Tue, Apr 16, 2013 - Page 9 News List

We must forcefully change our habits if we wish to survive

Humans must develop better judgment in order to avoid the persistent stupidity, unnecessary wars and damaging inequality that characterize the world today

By Henry Porter  /  The Observer, LONDON

“Anyone who values truth,” he wrote, “should stop worshiping reason” in the social context, because it evolved not to help us find the truth of a matter, but to aid “argument, persuasion and manipulation.”

The scientific thinking does force us to come to terms with the limitations of the two sacks of fluid. Research by the Nobel Memorial Prize laureate Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow shows that we are given to all sorts of short cuts that lead us to the wrong conclusion. He divides the mind, like many others before him, into two systems — one that operates automatically and quickly, with little effort and no voluntary control; the other that allocates attention to mental tasks and requires a high degree of effort.

System one frequently suggests solutions that are not always right, but have a ring of truth about them.

Greater knowledge of the way we think is a good thing, yet the reductionism seems to ignore the dazzling chambers of the human mind, which produced the first art in Europe 30,000 years ago; the Antikythera mechanism, the world’s first computer, 2,100 years ago and today performs extraordinary feats of reasoning about the nature of the subatomic world and space-time.

The human brain is one of the most awesome objects in the known universe and the evidence, despite everything, is that we are getting smarter.

For a start, the number of highly intelligent people alive is far greater than at any time in human history.

If we take population growth since the World War II, we can assume that number of gifted individuals has risen proportionately, from roughly 2 million to 6 million — which, incidentally, happens to be the estimated total human population of the world at the end of the last Ice Age.

We live in a more complicated world, which undoubtedly requires the brain to make more connections at greater speed. And potentially we have unlimited access to the sum of the world’s knowledge at our fingertips.

The last does not necessarily make us brighter, but nor does it make us dimmer. Faulks’ speech suggested that our children’s generation would “capture” and remember far less than ours and that this was a kind of catastrophe for civilization.

I do not know what evidence my old school friend has, but it seems obvious that the function of memory is being partly outsourced to the Internet (what is the problem with that?) and that the Web generation is going to make great leaps of understanding because of the new connectedness of human imagination and endeavor. They are operating in interestingly new ways.

Research suggests global average IQ is rising, but how do we reconcile that with our persistent stupidity, unnecessary wars, damaging inequality and denial of probable catastrophe? What hope is there for humanity if the lazy, self-serving, toast-burning creature of system one cannot change?

Surprisingly, the answer comes from Blair, who, when he was being recommended an employee because of their high intelligence asked: “Does he have good judgment?”

After shouting “and well he might,” it is worth noting that for intelligence to exist, stupidity must be vanquished.

That requires judgment, the presence of the other voice in the boardroom or in your head that identifies dumb solutions and customary stupidity. And the good news is that habit can be taught. It will have to be if we are to survive.

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