Homo stupidus

There is something vaguely stupid about religion. This doesn’t mean that it is irrational to be religious—I suspect that sometimes it can be rational to adopt even grossly stupid, fundamentalist beliefs. Nonetheless, from asserting the literal truth of ancient myths to driveling about how liberally interpreted myths still lead us to deep and ineffable truths about supernatural realms, there is something about religion that I can’t help but think insults my intelligence.

Still, I also have to wonder whether the critical interest I show in religion is itself stupid. After all, if I am looking for seriously dangerous, suicidal varieties of stupidity, I have to doubt that religion qualifies. Human societies, including modern societies, are reasonably well-adapted to supernatural convictions. It’s even an open question whether we can do without them. I can count on conservative religion to regularly generate stupidities such as creationism, but we can live with that. Even if, say, the level of creationism in the US became as bad as that in Muslim countries, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. It would mainly further decouple science and the general public. We are not far from such a situation anyway.

No, the really catastrophic form of human stupidity has little to do with our habit of perceiving gods and ghosts in the shadows. It’s our basic material rapacity, and inability to think about the long term—all very secular failings structurally embedded in the way we do modern mass politics. It is becoming increasingly clear, for example, that we, as a species, are collectively incapable of responding to global warming.

Now, conservative religion—the most common, most popular, most visible form of religion—can be counted on to make things worse. The right wing faithful at the Discovery Institute have long been hysterical in their opposition to the scientific community, seeing our solid support for Darwinian evolution in conspiratorial terms. We are, apparently, censoring intelligent design, and running a corrupt, ideological operation. And predictably, they see climate science through the same stupid lens. Global warming is, apparently, a prime example of intellectual corruption, together with evolution. The scientific community is either pushing a culture war or is trying to extort large levels of funding, depending on what flavor in the conspiracy theory they want to emphasize. These people have clearly been toiling on the margins of intellectual life, such as right wing think tanks, for so long, that they have totally lost sight of life within the scientific community.

But intelligent design proponents give voice to stupidity, they don’t invent it. We’d be hell-bent on digging ourselves even deeper into our hole even if religion did not have an uncanny ability to sanctify right wing politics.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16452612266051351726 Martin Cothran

    It would be interesting to know what research you yourself have engaged in concerning global warming. Or are you simply relying on authority–just like religious people are accused of doing.

    Keep the faith!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289906514152743087 rgondella

    Yes. I agree with you: The critical interest you show in religion is itself stupid. I can think of nothing more stupid than the act of a naturalist, who cannot think in more than four dimensions, wasting oxygen and electrons holding forth on something he knows nothing about. Perhaps stick to Bio 101 and Finite Math.

    But, remember: There was no concept of a fourth dimension until Einstein. He imagined several more dimensions, too — perhaps as many as 11.

    As a naturalist, you must find it fascinating that at the subatomic level physical laws as we know them break down. And how about this spooky, mystical stuff, quoting from http://map.gsfc.nasa.gov:

    "A key question for the fate of the universe is whether or not the pull of gravity is strong enough to ultimately reverse the expansion and cause the universe to collapse back on itself. In fact, recent observations have raised the possibility that the expansion of the universe might in fact be speeding up (accelerating), raising the possibility that the evolution of the universe is now dominated by a bizarre form of matter which has a negative pressure."

    Bizarre forms of matter! Oooo… scary.

    So, the upshot is stop calling people stupid when you, yourself, have no idea how the universe works. There is no blanket wetter than a closed-minded intellectual who thinks he has all the answers.

    In closing, I quote Einstein:
    “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05136140248034354899 Ironman

    One of the best posts I've come across lately…almost as if someone wrote down my own thoughts. I have two requests:
    1. Can I put a link to this blog from my own humble attempt at blogging?
    2. I feel that people like Perry Marshall are the most misguided in the sense that they try to take the help of science to "prove" that god (thats not an error in capitalization) exists. Visit http://perry.fingerprints.s3.amazonaws.com/index.htm and you will know what I mean.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11389651479904502758 DM
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06394155516712665665 CyberKitten

    I am definitely coming around to the opinion that, as a species, we are just too stupid to live.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    I on the other hand do not find that there is something stupid about naturalism, but that there is something superficial about it. Naturalists seem to only see the most obvious patterns there are in our experience of life.

    As for the material rapacity and the inability to care about the long term, which Taner says are examples of the most catastrophic cases of human stupidity, I’d say that these do not represent failures of intelligence but rather failures of virtue. As I think it is a failure of virtue when some of the world’s best scientists and engineers use their intelligence and knowledge to build nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.

    There is a dialogue where Socrates asks his circle about what they think is “good”. Some answer that to be strong, or to be intelligent, or to be healthy, or to be beautiful, or to be knowledgeable, or to be a natural leader, and so on, are all examples of things that are good. Socrates then takes each of these in turn and shows that if a person without virtue has them then they are not good things but rather bad things. So, Socrates concludes, what is good is virtue. The problem I think we have today is that we possess (mainly thanks to science and engineering) far more power than virtue.

    So here is the relevant question: What kind of worldview, and what kind of society, is more conducive to virtue? What kind of person, and what kind of society, will more probably be less rapaciously materialistic and care more about the future? Indeed how should education change in order that young people grow into more virtuous adults? The last question I think is not difficult to answer: Teach young people more philosophy, teach them to think well. Take them to experience with their own eyes the injustice and destruction that the modern way of life entails. Ask them to think about what can and should be done about that. If we don’t manage to create more virtuous people it is difficult to see how humanity will survive its technological age.