Degrees of Causality and Human Stupidity.

Lately I have been trying to think of a new way to rank human stupidity that takes into account that very clever people often make stupid decisions and simple people are very often wise. I think it has something to do with understanding multiple degrees of causality. Let me explain:

All events, however insignificant, are the result of unfathomably complex networks of cause and effect – labyrinthine relationships so convoluted they can’t be unravelled by the conscious mind. In trying to understand how the world works we have developed two basic approaches: “not thinking about it at all”, and “thinking about it a whole heck of a lot.”

Simple people tend toward the former, while clever people gravitate toward the latter – like poorly trained domestic dogs to the legs of seated strangers. Not only that, but when they finally figure something out, they go and DO stuff, which introduces a brand new factor of causality into the mix, thus complicating problems even more.

There is a reason clever people suck at being wise. I learned all about it reading Guy Claxton’s Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind. In brief, the rational mind is crap at solving complex, non-linear problems. Oh, it’s great for adding up the grocery bill, but worthless when it comes to dealing with things like climate change or child poverty.

The rational mind can understand a few degrees of causality at most. After that it gets confused, frustrated and distressed. You can see evidence of this in the way many people harbour an irrational fear and hatred of the homeless. They settle on a single degree of causality – wilful laziness – and refuse to look further, into the dark realms of mental illness, bankruptcy, child abuse, the prison and parole system, drug addiction, the preposterousness of land being bought and sold, and all the interwoven factors that might cause a person in a capitalist society to become the ultimate symbol of social exclusion.

To one who fancies herself clever, trusts reason to open the door to understanding and fears her irrational mind, the world is a simple place. Bad things are done by bad people. Good people do good things. Water comes from the tap. Food comes from the grocery store. Petrol comes from the filling station. It can get much more sophisticated (ie. petrol comes from oil, which comes from the ground and is fossilised vegetation, etc.) but no matter how many extra degrees of causality you add to a single thread, it’s fundamentally the same type of thinking.

To a simple person who does not bother much with thinking – one who allows the subconscious to piece together a picture from the vast and complex web of causality in every event – water, food, and energy come from the void and the void is steeped in mystery. A simple soul is cautious not to mess with the unknown, for fear of interrupting the vital flow of water, food and energy.

These days clever people are solving all the problems of the world in a linear fashion, one at a time, rationally, with technology, research and innovation. At the same time, simple people – most of them far, far away from here – are growing food and saving seeds, as they always have, and as their mothers and grandmothers always have.

I can’t say whether I’m simple or clever myself, but I am pragmatic. One thing I understand about the preposterously complex problems of global warming and peak oil is that together they add up to a food shortage, especially in parts of the world that eat almost nothing but imported, petroleum-dependent food. Ie. all the parts I live in. So I sure wish there were more simple people around. Clever people are so busy thinking about how we are going to power our cars and transport our made-in-China brand names, they have forgotten to consider how we will feed ourselves.

WWII Dig for Victory ad from the UK
WWII "Dig for Victory" ad from the UK, circa 1942