Stupidology | A General Introduction

If ever there were a reason to do philosophy, one might turn to Socrates and his famous dictum that “the unexamined life is not worth living”. Surely if this is true then there is no reason not to do philosophy if one plans on living; it’s “philosophy or die” — that’s the choice these words present with virtually no alternative. But for as much as I appreciate this kind of no-holds-barred style (and Socrates’ character in general), I find a few things to be…odd about this statement. Namely, a few things the dictum doesn’t say about the unexamined life that might be worth considering.

For one thing, the dictum doesn’t say that an unexamined life is a miserable life. It is entirely possible to be happy and not think about one’s life at all. Likewise, it doesn’t say that an unexamined life is an impoverished life. One could feasibly live a life of prosperity without thinking about life in the meantime. These insights (and others) could be used as objections to the dictum, but what I find most interesting is that the dictum actually allows for many reasons to do philosophy. With this statement Socrates was proposing that an examined life is a necessary feature of a life worth living (they are inclusive); it doesn’t say in what way it is to be examined, only that it has to be if it is to be worth living. Practically speaking this means that your chances at living a life worth living are only increased if you find some other reason to do philosophy than avoiding a life not worth living. With that in mind we might say that depending on what the unexamined life is like there might be even more compelling reasons for doing philosophy. And as long as we’re on that topic, if there’s one interesting thing the dictum doesn’t say about the unexamined life (that I find particularly compelling for doing philosophy) it would be this: the unexamined life is downright dangerous.

Frankly, I don’t think I can sum up the foundation of stupidology in a way more succinct than that.

As much as “The School of Stupidology” may sound like a joke or an Internet meme factory, after all of the stuff I’ve read and reflected on it seems clear enough to me that the philosophy of stupidity has some serious implications that deserve legitimate attention. Actually, it’s hard to find something that this area of philosophy doesn’t have implications for (and we’ll get into why that is another time), but for now I think the most important aspect about it is that it even has implications for what you should do with the study itself (it actually requires metaphilosophy, go figure). On those grounds, if I were to provide what it means to be a stupidologist then there is at least one meaningful distinction between “someone who studies the philosophy of stupidity” and “a stupidologist”; that being that a stupidologist doesn’t simply study stupidity – rather they study stupidity in order to become less stupid. And this is because while to Socrates an unexamined life might be a fate worse than death, to the stupidologist (in a strange twist of irony) the very same thing can get you killed.

Yes, not examining your life (i.e. “doing philosophy”) can literally cause death if you don’t understand the implications of your own actions before it’s too late. And there is definitive proof of this. …Actually there’s a lot of proof of this. (Sadly.) But in order to make a case on this, I think an example is in order — an example I’ve been dying to use in actual discourse on this subject but haven’t been able to for lack of an audience (thus the blog). It all dates back to 2012 when an Internet trend started called the “fire challenge”. Some of the more savvy Internet folks might connect this to things like the “ice bucket challenge” or the “mannequin challenge”, and they’d be right. But for those not in the know, essentially all you have to do with any Internet challenge is to do whatever activities are specified by the challenge and upload a video of you doing it to the Internet. The fire challenge itself is pretty straightforward: you put a flammable substance on yourself and then you set yourself on fire. That’s it. Nothing else.

Sounds like fun, right?

Unsurprisingly, near death experiences did occur (as is the case with many other Internet challenges, but I digress). And while the results are certainly tragic, the elephant in the room here is how unbelievably absurd even the prospect of “death by fire challenge” is. The fact that setting yourself on fire can kill you is general knowledge. There’s really no excuse for not knowing that in the 21st century — geography and economic class be damned. Hell, even people who are considered developmentally handicapped can recite the dangers of playing with fire. (We’ll make some distinctions between IQ and intelligence later on, don’t you worry.) So what gives? Why did this person do this? Why would anyone do this? It’s confusing and fascinating and kind of disturbing all at the same time. Luckily there are people who lived through the challenge who might give us some insight into these questions. But the strange part about studying the responses of these people is that to many of them the aforementioned fact (and other relevant facts about fire) seemed to be news to them.

Take this kid whom, after being hospitalized, gives two peculiar responses to the journalists investigating the story:

Quote (from the article): “When we asked the teenager what he thought would happen when he set himself on fire, he said, ‘I don’t know, I wasn’t thinking really.’ [emphasis mine]” He also discouraged others from partaking in the challenge according to another article: “‘You can get caught on fire and die, your house can get caught on fire, wherever you’re at can get caught on fire,’ said the teen, cautioning others not to light themselves on fire for any reason.” Most people would look at this statement and say “duh”, but what catches my attention here is the drastic change in disposition from before and after the challenge. Before the challenge the boy states himself that he had no conception of what setting himself on fire would be like. But after the challenge his conception is very clear and precise and he even appeals to it to dissuade others from doing the same. In other words there is a very clear link between one’s conception of some kind of activity and one’s positions toward doing it.

Seeing as how our positions toward doing some activity have at least some bearing on whether we actually do it (I wouldn’t argue this is always the case, but in many cases it is), this would mean that a clarification of one’s conception of some activity may actually dissuade us from doing it. But if we consider what a clarification of one’s conception of anything actually entails, then my point from earlier starts to make sense: clarifying conceptions is entirely within the purview of philosophy. There’s literally nothing else that does that. So, with all that laid out, the argument finally comes to a head: if we happen to have a case where one’s current conception of some activity would lead them to engage in it AND that activity would lead to their death AND at the same time a clarification of that person’s conception of that activity would lead them not to engage in it, then — bada-bing, bada-boom — a lack of philosophy can kill you.

Thus the seed from which the rest is born.

Given that there are many different kinds of activities that all lead to different states of affairs, technically a lack of philosophy can lead to any state of affairs depending on which of one’s own activities go without clarification. Essentially a life without philosophy necessarily becomes a sort of lackadaisical and random experience filled to the brim with an almost uncanny amount of self-generated instability; this kind of life simply takes what comes to it and does whatever based on who knows what and merely accepts everything that happens as a result as it is no matter how regrettable it might seem in hindsight. Thinking about philosophy in this light, Socrates’ dictum may very well be right: a life like this doesn’t seem like some “grand alternative” to death (actually it sounds kind of absurd in comparison). But this is not to say that the infusion of philosophy would make living this “grand alternative”; “the examined life” could be conceptualized in a number of different ways and not all of those ways will necessarily avoid “the absurd life”. Some seem, however, more or less promising.

And I contend that a life built around stupidology is sufficient for doing just that.

This is because in studying the nature of stupidity one finds an overwhelming wealth of evidence that acts of stupidity are, in some sense, a class of activities which when clarified to a certain extent would result in no one having the position that they would engage in them. (The reasons for this are complicated and deal with axiology, but we’ll deal with that bridge when we cross it.) Indeed the mere existence of an activity that can’t be “pinned down” as something to do or not to do in a distinctively objective sense seems to imply that it isn’t necessarily stupid. There might be disagreement around it, but calling someone stupid for doing it or not doing it in this context is fundamentally rhetorical and doesn’t carry the weight that the term implies in other prominent uses. Case in point: we don’t call people who set themselves on fire “stupid” because it’s merely a rhetorical term to express that we simply disagree with the action. We mean something far more delegitimizing: no one in their right mind would do this.

It’s this “in their right mind” part that’s privy to stupidology.

Fundamentally, it is the job of the stupidologist to discover which activities fall under this category of “no one in their right mind would”, what would make something fall into this category, what this “right mindset” entails, and what might put us in this mindset. We might also consider what activities might fall into the category of “everyone in their right mind would”, what a “wrong mindset” might look like, and similar lines of inquiry. There are also the implications that come with the sheer existence of such a “right mindset” and the apparent inability of people to possess/apply it (as demonstrated in many behaviors). It is the latter which provides the evidence by which a proper theory of this “right mindset” can be constructed. But in order for us to have evidence of this kind, we must define what counts as evidence of this kind. Therefore, the key to figuring all of this out lies squarely and solely in an examination of the concept of stupidity itself. One must define what stupidity is (in more than the vague “universalist” sense I’ve provided) and figure out what causes it. One must discover its reach, its spread and its potential. And in doing so one must also ask the ever pressing question: “am I stupid?”

All of this is to be understood in the context of the existence of the phenomenon in which a reconceptualization of an activity can change one’s behavior to avoid specific states of affairs, in turn theoretically providing a way to avoid any potential state of affair indefinitely as long as those affairs are the result of one’s own behavior. The goal is simple: cut the stupid activities out of our own lives and inspire others to do the same (so as not to be the victim of their stupidity either) by reconceptualizing stupidity itself. In so doing, stupidology builds not only a world-view but a way of life, fully committal and communal (thus The School of Stupidology). It is as much concerned with abstract and theoretical considerations as it is the everyday workings of ordinary people in their everyday lives. But it is also concerned with how these things might inform and work together to obtain (or massively fail to obtain) the goal. As a result we think about the choices we make, why we make them, and why those choices matter. We think about the failure of our minds to fully grasp the things that are and the states of our lives that stem from this failure. And we think about the role that philosophy has to play in this scheme.

This is stupidology: a type of pragmatism but with a quasi-existential turn.

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