Smart and Stupid, Left and Right, Up and Down, In and Out
Recently I was discussing politics with friends and the conversation turned into one of intelligence, with the predictable bias towards conservatism being associated with stupidity and progressives being the smart crowd. I refuse to accept the premise as is it absurd on every level and in direct conflict with the evidence. Furthermore, intelligence isn’t what we think it is; it gets complicated when we’re talking about ‘smart’ and ‘stupid’, especially in regards to politics. To begin with, there is the obvious problem of subjectivity; it is very easy to regard people who agree with us as smart and the people who disagree as stupid, but to do so is to indulge in self-indulgent fallacies that only lead into deeper confusion and error. Then there is the problem of determining what it is we mean by ‘smart’ and what yardsticks we use to measure intelligence. It is at this point that I must acknowledge my own subjectivity on this matter; I love sushi, prefer a Bass to a Bud, and am a union member from a union family. Everyone has a vested interest in politics even if they don’t understand what it is, which leads to the problem of dishonest cynicism being mistaken for an equivalent ‘side’ in a debate; it is very difficult for someone to understand something when they are being paid not to.
That being said, a lot of people have real trouble grasping complex ideas that require accepting ambiguity and uncertainty as principles that seem to be essential to the operation of the universe. This is why some people are absolutely horrified by the idea of transgendered people or that the Earth hasn’t always been exactly the way it looks right now. Creative and curious people are drawn to ambiguity and uncertainty because that’s where the interesting opportunities for novel experience are; conversely, conservative personalities are repelled by ambiguity and are made anxious by uncertainty. It’s why the notion that things were once better than they are now pervades this worldview; conservatives see the ambiguity and uncertainty around them as an aberration rather than a norm and refuse to accept it. From their point of view, it is preferable to stamp out ambiguity when it is found than to engage with it.
There is science that suggests that this sort of difference in thinking styles may have something to do with brain structure; I would suggest that thinking style affects the development of brain structure. In the nature and nurture debate I come in right around the middle; there is evidence that the brain is plastic and that the way we exercise it can shape its’ development. What the political/brain structure correlation study is evidence of is that the minds of conservatives and progressives perceive and process their worldviews differently, not that either of them is somehow smarter than the other. Science is a philosophical tool that has allowed humans to do amazing things; it is a self-correcting system that requires ambiguity and uncertainty be engaged head on in order to function properly. Religion is not a philosophical tool, it is far more primal than that; it is the tool that separated us from the animals. The unique creative capacity for abstract thinking of the human brain generated a kind of consciousness that never existed before on Earth, that could imagine existence beyond this life and consciousnesses greater than our own; it was a consciousness that could perceive the inevitability of its own mortality and wonder about the mysterious world it inhabited. Religion was the first response of the awakened human mind to the universe.
I’m rereading Julian Jaynes ‘The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind‘, which, despite its unwieldy title, is an eminently readable, fascinating, and thoughtful book that presents one of the best arguments for what the phenomena of consciousness is. His ideas about the development of modern consciousness as occurring as recently as 3000 years ago are daring yet explain many questions about evidence from antiquity, as well as questions about our own situation in the modern world. Perhaps liberals and conservatives have such difficulty talking to each other because they truly are operating in different states of consciousness; perhaps it is because they are different facets of the same jewel that prevents them from seeing eye to eye. When talking about politics and intelligence it is helpful to remember that our own brains are split into bicameral hemispheres in much the same way our politics and political organs are; like Whitman singing of himself, we all contain contradictory multitudes.