A Journey Toward A Theory Of Stupidity 8 | The Stupidity Scientist Part 2

The first big problem I have with Welles‘ theory comes from his definition of the term itself. Yes, Welles not only provides a complete theory for how stupidity works, but he also provides a definition to boot:

“…‘Stupidity is the learned corruption of learning’. As such, it is a normal, dysfunctional psychic phenomenon which is caused when a schema formed by linguistic biases and social norms acts via the neurotic paradox to establish a positive feedback system which carries behavior to maladaptive excesses.

While I do think that “the learned corruption of learning” is related to stupidity, I fundamentally disagree with it as a definition. Welles here defines stupidity as a sort of psychic state of affairs — a state of being of the mind. However, I contend that he confuses the property “stupid” (a state of being of a person) with the phenomena “stupidity” (a state of affairs which includes the person as a component). We can see the breakdown of this definition in our ordinary language: if stupidity is “the learned corruption of learning”, how then do we call an action stupid? Actions can’t learn because they do not have minds for this process to take place (unless we’re defining a mind as an action which is silly). To fix this language we would say that if your schema is such that you have corrupted your learning through learning then you are stupid, but your mind in this state is not stupidity proper. Stupidity proper is action that makes your learning corrupted. It is the learning, not the learnedness.

It is a behavior.

But that’s only the first major complaint I have. The second has to do with a key component of his theory: the emotional function. Essentially, Welles paints humanity as a bunch of emotional hedonists. (And ineffective ones at that! Ha!) However, in reading his grounding for this I found that he only does so by relying on the cognitive theories provided by Sigmund Freud. Now, I’m not sure if Welles knew what he was getting into by basing his whole justification for the emotional component (which is essential to the theory) on Freud’s theory of cognition. The fact is psychology has changed since the writing of his book: while Freud’s general angle would be adopted, his overall theory would almost be completely thrown out by the mid-1990s. In that sense we might say that Welles’ conception of stupidity is also based on a faulty theory of mind that could use some updating. Indeed, now that we have the Dunning-Kruger effect that I talked about earlier (1999; which explains why Welles wasn’t able to integrate it into his theory) and new advances in behavioral and cognitive psychology (which includes cognitive-behavioral therapy and the idea that we can literally alter our own schema to modify our reactions to our emotions), Welles’ theory is reduced to a shell of its former self.

I move then that we need a new theory that is in line with current science…but like it was with psychology and Freud, I think Welles’ general angle is correct.

The next thing I take issue in is Welles’ criteria for some person to be considered stupid. He has three and I’m going to address each one: the first criterion is that the person must know that they are acting in their own worst interest. Immediately I would suggest that the word “know” here is misleading. In philosophy it is generally agreed that knowledge, at the very least, must include “true belief”. In Welles’ theory the person is not required to have true belief regarding their actions, and in fact he emphasizes how stupid people are living in a fantasy land of fabricated information. As such a stupid person cannot possibly know (i.e. have knowledge—true belief) that they are acting in their own worst interest if nothing they believe about their actions is true. At best they might have the information at their disposal that would tell them this, but choosing to ignore it once presented to them because they believe it is false is different from knowing the matter as fact. That would be “not knowing” the truth by virtue of being wrong.

My rejection of the next criterion builds on this: it must be a choice the person makes, not forced or accidental. It can be agreed that stupidity must be a matter of choice, not forced — but accidental is debatable. It would certainly be an accident if they were wrong, didn’t realize this and otherwise would have made a different decision. Likewise, if knowledge is a matter of belief then the absence of belief because they simply chose not to look for information when they needed to would also be based on some kind of wrong belief. After all, Welles himself stands by the principle that a person’s actions are ultimately governed by their schema. The schema would have to have some kind of defect in order for someone to choose to neglect looking for information when they could and gain knowledge that would avoid the mess that stupidity lands them in. It would seem, then, that the reversal of this position is true: stupidity is entirely accidental.

The third criterion suffers from the same problems as the first two: the activity must be “maladaptive” (in that it is in the worst interest of the actor) and specifically done to prevent adaption to new data or existing circumstances. I don’t think it’s even possible to reject the idea that stupidity is in the worst interest of the actor but the second part is a bit more sketchy. If Welles means that by its nature stupidity prevents the adaptation to new data or existing circumstances then this is justified and I can’t find anything wrong with it. If, however, he means (and I believe this is the case) that the person intentionally does this then we run into questions of knowledge of their own wrongness. The conclusion is the same: stupid people don’t have to have any intentions, conscious or otherwise. The lack of adaptation is a byproduct of their stupidity, not an end-in-itself. Three for three — Welles strikes out in trying to define the criteria by which a person is stupid. What a game, what a game…

There’s probably a lot more that I’m missing (as is the same with the theory) but these are some of the more egregious ones. I don’t mention much more in the book (and I actually added a bit here that wasn’t in there because…why not). Regardless, I don’t think that underestimating the sheer magnitude of Welles’ project and the gains he made in the philosophy of stupidity are to be underestimated. Actually, between him and the other two I talked about, Welles is by far the most important philosopher on this account. And the reason for this is shown in all of the things he brought to the table in understanding this concept:

  • He situates stupidity as a subject of scientific study. His (flawless) reasoning: if intelligence can be the subject of scientific study, then so can stupidity.
    • In so doing he identifies stupidity as a problem dealing with information (and therefore is a linguistic problem as much as it is a perceptual one). This is perhaps the most interesting (and potentially the most significant) development in the philosophy of stupidity.
      • It combines theory of language, theory of mind and theory of behavior, setting these three subjects as the primary areas of the philosophy of stupidity.
      • He relates the environment to information which is worth some looking into.
      • He relates knowledge to information and demonstrates a startling fact: knowledge itself is not enough in intelligent endeavors. We can have lots of true information but if most of it is useless then that doesn’t help our cause in being intelligent. In that sense, information can be relevant to our decisions or irrelevant and this distinction is very useful.
        • This might be seen in his distinction between knowledge and wisdom (which he also makes but not in connection to this).
  • He denies the ability for us to talk about stupidity in a meaningful way in a deterministic universe. Free choice is assumed for the sake of his understanding of stupidity. (Worth some investigation.)
  • He grounds our perception, cognition, judgement and behavior all in our belief systems. And that means that we cannot understand stupidity without understanding belief. This is a key insight.
    • He defines a belief system as a system of linguistic abstraction. Relying on the abstraction alone without input from reality is a mental trap. (Sound familiar? It should.)
    • In talking about judgement he thinks about them terms of “success” or “failure” which are, to him, normative in nature. This is also very interesting and worth expanding on.
  • He also introduces the concept of change (in terms of reality) into our understanding of stupidity on this account. This is a powerful notion as we do live in an ever changing universe.
  • He makes a very important distinction between biological evolution and social evolution: social evolution can actually end up with people becoming less fit for survival in terms of the environment in general while they become more fit for survival in life as part of a group.
    • Therefore, stupidity is a natural evolutionary phenomena and so evolutionary theories that claim humanity is ultimately making progress may be entirely mistaken. In fact, if stupidity is allowed to run amuck then we may very well all evolve to be stupid and depending on what we’re stupid about that could be the end of all of us. Evolution can kill us all. Neat.

So there you have it: Welles in a nutshell. I’m kind of surprised I was able to fit this into two posts but I suppose that I did take some liberties in the length these times around… Anyway, with all of our notable philosophers talked about it’s time to start talking about the implications all of their works have for journey.

To Be Continued

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