Stupidity and cultures

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Brightdrops.com

(Read it here in Spanish)

Evolutionary biologist David Krakauer, researcher and president of Santa Fe Institute (multidisciplinary center devoted to the study of complexity), gives us a definition of stupidity related to resolution of tasks or problems: a stupid solution would make us reach a goal or result – if at all!- at least as long as if we entrusted ourselves to pure chance. Let’s take the example of a Rubik’s Cube. Smart solutions would lead us to solve the cube in a relatively short time, which could be minutes or hours, following rational rules or guidelines. It’s true that if we had an infinite amount of time we would end up solving the cube sooner or later (perhaps in two million or in thirty thousand million years’ time), manipulating it at our will without any reasoning or pattern. But a manifestly stupid solution, such as simply rotating the cube without altering the layout of its 27 components, wouldn’t be effective even throughout eternity. A stupid person tends to do stupid things like that, but not all stupidity is committed by strictly stupid individuals (deprived of the use of reason): there are also blinded, ignorant, ill-informed and fanatics (who place their poisonous ideology before reason).

Krakauer distinguishes between two types of cultural artifacts, according to their effect on our cognition: complementary and competitors. The former strengthen our cognitive skills and therefore make us smarter. Among them are maps, abacuses and languages. Not only they fulfill the function they were designed for; furthermore, installed in a virtual mode in our brain (whose wiring they contribute to), they boost various capacities. The use for calculation of abacus, for example, favours both spatial and linguistic understanding. On the other side, cultural artifacts that compete with our cognition are those which perform much better and in less time than a human tasks that we already knew how to do. A typical example is electronic calculator, which has provided us very good services but at the expense of making some people forget how to multiply or divide large numbers. The risk of these competitor artifacts, which also comprise text processors, is that they make us dumb and might leave us -if someday they disappear- in a condition worse than when they were invented (it’s not unlikely that in a few decades almost no human can multiply or divide manually, or even write by hand with a pencil or pen). Therefore, it would be a mistake to rely too heavily on them.

By the way, are we allowed to speak about stupid cultures or, at least, about some cultures being more stupid than others? Even about cultures that make their individuals stupid?… If we see culture as an enhancer of intelligence, we must recognize the existence of cultural objects more effective than others. Roman numbers were a good invention for counting (provided that figures were not too high), but not for arithmetic operations. To add, subtract, multiply, and divide (let’s not talk about algebra!), Indo-Arabic numbering system is infinitely better. It is therefore not surprising that medieval Europeans were so far behind in mathematics compared to Islamic world. A culture without advanced mathematics would never have been able to put a man on the Moon or decrypt our genome. The same can be said of an illiterate culture. Of course, science would not be possible without mathematics and writing. And without them, the cognitive universe of its individuals would be much poorer.

Defying all political correctness, philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris argues that a culture that justifies honour crimes or discrimination against women is objectively inferior to other democratic and tolerant. Following Krakauer’s approach, a culture of that kind (founded on tradition-religion and not on reason) would make their individuals not only morally worse but also less intelligent, imprinting from their early childhood on their neural connections a hallmark of hatred and irrationality. As well as Roman numbers are inferior to Indo-arabic ones, Taliban culture (extreme paradigm of fundamentalism) would be inferior to that of a democratic civilized society. Among other things, Harris says, for promoting the commission by  psychologically normal people of acts that in a democratic society could only be attributed to psychopaths. It’s difficult to rebut… rationally.

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