On Stupidity

MonkeyEars 300My wife and I don’t let our children use the word ‘stupid.’  It’s rude, but it also suggests someone who is mentally handicapped, someone who can’t learn.

I want to approach that differently here.  Consider that we tend to use the words ‘stupid’ and ‘ignorant’ as synonyms.  I think that conflation is unfortunate; if you think about it, ignorance means ‘I don’t know.’  But that’s a human constant; our ignorance will always be infinite, and one of the goals of this blog is to get people to keep that in mind.

I want to suggest that stupidity, on the other hand, 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 absolutely logical, and where we insist that anyone who suggests anything else is absolutely illogical?  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 say it is there, is stupid.

That, in fact, is one of the diagnostics of someone who is behaving stupidly:  they say others are stupid.  And yes, I am well aware I have put myself in front of my own firing squad.

First, that’s because all of us are stupid at some times, and on some topics.  I have mentioned the stupidity of anger, and 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.

We also suffer from religion and politics, which as I have pointed out can both be ‘religions‘ – a word which means ‘to be tied up’ – and so religions are positions to which we are tied, and that we will not examine.  Here I extend that, pointing out that they are positions to which we have tied ourselves; we could examine them, we have the mind and the liberty to do so, but we refuse.

Of course, religion and politics don’t have to be religions, they don’t have to be stupidity.  It’s just when they are not, when they are manifested in more reasonable ways, we call them faith, and statesmanship/citizenship.  In those approaches we have belief, not knowledge; we make decisions, but we acknowledge our uncertainty.

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.’

But here the problem grows, because we can be stupid about our stupidity:  We don’t want to know that we’re stupid.  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.  We don’t want to admit we have a problem.

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 now are straight-forward:

    • Have you ever questioned your knowledge, and considered that it may not be true?
    • If not, how can you be sure it is correct, or that it is your own idea?
    • How many times do you need to question your beliefs to be absolutely sure they are correct?

I believe the answer to the last is ‘Never.’  So if we seriously consider these questions, I think the open-minded person will move toward something I have been proposing here:  we should learn to live with doubt.  So we should learn to be faithful, not religious.  We should be curious, not dogmatic.

Which means we need to remain open-minded.  So we see that there are circular arguments on both sides.  We can be stupid about our stupidity.

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

"[Abraham] never mentions the current crop of demagogues who threaten our world, but they're on every page."

Click to read more: Kings, Conquerors, Psychopaths: From Alexander to Hitler to the Corporation.
I've always believed society to be a fundamentally rational thing, but what if it wasn't? What if it was built on insanity?" —Jon Ronson, The Psychopath Test

‘Hear Nothing’ courtesy of Wikimedia.


  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.”



    (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 .

Leave a Reply