CONTRARY BRIN: Shall we give up on reason?

Will we genetic-cavemen ever become the logical beings we flatter ourselves into believing we are? Or that Science Fiction says we might become?  Recent research suggests that we have a long slog ahead of us… and yes, even the smartest best-educated folks allow their pre-set beliefs and passions to interfere with basic mental processes, if their close-held biases might be under threat. Indeed we have all seen this tenacity in online arguments, in which cogent – even devastating and fact-rich — rebuttals don’t sway the other guy even an iota. See: Scientists’ depressing new discovery about the brain.
We already knew this. The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their mistakes. Clearly this is what goes on as know-nothings rage against scientists and other professionals. –David Brin



If the Dunning–Kruger effect describes the delusional superiority of unskilled know-nothings, what should we call the brilliant self-delusions hatched by our best and brightest minds? The cognitively biased genius may be a greater threat to the fate of civilization than the self-deluded dumb-ass.


Notice that Russell says wiser people are full of doubts–not smarter people or better-educated people.  Is there a consistent correlation between intelligence and wisdom? If my personal experience is any guide, there often seems to be an inverse relation between the two at the high end of the intelligence scale. There never seems to be any shortage of highly-intelligent and well-educated fools. It reminds me of the correlation between income (or wealth) and happiness. Up to a point increasing wealth is positively correlated with increasing happiness and decreasing stress. But at some point there is a diminishing return, and then eventually the relationship becomes inversely proportional. So too with intelligence and wisdom. So too with knowledge and certainty.


Jane Austen

“I have no talent for certainty.”

Jane Austen, Mansfield Park

Normal Schnormal

The older I get, the crazier I realize that I am. Despite some evidence that I am getting smarter at peeling back layers of reality and seeing more of the big picture, the more clearly I see myself, the worse I appear in my mental bathroom mirror– full of neuroses, false narratives, revised memories, self-deceptions, obsessions and compulsions, unconscious associations, and cognitive biases.

If I’m right that each age and each age group suffers from its own set of individual and collective self-delusions, the only rational behavior would be for all of us to abandon our faith in normality, whatever we currently think it is, and work together in multi-generational, multi-disciplinary groups to re-explore the world and to prospect for new nuggets and veins of reality together.

Homer statue at the University of Virginia

Homer statue at the University of Virginia (Image via Wikipedia)

Prospecting for reality…

I think this is what Thomas Jefferson hoped would happen at the University he established. He doubted the value of simply handing out degrees as certificates of competence. He wanted to create an ongoing, living experiment–a diverse demographic of people living and laboring together in a common cause: questioning normality and learning something new about reality every day. I don’t think the University of Virginia has lived up to that hope over time, but time isn’t all over and done, yet.

When I suggest abandoning normality, I’m not proposing anarchy. I’m really talking about “beginner’s mind“. Of course, there may be some babes worth saving from the dingy bath water of normality and tradition. But normality is  missing something we need to keep the whole bathtub from going over a cliff: We need a diversity of experimental colleges* and universities that aim to combine life-long continuing education with original research and scholarship, which aim to support themselves sustainably on their own local resources, not just as institutions but as diversified micro-cultures; and which aim to reinvent the art of being human for the modern age of anthropogenic disaster.

Not everyone wants to be a student or a scholar. Fewer yet want to be scientists and engineers. Still, I see no reason why every one of us can’t live and work within communities designed to be experimental, educational, and mindful at every level.

Poor Richard


* “Originally, college meant a group of persons living together, under a common set of rules (con- = “together” + leg- = “law” or lego = “I choose”); indeed, some colleges call their members “fellows”.” (Wikipedia: college)

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