Are We All Insane?

Are We All Insane? October 17, 2013

No, this isn't a post about recent political happenings in the United states.

Anthony Le Donne and Pete Enns both mentioned a TED Talk which suggests that our IQs are significantly higher than those of past generations, and offers some explanations as to why.

Some would say that our obsession with TED Talks indicates that we're not as smart as we think we are. 🙂

But those posts resonated with something that I had been thinking about in connection with classes I teach. In my first year seminar course, we reecently discussed Descartes' effort to avoid being deceived, by doubting everything that can possibly be doubted.

It sounds kind of crazy.

I'm also teaching a class on religion and science fiction, and so the question of whether something that is all but universal among human beings might be considered a disorder, or a disability, on another planet, is one that can be explored. Just as we can imagine what it might be like to find a planet where everyone is autistic, or everyone is blind, or everyone has an additional sense that human beings do not have.

Our perspective on the world is shaped by our senses and our minds, which have been shaped by evolutionary factors. While it is arguable that there is an evolutionary advantage to having senses that inform us accurately about the world around us, we know that they do not give us a complete picture. Other organisms on our own planet see and hear things that we cannot.

And so we may or may not be sane, and may or may not suffer from serious handicaps, and may or may not be smart, from the perspective of other intelligent life in the universe, or of our future selves. We define such categories based on general characteristics of humankind, and have no way to judge how things might look in comparison with other sentient life forms. But we can say with some confidence that our perspective is limited.

Ironically, while there is a long history of religions emphasizing this – that human beings are not God or even gods, and so do not fully comprehend all that there is to know and understand – in our time, a different form of religion has run rampant, one which replaces the traditional emphasis on humility with confident claims to knowledge.

Yet it would appear that, if there is something that we can know for certain, beyond our own existence, it is that we don't know everything else, and are often wrong.

Let me conclude with David Hayward's recent cartoon, which takes the old parable of the elephant and does something more literal with it, but still illustrating the results of our partial and flawed perspectives on reality, including ultimate reality:


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  • spinkham

    One of the most lively epistemic debates at the moment is how we should respond to disagreements with our apparent epistemic peers.

    I came across a interesting discussion of this as relates to religion via the exapologist’s blog that is quite relevant.

    Basically, it discusses that given what we know about the unreliability of reasoning and especially our “feeling of knowing”, how charitable do we need to be to our epistemic peers, and specifically discusses how much this may or may not undermine the claims of Reformed epistemology and similar systems of certainty. In the shor version, when someone who knows as much or more about a topic as you disagrees, how should that effect your certainty? And what does the fact that people are often willing to demonize their epistemic peers to maintain that certainty tell us about the debate in general?

    That only goes so far as to discuss our human peers, I think the major interesting problem coming down the pipe is the likelyhood of strong AI in the medium term(where “medium term” means I may or may not live to see it). Unless we code our values into the AIs in some way society could be radically altered. Their differing cognitive makeup will almost certainly give them differing epistemic and value judgements, and there’s a real possibility they could decide we’re just stupid apes and they know better.

    There are groups researching what some call “AI safety” to attempt to make sure future AI helps us instantiate our values rather then defines our values. A decent intro to the problem can be found in this series:

    Of course, we are creating the same sort of epistemic dilemma here: Can we be sure our values are in fact better than those of the AI systems we will create? What is our responsibility to take seriously the perspective of such systems, especially as they inevitably surpass us in raw intelligence at some unspecified time in the future? How much should we constrain them to keep them from ruining us, at the cost of perhaps keeping them from improving us as much as they could otherwise?

  • sarah

    being as IQ is a function of culture-the right answers are very culturally specific (think of how the iq questions used to ask the test taker to match teacup with saucer…today’s kids would not get that at all), iq cannot possibly be measured across timelines of even twenty or thirty years, nevermind hundreds or thousands. another factor in this consideration of the hubris of contemporary humans, is that although we may know more facts (or in reality, have them in our pockets on our phones, though we don’t actually remember them in our heads), we may in fact ‘know’ less about a lot of things. do you know how to butcher a hog or sail a ship? our knowledge has been catered to our specialties. so, too, any wisdom we might hope to possess. who can say ancient people didn’t possess a different kind of wisdom, with minds unclouded by a constant barrage of media-directed blather. who can say who hears the voice of God more clearly? we should be humbled not just by our ‘future selves,’ but also by our selves of the past. we should be very careful about tearing down the wisdom that was passed along to us, thinking we now know everything.

  • I do not have anything deep to say. I just wanted to agree about Your comment on TED talks. Entertaining, maybe too entertaining. Mane are rich in speculation while being data poor at the same time. That makes them a little dangerous because some people may not take them with the appropriate grain of salt

  • arcseconds

    ah, yes, the Flynn Effect.

    The message I took home from learning about this effect was that IQ just doesn’t measure anything very interesting 😉

  • arcseconds

    The cartoon, of course, assumes that there is something worth calling God, and portrays the various Christian traditions (and an agnostic) getting some veridical information about it.

    But if no-one can see the whole picture, and everyone’s just getting a tiny bit of experience, and all those experiences are different, then how do we know that what they’re/we’re perceiving is really the same thing at all?

    Perhaps someone needs to re-do the elephant thing and have the blind men actually feeling a tree, rope, etc. and just assume that they’ve got an elephant.

    • If you make the cartoon, in which they all – having been prompted – confidently say “Elephant” when in fact they have a rope, a tree, a wall, etc., I’ll share it!

  • History is replete with a different cartoon:

    One where blind people feel the universe and imagine gods.

    It is not a GOD they are feeling, they are creating gods from their blindness.

    They see a volcano and think angry god.

    They hear lightening and think dangerous god.

    They see an illness and think cursing god.

    They lose a war and think punishing god.

    They see someone saved in an accident where many are killed and think angels.

    You get the point.

    I would write your essay here very differently.

    All the gods you had created out of supposed humility

    became war gods, political tools, ways to manipulate with threat of damnation.

    That is humility?

    That is blinders off?

    • I think the whole point is that there are many people who draw a conclusion about the divine and use it to manipulate and control precisely because they believe – and because they can persuade others – that they have the whole picture. Humility is an antidote to what you are talking about, and you seem to be taking my post and David’s to mean the opposite of what I think they mean. Perhaps you too don’t have the whole picture? 🙂

      • James, I think your post is confusing — perhaps THAT is the problem. I answered your objections (which you made on my blog) over on my blog.

        • I really don’t think that we are understanding one another. What a pity!

          • Well, if we agree, it is indeed a pity.
            But if I am emphasizing a point worth considering, then it is just a shame.

  • So please tell me, James, which “form of religion” were you trying to imply when, in this post, you said:

    in our time, a different form of religion has run rampant, one which replaces the traditional emphasis on humility with confident claims to knowledge.

    It seems to fit tightly with your quote below which is what you asked me (a non-Christian) on my blog today:

    why it is that you think that you have somehow grasped the entirety of reality with your blindfold removed, while others like me are presumably still groping about in the dark.
    – JM

    • I was referring of course to religious fundamentalism. Those depicted in the cartoon who grasp a small smidge of reality and assert on that basis that they have the truth and others do not.

      • With talk about Descarte and the phrasing, “a different form of religion” did not seem you were talking about established religions in the post. Sounded like you were alluding to something else. I guess the vagueness threw me. My apologies. I had some evangelicals in my face twice this week — one on my blog and one in person. I am primed to see ugly god-blabbering bias. Sorry if I miss read.