Dumber and dumber:

The rise of man and his dumbing down

By Richard Douglas

MOQ Online: Forum

Dumb and dumber

The rise of man and his dumbing down
by Richard Douglas

Our current modes of rationality are not moving society forward into a better world. They are taking it further and further away from that better world. Since the Renaissance these modes have worked. As long as the need for food, clothing and shelter is dominant they will continue to work. But now that for huge masses of people these needs no longer overwhelm everything else, the whole structure of reason, handed down to us from ancient times, is no longer adequate. It begins to be seen for what it really is - emotionally hollow, esthetically meaningless and spiritually empty.

- Robert M Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motocycle Maintenance

There is a fatal flaw in the intellectual foundations of our society, a fault which is only truly revealing itself now, in the late twentieth century. We know its effects as "dumbing down". This is a world which is losing faith in rationality, in the official answers given by society's intellectual establishment. Belief in aliens, the powers of Nostradamus, codes in the Bible, conspiracy theories of all sorts; all these testify to a growing irrationality. Or rather, what they are signs of is an increasing difficulty in separating fantasy from reality.

This is a world which has grown alienated from ideas, in which people are losing the capacity to truly believe in anything. Values have become almost entirely relativised, convictions reduced to mere opinions. Society is now so dominated by official experts that people have become divorced from their own abilities to make sense of the world, to determine for themselves what they really think. All the official beliefs of society, all the things we regard as true, are now so remote and impersonalised we find it very hard to truly identify with them. Meanwhile, our personal lives become utterly personal and subjective, and we all but lose the wherewithal to govern these with our beliefs, to structure our lives, to achieve any real certainty in the personal choices we make. Isolated from principles, we live our lives in an increasingly banal fantasy land in which our natural priorities are inverted. The serious becomes trivial, and the trivial, serious; news turns into entertainment, and entertainment, news.

Why should this be, after centuries of progress? Why should society be getting dumber now, just when more people are receiving more education than ever before, when society is technologically more powerful than it has ever been? It doesn't make sense. We have all been brought up with the idea that things should be getting better and better, society more and more powerful. So what is going wrong?

In large part this very attitude, this belief in the inevitability of progress, is to blame. Confident that the movement of society was inescapably upwards, we have grown complacent about the need to exercise ourselves intellectually. The point of using one's mind has been lost; if things are advancing anyway, why should we bother puzzling things out ourselves? The intellectual life has been steadily draining out of society, leaving behind institutions which people attend, and beliefs which people parrot, that are little more than empty husks. While society has been progressing in material terms, this movement has concealed a growing intellectual decay.

These parallel movements, of material rise and intellectual decline, are more than casually linked. The philosophy of progress encourages dumbing down through making us used to not thinking for ourselves. Faith in progress has been built on a belief in objective truth. This belief actively discourages us from using our own minds. We are meant to switch off our personal thoughts, to disregard our merely subjective opinions, to dispassionately accept the evidence before us. The idea of objective truth upholds a model of intellectual passivity. Thomas Huxley, the nineteenth century British biologist, best known for his championing of Darwin, reflected this when he said the scientist should "sit down before fact as a little child". Practise this attitude, it was thought, and we would automatically advance. The more we suppressed all that was personal to us, the more "objectified" we would become. In doing this we would be rationalising society, removing from it the knots and folds of impulse and passion, thus allowing it to catch the great winds of history and blow us into the future. Yet in removing impulse and passion from our intellectual work, we risked removing ideas from our personal lives and humanity from our ideas.

There is, then, a contradiction at the heart of our ideas about progress. It is strange to realise it, but our confidence in the inevitable rise of man was from the outset twinned with a thorough mistrust of his personal powers as a thinker. In order to take in the objective facts around us we had as far as possible to stop listening to our own thoughts. In this scheme of things, speculation, imagination, intuition - thinking - were to be repressed. The advancement of society was to be achieved alongside - and indeed through - the abolition of thinking. Thinking is bad. It gets in the way of observation. Too personal, subjective, unreliable. The great lesson we learn as we grow up, the single underlying message our education gives us, is that thinking on our own will get us nowhere. Only by following the right methods, by amassing evidence in the proper manner, by excising our personal responses, will we enjoy any communication with the truth, and so play our part in progress.

Is it any wonder in these circumstances that society is becoming denser and denser? Or at least, that the ordinary intelligence, the intellectual wattage of day to day life, is diminishing? This is only the result of what we have been brought up to believe; we have been taught not to think. The reason it is becoming noticeable now is that the effects of these ideas are today more wide reaching than ever before. The project of the Scientific Revolution, begun in the sixteenth century, has in the last fifty years finally come into fruition. Science, and the ideal of objective knowledge it upholds, has fully conquered society, leaving us no intellectual model, religious or philosophic, which could buttress a serious belief in our personal abilities to understand reality.

Our minds have been colonised by the scientific ideal in two ways, one active and one implied. The first is through the education we receive at school, which discourages us from thinking for ourselves; the second, through all the technological wonders of the age, use of which discourages us from thinking at all.

Universal education has undermined older ways of thinking, all but destroying common sense - the essence of which is precisely that it is the beliefs held by a society in common. The academic spirit within the school system works against this, fetishising knowledge, creating a specialised territory of the intellect, quite removed from the individual's life in the world. The personal and intellectual become separated, and every piece of common wisdom one learns outside school is relegated to the status of myth, fantasy, or prejudice, not to be treated seriously at all. While liberating us of restrictive customs and irrational superstitions, schools have also deprived us of a sense of intellectual belonging. We are no longer part of a world which collectively makes, upholds, and passes on its truths. Instead, as intellectual beings, we are stranded in a new world of many separate provinces, each foreign and remote to the other.

Technological advancement throughout this century has rendered us increasingly passive, not just physically but mentally. Since the war, technology has made life more comfortable for all, and so extended the influence of science throughout society, in a different but perhaps yet more important way than education. Technology does not itself teach us any lessons. What it does is dull our minds and erode our independence. We become used to not applying ourselves in our daily lives. Just a few decades ago, everyday life presented a continual series of little challenges. Simply to have to make up a fire every morning taught one mental discipline and gave weight to the quotidian, creating a conduit between the world within the mind and that without. Such a thing was a small job and yet one knew it was important, both because of the acute physical discomfort one might experience before a fire was lit, and because of the potential to burn the house down if one did not do it right. Tasks like this are intellectual, although we would not generally recognise them by that name. They require the active use of the mind, the application of one's mental resources in order to solve a problem. To go through life meeting such challenges is to get a solid grounding in the way of the world, to understand that life is full of natural checks and balances, that everything costs, that hard work and concentration are required for success in anything. It is, simply, to keep one's mind sharp; not necessarily intellectual, in the sense we would normally understand, but nonetheless keen.

In a more comfortable age, our minds are allowed to develop untrained. Lacking a firm connection with the outside world, our thoughts become free to whistle about as they please, and we learn no common sense lessons about how the world works. Our mental and physical lives become disconnected, and the intellectual loses its grounding in the everyday. It is this which allows the ideal of objective truth to work its full effects on us. Used to not applying ourselves in our everyday lives, we are only too ready to resign our interest in the field of abstract ideas. Used to thinking we have no personal influence over our physical circumstances, we are equally ready to believe we have no influence over our intellectual environment. We withdraw our active intelligence, both from our physical tasks and duties, and from our intellectual learning. Our lives shrink to a purely personal sphere, in which the only things we relate to, the only things we treat as actually being real, are those subjects we deem wholly subjective. Thus we take an exaggerated interest in entertainment, trying to turn all things into entertainment and to drive all these to the level of pure entertainment - wholly subjective, wholly fun, wholly private and unofficial, wholly unstructured, without any kind of check. We try to live without any reminder of a single underlying reality, a world which has its own naturally produced rules to which we are all subject. Accordingly, we become lost, bereft of guidance, unsure what to believe, what to do. We spend our lives in a dreamworld, desperately searching for something tangible, something to truly believe in, but capable only of voyaging deeper into fantasy, into a wholly subjective existence. Our withdrawal from the wider world, both the physical world around us and the world of ideas, leaves us perpetually unsatisfied, perpetually seeking a firm sense of place in the world and a genuine communion with what lies outside of us. So long as we do not challenge the ideal of objective knowledge, this is the state in which we will remain.

As it stands, it is all but impossible to subject any of society's ideas about ideas to criticism. The terms of these beliefs preclude it. The ideal of objective truth has progressed to such an influential point, and society's intellectual work become so bureaucratised and specialised, that one has virtually no chance of effecting a profound change in the way we think. Intellectual progress is to be made incrementally, in tiny steps, in tiny fields, new ideas emerging slowly, and only from those in official positions. To criticise the underlying thinking of society is almost impossible since there are no official disciplines devoted to such general study. Such criticism depends not on bowing down before fact, but on arguing one's case. It runs counter to the ideal of intellectual passivity our society enshrines. The authority one draws on is not technical evidence, the special currency of the intellectual bureaucrat, but reason, which is freely available to all. In short, to attempt to change the intellectual foundations of a society, one must feel at home in the world of ideas. One must feel a personal connection with principle, a sense both that principles matter to one's personal life and that one can have a personal say in what they should be. This necessarily puts one out of step with society, with the established methods for broadcasting intellectual work. The fact is that in today's society, philosophy has no place. The study of philosophy, yes, the history of ideas; but philosophy itself, philosophy as an active living thing, no. There are not the transmission belts which might connect thinker and society. Or rather, these belts are only to be found within official compounds, societies in themselves which seldom convey any thinking into the wider world beyond.

Things have progressed to this stage because of the fault in our ideal of objective knowledge, the irrationality at the heart of rational beliefs. Objective knowledge is a simply impossible ideal for the reason that one can never bypass one's own subjective mind. One can never have a direct access to reality, independent of oneself. The moment a piece of evidence enters one's mind it is contaminated with one's subjectivity, no longer a manifestation of the natural Truth to be found out there. There are no "facts" as such for us to sit down before; we are never entirely neutral observers, always contributing something, always shaping our perceptions with our prior beliefs. The objective ideal is clearly ludicrous.

Of course, as any good scientist would say, no one is meant to take this ideal literally. It is simply that, an ideal; something to aim for, not something which might ever be achieved. No decent scientist would ever claim he had objective knowledge of anything. All that scientists ever have are hypotheses. Science cannot ever prove anything; all it can do is produce results which are consistent with certain hypotheses. And this is quite good enough. For all intents and purposes these suppositions can function perfectly well as objective certainties.

Yet while all this is true, the fact remains that the objective ideal is the model which society looks to. All of our intellectual work is now made in this image. The scientific ideal began to spread to the humanities in the nineteenth century; Marx's science of society is the most famous example. This thinking has now become victorious. This is not to say everyone is a Marxist. Rather it is that all who aspire to intellectual status share Marx's desire to produce work which rings with the authority of objective fact. Academics are now highly self-conscious about merely passing personal comment on the world. Subjects are now highly specialised, formalised and bureaucratised, all with the aim of making them more objective; more serious.

If the objective ideal is impossible for scientists to realise, of course, it is even more so for those who study history, literature, politics, and so on. This, though, is the ideal we have, and no one wants to let on that his subject is forever condemned to fall short and remain merely subjective. The result of this is that the intellectual work of society experiences a contractile momentum, squeezing out more and more of the personality from our ideas. Disciplines narrow and fracture, the focus of each becoming ever yet more tight. The work of academics becomes reduced to merely cataloguing, simply researching, amassing an ever growing wealth of detail with increasingly little point. The closest we can come to the objective ideal is to simply reflect what we are studying, in as much detail, and with as little interpretation, as possible.

Academics are themselves unable to reverse this trend because that would require argument too general, too personal, too subjective to exert any influence within the system. Society's intellectual establishment is out of control! There's no hand on the tiller. We have passed a crucial point in this contractile movement of our studies. Now our intellectual institutions are so specialised and sceptical they can no longer be changed from within.

At the same time that academe is narrowing within, it is also expanding without, extending its influence over more and more of ordinary life. It does this directly first of all, through expanding the number of its subjects, many of them thoroughly mundane. This wider casting of the academic net is only a natural product of the pursuit of the objective ideal; in order to successfully squeeze out one's personality from one's work, one needs to continually find more raw information to catalogue. Academe also influences society less directly, in the shape of the ideal which it spreads. This leads to everyone becoming a worshipper of experts, those that can claim an objective understanding of their subject. Steadily, the whole of society becomes academised, all knowledge impersonalised.

What this means is that society becomes increasingly subject to a bureaucracy of enlightenment which is itself becoming increasingly inefficient. The influence of academe is growing in inverse proportion to its own intellectual integrity. Within the university, studies are becoming so specialised that it is all but impossible for anyone to set their work in a wider context and make some sense of it. As for drawing some moral from one's studies - what might be thought the purpose of education - this is a very old-fashioned idea, fit only for an intellectual museum, laughable in the present day. The example of the university is copied throughout society at large, leading to an ever greater specialisation of technical knowledge in every field. Society becomes increasingly disjointed intellectually, an incoherence which is mirrored within the mind of the individual. Knowledge is fetishised, pushed upwards into the hands of official elites in which it is then fractured, rendering it increasingly incomprehensible. The intellectual and personal spheres become disconnected, and we all become disenfranchised from the world of ideas.

As academe has passed a crucial point of incoherence, so has society. Ideas have slipped out of our control. We do not identify with them, we do not trust in our own abilities to change them, we are not prepared to listen to others make them. We have a great intellectual inheritance, but without the care and maintenance provided by living thought this is an old pile which is falling to bits.

© Richard Douglas

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