Saturday, February 4, 2012

Your Will Is Not Your Own: why intelligence is linked to free thought

I recently read a Daily Mail article that talked about Canadian study linking prejudice and conservative thinking with people that have had lower intellectual capabilities as a child, here.

Am I surprised by the link? No, not really. It doesn't take a genius to work out that reactionary politics is a draw for those who look for simplistic explanations and easy solutions.

For an obvious example, there is a reason why the left-wing is more sympathetic towards the unemployed that the right. Norman Tebbitt, the infamous vanguard of the Thatcherite right, said that unemployed people were lazy; they didn't have a job because they couldn't be bothered looking for one, his own father, when out of work "got on his bike and looked for a job".
Clearly, life is more complex than that. While it's true that there are always a small percentage of people who genuinely are work-idle, the vast majority are unemployed due to a wide number of social and economic factors. People who are left-wing tend to see this; people on the right, often don't.
The same thinking goes for poverty: the left-wing cites the huge number of social and economic factors involved that can create and exacurbate poverty; the right may well just as well say people are poor because they lack the motivation to better themselves.
I could go on. Immigration is another famous example. The conservative right claims that immigrants take away jobs that would normally be available to natives; forgetting the fact that most immigrants do the jobs that natives usually don't want to do. This is true in Dublin and Doncaster as much as it is in Dubai. Again, while there may be a small proportion who are there to milk the generous benefits of living in civilised society, the vast majority start from the bottom rung, and only make any progress through working far harder and in far worse conditions than the natives. Immigrant-bashing from the right is not only wrong-headed, it's also immoral.

What is evidently true is that it's only by looking at any issue with the complete range of factors that a rational answer can be arrived at. This is what the scientific study mentioned in the Daily Mail is getting at: rationalism and free-thought (rather than prejudice and narrow-mindedness) go hand in hand with intelligence. Anyone bringing easy answers to complicated issues is using either lazy thinking or, bluntly, missing something in the head.

Does that mean that Karl Marx was smarter than, say, Ayn Rand? Well, there's a convincing argument that relying on simplistic models of society and human nature, as Ayn Rand does when arguing in favour of a complete free market, is not backed up by any real evidence. Whenever Rand's ideas were put into place, they tended to result in the opposite of what she intended.
Am I saying that Communism is therefore intellectually better than Capitalism? Communists certainly believed they were, and when the Soviet Union existed, those in power in Moscow (at least, at the start) believed that they were involved in some kind of quasi-scientific venture.
What went wrong with Communism is that it forgot that people by nature want to have free-will. That was one reason why Capitalism, for all its faults, was ultimately more successful: the attraction of free-will, over the will of the state, won the day.
However, the Great Crash of 2008 brought the flaws of Capitalism into sharp focus; nowadays, people would rather the state have a bigger role in society; they would rather sacrifice some of their "free-will" in order to ensure stability in society as a whole. That demonstrates the fact that many people understand that life is not an "either-or" choice; life is complicated and messy, and that's why there needs to be a middle ground between the things that individuals do best, and the things that government can do best. Few people these days would agree with Ronald Reagan that "government is the problem". In that sense, people nowadays are more left-wing than they were, say, thirty years ago: they recognise much better, and in much greater detail, what things individuals do well, and what things government should be responsible for.

This issue of free-will doesn't only apply to politics. Although I am not openly religious (I have stated on my Facebook page that I am a Stoic Pantheist), the issue of free-will and religion can't be avoided while we're on the topic. Just as some right-wing people prefer the certainty that simple answers give (which also allows them to abrogate their thinking to those in power), people who are religiously conservative prefer the simple answers that their divine texts give.

Therefore, by definition, people who blindly rely on a religious text, without using their own minds to decide if it is something justifiable, cannot be considered rational or intelligent. Those who willingly choose to throw away their free-will to a religious text without question, are implicitly admitting to their own intellectual emptiness.

Some people, however, explain their conservative habits through national "culture"; a catch-all word that can be used to excuse the most abhorrent human behaviour, as well as an excuse for those already of weak mind and evil intent, to carry out their moral depravity.
There are many possible examples I could cite. The example in Pakistan, of a TV show host harassing young couples in a park to check if they are married, is relatively mild one. In Azerbaijan, journalists throwing false allegations at a pop star in a live question-and-answer session, is another. In Croatia, young couples may also be harassed by locals if they are suspected of not being married. In the USA, doctors who carry out abortions can be killed.

So what I am saying does not necessarily depend on the religion itself; it depends on the extent to which people decide to use religion or "culture" to pursue their own prejudices and ignorance. It is perfectly possible to be rational and free-thinking, and religious; a good example I saw recently was the conduct of the Amish people in rural USA, who follow the Bible more closely than the conservative fanatics, but with none of the blind ignorance and fervour. The Amish can calmly and rationally explain why sex after marriage is a good idea; the Taliban cannot. The Amish can calmly and rationally explain why their men and women wear the old-fashioned clothes they do; the Wahhabists cannot.

Your will is your own. To rely on one simple answer for everything, whether it be from "culture", a religious text, a one-size-fits-all solution, or a knee-jerk reaction, is demeaning to your own intelligence and humanity.

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