make finding the truth nearly hopeless.
    2) You’re a genius, able to find the truth if you keep #1 in mind.”

    I think I understood the intention and nuance of your premise quite well. I am simply questioning if very many of us have time to become geniuses. In believing oneself to have attained that status, even for a short moment about anything, you have fallen back into the muddy, slippery hole you just scrambled out of. At best, we can hope to see the world just a bit more clearly. To me, that does not qualify as genius, just less encumbered.

    And what exactly is the “truth” that you seek? What does that mean? Are there infallible, immutable, final and permanent facts out there you wish to discover? Even the laws of physics seem to be questionable at some level.

    There are a few people out there whom I think have a lot of “wisdom.” Wisdom I define as being able to see things from many angles, and articulate what they see, in such a way as to enlighten others. As you know, one of my current favorites in this area is John Michael Greer. When I read his stuff, I learn so much, and also realize how little I have known. He’s been working for several decades to see past his own human biases. I have little hope of ever catching up. And he still does not have much more than a clearer view of reality than most of us.

    The pursuit of “genius” may be just the worshiping of another false god, this time, one within ourselves.

    That’s my cents, FWIW, which may not be much. 😉

    • >> I am simply questioning if very many of us have time to become geniuses.

      You might be taking me more literally than I take myself. Both “genius” and “idiot” are exaggerations for aphoristic effect.

      I was trying to say that the path to learning anything goes through a place of acknowledging and countering our own biases.

      >> And what exactly is the “truth” that you seek? What does that mean? Are there infallible, immutable, final and permanent facts out there you wish to discover?

      “Infallible, immutable, final and permanent” is a pretty tall order but facts like “7 is a prime number” probably fit the bill.

      Also, theories like Newton’s Laws may turn out to be only approximations, but *as approximations*, and applying only to the current era of this universe, I think we can say they are sound for the practical purposes of ordinary people. I don’t think we need to have everything pinned down to 10 significant digits places before we claim we know something useful or even profound. For most things, 3 or 4 significant digits are all we need.

      And then there are theories whose details are not known completely, but whose broad outlines are pretty darn certain. The theory of evolution comes to mind.

      There are many more examples of practical certainty, including some in what I’d call soft knowledge. We know that a life of unbridled selfishness will not be happy; we know that smoking promotes lung cancer; we know that power corrupts most humans, so utopias founded on totalitarianism don’t work out as planned; we know that all other things being equal, an increase in supply will lower the price; we know that carbon dioxide has a greenhouse effect; we know that normal people are happy when they are free rather than enslaved; etc., etc., etc.

      So yes, I think there is plenty of truth of all kinds that we can discover.

  4. “You might be taking me more literally than I take myself. Both “genius” and “idiot” are exaggerations for aphoristic effect.”

    Yeah, I think that was my problem, right there!

  5. The other way we were perhaps communicating past each other, is assumptions of what types of questions we’re talking about. I’m thinking of the types of questions which are difficult to answer fully. Hm… maybe I’ll start a list and we can brainstorm a bit together?

    1. What motivates human behavior within small groups or complex societies? How do the various “layers” of our brain create our behaviors? To what extent do we have “choice” over our behaviors? To what extent can an individual influence the behavior of groups or change the course of events?
    2. What is the nature of “civilization”? How and why do civilizations rise and fall? What is the future of industrial civilization?
    3. What is the nature of “Gaia” and how did she get started and evolve?
    4. How has evolution actually happened? What is the role of symbiosis in evolution? (see James Lovelock and Lynne Marugulis)
    5. What do I want to do with my life? How do I create meaning and purpose? What happens after I die?
    6. Is there anything beyond the matter and energy we can measure and observe? What lies beyond the Universe? What is the history and the future of the universe?
    7. What is the nature of consciousness? Are there non-tangible connections between living things?

    etc.

    So these are the sorts of questions I find don’t have easy answers, and are the sorts of things people talk about being comfortable “living in the question.”

  6. Pingback: On Moral Vision | Path of the Beagle

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