In Search of Stupid People

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Have you ever thought that there is an epidemic of stupid people?  Stupid people to the right, stupid people to the left, stupid people in front, stupid people in back of you.  You don’t have to go very far to find stupid people.  In the middle of a world-wide pandemic, we have people who still want to congregate with others.  We have ministers insisting on holding church services and encouraging people to hug and shake hands.  We have governors who deem golf courses and gun shops as “Essential” services.  I won’t dwell on some of the dumb things that our politicians have said as I am sure you have heard enough from them.

If you thought that there were easily enough stupid people to go around before, they now seem to be growing like the corona virus in exponential numbers.  When we are finally back to normal, I am going to suggest to my local college and perhaps high school that they offer a course called “Stupidity 101.”  I will also recommend that we change the name of our species from Homo Sapiens to Homo Stupidus.

Just last night, Karen and I were coming back from a trip to the grocery store and we had to stop at a railroad crossing to let a train go by.  Karen noticed that there was a sign along side the roadway that said, “Do not stop on the railroad tracks.”  She turned to me and said, “Who would be dumb enough to stop on the tracks?”  I replied that “I am sure there are enough stupid people in the world that need to be reminded.  Although I doubt that the sign would do them any good.”

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The train finally passed, and we continued down the road.  The street (named Battaglia) does not have a shoulder or streetlights where we were at.  It is a fairly narrow road.  Some movement up ahead caught my eye.  It was on the right side of the road and I swerved to the left to miss it.  As I went by what I thought might only be a post, I saw that it was a woman walking on the same side of the street with her back to traffic and half on the road.  She had on dark clothes and was barely visible.  I wanted to back up and tell her to either walk facing traffic or to wear more visible clothes or better yet, even both.  Karen was startled by my swerving and did not even see the woman as we drove by.  I told her why I had swerved.  I explained that it was just another stupid person who has a death wish.  I personally don’t care about her death inclinations as long as she finds some other way to do it besides me plowing into her with my car.

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This thought of stupid people kept echoing in my mind.  Why are there stupid people?  What makes people stupid?  How do we fix stupidity?  Is there any cure?  I went on the internet to research the subject.  As with any research we must first start with a definition of our problem or the entity we are studying.  Webster’s Online Dictionary defines stupidity as: “Behavior that shows a lack of good sense or judgment.”  I thought about this definition and while it is not bad, I like my own definition better.  I would define Stupidity as “A denial of reality.”  Now, why do people deny reality?  What blinds people to objectivity?

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First of all, allow me to get off my “high horse” for a minute.  By now you are contemplating what an arrogant asshole I am.  “The whole world is stupid, but he thinks that he is the only intelligent one in the world.”  No, unfortunately, the world cannot be easily divided into stupid people and smart people.  All of us are stupid at one time or another.  I have my stupid moments and you will or have had your stupid moments.  What are some of the things that make us stupid?  My brief research shows an astounding number of things that make us stupid.  Here are some of the more common factors influencing stupidity:

  • Greed
  • Jealousy
  • Envy
  • Ego
  • Arrogance
  • Short-term thinking
  • Power
  • Love
  • Religion

You are probably thinking “My god, is there anything that does not make us stupid?”  Even my brief list is enough to indict most of the human race at one time or another.  Take the issue of love.  Have you ever made a fool of yourself over an infatuation with someone else?  Or take religion.  How many religious zealots do you know who become so self-righteous that they cannot see the value in other religions or people who do not subscribe to their religious views?  Take any item from my list above and I am sure that you can find any number of examples to illustrate the ongoing stupidity of the human race.

Greed is a particularly interesting factor.  I once heard a quote that said, “Greed is not the worst of all sins, but it is the gateway to all others.”  Just recently we had a Lt. Governor who intoned that “older people should be willing to die for the good of the economy.”  Few older people I know have volunteered to take him up on the offer.

When we are children, we are all taught the story of the little boy and the cookie jar.  This is a great example of the stupidity that greed often leads to.

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Once upon a time there was a little boy who lived with his mom.  He was an only child and was quite spoiled.  His mother gave him everything he wanted.  One day upon his request, she made a batch of cookies.  When they had cooled, she put them in a cookie jar.  Most cookie jars are narrow at the top and wide at the bottom.  She told him that he could have one cookie each day.  As soon as she left the kitchen, he reached into the cookie jar and grabbed the biggest handful of cookies he could hold.  He then tried to get his hand out, but it would not come out.  He pulled and he yanked but he could not get his hand out.  He finally became frustrated with his efforts and screamed for his mom.

“Mom, please come quickly, I need your help.”  His mother came rushing back into the kitchen and looked at her son.  “What is your problem?”  “I can’t get my hand out of the jar.  It is stuck.”  “Well, let go of the cookies” she replied.  The little boy opened his fist and let the cookies fall out of his hand.  Immediately he was able to take his hand out of the jar.  The moral of the story is so obvious I will not insult your intelligence.  But think about all the people and companies and politicians who have their hands in the cookie jar and cannot get them out.  Stupidity is a derivative of greed in many cases.

So what can we do about stupidity?  Will my Stupidity 101 class cure the problem?  What would I teach in Stupidity 101?  Some people say that “you cannot cure stupidity.”  Is this true?  Are we doomed to stupidity as a race?  Can scientists help us?  Are they the people with the solution? Or do we look to philosophers to help us?

"I've been thinking harder than you have, and my thought experiment disproves your thought experiment."

Goethe’s Faust is a classic example of the folly of brains and intellect.

“The erudite Faust is highly successful yet dissatisfied with his life, which leads him to make a pact with the Devil at a crossroads, exchanging his soul for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures. The Faust legend has been the basis for many literary, artistic, cinematic, and musical works that have reinterpreted it through the ages. “Faust” and the adjective “Faustian” imply a situation in which an ambitious person surrenders moral integrity in order to achieve power and success for a limited term.” — Wikipedia

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Tragically, Faust not only destroys his life in a sybaritic bargain for power, knowledge and lust but he nearly destroys the woman who falls in love with him in the process.  Marguerite is redeemed because she repents and sees the folly of her ways but for Faust there is no redemption and he goes down to hell for his deeds.  Stupid thinking by highly intelligent people is nearly as common as among those of lesser intelligence and intellect.  So the question still remains “Can we cure stupidity and if so How?”

See:  10 Most Famous Scientific Theories That Were Later Debunked

"Ulrich, that's bad science and you know it!"

I wish I had the answer to this question but alas, I have no solution.  Here are some comments from others perhaps far wiser than I am.

“The donkey heard the book gives wisdom and ate it.”  ― Ljupka Cvetanova, The New Land

“People think that whatever comes out of the mouth of a wise man is the choicest gem, sometimes it’s utter stupidity and rubbish” ― Bangambiki Habyarimana, Pearls Of Eternity

“I’m tired of being told it’s elitist to call stupid behavior stupid. Remember when you were just a tot and thought it might be a good idea to stick your wee-wee in the electrical socket? Hopefully, you had a mom who kicked you in the behind and called you stupid. There are times when mincing words and pleasant euphemisms simply don’t cut it. Sometimes, you need to call stupid by its given name.”  ― Quentin R. Bufogle, Horse Latitudes

“Wisdom is the distance between intelligence and stupidity.”  ― Matshona Dhliwayo

 

 

The Man Who Was Smarter Than God

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Once upon a time there was a man who was smarter than God.  At least that is what his friends said behind his back.   Michael was indeed one of the smartest men you could ever meet.  Now some might call this a blessing while others might call it a curse.  His mother was fond of saying that “ignorance is bliss” while his father believed, (though he did not practice it himself) that intellect and knowledge was everything.  A man who was smart enough could rule the world.  His father continually berated Michael to think and to use his intellect.  Michael’s father demanded that Michael read only non-fiction and in an argument stick to the facts.  The only things that mattered in the world were facts, data and evidence.  Emotions ruled stupid people and decisions based on emotions were decisions that were stupid.

Michael grew up with very little respect or tolerance for anyone or anything that was not logical and rationale.  When the first Star Trek series became popular, Michael was surprised at the admiration for Lt. Commander Spock.  Many people saw Spock as the epitome of logic and rational thinking versus Kirk’s impulsiveness and McCoy’s rampant emotionalism.  However, Michael saw Spock as divided between emotions and intellect.  He could not accept that Spock was a role model for logical thinking.  Nothing was as important to Michael as mind and intellect and the ability to ignore and suppress emotions. This of course had its negative side as far as Michael’s social aspirations were concerned.

Michael had few if any male friends and zero female friends.  Men did not like Michael because they feared his put downs and lack of acceptance of their often biased and illogical thinking.  Michael was very intolerant of what he saw as inept thinking and has no qualms about correcting anyone.  It was hard to deny that Michael was usually right, but this meant that being around him would make you feel inferior and stupid.  No one wants to associate with anyone who makes them feel insignificant.

Michael was attracted to women and would have liked to date and have a social relationship with the opposite sex.  However, most women saw him as wooden and unemotional.  This was a state that Michael was rather proud of.  Moreover, compassion and love were traits that Michael saw as incompatible with a rational human being.  There traits would lead to decisions based on emotions and not logic.  Dates that Michael went on with the opposite sex usually lasted less than an hour and calls for a second date by Michael would always go unanswered.

Somewhere along the line, some of Michael’s friends (more like acquaintances really) tagged him with the moniker “The man who was smarter than God.”  This was the source of endless jokes and laughter, all of course behind Michael’s back.  Michael grew more and more isolated from any human contact, particularly after his mother and father passed away.  Michael never even bothered to attend their funerals.  “They are dead” he reasoned, “So my going to their funeral is not going to bring them back.”

As the years went by.  Michael became lonelier and lonelier but also richer and richer.  Michael was a genius with computers and also finance.  He invested his money earned from writing software programs into a stock portfolio that he managed.  This portfolio grew to nine figures and Michael never had to worry about working for a living or where his next meal would come from.

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Michael loved to take walks to break up his work and enjoyed being outside.  One day while taking a walk, he stopped at a little bench in a park and sat down to take a short rest.  A young man about 16 years of age walked up to the bench and sat down next to Michael.  “Hi,” the young man said, “My name is Joshua and I am special.”  “That’s nice,” replied Michael, hoping to end the conversation quickly.  “I am running away from home” came back a reply.  “Oh”, said Michael, not particularly caring why.  “Nobody likes me” explained Joshua.  “My sister makes fun of me and my mom and dad don’t do anything about it.”  Somewhat curious, Michael asked “Where are you going to go?”  “I always go to this bench until its time to go home” said Joshua.  This did not make any sense thought Michael, so he continued the conversation to find out more about this strange boy.

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Joshua was fifteen years old and a developmentally disabled child.  He had suffered a fall when he was very young which left him with a severely diminished cognitive capacity.  He also suffered from some physical limitations.  He was now in high school but spent most of his time in special needs classes.  From early on, his family told him he was special.  They were very loving parents and did their best to help him cope with his limited capacities.  They knew he would never be able to live on his own.  His older sister Inez, whom Joshua loved dearly, frequently became exasperated with him.  She did not quite have the patience of his mother and dad, but right about now, she would go out looking for Joshua.  The typical pattern was that Joshua would become angry with her and “run away from home” to this park bench.  Inez would come and “find” him and take him home.  She loved him as much as he loved her.

The conversation finally ended when Inez showed up.  Joshua introduced his new friend Michael to Inez.  She said hello to Michael and that she was very happy that Joshua had a new friend.  Joshua asked Michael if he could come to visit him after school sometime if he did not live too far away.  Michael reluctantly agreed thinking that he would never see Joshua again.  In some respects he regretted this since he actually felt a stirring of compassion towards Joshua and he was moved by Joshua’s openness and lack of pretentiousness.  Goodbyes all around and each left to go home.

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A few days later, much to Michael’s surprise, who should knock at Michael’s home but Inez and Joshua.  Inez said that she would drop Joshua off if it was okay with Michael and pick him up in an hour or so.  Michael agreed and spent the next hour or so talking to Joshua about many different things.  Joshua was surprisingly able to comprehend many things that Michael would bring up and they had some interesting if eclectic conversations.

Michael learned that Joshua loved science and animals and nature.  He also learned that Joshua’s parents were not very wealthy.  Michael deduced that they did not have enough money to buy some of the things that Joshua wanted and that they often struggled to buy some of the things he needed.  Apparently, the fall did more than just brain damage to Joshua and he had some severe internal injuries which needed ongoing treatment.  Joshua never complained though and saw most of these hardships as simple facts of his life.

al_roker_marqueeThe first day that Michael and Joshua spent together turned into weeks and the weeks turned into months.  Each week, Michael and Joshua would spend at least an hour together.  Some days, Michael would play video games with Joshua and other days they would do “walk and talks.”   Inez would drop Joshua off and Michael would take Joshua home.  Michael looked forward each week to seeing Joshua and spending time with him.  Michael often tried to buy Joshua some of the things that he wanted, but Joshua’s parents were very proud and explained that they would prefer that he did not.  Michael accepted their request but would take Joshua out for a hamburger or pizza whenever possible.  His parents did not mind this as Joshua had a prodigious appetite.

A few years went by and Michael s life became less lonely and much happier.  Michael greeted people on the street and spent time talking to other people without correcting them or giving them advice.  Every week Michael and Joshua would get together.  Then one week, Joshua did not come by.  Michael was disappointed but simply thought that some event had come up and Joshua had to attend it.  The following week went by and again no Joshua.  By now, Michael was very worried.  He called Joshua’s parents.  Inez explained that they were at the hospital with Joshua who was very sick.  She said she was sorry she had not come by to tell Michael about it, but things had been rather chaotic.  She said Joshua had asked about Michael and when would he come up to visit.   Michael told her that he would go right now.

When Michael arrived at the hospital, he found Joshua in bed with many tubes sticking out of him and his worried parents at his bedside.  Joshua looked up when Michael entered his room and his face turned into a big smile.  “I knew you would come,” he happily exclaimed.  “I am dying,” he whispered to Michael.  “But don’t worry about it, I will be OK.”

Michael stayed for awhile until Joshua fell asleep and then went out of the room followed by Joshua’s parents.  “We are very sorry we did not call you sooner”, they apologized.  “We always knew this time would come but we thought he had a few more years.”  “Isn’t there anything they can do?” replied Michael.  “No”, said his father.  “We wish there was, but they have done everything they could.”

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Michael came up every day to visit Joshua for a week.  Then one day, when he came to the hospital Joshua was no longer in the room.  The nurse explained that Joshua had died in his sleep the night before.  Funeral arrangements were made by Joshua’s parents and Michael attended the wake.  At the funeral, Michael gave his condolences to Inez and Joshua’s parents.  Michael was nearly as devastated as they were.  Joshua had a simple funeral, but Michael made sure that there were plenty of flowers there.

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Michael went home and for the next week did nothing and said nothing.  Then one day, he thought.  I am not going to forget Joshua.  I am sitting on a pile of money that is not doing anything for anyone.  I am going to start a home for “special” children where they can come each day to play games, have meals and interact with toys that their parents could not afford for them to have.  My home will have first class aides that are well trained in caring for special needs children and we will have all the security needed to ensure that these children have a safe and secure environment when not home.  This will be someplace that parents can drop their children off when they need a break or rest.

So Michael started this home.  It had the capacity for about 150 children.  The home had numerous playrooms, security cameras in each room and a full kitchen staffed by cooks with degrees in dietary nutrition.  The home was free to qualified children which was based on need and not income.  Parents would fill out an application and it was reviewed by a board of professionals versed in the needs of special education children.

Michael came each day and spent at least four hours at the home.  During these visits, he would meet the parents of each child and spend time with all the children to find out how they were doing and what they liked and did not like about the home.  Michael was constantly making improvements to the home.  When he was not at the home, he was using his genius to earn more money that he would then plow back into the home.  Michael named the home: “The Joshua Home for Very Special Children.”  Michael was admired by parents and loved by the children for the care and compassion he put into this home.

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Twenty years or so when by and Michael passed away.  In his will, he set up a foundation and trust to manage the home.  Every penny he had was put into this foundation.  Michael specified that he did not want an elaborate funeral and wanted a very simple burial.  Despite his request, the number of people that called to inquire about his wake and funeral soon dictated that his request would go unheeded.  A number of unnamed benefactors put up money to have the funeral moved to a larger venue.  Even with a bigger church, there was standing room only.  Estimates were that over a thousand people attended Michael’s “simple” funeral.  Many people stood up to talk about his generosity and compassion and all the children that he had helped not only with the home but often with medical expenses and care that they could not afford.  And no one referred to him as: “The man who was smarter than God.”

The End

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Ecclesiastes: The Wisest Book of All Time?

EcclesiastesI want to write about Ecclesiastes this week.  It is one of the 24 books of the Hebrew Bible.  It is among the canonical Wisdom Books in the Old Testament that can be found in most Christian Bibles.  It has been called by some a book of skepticism.  Others see it as one of the most profound and erudite books that has ever been written.  Much of the writing in this book reminds me of the Shakespeare passage in Macbeth wherein he says:

“Out, out, brief candle!  Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”  ― William ShakespeareMacbeth

vanities“Vanity of vanities!  All is vanity,” says the Preacher at the beginning of Ecclesiastes.  In some sense echoing the same sentiments as Macbeth, Ecclesiastes tells us of the folly of wealth, riches, power, fame and even wisdom.  Herein lies the great paradox in EcclesiastesEcclesiastes is a book of wisdom which has the audacity and temerity to decry the power of wisdom.  Whereas most tomes praise the power of wisdom to solve all the evils of the world, to Ecclesiastes, wisdom is also just another vanity.

“I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly.  I perceived that this also is but striving after the wind.”  — Ecclesiastes

dissipationIf power, riches, fame and wisdom are folly to pursue, that would seem to leave us with only pleasure left as a goal of life.  A sybaritic existence of hedonistic pursuits measured by the wine, women and song we have endured.  Epicurus said: It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and well and justly.  And it is impossible to live wisely and well and justly without living a pleasant life.”  The Hedonist position has often been criticized starting with Socrates and Plato who felt that a Hedonist was endorsing a doctrine that was contradictory to right living (see Plato’s Gorgias).

Just when it might seem we have a goal in life that can be mutually satisfying for everyone, Ecclesiastes says:  “I will make a test of pleasure; enjoy yourself.  But behold, this also was vanity.”

Everything is vanity.  If Saint Ignatius was right in proclaiming that “ingratitude” is the fountain of all sins, Ecclesiastes shows us that the other side of the coin is vanity.  Rich or poor, wise man or fool, famous or obscure, death will take us all and care not one whit about our history.  “How the wise man dies just like the fool!” – Ecclesiastes

Another book which I think has a great deal in common with Ecclesiastes was written by Max Stirner and is called “The Ego and Its Own.”  Stirner (a 19th Century German philosopher) has been labeled a nihilist for the pessimism he exudes in this book.  For instance, Stirner says:

Man, your head is haunted; you have wheels in your head! You imagine great things, and depict to yourself a whole world of gods that has an existence for you, a spirit-realm to which you suppose yourself to be called, an ideal that beckons to you. You have a fixed idea!  Do not think that I am jesting or speaking figuratively when I regard those persons who cling to the Higher, and (because the vast majority belongs under this head) almost the whole world of men, as veritable fools, fools in a madhouse.” — (The Ego and Its Own, New York 1907, p. 54)

You may well ask “what is the difference between nihilism and skepticism?”  One answer to this question which I found on the Internet is as follows:

“Skepticism is a critical attitude, orientation or outlook towards a proposition or a thesis.  It typically is characterized by doubt about, or at least dubiousness towards, its substantive truth value.”

nihilism“Nihilism, on the other hand is an attitude, orientation or outlook of indifference towards a proposition or thesis.  The nihilist refuses to engage in an epistemological process of examination, discovery or analysis into its truth value.”

These definitions and more about the differences between these two concepts can be found at http://phenomenologicalpsychology.com/2011/03/what-is-the-difference-between-skepticism-and-nihilism/

Ecclesiastes skepticalTo sum the differences up in my own words, skeptics doubt everything while nihilists do not give a damn about anything.  Some would describe nihilism as extreme skepticism.  Hence, reading the works I noted above might lead you down either path.  You could decide that nothing is worth doing since there is no truth or value in anything we can accomplish so why bother.  Or else you could decide that you simply do not care about the world so why bother with any of its myriad blandishments.  I somehow think both paths might ultimately bring you to the same place.

meaninglessThere are many people who believe that the world is nothing but a mad house and that we are all inmates in one large global asylum.  My father often said that heaven and hell were both on earth and that it was our choice which one we lived in.  As Yoda noted in Star Wars we make a choice whether to go to the dark side or the light side.  Of course, a determinist would say we have no choice, that fate or life has already determined which choice we have to make.  I am constantly at odds with a good friend of mine who has staked this position out for his life and decisions.  In some ways, it is very difficult to refute.  I can refute all of his arguments but at the same time, I can refute all of my arguments against his arguments.  This leads me to the inexorable conclusion that life is more complex than I can explain or understand.  My trying to understand it is my own particular brand of vanity and folly.

“Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering.” –YODA, (Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace)

If we do have a choice, then I think we have two coins to choose between.  We can choose a coin of ingratitude and vanity, perhaps this is the dark side or we can also choose a coin of gratitude and humility. Is this latter choice, the light side?  Jesus said:

Blessed are the meek,
for they shall inherit the earth.

It is kind of amazing when you think about it how many people today are guilty of unbridled arrogance and hubris.  Does that mean that more people are choosing the dark side than the light side?  My friend would argue that they have no choice.

prideWhen I was young I was taught that “Pride goes before a fall.”  It would seem to be an aphorism that too many of our leaders and people in positions of power have forgotten.  Some people believe that this lack of humility comes because we have forgotten God.  It reminds me of the stories in the Bible about the Israelites in the desert who had to be taught again and again that it was God who was the instrument of their salvation.  As soon as a little time went by, they would forget the help that they had been given and begin to ignore God and act arrogantly.  You don’t have to believe in a God to have this problem.

money is meaninglessWe are all much like the Israelites.  We forget the little people that helped us.  We forget the people that looked out for us or assisted us when we were in need.  We begin to think that we are smarter, stronger, wiser and better than other people.  We develop a mythology that attributes all of our success to our own self-discipline and hard work.  It is true that even Thomas Jefferson believed that luck comes from hard work, but it is also true that all the things that we will ever attain in life can be at least partially attributed to the support we have received from other people.  The Beatles set it well with their song:

I get by with a little help from my friends.  (Click here to hear the entire song)

So what would Ecclesiastes say about the folly of arrogance and pride?  I borrow from my wife’s Revised Standard Version of the Bible dated 1952 for the following:

“In my vain life I have seen everything; there is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evil doing.  Be not righteous overmuch and do not make yourself over wise; why should you destroy yourself?  Be not wicked overmuch, neither be a fool; why should you die before your time.”  Ecclesiastes 7:15-17

This passage was from Karen’s confirmation Bible which she received when she was 13 years old.  She still has the Bible and has highlighted, annotated and nearly worn the binding out from much usage.  I am proud to say that my wife is one Christian who reads the entire Bible from Genesis to Revelations and everything in between.  We often have discussions on the meaning of certain passages and I respect her belief in Christianity as she respects my agnosticism.  We both respect Jesus, Mohammed, Moses, Buddha and many other prophets whose wise words have guided us in our lives.

I conclude with some advice knowing full well the old adage “Never give advice. Wise men don’t need it and fools will not heed it.”  Nevertheless, hope springs eternal in my breast and I must break with the aforementioned sage advice to offer the following:

  1. Believe nothing of what you hear and half of what you see. Our senses are deceiving.
  2. Take science and religion both with a grain of salt. Today’s wisdom will be tomorrow’s folly.
  3. Regard both the expert and the idiot with a healthy bit of skepticism.

Time for Questions:

Have you ever read Ecclesiastes?  What is your view of this book?  What wisdom in it do you pay attention to in your life?  What follies do you fall prey to?  Have you found a way to avoid vanity?  How do you do so?  What advice from this book would you give others?

Life is just beginning.

“Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”  — Martin Luther King, Jr.
 

Experts and Know It All’s, or why you are stupid and dumb and they know everything!

argumentsThere is a saying that goes “The young know everything, the middle aged suspect everything and the elderly believe everything.”  I really can’t say I find much truth in this saying.  I find far too many people young, middle aged and old people alike, who still know everything.   They aggravate the hell out of me.  They correct you on history, dates, politics, philosophy, truth, knowledge, weather forecasts, directions, word spellings and word pronunciations.  They lecture you about things you might know more than them about, but they are oblivious to your opinions.  To add insult to injury, they are right every time.  They are like Mr. Science on PBS; “they know more than you do.”  They may have a degree, TV or some friends who told them everything they believe.  More likely they are relying on some “expert” who they passionately believe in and no amount of expertise on your part or expert witnesses you can muster will put even a small dent in their beliefs.  They remain adamant that you are wrong and they are right.  Their experts trump your experts.  Their degrees trump your degrees.  Their experience trumps your experience.

Karen and I always enjoyed going to Hmong and Vietnamese restaurants and there were many in St. Paul on University Avenue.  One of our favorite winter dishes was a large bowl of soup named Pho.  It came in many different varieties.  We loved this soup.  Now I can’t honestly tell you that I can pronounce the word Pho as my Hmong friends did.  Nevertheless, they generally figured out what I was talking about when I pointed to the menu and said “Number 37 with squid please.”  It came to pass that some friends of ours went to visit a family in Vietnam.  Shortly after they came back from Vietnam, we all went to a Vietnamese restaurant for some Pho.  Of course, now that the wife had been in Vietnam, she was an expert on pronouncing Vietnamese words.  She told us how to correctly pronounce Pho.  I would have been all right with this except that it did not sound like the same word any of the waiters in the restaurant were using.  I guess they just forgot how to pronounce their own language.  I hate it when people correct my word pronunciations!  Why, because I have found that there are often many different ways to pronounce a word.  Some are undoubtedly wrong, but who knows?  Of course, the “expert” knows the right pronunciation.

People who think they know everything are a great annoyance to those of us who do.”  — Isaac Asimov

Do I have a big character quirk?  Why do these people annoy me so much?  I love Socrates because he did not know everything.  I am agitated by people who correct me.  I don’t mind it if you have your opinions.  I don’t mind it if you have your experts.  I also don’t mind it if you read it in a book someplace.  However, has it ever occurred to you that I might have a different opinion?  I might have read a different book?  I might have heard a different expert?  Am I making a mountain out of a mole hill or is this problem getting worse?  It seems to me there are more know-it-alls on the web and internet and TV then there were before.  It sometimes seems like there are more experts out there than there are people on the face of the earth.  Every day we are bombarded with experts telling us what to eat, how to exercise, what to invest in, what to believe, what not to believe.  I sometimes feel that we need a “War on Experts.”

We must be so careful of setting ourselves up as people who set others straight. There is a fine line of encouraging and being a know it all.  — Unknown quote

To make it worse, you cannot escape this war online.  Every day there are arguments on different chat groups and websites where it is clear that each side is totally ignoring what the other side is saying.  Here is one example from Facebook, I recently experienced.  I will refrain from using the actual names of the parties concerned.  It involves a disagreement over the use of Electroshock Therapy for patients in a mental health facility.  A friend posted his comments noting a wide range of experts who thought that such treatments were abusive and no longer useful.  He was immediately “jumped” on by an “expert” who disagreed and cited their extensive history and experience in a facility where Electroshock Therapy was used.  Apparently in his perspective, the patients needed it and loved it.  When asked to produce some evidence as to his experience or expertise, he fell back on the old “Trust Me” I know argument.  No amount of persuasion could convince the “expert” that other “experts” might not agree with him.

Never become so much of an expert that you stop gaining expertise. View life as a continuous learning experience.  — Denis Waitley

Here is a verbatim discussion from another Facebook group online that is for “Intellectual Discussions.”  I have left the names out.  The discussion started with the posting of a picture that appeared to some as “offensive.”  The picture dealt with slavery.

  • Disgusting part of our history that we should never forget.
  • Can we move away from posting statements and more towards questions which will foster discussion?
  • I’m sure we all know of the atrocities that happened to those poor people, but there isn’t much more we can say on this point other than having a circle jerk to see who can be the most apologetic and remorseful for the ways of whitey.
  • Can we just post whatever we want? Otherwise bring it up with admin for a questions
  • I don’t see a problem with this, although it will probably fall to the bottom of the page pretty quickly. The nature of debate is someone offers a stance, and then people will either agree or offer an opposing stance. There is nothing wrong with debating your point of view. I can’t see how somebody would disagree with the above in this case, but the nature of racism is certainly a valid topic.
  • My only point was this offers very little to discuss, which one would assume is the point of the group. i have nothing against discussing this topic, but this is just a depressing statement with a depressing pic, it’s not really a topic or point of contention which will inspire any discussion.
  • Yeah I agree this won’t generate much of a discussion. I don’t think any of the admins here would want to ban this however, seems a bit draconian to me. You don’t want to create an environment where people are hesitant to post things because of a police like environment.
  • I found that this fact brought up many, many issues to discuss, intellectually.
  • Linking articles in this manner is lazy and attributes to spam.
  • Shuvit,
  • Who’s lazy now?
  • Be cool, man, you don’t have to be like that .
  • Spam = selling something.
  • No one, who is intelligent, in the group Intellectual Discussion is going to stand for unwarranted aggression or name calling. Be careful with your words, they are very powerful, “You just might write a check, you can’t cash….Anywhere.”
  •  Nobody here has been name calling. Chill out people . . . everyone please.
  • THIS IS WHY WE CAN”T HAVE NICE THINGS
  • That was good!
  • Shuv-it I don’t understand why you would disrespect my name, and in the same breath condone name calling.
  •  And to this white guilt shame stirring understand it has zero effect on me – for a couple of reasons; first is relevance. Law which doesn’t exist.

arguments 2This same story repeats itself endlessly on the web and elsewhere.  You post something.  Some body disagrees with it.  Someone takes offense at it.  Some expert rebuts it.  Someone does not think you should have said it.  It is not much different elsewhere.  You say something in a coffee shop.  Some expert rebuts it.  You are at a party and make a comment.  Some expert rebuts it.  Where are all the Socrates?  Where are all the truly wise people who know that they know nothing?  Why are we surrounded by experts?  What if more of us were like Socrates and at least not so sure of what we know?

“I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”  — Socrates

I find myself wondering about the old rules of rhetoric and debate.  The rules we learned in school.  Was anyone ever convinced of anything by facts, experts and argument?  I see little evidence of this online or anywhere else.  Perhaps it works in court where people come without a bias to begin with.  Perhaps not!  Of one thing, I am fairly certain; I have experienced few if any arguments where I was a witness to a change of mind.  Thus, most arguments go around in a circle and the victor is often the most obtuse or the one with the most stomach for hyperbole, rigmarole, obfuscation, pedantry and insults.  You win when the other side quits.  Is there a solution?  I think there might be.

What about a set of rules for disagreeing with other people?   What if we agreed on certain principles that were more designed to illicit the truth then to prove ourselves right and the other side wrong?  It would be more like win-win bargaining then win-lose bargaining.  Both sides would try to find the truth or at least the Golden Mean.  This would probably never work in court, but it might work in arguments between people or at least between friends.  Thus, I propose the following rules:

  1. Start with admitting that you do not know everything.
  2. Admit that you might not have all the facts and that what facts you have are not necessarily true.
  3. Agree that the truth between your side and the other side might be in-between.
  4. Do not insult, slander, belittle or ridicule the other side.
  5. Ask questions and seek facts together?  Ask what is missing in the evidence that would make the truth more obvious?
  6. Celebrate finding the truth and not a victory over the other side.

What do you think?  Would these rules make discourse more civil? Am I being naïve? 

As an experiment, I posted these rules and a short prologue to them on a few websites (Five websites dealing with discussion and debate). I waited a few days to update this article and to include any insights I received from this experiment.  Here are some interesting comments that people left in response to my posting:

  • I was convinced, through logical debate alone, that I live in a permanently determined universe even though my direct experience will never reflect that fact. This was one of a few MAJOR shifts in perception/worldview I have had in my life, which had an impact on every part of my life. It literally turned my entire belief system on its head at the time. It happened while having a conversation on a forum online. The (logical) truth alone can be transformative if you honor it over your emotional preferences and attachments. It’s not easy to let go of false beliefs and ideas, so most of us choose instead to desperately cling to them out of fear, and that becomes the hidden driver for various dishonest techniques like information filtering and distortion, that destroy our capacity to be moved by logic and by truth. Logic and truth are not to blame – human dishonesty and unclear motive is to blame. You need to become the kind of person who has thought about everything so much, that you delight in the idea of someone proving you wrong, you seek it out and look for it because you are bored to death with having figured everything out.
  •  You are describing having an open mind – it takes discipline and practice- and maybe a referee. People find it hard not to either take comments personally, or to make personal attacks.
  •  All 6 points mentioned above sound logical and reasonable. The problem is for one to transfer them from the theoretical stage to the practical one. If one can adopt and apply in his daily communication the outlined 6 points then in my opinion he is a “man of enormous wisdom”.
  •  Yes. And like all people that hold various perceptions of various paradigms (i.e., religion, government, etc.,), they come in all levels of perception. Some are easier than others to converse with. We ALL have different learning curves, molded by different experiences, histories, etc.  There are those, out there, that ENDEAVOR to have an open mind and question.
  •  What you are proposing is dialogue instead of debate. When you want to find the truth, dialogue is the way to go. Sometimes judgments have to be made in absence of absolute certainty, debate is useful in these situations (and yes pathos is huge in debates), but should ideally be avoided by finding the truth.
  • I was warned against the fallacy of moderation (or the mean) when I learnt rhetoric and that the truth rarely lies between two opposite positions.

argument-against-argumentsConclusions:

Karen asked me when the “experiment” was over whether people agreed with me or not.  Well, like most of life, there was no black and white answer to this question.  Most people agree we need civility but most did not seem to think it likely that people could control their emotional responses in respect to an argument or concept that they felt strongly about.  Rules or no rules, I am constrained to accept the possibility that:

  1. There often may be no middle ground for compromise
  2. Conflict is inevitable in some circumstances
  3. People are emotional and bring emotional baggage to many discussions
  4. People can change their minds but it will not be an easy task to break anyone out of their pre-existing frameworks
  5. We need to make more of an effort to find the “Golden Mean”
  6. We need to show more respect for opinions we disagree with

Time for Questions:

 Are there too many experts in the world?  Why have the amount of “talking heads” proliferated?  Are you tired of hearing experts tell you what you should know and think?  How can we have more agreeable conversations?  Is it possible to avoid conflict and look for the truth rather than try to prove ourselves right?  Are you a “know it all”?  What do we have to do to be more open minded?

Life is just beginning

 

 

 

Gandhi’s Sixth Social Sin: Worship Without Sacrifice

I find it surprising that I am writing about Gandhi and his ideas.  Surprising in that while growing up I was as far from a non-violent philosophy as anyone could be.  Sometimes it seemed like my whole life was violence, anger and fighting.  I joined the military out of high school and hoped to kill as many “commies” as I could.  I continued my violent ways for many years and to be honest I am still no pacifist.  I would not turn the other cheek once if you hit me, never mind 40 times. I am still on the border line about capital punishment.  One day I think Capital Punishment is terribly useless institution made even worse by its ineffectiveness at deterring crime. The next day I read of some horrendous crime that I feel can only be rectified by punishments that go well beyond the heinousness of legal murder.  If Gandhi were my father, he would surely disown me. 

Gandhi is one of those heroic icons who cannot be ignored.  Whether you believe in his ideas or not, you cannot deny that he tried to live according to his beliefs.  More important was that he lived to help others have a better life.  Everything Gandhi did paid evidence to his ideology that humans could be better than they were.  I know many people who think that educators, psychologists, social workers and other “human service” workers are just a waste of taxpayer money.  These same people are continually on the front line for more prisons and more military hardware.  It is evident to such people that humans can not improve and thus the only betterment of humanity lies in more weapons, more police, more military and more guns.  Gandhi would have professed the exact opposite and worked to create a world that was non-violent and where disputes could be resolved by civil discourse.

Years ago, I dropped my belief in God and in religions.  I came to the conclusion that the first did not exist and the second was evil. It seemed to me that much of the misery on the earth came from one or the other of the major religions.  The crusades, the inquisition, the Protestant Catholic wars, the wars against “Pagans” all showed me conclusively that religions did more harm than good. When I joined the military, I would not speak to any clergy and when they came around; I always avoided them.  I was even rude to them at times as I regarded them as hypocrites.  My first wife and I did not practice any religion together but I did bring my daughter around to several different religious venues as I wanted to at least expose her to them.  My second marriage was to a more deeply religious woman who practices her faith regularly by participating in church affairs and helping out at many church functions.  I often kid her about some of these events but I have come to a different point in my life regarding their benefit to the world.  I am somewhat less judgmental about religions and people then I was in my younger days. 

What does this mean for me about religions and how I regard them today?  I can say with sincerity that I still see much evil that comes out of religion, not to mention its ongoing hypocrisy (for instance where were all the churches and ministers when we invaded Iraq both the first and second times?).  However, I also see many good things that they now do, from supporting health care for poor people to championing efforts to feed people both domestically and abroad.  There are many other examples of good things that are done by churches and religious leaders.  So what does Gandhi mean by “Worship without Sacrifice?”  Is Gandhi against organized religion?  Here is the description from the Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence that summarizes Gandhi’s ideas in respect to his Sixth Social Sin: 

“Worship without Sacrifice: One person’s faith is another person’s fantasy because religion has been reduced to meaningless rituals practiced mindlessly. Temples, churches, synagogues, mosques and those entrusted with the duty of interpreting religion to lay people seek to control through fear of hell, damnation, and purgatory. In the name of God they have spawned more hate and violence than any government. True religion is based on spirituality, love, compassion, understanding, and appreciation of each other whatever our beliefs may be — Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Atheists, Agnostics or whatever. Gandhi believed whatever labels we put on our faith; ultimately all of us worship Truth because Truth is God. Superficially we may be very devout believers and make a tremendous public show of our worship, but if that belief, understanding, compassion, love and appreciation is not translated into our lives, prayers will have no meaning. True worship demands sacrifice not just in terms of the number of times a day we say our prayers but in how sincere we are in translating those prayers into life styles. In the 1930’s many Christian and Muslim clergy flocked into India to convert the millions who were oppressed as untouchables. The Christian clergy stood on street corners loudly denouncing Hinduism and proclaiming the virtues of Christianity. Months went by without a single convert accepting the offer. Frustrated, one priest asked Grandfather: After all the oppression and discrimination that the ‘untouchables’ suffer under Hinduism, why is it they do not accept our offer of a better life under Christianity? Grandfather replied: When you stop telling them how good Christianity is and start living it, you will find more converts than you can cope with. These words of wisdom apply to all religions of the world. We want to shout from roof-tops the virtues of our beliefs and not translate them into our lives.”

Gandhi’s words remind me of a comment by Sitting Bull. When asked what he thought of Christianity he replied:   “From what I have read it is an admirable religion, however I do not see any white people practicing it.”  From a Native American perspective, the only thing the conquerors religions offered was a destruction of their habitats and lifestyles.  Witness the coming of the Spanish to the “New World” and the systematic destruction of the culture and religions that already existed by the Spanish military and their allied missionaries.  The genocidal destruction of indigenous peoples throughout the world is full of pompous and pretentious efforts to “convert” and save them from their evil ways.  In reality, religion only provided an expedient excuse to separate them from their lands and gold.  We have in much of the history of organized religion a clear example of what Gandhi meant by Worship without Sacrifice.

Perhaps surprising to some though, true Christianity is firm that Worship without Sacrifice is worthless: 

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food.  If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and be well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?  In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

 

But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”

Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.  

 

You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

 

You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless?  Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?  You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.  And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness, and he was called God’s friend.  You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.”

                    James 2:14-26- New International Version

Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son for his religious beliefs. This is Worship with Sacrifice.  Going to church on Sunday or simply reading the Bible is Worship without Sacrifice.  When Jesus said that the two most important Commandments were Love God and Love Everyone, he meant you had to practice your faith by helping others who were less fortunate.  This has made it very difficult for most of humankind to be his followers in deed as well as in professed belief.  It is far easier to say “I am a Christian, then to “Sell your belongings and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”  It is much easier to pray, worship, and read the Bible than to actually practice what Jesus was saying.  Think for a minute what it would mean if all would be Christians really practiced the “Love Everyone Commandment?  A short list of the consequences of this would mean:

  • No religious wars
  • No Jihads
  • No terrorism
  • No murders
  • No rapes
  • No assaults
  • NO WARS PERIOD

Can you imagine a world without these problems?  This is the world we would have if everyone practiced their religions by deeds and not just words.  However, this would require sacrifice and too many people are not really willing to sacrifice for their religion, for Jesus or for God.  Sacrifice means giving up something to help others, not giving up something to gain something for you.  Those who blow up their bodies to attain paradise with 40 vestal virgins are not sacrificing for others; they are simply trying to take a shortcut to attain what other greedy people already have.  Any religion that terrorizes others in the name of “whoever” or “whatever” is evil regardless of what it calls itself.  This raises the question that might be phased as “What is the purpose of religion.”  Searching the web it is easy to find that many have condemned organized religion because of the atrocities associated with it. Great thinkers from Plato to Thomas Jefferson to Bertrand Russell have had little good to say about religions.  However, I like the following comment from WaheguruNet regarding what positive role religion could and indeed should play in society:

“Religion has and continues to impact almost every aspect of human civilization in both positive and negative ways. The great spiritual masters from all traditions have taught that we need to adopt and develop higher qualities of love, mercy, generosity, kindness and so on. These higher qualities are a natural byproduct of developing a deeper connection with our spiritual nature and so in this respect religion can be thought of as a vehicle to support our spiritual development and our re-connection with divinity.  In this way, human beings will be better at working together to create a better and more harmonious world.”

You will notice that in this purpose there is nothing mentioned about doom and destruction  or about going to hell and suffering for the rest of your life or about your neighbor who is a hypocrite and unlike you is destined for fire and brimstone.  The purpose of religion is to help us become better people. To help us find our connection to our inner spirit and to help guide us in living a more just and moral life.  This purpose must be followed by actions and deeds as well as pious readings and professed beliefs. There is no room Gandhi’s religion or Jesus’s religion for bigotry, discrimination, prejudice, hatred, intolerance and destruction of others or their belief systems.   

Time for Questions:

What can we do to practice good deeds as well as good thoughts? What sacrifices are you willing to make to help others?  Are we making a true sacrifice by telling others how hard we worked and that they can be what we are if they only try?  Should we simply tell others to pull themselves up by their boot straps?  Are all people really created equal in the sense that everyone has an equal chance at health and happiness?  Can we help make it so by sharing what we have with others?  

Life is just beginning.

 

 

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