Not So Dumb Now…

It has taken me most of my life to reach acceptance that I am smart, for the many reasons I have written about previously here.  When I was 20, and I was climbing laboriously out of the pit of extreme disadvantage into which I’d been born, I returned to high school, and in the course of human events I took an IQ test which measured mine at 149. I call that level “genius j. g. (junior grade).

While figuring out what I found so repulsive about the thought processes of the Baptists with whom I was raised, I discovered that the worst of it was their ability to deceive themselves; to miraculously contort their minds to believe preposterous things. So I was determined to keep a careful eye on myself to guard against what I call my perfidious mind, geared to make me think I was better than I really was. And because I still had very little self-confidence, it was easy for me to believe that the IQ score must be a fluke, or maybe another scam of some sort.

It’s probably best that I didn’t know then that if you’re so screwed up at the age of 20 (my emotional stability had been measured in the second percentile) there will be a long, uncertain grind ahead to emerge from the valley – and worst that it will prove impossible to ever cast off the resulting chains completely. But I was smart, whether I knew it or not (and often lucky!), so events averaged out positively for me in the long run – and I have come to accept that I’m a genius j.g., largely because there are things about me for which I could simply find no other explanation.

When people make fun of others who are extra-smart (aside from the obvious envy), it’s because those people’s intelligence is concentrated – the physicist with no social skills, for example – although this kind of unevenness is actually rare. I think of the mind as like a cave, with talents being stalagmites. For the unevenly gifted, the cave floor is fairly barren, except for one or two giant stalagmites. Other caves are impenetrable – the minds of Renaissance men (and women!)

Since I retired, I’ve read a lot about this condition I’ve been stricken with (being bright), and there’s one question I think still needs discussion: what are the practical manifestations of this being smart? Let me take my stab at answering, below, and to admit first that I’ve skipped some key ingredients – among them deep introspection; a sense of humor, especially of irony and satire (think of Twain’s and George Carlin’s piercing insights); and an automatic synthesizer that spies the connections between concepts.(This last requires in turn a strong memory, so that the strands necessary to synthesizing are available for use.)

1.  Clarity of Vision   I’m talking about the ability to perceive truth, which seems to be hugely depend on who’s telling it, and is especially persuasive if the speaker is a like-minded ideologue. I am simply not subject to that bias. For me that fog does not exist, which is why as a kid I was not deceived by our Baptist preacher’s rants about hellfire, or by Joe McCarthy’s hunt for reds. For me, motives are transparent. This is social intelligence (Theory of Mind for adults), and it is as rare as solving quadratic equations while playing badminton. I did not develop this ability; I was born with it.

I can’t resist referring again to the Dunning-Kruger effect, because it seems to me like a profound advance in understanding the human mind, despite its apparent simplicity: Yes, they proved that stupid people think they’re smart; but they also found that smart people assume that others are just about as smart as they are – which is what led me to such confusion when I was young. I thought everyone else could tell that the preacher and Joe McCarthy were dodgers, so I couldn’t figure out why everyone pretended to take them seriously. I thought I’d discovered a conspiracy of my own!

Now that I’m old, trying to distill what’s most significant about my mind’s working, I think this ability is pre-eminent – the ability “to tell”; and it is above all the ability to discern motive. Pick your favorite malefactor. Why does he or she do clearly stupid pet tricks? Why are half of Illinois’s governors in the clink? What’s Chris Christie’s illness? Why do so many people prefer that a bully, an authoritarian like him should govern? Why can demagogues so easily frighten conservatives? This list is of infinite length.

Here’s a good one: A young scientist publishes a new idea. His peers beat the hell out of him. Eventually they say it’s such a simple idea he should have thought of it sooner. How come? At long last, have they no sense of decency?! (How many millions of baths had been taken before Archimedes landed on his nugget of understanding?)

2. Objectivity Much of my world view was in place before I left the Baptists behind; it was the best schooling I’ve ever had in human behavior. None of the lessons were taught, though. They had to be sensed, and derived.

I say “I could tell” that none of the people who spoke with a voice of authority actually knew what they were talking about.   They were all part of the paranoid fringe (JFK was the pope’s puppet), and firmly lodged in the arch-conservative bubble, reinforcing their queer beliefs to one another and isolated from others’ ideas.

Anthropologists think that mavericks are important to their cultures, but no culture can afford many of them; and they sometimes act as though the mechanism for limiting their occurrence is a mystery. It’s not. Those mavericks are smarter than their peers and know it, so really have no choice but to go it alone – to “strike out for the territories”; and the smartest are rare. Seems straightforward enough. Am I missing something?

For fundamentalists it’s essential to believe, or pretend to believe, that the Bible is infallible. A child raised from infancy to believe it need only keep the blinders in place.   If reality contradicts belief, it’s reality that must be adjusted. An adult convert soon perceives that the price of admission to the midst of the comfy center is to acquiesce one way or another. I, on the other hand, wanted to find out the truth after being seriously misled. I could also tell that my mind worked differently than most, and it puzzled me.

For one thing, I was born with a significant cognitive failing: my mind is completely unable to entertain superstition, or care about cultural pressure. It’s not my fault. I came from the factory enslaved to the search for reality – an objective search. So when Luther convinced me that I could find the truth for myself by reading the Bible, I tried it.   I found traps. Jesus clearly said he’d return with his big bass drum before everybody who heard his voice had died. Members of the early church were pinkos. The story of Lot’s wife getting turned to salt is grim, but the one about his daughters is a real bodice-ripper.

It turns out Luther was wrong. You need a Bible commentary to explain this stuff. This requires the most magical imaginable mental ju-jitsu. Getting out of these mental jams is a high art called apologetics, and its practitioners are the shamans of Christianity, a.k.a., variously, conservative Bible scholars or bull shit artists.

3. Teflon Coating Anyone who leaves cultural rules behind or questions taboos will cause resentment. It was one of those stalwarts, Bernard Baruch, who spawned the idea that those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind. The coating protects one from the herd. I find Ibsen’s observation to be an essential truth as well, that a minority is sometimes right, but the majority is always wrong.: it’s not cynicism if it’s true!

For someone like me, coming from way behind the curve, there’s a corollary that I borrow from the metaphor of fire in a crowded theater: don‘t fall down or you’re done for – spiritually, in this instance. My siblings all fell down. When storms hit me, I just tried to hunker down and endure them. No heroics. I’m not tricking myself, though. I was born on third too.

4. Perspective Taking When I encounter a puzzle, without making a conscious decision, my mind goes into a “zoom out” mode, and begins circling seeking other revealing vantage points. I found myself doing that recently when I ran across an article belaboring a currently-popular issue which already needs a rest: Amir Aczel banging on that “Science Doesn’t Disprove God: Where Richard Dawkins and New Atheists Go Wrong”.

It’s long, myopic mucking about in an archaeology-textbook-style scan of earlier man’s iterations (like “homo erectus”), followed by a summary of what scholars think makes modern man unique. Here’s his grand finale: “We have no good explanation of how consciousness and symbolic thinking came about. These may well be described as divine gifts.”

I just can’t stand it. After all the drivel, we’re back to God being whatever we don’t yet understand?!   (And what makes the New Atheist new? Updated material? The fact that most aren’t dead yet?) What an embarrassment. What an ass.

One early Zoom Out experience I remember was being entangled in the emotionalism surrounding Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross, and the hymns and ceremonies commemorating it – all the magnificent cultural “poor Jesus” encrustations developed over the centuries. Then I had a “wait a minute” moment.

I needed a refresher. How’d he get in this fix in the first place? Yahweh, having the emotional maturity of a 2-yeaar-old whose brother has peed on his teddy bear, and despite his omniscience, was always getting surprised by the devious acts of his creations, got pissed at Eve for independent thinking, and put the very nastiest hex he could think of on all her offspring.

Then he thought that if his “son”, who actually seemed to be one of his appendages, were to die it could (somehow!) get everyone off the hook, assuming they were properly grateful. He later decided to commute Jesus’s sentence to a 2-day nap – but unless I believed this preposterous myth, I still had to roast in hell forever, whereas it seemed to me I should just have to take a 2-day nap, like Sonny. Now clearly that other deal just wasn’t fair, so I decided I wasn’t going along with it. Who could blame me?

5. Moral Imagination Most important in this respect, I think, is foreseeing negative consequences; but often not understood is that one must have some experience of poverty, hunger, degradation – whatever’s at issue – to imagine variations. Vicarious experience thru the arts can be invaluable, but I can’t imagine Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan reading Grapes of Wrath, or absorbing anything of consequence from it if they were forced. They appear to me unacquainted with empathy and compassion, which are essential to being fully human. They and their kind must be sociopaths.

Ryan never got past Ayn Rand, who was a romance novelist for teenagers. Darwin, though, witnessed the constant fear, agony, and death of the ran forest. I only imagine it – but for me that’s more than sufficient – and for us both, it blew the idea of a benevolent deity to smithereens for good. While empathy and compassion are normal results of a mature moral imagination; superstition is dying a natural death.

6. Humility I have called my blog “Seeking Bedrock”. What follows is, to me, bedrock.

Humility is the unavoidable culmination of exercising the other stuff. Its mortal enemy, and my own, is arrogance, which is our preeminent curse and silliest indulgence – self-puffery with self-deceit. Just as fear and hatred are inseparable sides of the same coin, so are arrogance and ignorance. Thus we see Obama hatred, the belief that the poor are lazy, fatuous nationalistic hagiography, and every other form of bigotry – another endless list. No one can be accounted wise in whom arrogance survives.

More than any other accusation, I’ve repeated “You can trick yourself, but you can’t trick me”, because I’ve confronted self-deceit so constantly. I was myself immunized against self-deception by disgust with the Baptists I grew up among, but I learned a lot of variations on the theme by catching myself trying them on. I got so pissed, and called myself names that were not good for my self-image.

Arrogance is so thick among us. Alexander Pope suggested “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan.” I’d vote for him, but he died. It is the height of arrogance that we should imagine for one instant that we have the mental wherewithal to acquire an adequate concept of the infinite – infinite mind or anything else. In my world, evangelists and missionaries project arrogance at its finest. Who do they  think they are?

narcissism, egotism, tribalism (patriotism), deism, agression,

We lend our confidence to buffoons who entangle us in sumps like Viet Nam and Iraq; but when modern bullies like McCain and his pull-toy Lindsay Graham want to beat on a new villain such as Syria or Russia, we are enthused once more. Maturity demands instead that we understand the deep complexity of international situations – but in this country maturity still usually goes a-begging.

I have found an invaluable antidote for myself. It’s called “A Christian Atheist’s Benediction”, and is the last thing in my memoir “A Scrambler’s Life”:


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