Archive for March 26th, 2009

Intellectual Arrogance

One trait that one can see through history is a belief that we can actually understand our world and improve it.  This creates a tendency towards intellectual arrogance; people become sure that their theories about reality are right, and can build rational arguments and cherry pick data to buttress their belief.  Yet shouldn’t we strive to understand the world in which we find itself and make improvements? 

Yes, but sometimes the results are horrific.   Over 100 million people were killed because people thought various forms of the ideology of Communism were accurate, and would produce a utopia if only a country could be reshaped, by force if necessary.   We in the West are not immune.   The neo-conservative thought that brought a destructive war to Iraq — and which in its early stages envisioned a kind of American imperium with Mideast states reshaped to become pro-American democracies — was based on similar arrogance.    Our democracy and capitalist institutions are the right ones for the world, the neo-conservatives argued.   We should be bold in even using force to expand their reach.    Why do we so easily get seduced by illusions of certainty?

 The problem, as noted by Renaissance Guy is that we have uncertainty in a world that requires us to act.   Moreover, while any claim to certainty can be doubted, experience often proves beliefs to have been effective.   I may be wrong, but my experience suggests that I’m probably right, so I’ll act as if I can assume certainty.  For all practical purposes I’m certain gravity won’t cease to function, or that gas won’t change to wine in my car’s tank.  Almost all of life runs that way — we can assume we are right in our beliefs because of practical experience, and we can act with certainty.

But what about complex and abstract beliefs, like ideologies, moral codes, or core values?   Here things get murky.  Experience is less likely to give one an answer about what is right or wrong.   Moreover, experience is so vast that when you move from the concrete to the abstract you can choose the evidence you use and the interpretations you make in order to justify or rationalize any belief.    Often the consequences of acting with certainty on a false abstract belief are not directly observable, or may themselves be ambiguous.   China’s one child policy forced birth control and abortions on people, but the result is that they got their birth rate under control.  Does that mean they did the right thing?   Do we know the long term consequences yet?

While consequences determine how we judge ‘correct’ beliefs in the world of objects, it may be that in the world of values and morality the consequence is either irrelevant or invisible.  It could be that a morally correct action requires one to sacrifice ones’ own life and gain nothing.   It may be that results of doing the right thing won’t be observable.  I may not realize that by stopping to remove that debris from the road I prevented a car from an accident that would have taken two lives.  We can’t know what might have happened differently if we acted differently.

Why does this matter?   First, I want to live the best life possible, so I try to figure out what is moral and good — so a question like this is practical.  Secondly, as a social critic entering into a major research project, this question is at the core of my analysis.  It touches on the economic crisis we’re experiencing, how we’ve gotten involved in numerous wars, and the fundamental values of our culture.  I fear that at this point we’re lost in a kind of post-modern conundrum, whereby truth is less important than political victory.  Positions are determined and argued based on emotion and tactics, there isn’t a lot of listening or interaction.  Indeed, it’s become very easy to demonize the other side, and through insults convince oneself that those idiots are simply wrong.  It all becomes a discursive war, whoever wins gets their way.   The most dangerous opponent is someone who agrees with you sometimes and wants to understand you — they may force you to consider their positions and compromise, and that’s would weaken core principles. 

How can one conceptualize an alternative where one doesn’t need to claim certainty or being right, and one can listen to other perspectives, and try to figure out ways to learn and understand — how to see the situation through diverse lenses?    On the one hand this seems like it should be easy — politicians need to start acting the way we teach kids to act in kindergarten: respect each other, talk nicely, share and listen.  We seem to know how we should act.  But in the real world of politics where people get emotionally invested in debates, ideologies and causes, it’s easier said then done.  Moreover, our culture and way of thinking breeds this kind of intellectual arrogance, an arrogance which causes all of us to far too often ignore those basic modes of behavior we teach our children.   We personalize our intellectual differences, the “other” becomes not just a different person, but a personification of a different/dangerous/wrong way of thinking.

That’s a key question I’m delving into.    Being at a university that is not publish or perish, I have the leisure of being able to read a lot, develop a research plan that reflects my interests (in this case it’s connected to consumerism and militarism), and try to address a major issue of the day, to make a real contribution.   I’m currently grappling with trying to understand Theodor Adorno, and have a list of other thinkers — even ‘out there esoteric’ philosophers — I’m going to consider.  This is going to involve psychology, sociology, philosophy, and bring together diverse approaches.  Peter Berger is another important thinker in this regard, he and Thomas Luckmann wrote the classic “The Social Construction of Reality,” and Berger has been involved in exploring the sociology of religion.  Art is important, I plan to work with people in the arts to develop this approach.  I may fall flat on my face with something totally unpublishable.   But I’d rather do that then engage in the cookie cutter writing that people at publish or perish institutions are forced to engage in.   Being willing to risk failure is necessary to success — and probably a good antedote to intellectual arrogance.   And if I have fun and learn something, all’s well.