You’ll have to forgive my pessimism. I am simply trying to create theories which help me understand and explain what I experience.
Why is there so much confusion in the world? Why are so many bad ideas believed by so many people? How can charlatans like Lawrence Krauss or Thomas Piketty be respected as profound intellectuals? There are many possible explanations, but I’ve recently become persuaded by one:
Most people do not think clearly enough to recognize clear thinking. In fact, they are dissuaded by it. Clarity gets identified with shallowness. Imprecision and vagueness, on the other hand, are seen as markers of depth and profundity – often to such a degree that outright logical contradictions are accepted. Famed philosopher Michel Foucault famously told John Searle that:
“Twenty-five percent of one’s writing needs to be incomprehensible nonsense to be taken seriously by French philosophers.“
If academicians are persuaded by “incomprehensible nonsense”, then where does that leave the general public?
I am convinced that the children’s story “The Emperor’s New Clothes” satisfactorily explains a great deal of social behavior. Most people defer to authority (whether intellectual, aesthetic, or political) out of insecurity; they worry about being perceived as stupid or uninformed. In addition, there’s a general notion that “intelligent people deal with complex ideas.” The more complex and abstract, the more intelligence it takes to understand.
Therefore, if you can’t grasp the concepts coming from “the experts”, then you must not be intelligent. Thus, when Derrida writes some extremely nonsensical fluff, people act as if it’s profound, because they want to appear smart. This compounds on itself (just like in The Emperor’s New Clothes), and the result is a huge group of people acting like nonsense is brilliant – outsourcing their own critical thinking to a group they perceive as being smarter than themselves.
But it doesn’t end there. Then, these pseudo-intellectuals will seek out nonsensical ideas – those which are the most incomprehensible – to show just how smart they are – to the degree that people actually think they can “transcend” logical reasoning. They become enlightened enough to see that intellectual consistency is the mark of a simpleton, that clear thinking is naive, and that contradictory thinking is profound.
We arrive at an absurd conclusion: people are most impressed when they are most confused. When somebody says, “We now know that cats can be both alive and not-alive at the same time. Quantum physics says so!”, the pseudo-intellectuals all go “Woo, that’s right! I understand, even though it’s counter-intuitive. Science is amazing!” All their pals agree and exchange high-fives with each other, glad they are surrounded by such intelligent peers.
It no longer matters what you say, but how you say it, and who says it. You might think I’m being unfair. Then watch this video:
It is the most absurd conclusion imaginable – adding up and infinite series of positive integers, and getting a negative fraction. You literally couldn’t think of a more preposterous conclusion. If it weren’t serious, it would be over-the-top satire. And yet, here’s professional academics, acting like they’ve discovered some mysterious paradox in the universe.
I urge everybody to investigate this idea for themselves. The internet has many articles defending and rebutting this particular video. The point is: anyone who actually agrees with the conclusion certainly doesn’t understand why. It’s literally nonsense – a clerical error – and proponents demonstrably discredit themselves.
Yet, read the comment section on that video; it’s filled with pseudo-intellectuals, whose entire argument is, “The experts can’t simply be wrong! If you don’t understand, you’re just dumb! If you think they’ve made an elementary error, it’s because you just can’t grasp this level of abstraction!”
Indeed, to those seeking out the most absurd, nonsensical, illogical, and paradoxical ideas, look no further than (some of) the claims of mathematicians. Then, watch this video of Lawrence Krauss, in his own words, establishing himself as an irrational fraud. Only once you reach a high level of intelligence, can you know that 2 + 2 = 5. It should be no surprise, then, that Krauss is revered in many pseudo-intellectual circles for his illogical work.
What To Do
How do you demonstrate clear reasoning to somebody who cannot think clearly? I don’t have an answer, but I am open to suggestions.
How do you impress somebody who cannot think clearly? Simple: use vague language and big words; contradict yourself; interject the words “quantum”, “science”, “infinity”, “peer review”, or “transcendent”; and act as if you are part of an enlightened intellectual club. Avoid any propositions which are clear, straightforward, logical, or appeal to common sense. And avoid simplicity like the plague.
For what it’s worth, in my own studies, I have discovered a remarkably consistent truth: the deepest, most abstract principles in any field of thought tend to be simple. Simple formulas in physics. Simple principles in the martial arts. Simple concepts in philosophy. Simple basics in economics.
When you first begin learning anything, all you see is murky complexity, but as you learn more, things get simpler and simpler. It’s like navigating through a dense jungle. At first, you’re surrounding by darkness and overgrowth, whacking away at everything with your machete. Then, once a path is cleared, it remains cleared, and you can make serious progress.
Chess, to a grandmaster, is much simpler than chess to a beginner. It might involve more intense calculation, but the concepts are clear as day. Of course, you only arrive at this level of clear-headedness after an enormous amount of effort and practice.
This is one reason why most academic writing is, in my opinion, a waste of words (at least in the soft sciences). Nobody takes the time to understand basic conceptual truths, and they mainly concern themselves with grandiose terminology, mathematical fiddling, and references to each other’s work – allthewhile getting foundational concepts wrong.
So, I admit: I am a pessimist. I do not know whether the popularity of cloudy thinking is because of people’s lack of capacity or lack of understanding. But I have a hunch. Hopefully, with the internet circumventing academia – without intellectual gatekeepers – we’ll begin to see a renaissance of clear, logical, and straightforward thinking.