Humans are Not Stupid or Dumb
Criticism, Intellectual Yet Idiots, David Deutsch, Humans are creative problem solvers
I was recently at a small dinner gathering of people in the “tech world”. In other words, people with strong connections to Silicon Valley and startups. One was in the process of selling his startup for a couple million dollars. Another worked for a biotech startup. Another was launching his own “space” startup. You get the point. Some of them have large Twitter followings, fairly public lives, were invited to Hereticon, and casually discussed the personal lives of other tech millionaires. One of them was also the recipient of the prestigious Tyler Cowen grant, who is said to be able to spot the talent of the future.
“Some humans are stupid!” “No, they’re not!”
Somehow the conversation meandered its way to talking about how “the average American is so dumb.” There was an air of righteousness in the conversation and an air of how everyone there was much smarter than most Americans, and indeed most people. Stories were thrown around of other people doing dumb acts like not knowing where Mexico was on the map or of a family that forgot to pack its bags for their vacation.
I was a little horrified. It was my first time meeting these people, but I couldn’t resist being the only one to argue against their idea of “most people are stupid.”
I’ll recount the conversation as I recall it. Of course, it’s not going to be verbatim, but I’ll do my best to keep it accurate.
Me: “Well, I don’t think humans are stupid. Every human is perfectly capable of understanding all there is to be understood. It’s simply a matter of knowledge. They make mistakes or don’t understand certain things because they don’t have the knowledge to understand it. And they may not have the knowledge for a whole host of reasons: no desire to learn it, their upbringing, no time, or whatever it is. It does not at all imply that humans are stupid.”
There was suddenly an air of seriousness about the room. It felt as if my argument seemed to hit a moral spot for them and they wondered if they should feel bad about them making fun of others. My rationale for explaining my worldview was not to invoke their moral sentiments. It was to truly try to make them understand that they might be flawed in their thinking or to at least have a healthy discussion about it. Criticism is not a bad thing, criticism is meant to correct errors and improve understanding. I try to not take criticism personally and openly invite it if I can. In fact, if someone is criticizing your flawed ideas and you error-correct because of their criticism, its one of the best gifts someone can confer on you. You should thank that person.
Anyway, the girl (let’s call her “Girl X”) who was the recipient of this Tyler Cowen grant responded to my argument next.
First, let me explain why I’ve already mentioned twice that she was awarded this grant and why I chose to open this essay by discussing the “high-status” credentials and work backgrounds of the people at the dinner party. It’s because a lot of people automatically attribute a level of prestige to someone who has received this grant or some such similar award or is the founder of a futuristic startup that will revolutionize the world or is a famous investor or more generally is an “expert” at something. People seem to think that such experts are “extremely intelligent” and “they’ve got to be right because after all they are authority figures.”
Such “experts” certainly deserve credit for things they are knowledgeable about and areas they’ve made progress in. But these very same people can make errors too. They are no demi-gods. All humans make mistakes, all humans are fallible. Like criticism, making mistakes is not a bad thing, it’s just an opportunity to correct errors. So, I think it’s important to listen to the arguments and explanations of people and strip out our beliefs on whether they might be right or not based on their credentials. The point I’m making is that don’t believe someone or put someone on a high pedestal merely because they are “authority” figures or “experts” or have some credentials attached to their name. It’s important to question, think through things for yourself and apply first principles thinking, while at the same time knowing that you too can make errors. Indeed, I may have errors in this very post! This is also why changing your mind on things is not bad. It’s how you make progress, it’s how you correct-errors, it’s how you obtain good knowledge.
With this backdrop, let me say that I’m not criticizing Girl X, I’m merely criticizing her idea. But first, her response to me:
Girl X: “I’m not saying people are dumb in a demeaning manner. I’m just saying that people have different capacities to understand things or different levels of intelligence. For example, I once tried to explain something to someone and I explained 5 times but she didn’t get it. Sure, maybe I wasn’t explaining well and I even tried to change how I explained it, but there are only so many ways that’s possible. At some point you realize that she just isn’t capable of understanding it.”
Me: “Well, maybe that girl just didn’t have the prerequisite knowledge to understand what you were trying to explain. For example, if you tried to explain quantum physics to me today, it’s possible that I don’t understand it because I lack some background knowledge. But once I understand the background knowledge, who is to say that I won’t be able to grasp quantum physics? My point is that I’m perfectly capable of understanding it, it’s just a matter of obtaining the right explanations and knowledge. So, I’m sure that girl would have been able to grasp whatever you were explaining to her if she had all the knowledge needed to grasp it.”
Girl X looked at me like I’m stupid. Maybe I’m being overly dramatic here but that was my read of her face. Anyway, that’s not important to the story, I merely add it for effect and entertainment.
Another boy jumped into the conversation.
Boy 1: “Uhh, I’m with Girl X here. I’ve had a similar experience myself where I’ve tried and tried to understand certain things but failed to. Clearly, I have an upper ceiling when it comes to understanding certain subjects. In the same manner, people have different levels of intelligence. After all, all the brilliant scientists have been tested for such high levels of IQ. In the same vein, some people are just not intelligent enough to understand some things.”
Girl X had a triumphant look on her face. I shrugged and kept quiet, partially because I felt as if they weren’t so open to listening to my argument and partially because someone else leaped on the opportunity to steer the conversation in another less-confrontational direction.
I honestly couldn’t participate in the rest of the dinner with my usual gusto. I think it’s partially because going into the dinner I had higher expectations that these people would have more of an optimistic take on society. After all, they come from the utopian tech world. But more than that, I genuinely felt sad.
I was genuinely sad that these people who might in the future (and present) have the ability to yield their influence and reach on many others have such a pessimistic take on humanity. Do they truly think others are dumb and not well-read?
Intellectual Yet Idiots
At some point into the dinner, we started talking about a group of young people who had come together to form a society called “Praxis”. Someone asked, “Why do they call themselves “Praxis”? Doesn’t that word come from Christian theology that is very different from what they stand for?”
Girl X responded indignantly, “Because people don’t read! The other day someone was arguing over what Jean-Jacques Rosseau had to say, and I’m no philosopher, but they were stating his most basic argument incorrectly! People just don’t read.”
This response from Girl X was another jab at most people and how they don’t have much knowledge because “they don’t read.” It was also a subtle statement trying to show that she reads a lot. I have four main points to make here.
First, just because someone is “well-read” does not mean that they have the correct understanding of how knowledge works in society. There are plenty of people who are “well-read” but they may have read the wrong books or for whatever reason, they hold incorrect models of the world in their head. A lot of “experts” fall in this category. Nassim Taleb has a good word for them: Intellectual Yet Idiots (IYIs). Such people think they are intellectual because they’ve read a lot of books, but they don’t truly understand how things work. Look, most of us hold some incorrect models in our heads (as I’ve already pointed out how humans are fallible), but the problem with these IYIs is that they think they’re always right just because they are seemingly “well-read.” Let’s not conflate being well-read with having the right knowledge.
Second, related to my first point, there are plenty of people who are not “well-read” or do not have fancy college degrees and they in fact understand the world much better! A lot of these people have real world experience and on-the job training and their knowledge comes from interacting with how the world actually works, instead of sitting in offices and intellectualizing about how the world works. Taleb calls these people “The Fat Tony’s” of the world. Indeed, they might not be well-read and some may not even know how to read, but they may have superior knowledge of the world than the well-read IYIs.
Third, not knowing Rosseau’s philosophy or being incorrect about it doesn’t make anyone dumb. It simply means that they have the incorrect knowledge on it. That’s fine and they can correct it. Frankly, knowing Rosseau’s philosophy might not even be worth knowing (Now, that’s a shocking statement for “IYI’s”, ha? They might claim: “How can you not know the philosophies of the most prominent philosophers?” The answer is simple: Because it’s not relevant and most of them don’t even have good arguments).
Fourth, the word praxis has a few different meanings, miss “well-read explainer of Rosseau.” (Sorry, I don’t mean to be mean, but a little humorous jab hurt no one)
Now, it might seem that I have some personal vendetta against Girl X. I don’t. I don’t know this girl outside of my little group interaction with her. I’m criticizing her ideas on people because I think criticism is important to progression of knowledge and to error-correcting, as I’ve already mentioned a billion times. (I need to shut up on this, no?) And because I think it’s truly important to criticize her pessimistic take on people because it makes a difference to how people behave and see their function in society. No one should think that they’re stupid and not important, because they’re not. I’m not saying this in some self-help or motivation sort of way, although it’s fine if it is projected that way; I’m saying this because it’s simply not true that people are not capable of understanding all there is to be understood. Let me attempt to explain my worldview.
Humans are Creative Problem Solvers
My worldview on humans is largely influenced by David Deutsch. But again, it’s not because he is a prominent physicist and an “authority” figure. It’s because it makes sense to me. I couldn’t find errors in his explanations. So, what is the worldview? I was going to write it out in my own words, but then I re-read Naval Ravikant and Brett Hall’s conversation on this and love how Brett has explained it. So I’m going to first quote him before I follow-on with my own words:
Deutsch’s worldview is that reality is comprehensible. Problems are solvable, or “soluble,” as he writes. It’s a deeply rationally optimistic worldview that believes in good scientific explanations and progress.
Progress is inevitable as long as we have these good explanations. Good explanations have tremendous reach. They are acts of creativity.
Humans are problem solvers and can solve all problems. All sins and evil are due to a lack of knowledge. One can be optimistic about constant progress. That’s what the title refers to: We’re at the beginning of an infinite series of progress.
It’s a very optimistic take. It states that we are at home in the universe and the universe is ours as a resource to learn about and exploit; that material wealth is a set of physical transformations that we can affect; that everything that is not forbidden by the laws of physics is eventually possible through knowledge and knowledge creation.
He also writes about how humans are universal explainers, that anything that can be known and understood can be known and understood by human beings in the computation power of a human system.
Everything is knowable by humans. We’re at the beginning of an infinity of knowledge.
We understand things using good explanations and constantly replace old theories with better ones. There’s no endpoint in sight. There’s no perfection. Every theory can be falsified eventually and improved.
We are on our way to being able to do everything that is not forbidden by the laws of physics.
Now, in my words. Deutsch’s book The Beginning of Infinity expounds upon how knowledge is created in society. All progress in this world has been made through knowledge creation. So the crux of understanding the world is understanding how knowledge is created.
Knowledge is created by humans through good explanations. Explanations start off as conjectures, as acts of creativity, and then are subject to experimentation and testing. In this manner, a lot of conjectures get rejected if the experiment shows them to be false or if the explanation is easy to vary. Good explanations are hard to vary and are testable. But there are no absolute truths in society. At some point, new explanations might come up that show previous explanations to be incorrect. So, good explanations are also falsifiable.
Note that I said, good explanations start off as conjectures or ideas. Where do these ideas come from? They come from people. They don’t just come from “high-IQ” people. They can come from anyone. Humans are problem solvers. They come up with ideas to solve their problems, subject them to experimentation and testing, and then come up with good scientific explanations to solve the problem. This is how science makes progress and indeed how all of progress happens in society. Having knowledge of something is a matter of understanding the explanations behind that something. If you don’t understand something, it’s simply because you don’t possess the knowledge of that thing. It does not mean you are dumb. It means you don’t have the knowledge.
If Deutsch’s worldview sounds like something you’d want to further dive into, I highly recommend reading his book The Beginning of Infinity.
I’ll end by saying that I want to make it clear I have nothing personal against the people at the dinner. They were nice people and overall, it was a fun time (although if any of them ever read this, I’ll likely never be invited again!). I just wanted to subject their ideas to criticism. Further, it gave me a good story to write this post and spread Deutsch’s optimistic message to more people.
For fun, I’ll finish with some self-help motivational type of sentences cause why not:
Don’t let anyone tell you you’re dumb or stupid, and specially not the so-called experts. You’re not dumb. You can understand all there is to be understood. You are a creative problem-solver.