Showing off your intelligence by saying stupid things.

One of the most interesting posts on Overcoming Bias not written by Robin or Eliezer is Kip’s old post on “Show-Off Bias,” which consists of the argument that many people promote deliberately unconventional ideas as a signal of intelligence. While I’m skeptical of many of Kip’s examples, and would caution people not to take the genetic fallacy and conclude from the fact that some claim is showoffey that it is false (if only because announcing show-off bias is itself arguably a form of showing off, and, in conjunction with the genetic fallacy, would thereby be self-defeating), there’s definitely something to the phenomenon.

Lately, there’s been a lot of show-off bias from people who try and demonstrate their deep insight and wisdom by saying utterly idiotic things. From conservatives, recently, this has taken the bizarre form of praising human suffering for its own sake, as performed by the blithering idiot Charles Murray (discussed) and the merely normal idiot Helen Rittelmeyer.

And now, from some religion guy, we get explicit praise of irrationality, as such. Of course, there was foreshadowing of this from Rittelmeyer’s bout with brain-damage, as she announced her pro-suffering position by declining to offer any argument for it, openly admitting that no evidence or argument could be offered that would convince anyone who didn’t already agree with her, but nonetheless asserting its truth anyway, as if she’d somehow, Socrates-like, simply been given knowledge of the forms by her personal daimon, and if that isn’t an open embrace of the dinoshit irrational I don’t know what is. But, still. Explicitly denying that reason ought to have a grip on one is a big step down.

The physicist David Bohm intuited this important distinction. In his book Wholeness and the Implicate Order, Bohm recognizes that the kind of imagination that makes scientific and technological innovation possible is more than a linear function of the rational brain. For the quantum physicists each level of knowledge is just a ripple on the surface of another stream, never reaching the “true” nature of things. At some point, the only possible way to imagine this eternally reducible rational model, is to enter into a stream of irrational reflection.

Whether we are comfortable with it or not, this irrational reflection is what has made possible some of the most important contributions to human culture; from the Bhagavad Gita to Shakespeare, from the Sphinx to Bach. This encounter with what the theologian Rudolf Otto called the mysterium tremendem is what so much of our civilization is built on. To suggest we could simply remove it would be to disregard not only its value, but how it might teach us something about humility and, yes, maybe even a little morality.

For example, in the Hebrew Bible, the law is a late-comer to the story. First there are strange encounters in the desert, and only then do the ancient Hebrews begin to hammer out a ethic that can support the magnitude of their plight. This is the formidable power of the religious imagination, its ability to provide metaphor in the way of song, liturgy, and most importantly, story.

I am sympathetic to Dean’s position. I often find myself arguing a similar line. But to imagine a scientific future devoid of the irrational, devoid of mythmaking and ritual, looks too much like the kind of technocracy that technoprogressives would do well to argue against.

This is just dumb. There are plenty of rituals that don’t require stupid beliefs (think of graduations, proms, inaugurations, parades, party conventions), and we can have stories without believing them and making myths out of them (think of, you know, fiction). Fighting irrationality does not mean fighting the imagination, and it doesn’t even mean that us rationalists want to tell him he can’t drop acid anymore — we just want him to reason about the objects of the imagination that he gets from dropping acid before concluding that they are true. Is that really so oppressive? Nothing — nothing — in creativity or imagination requires that we adopt beliefs without sufficient evidence. (Bohm surely would have agreed with this — that the objects of this imaginative — not irrational! — reflection have to be proven, you know, with reasons, and evidence, and math, before they count as good physics. And that is what rationality is. That’s what it is!!)

This whole theological pro-irrationality attitude reminds me of the sort of postmodernist who denies that s/he is under the obligation to reason and make good arguments, yet still expects us to listen to his/her claims. As I recently said in an e-mail, whenever I encounter such people, I always get the urge to drive the point home by kicking my interlocutor in the shins and denying that his/her arguments for why I should stop give me any reason to do so. (Cf. the utilitarian version of this argumentative approach.)

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3 Responses to “Showing off your intelligence by saying stupid things.”

  1. Pretentious « Aaron Weingott Says:

    [...] Posted in Bitching, Environmentheism, Language, Living Kip at Overcoming Bias posted a few months back about what he calls “Show-Off Bias” (Cf. Uncommon Priors): [...]

  2. Brain Says:

    May I be allowed to add my own condemnation of fideism, though from the other side of the aisle, so to speak?

  3. Paul Gowder Says:

    You are not only allowed, you are joyously encouraged, especially since the condemnation of fideism is what allows discussion, and, you know, learning, to happen across that aisle, instead of just sitting around gawping at the funny noises coming out of one another’s mouths.

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