Ignorance vs Stupidity

It is important that we understand ignorance vs stupidity: one is that we don’t know; the other, that we don’t want to know.

Stupidity of hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.

Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil: sometimes political correctness is stupid & stupidity.

My wife and I don’t let our children use the word ‘stupid.’  It’s rude, but it also implies someone who someone who can’t learn, and who is perhaps mentally handicapped from birth. I want to approach that differently here.  Stupidity indeed represents a mental handicap, but one that is acquired, not genetic.

Ignorance vs Stupidity

Consider that we tend to use the words ‘ignorance’ and ‘stupidity’ as synonyms.  That conflation is unfortunate; if you think about it, ignorance means ‘I don’t know.’ But that is a human constant, our ignorance will always be infinite, and one of the goals of this blog is to help people to recognize and accept that.

In contrast to ignorance, I want to suggest that stupidity means ‘I don’t know, and I don’t want to know.’  For much of my life, I have tried to understand how it is that we have these powerful brains with great capacity for logic, which we then refuse to use.  Or even worse, how is it that we live in these illusions, where our illogic feels completely logical, and where we insist that anyone who suggests otherwise is absolutely illogical, and stupid?  Our stupidity can be so strong that we will deny the evidence in front us and maintain our illogic, not only insisting what we see is not there, but also claim that anyone who says it is there, is not ignorant, but stupid.

This, in fact, is one of the diagnostics of stupidly: they insist that others are stupid.  And yes, I am well aware I am putting myself in front of my own firing squad.

Faith vs Religion

But all of us are stupid at some times, and on some topics.  We can behave quite logically in most of life, and then have these blindspots, these scotomata, where we are stupid: what we believe makes no sense, but we practice stupidity: it’s not just that we refuse to admit our illogic, we refuse to consider it. I have mentioned the stupidity of anger. We can all remember angry words or actions that seemed perfectly logical at the time, but which were obviously wrong, sometimes horribly so, from a calmer perspective.

This are our ‘religions‘ – a word which has nothing to do with theology or spirituality, but which means ‘to be tied up’ – and so religions are positions to which we are bound, and that we refues to examine. We see this not only in religion and politics, but in football, and even science.  Here I extend that, pointing out that stupidity is a positions to which we have tied ourselves; we could examine them, we have the mind and the liberty to do so, but we refuse.

However, when we approach religion, politics, science, and even football, in more open-minded and reasonable ways, then we speak of faith: faith that others can be right, faith that we can be wrong, and the belief that with patience, faith, and logic, things will work themselves out. This is also statesmanship, citizenship, and even wisdom.  In those approaches we have belief, but not knowledge; we accept our ignorance and we reject our stupidity. We still make decisions, but we are forced to acknowledge our uncertainty, we keep an open mind.

Being Stupid about Stupidity

I noted that it is stupidity to call someone stupid.  If I can split hairs, I’m not trying to condemn the person, nor the conclusion, but the mindset.  I’m trying to get us all to recognize the flaws in our thinking, and to recognize the symptoms of our own stupidity.  As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, ‘Admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery.’

Kings, Conquerors, Psychopaths

Understanding fascists, the right wing, and authoritarian personalities.
(Click the image for more information.)

But here the problem grows, because we can be stupid about our stupidity:  we don’t want to know that we don’t want to know. And so stupidity starts to bleed over into insanity.  We deny reality in favor of some internal assumptions and conclusions about the world around us, and reject anyone who disagrees.  All criticism must be attacked, and repudiated. We don’t want to admit we have problems, while insisting that everyone else conform to our problems.

This the how the right wing is different from the conservative: the conservative argues for his beliefs, while the right winger, the fascist, and the authoritarian personality insist that their beliefs are beyond question.

Questioning Stupidity

I want to offer a couple of approaches for those of us who are not too far gone.  People will insist they know something, that they are absolutely sure of it, be it politics (left vs right), economics (capitalism vs communism), government (democracy vs autocracy), or religion (mine vs yours); and many other labels besides.  My questions for for exploring this are straight-forward:

    • Have you ever questioned your knowledge, and considered that it may not be true?
    • If you have never questioned what you believe, how can you be sure it is correct, or that it is even your idea?
    • How many times do you need to question your beliefs to be absolutely sure they are correct?

I think that the honest person will realize that the answer to the last question is ‘Never.’  So if we seriously consider these questions, I think the rational person will move toward something I have been proposing here:  We must learn to live with doubt.  We should learn to be faithful, rather than religious.  We should be curious, not dogmatic.

Open to Open-Mindedness

Which means we need to remain open-minded.  There are circular arguments on both sides, and we must choose: We can be stupid about our stupidity.

Or we can be open-minded about open-mindedness.

These ideas are incorporated into my book, Kings, Conquerors, Psychopaths: From Alexander to Hitler to the Corporation, available from the University of Louisiana Press and Amazon.



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4 Comments

  1. Ann Andrews

    I have really tried to “catch” religion. But finally, a few years ago, I admitted to myself that it was illogical and that I don’t believe. I am not vocal about my lack of belief at all. I tell no one. I guess I fear repercussions. Perhaps I am hearing from you that I should continue to search. I am actually a little surprised at how peaceful I am.

  2. Michael

    Doubt, uncertainty, actually comes before fear in the chain of mental processes and is physically and mentally exhausting, a stressor of the first order.

    There are two exit strategies that humans employ to circumvent it.

    One is to embrace and acknowledge it and let its sub-function of curiosity and, hopefully, discovery prevail.

    The other is to substitute “faith” (in its most debased form) for the doubt(s) — a trick, a defensive mechanism, that the human mind is more than capable of performing.

    And, so, how do we stratify these two groups? With my old go-to, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Are all your needs met? Have they always been met? Are you relatively safe? Are your fears in relative abeyance? Yes? Then you’re more likely to pursue the curiosity and discovery channel.

    Conversely, if you’re struggling along in levels 1,2,3 or some unstable continuum of them then you’re far more likely to settle for the warm, fuzzy blanket of it’s “all going to be OK because …magic.” Constructive exploration and discovery stops because it is not a survival priority.

    Unfortunately, the doubts don’t stop and the mind steps in with “faith” as a protective mechanism.

    It’s viral. It’s addictive. Why worry and fear when you can simply choose to “believe?”

    It just so happens that Saul/Paul is a supreme example of this phenomenon once the blinders of “faith” are removed. He wasn’t filled with the “holy spirit” on the road to Damascus. He had a psychotic break on the road to Damascus –fueled by his own doubts about his murderous ways and his own precarious existence couple with continual exposure to people espousing a very enticing vision of a particular type of “freedom.” Classic. His example is public knowledge, recorded for all history, but millions of folks struggle along to the same end, with the same result, far less visible if at all.

    The more notorious religious “cults” understand the exhausting nature of doubt very, very well and accelerate the process with the catalyst of “love bombing” of which the prime feature is that the targeted individual is not so much being bombed with love as it is being kept awake and exhausted mentally and physically by successive waves of well rested missionaries. The end result? New mental software is installed in a matter of days and everyone is happy, happy, happy to borrow a phrase … (from some burnt out speed freak who most certainly has been awake for 96 hours straight and probably several weeks straight but I digress. )

    It works very, very well as anyone who has ever been awake for ninety-six straight hours can testify. I won’t explore this thought any more other than to say if you think, for instance, that you’d never put your cat in the freezer upon the command of another–and do so willingly and quite happily–that you might very well want to think again.

    Hebrews 11:1 ~ “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

    Really?

    No.

    (If someone had told me twenty or thirty years ago that I’d be writing this I’d have laughed them out of the room. It’s fun to open your eyes–just as Adam and Eve did…)

    • Bookscrounger

      Well, as I pointed out previously, faith isn’t just about spiritual things, but about life in general. It’s watching your kids go out the door and into the world, it’s thinking about a mistake you’ve recently made that could turn out horribly, it’s thinking about a dozen things that could wipe out civilization. Marx said religion is the opiate of the masses, and perhaps even this secular faith is also opium. But we have to remember that opiates work because they mimic the chemicals in our body that are essential for life to carry on; there are natural agents which can help keep us happy and optimistic, which allow us to continue to struggle and live. Is the optimism wrong? It may not be ‘true’, it may not let us see the truth, but if mind-altering agents help us to succeed, that is better than truth.

      Or as a biologist, I could argue that the success is Truth, more important than any ‘true’ fact, metric or formula.

      I always liked my dad’s approach to theology: he knew what he believed didn’t make sense, but he believed it anyway. To my mind that is OK, and philosophically sound. I believe it was Hume (or was it Locke?) who pointed out that if you went to the equator and told a native that ice can become so cold that you can walk on it, he would reject the idea. That’s why I like my dad’s approach, because the important thing is the approach, not the conclusion. The history of science makes it clear that our conclusions will change constantly. And the proper approach, to my mind, is one of open-mindedness about the things we don’t know, which necessarily is one of doubt about the things we think we do.

  3. Carey simon

    Faith will give one the open mind to live, learn, and be happy no matter how difficult life may get. Having gone through 16 surgeries in 18 yrs and finally being diagnosed with Cushings Syndrome, my faith in the Lord as grown stronger than ever. I’m happier than I ever been and know that God will take care of me always .

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