Intelligence

IN 2008 Northwestern University Press published a collection of essays by Lionel Trilling edited by Leon Wieseltier under the title The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent. Wieseltier chose the title because one of Trilling’s teachers, John Erskine, had once published an essay by that title. The problem I have with this title is that it makes no sense whatever and given that Trilling was a brilliant man he would have known this. The collection is in some way an insult to the man Wieseltier hoped to praise. There is no question he held Trilling in very high regard, but he should have given the title of the book more thought.

The title makes no sense because we cannot have an obligation to be intelligent. We either are or we are not intelligent. As Immanuel Kant argued many hears ago, “ought implies can.” We cannot choose to be intelligent, though we can choose to be as intelligent as possible. Thus the title “The Moral Obligation To Be As Intelligent As Possible” would have made sense. But it is a bit cumbersome and was doubtless rejected on those grounds. Again, we can try to be intelligent. Indeed, according to much of the collective wisdom of the Western tradition, we have a moral obligation to develop our potential, including our mental capacity, and not to waste it.

Our president and his minions have set the benchmark for intelligence at a very low level. In addition, the electronic toys the kids are addicted to have been shown to diminish intelligence. Popular culture and the entertainment industry have replaced “high culture” and civil discourse. And our schools don’t see intelligence as having any real value. But then intelligence in this country has never been regarded as an especially good thing, a thing to be sought after as desirable in its own right. Ours is a nation of practical folks who have always been suspicious of those who exhibit intelligence, those “eggheads” so derided not long ago. The notion that we should pursue knowledge for its own sake and not simply because it may someday translate into greater profits for ourselves and the companies we might happen to work for is anathema in this culture. And, to a lesser extent, it always has been, despite the fact that the founders of this nation were a remarkably intelligent group of men, as were the two presidents we revere most highly — namely, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. But, then, consistency has never been our strong forte.

Moreover, it makes no sense to say that we have a moral obligation to do something we cannot do. I cannot tell you, for example, that you really should leap off the highest building in town and fly — where “should” reflects the moral obligation to do just that. This makes no sense whatever. Thus, if intelligence is something we are either born with or not, then it makes no sense whatever to tell someone that they really should be intelligent. Even the phrase reflects the nonsense at the heart of the demand. But the notion that we should all, in this day and age, try as hard as we can to become as intelligent as possible makes perfectly good sense — despite the current cultural pressures to be as stupid as possible. Wasting our time and our minds on electronic toys, social media, violent movies, and listening to mindless people shouting at one another on television is not designed to make us smarter. It is tantamount to wasting our talents, our potential as human beings, our potential as a specific human being with specific abilities and talents.

We pay lip service to this idea when we note that “the mind is a terrible thing to waste” (or as Dan Quayle said in this regard, “What a waste it is to lose one’s mind. . .”  Quayle knew whereof he spoke.) And our sitting president who spends his time tweeting inanities and taking mulligans on the golf course at the expense of the American taxpayer is certainly not my choice to be captain of the intelligence corps. But he is revered by countless Americans who see him as the Great White Hope, a man of extraordinary intelligence (as he insists he is) who will lead us to a brighter tomorrow. Probably not. Certainly not if we continue to waste our minds on trivia and toys and ignore the obligation to try to be as intelligent as possible and to elect politicians in the future who exhibit at least a modicum of intelligence.

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Impulsive

Of all the qualities the president-elect has shown to us I think the most disturbing is his impulsiveness. I gather that this word means the tendency to act quickly without forethought — as we do in stores when we see something we don’t really need but it looks enticing. So we buy it.  This man shows every sign of being impulsive to a very high degree.

How does this fit in with the analysis I posted the other day, standing as I did on the shoulders of Arthur Schopenhauer? I have thought about this and it fits perfectly. The man of dominant will, the man who exhibits a diminished intellectual capacity, is likely to act on impulse. His intellect is completely at the service of his will: it simply shows him the way to achieve the ends he wants, it provides motivation. Period. His intellect lacks imagination and the ability to abstract from immediate experience; he has scattered ideas but lacks ideation. Impulse is the embodiment of this sort of behavior: immersed in the present, we simply grab what we want without giving it a thought.

Let us imagine that such a person is a TV personality who wants to improve his ratings and also to make sure he will get a great deal more money from the network bosses. Let us suppose further that this man decides that running for president will do the trick. He doesn’t think it through, indeed he CAN’T think it through. He doesn’t really know what the presidency involves and he has no idea what the Constitution of his country allows the president to do and what restraints it puts on that office. But he knows he wants to make the run. And in doing so he perceives around him an alarming degree of discontent and even anger and hatred on the part of a great many people toward those, like himself, who are wealthy and who have much bigger slices of the pie.

This man is clever and he realizes that his bid for success in the presidential race necessitates posing as one of those angry folks and encouraging their basest wishes — which are in many respects like his own. He is a super salesman: he has been selling himself for years and he knows how to play that game. (I never said this man was stupid. I simply said that his intelligence is totally in the service of his will). His will is very strong indeed, and has always shown him the way to achieve what he has gone after; and as his success increases his will becomes even stronger, much like a spoiled child.

Along with his impulsiveness, which leads him to say and do things he has not thought through, we discover in this man a tendency to react strongly to criticism and observations from others who oppose this will. Impulsively, he strikes out at those people, calling them names and threatening to sue, jail, and even to harm them. He is a bully and he sees those who oppose him as people to be eradicated, one way or the other.

This, as I understand it, is the sort of person Schopenhauer has described and the man we have selected for our next president. His will dominates his personality and he exhibits a mind that is enslaved to that will, a strong tendency to act impulsively. Recall how Schopenhauer describes such a person:

“. . . we find in many men a strong, i.e., decided, resolute, persistent, unbending, wayward, and vehement will, combined with a very weak and incapable understanding, so that every one who has to do with them is thrown into despair, for their will remains inaccessible to all reason and ideas, and is not to be got at, so that it is hidden, as it were, in a sack, out of which it wills blindly.”

There has been much talk lately about how this man is precisely the sort that Alexander Hamilton warned against in the Federalist Papers, the sort for man the electoral college is supposed to keep out of the highest office in the land. I would argue that he is the prototype of such a man, and his impulsiveness is the key to a personality that will act first and react later — showing a tendency to reduce what little thought he is capable of to finding fault with others and blaming them for his own shortcomings — and if impeded he will plot other avenues to the shallow goals he has set for himself. This is a personality that is lost within itself and acts only in those ways that will advance his own agenda and seeks blindly to find ways to eliminate those who oppose his will.

It is my sincere hope, and my expectation, that if the electoral college does not perform its proper function this man will enrage those he must please in order to realize his goals (to wit, the Congress) to the point that soon after his swearing-in he will be impeached by that Congress — a Congress made up of a majority of men and women from his own political party who will find this man impossible to deal with. They cannot understand him and he refuses to try to understand them — as though he even could.

Progress?

We tend to be a bit smug here in America. We are convinced that we have made huge strides over the rest of the world that has been left behind in our tracks. Our technical wizardry is at or near the top of the pile, we have licked most communicable diseases and have the most powerful pickup trucks. In a word, we are more intelligent and just plain superior to the rest of the world — especially the so-called “third world” which we disdain, confident that they will assuredly never catch up with us. Exaggeration? Hyperbole? Perhaps. But I doubt that there are many out there that doubt that those with the highest IQs in the world are the product of the industrial revolution that arose in Europe and soon was capped off by American “know-how.” Is it possible that this is all bollocks?

In a recent book written by the biologist Jared Diamond titled Guns, Germs, and Steel, these pretensions are called into serious question. Diamond will have none of it. In fact, he suggests that our technical wizardry, for example, has placed us behind undeveloped countries we like to think of as “primitive” or “backward” precisely because it is leaving us passive and without a thought in our heads.  Speaking of the folks in New Guinea whom he has come to know well, he rejects the notion of genetic superiority in the West on the grounds that our medical advances have resulted in a shallower gene pool than those “backward” countries that have developed natural immunities, noting that

“Today, most live-born Western infants survive fatal infections. . . and reproduce themselves, regardless of their intelligence and the genes they bear. In contrast, New Guineans have been living in societies where human numbers were too low for epidemic diseases of dense populations to evolve. Instead, traditional New Guineans suffered high mortality from murder, chronic tribal warfare, accidents, and problems procuring food.”

In a word, intelligence is likely to be greater in those societies where the struggle to survive weeds out those who cannot “think on their feet,”  than it is in those medically advanced societies where those with low intelligence survive and  reproduce. He goes on to argue that

“. . .there is a second reason why the New Guineans may have come to be smarter than Westerners. Modern European and American children spend much of their time being passively entertained by television, radio, and movies. In the average American household the TV set is on for seven hours per day. In contrast, traditional New Guinea children have virtually no such opportunities for passive entertainment and instead spend almost all of their waking hours actively doing something, such as talking or playing with other children or adults. Almost all studies of child development emphasize the role of childhood stimulation and activity in promoting mental development, and stress the irreversible mental stunting associated with reduced childhood stimulation. This effect surely contributes a non-genetic component to the superior average mental function displayed by New Guineans.”

Now, bear in mind that this was written in 1997 before iPhones and iPads became attached to virtually every child in this culture. The development of these electronic toys, many of which are now required in the schools — even, in some cases, provided by the taxpayers — has surely added grist to Diamond’s mill. These toys increase the inactivity and passiveness which he rightly associates with reduced mental development — of the left-hemisphere of the human brain, at least. I say “rightly” because all the data we have, including brain scans and MRIs of the human brain, reveal a lower level of activity while watching essentially passive media such as television than they do when being told stories, for example.

We like to think we are somehow an “advanced” civilization and it will not readily be accepted in this culture that we are not — and that those in a “backward” culture such as New Guinea could actually be smarter than we are. But, then, most of us don’t like to accept the evidence about the role humans are playing in climate change, either.  Indeed, we tend to turn away from unpleasant truths, especially since we have become convinced that progress is an inherently good thing, that if something can be done quickly and easily it is ipso facto better or more advanced than another way of doing things that is slower and takes more effort. This is a conviction that goes deep into our collective psyches and all the research in the world will almost certainly not convince the majority of us that what we call progress is in fact taking us backwards.

 

Who Cares?

I have blogged about the drone kills before, though the posts have not been overly popular. I don’t think people like to think about these anti-terrorist tactics that may strike some as in themselves terroristic. This is especially so since mistakes have been made in the past and a number of innocent lives, estimated at the end of last year to be around 145, have been lost in those attacks. And it has been revealed recently that even the targeting of American citizens anywhere in the world (except the United States) has been approved — if they are suspected of terrorist tendencies. At what point do we balk?

A poll recently revealed that 77% of the Democrats polled approve of the drone kills. That number astounded me, and it makes me wonder if that many Democrats would approve of the flights if they were ordered by a Republican president. It doesn’t seem to me that any citizen should simply approve of what his or her President does simply because they happen to be of the same political party. If something is wrong, it is wrong no matter who orders it.

But, speaking of wrong, in a recent speech  in his home state of South Carolina covered by Yahoo News, Senator Lindsey Graham seemed to be bragging as he had the following interesting remark to make about these drone attacks:

“We’ve killed 4,700,” the lawmaker said. “Sometimes you hit innocent people, and I hate that, but we’re at war, and we’ve taken out some very senior members of Al-Qaeda.”

Graham’s dismissive aside about the innocent lives that have been taken is extremely offensive. And I hesitate to point out the fact that the same intelligence community that is providing information about who are and who are not “very senior members of Al-Qaeda” failed to provide adequate information to this government about the attacks on the Twin Towers or the more recent terrorist attacks on the American Embassy in Benghazi. So we don’t really know how many innocent lives have been lost in these strikes.

But what is especially disturbing about Graham’s remarks is his claim that we are at war. We are not at war, though we have coined the phrase “war on terror” to hide our shame. Indeed, we are the best protected nation in the world with 300,000 troops stationed overseas and oceans on either side of this continent. But even if we were in a war declared as such by this Congress, we should hesitate to approve of tactics that are known to have “residual effects,” as they say, in taking the lives of innocent people.

How would we feel about this if these drone attacks were ordered by, say, Iran, and they targeted the Secretary of Defense (or Senator Graham for that matter) and they happened to “take out” several dozen innocent American lives at the same time? I dare say there would be outrage and cries for retaliation — as well there should be. What we would not want done to ourselves we should not want done to others.There is simply no way these attacks can be defended on ethical grounds.

But if you are keeping score, “they” killed 3000 people in the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers; we have now apparently killed 4,700 of them. We’re ahead. How sickening.

TV And The Human Brain

The thing about studies is that they often confirm what common sense tells us. Most people know that watching too much TV will addle the brain. Moreover, there is evidence that TV watching is addictive. As Marie Winn says in her interesting book The Plug-In Drug, “The entry into another world offered by reading includes an easily accessible return ticket. The entry via television does not. In this way television viewing, for those vulnerable to addiction, is more like drinking or taking drugs — once you start it is hard to stop.”

But more serious than its effects on adults, are the effects it has on our children. Parents tell their children over and over “it will turn your brain to mush.”  Studies since as early as 1972 tend to confirm what we all know in our gut: TV has deleterious effects on brain development. It may not turn the brain to mush, but it doesn’t allow the left hemisphere of the brain to develop properly. It is not only addictive, it is stupefying.

Jane Healy wrote the definitive book on the subject, as I see it, when she wrote Endangered Minds. She was very cautious in her conclusions, but her book draws on a number of studies — such as the ones in 1987 involving Positron Emission Tomography (PET scans) that show that “environmental factors can alter neutron pathways during early childhood and long after.” This was startling news at the time as there was considerable disagreement whether environmental factors had any effects whatever on brain development. But the studies show disturbing effects. Children, especially at early ages, need human interaction. They learn language from humans, not from TV and radio. As a New York Times science writer said at the time the studies were conducted, “The words have to come from an attentive, engaged human being. As far as anyone has been able to determine, radio and television do not work.”

The problem with TV, radio, computers, iPhones, iPods, etc. is that they are not human and they do not engage the brains of the users fully. They are essentially passive media and the user simply acts like a receptor, not fully engaged in what is happening. Note how young children stare trance-like at the TV when viewing their programs.  Even highly regarded TV shows like “Sesame Street” engage only a part of the child’s brain and leave the major portions of it untouched. This is critical because there are small “windows” in the child’s brain development and once those windows are closed, it is difficult, if not impossible, to engage that part of the brain later on. In a word, TV (for example) has long-lasting effects. And those effects involve such vital things as language development. As Marie Winn points out in the book referred to above, “… a carefully controlled study designed to explore the relationship between television viewing and the language spoken by preschool children discovered an inverse relationship between viewing time and performance on tests of language development; the children in the study who viewed more television at home demonstrated lower language levels.”

The hampered ability to use language handcuffs the child throughout school and on into later life. Language is essential to thought and more than ever we need people who are not only articulate, but also able to think through the masses of information that overwhelm them each day and separate the nonsense from the essential truth — if there is any. If this is not always apparent it is especially so as elections come around and voters are called upon to make decisions that can affect them and their descendants for years to come.

In a word, parents would be well advised to turn the TV off for several hours at the end of each day and spend time with their kids talking, telling them stories, reading to them, having them read, and having them make up stories themselves. To refer again to Marie Winn’s  book referenced above, “TV Turnoffs organized by schools and libraries throughout the country. . .demonstrated that when competition from the TV is eliminated, children simply and easily turn to reading instead.” Further, I don’t think we should be overly anxious to have the schools incorporate electronic devices into the early years of a child’s education, either. Human contact and human interaction are essential. The more kids use words the more adept they will become and the more active the left hemisphere of their brains will be — and this is essential to their future success.

And as a footnote to this discussion, it would seem that we should look elsewhere than at our teachers when pointing to low test scores and the inability of our kids to do well in math and language. Teachers might do better than they do, perhaps, but it all starts at home.