Against Intellectualism

I’ve seen this quote passed around a lot:

I’m quite happy to be an anti-intellectual, actually. It is the modern equivalent of anticlericalism, and it is long overdue. One can oppose specific institutions without opposing thought in general. In fact, sometimes, it is even necessary.

It’s hard to believe it came from Moldbug, being the intellectual he is, but it did.

But maybe being an intellectual is not the same as intellectualism. That’s why I coined the term ‘smartistim‘ to describe a society, such as post-2008 America, where intellect plays a pivotal role in things like socioeconomic outcomes and social status, whether we wish it were that way or not.

In the Dawkins Pwned series, what Moldbug meant was that Richard Dawkins is a ‘secular-Christian’, that ‘clericalism’ has less to do with religiosity and more to do with hubris. Indeed, Dawkins has defended Christianity, and rightfully so, as a force against Islamic extremism.

From Moldbug, in the case of Dawkins, instead of Christianity, it’s ‘Einsteinism’ – a secular type of religiosity that has many of the mannerisms as how some perceive fundamental Christianity – provincialism and narrow-mindedness. Here is the pertinent passage from part 2 of Pwned:

With this adaptive taxonomy, atheism, secularism, laicism, etc, appear as extreme variants of pietism. The urge to tear down all ritual, to worship Reason and Man rather than Church and God, to whitewash the frescoes and melt down the candlesticks, is everpresent in pietism. Professor Dawkins’ entire shtick is perfectly consistent with the pietist niche. No wonder it’s so successful.

In other words, atheism shares many of the qualities of the religious fundamentalism it decries. But replace ‘god’ with ‘reason’.

Perhaps intellectualism is perceived by some as illiberal – not conservative, but rather impersonal, Kafkaesque, Draconian, Orwellian, etc. I had my own experience with the impersonal world of academia, trying to submit content on the Arxiv repository to no avail, which I will discuss in a later post. Although this has more to do with bureaucracy than intellect. Less intelligent people, when they try to organize, form mobs. But smarter people tend to form bureaucracies, which is preferable to disorder.

But also, let’s not forget that, historically, oppressive regimes systematically persecuted intellectuals. In any prison, you’re typical prisoner is not like Hannibal Lecter, but instead more likely to reside on the left side of the Bell Curve.

Ultimately, like many aspects of political economy and society, there is a middle ground between intellectualism (which tends to be impersonal, merit-based, individualistic) and collectivism (community, gregariousness, touchy-feeling stuff). Too much of the former results in atomization and hence no civilization; too much of the latter and you have a mountain of skulls.

From Individuaism vs. Thede

This is similar to the divide on the ‘right’ over libertarians, anarcho-capitalists, and neocons, who tend to favor free markets, defense spending, individualism, and autonomy, versus the religious/traditional right, who are more skeptical of free markets and too much individualism, supporting close-knit communities united by tradition, fraternity, and ethnicity. Paleocons and traditionalists argue that unbridled capitalism – especially free markets – subverts tradition and borders, promotes amorality, and hurts native workers. –

And from Family and Individualism

In any society, there is probably an optimal balance between individualism and collectivism. A society that is 100% atomized, by definition, is not a society. But history also shows that total conformity is no better. Those quirky people on the right side of the Bell Curve, with their idiosyncrasies, are needed for society to advance technologically, while everyone else goes about tending to civilization. If you go through Charles Murray’s database of human accomplishments, you’ll find virtually all accomplishments were made by smart people. Liberals value social justice and equality over quantifiable results. The left wants America to be a nation of takers, not creators.

And again from Moldbug, in a recent Reddit AMA discusses the inequity of biology, which includes intelligence:

It’s hard, especially for smart people, to give up the idea that smart people are better than stupid people. The ancient Greeks lent similar prestige to athletics; they believed a fast runner was spiritually better than a slow runner. They fought a lot of wars, so athletics mattered a lot to them; we write a lot of code, so problem-solving ability matters a lot to us. But one is a muscular talent, the other is a neurological talent. Neither has any mystical significance.

For better or worse, it’s this type of absolutist thinking that makes ordinary people, as well as other intellectuals, resent intellectualism. But Moldbug is right about smarter people being ‘better‘, as I have discussed numerous times on this blog. The fact that some people, upon conception, are ‘better’ than others, not surprisingly, makes many people uncomfortable because we’ve been brought up by culture to believe in the false god of egalitarianism and equality. The truth hurts.

We owe our technology to smart people; mediocre people owe their jobs to smart people, who create the jobs that employ them (these mediocre people).

From Brookings Make elites compete: Why the 1% earn so much and what to do about it:

In his “defense of the one percent,” economist Greg Mankiw argues that elite earnings are based on their higher levels of IQ, skills, and valuable contributions to the economy. The globally-integrated, technologically-powered economy has shifted so that very highly-talented people can generate very high incomes.

When someone like Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg (ignoring their politics for a minute), who are members of the cognitive ‘elite’, create companies, they boost standards of living through the technology, and create thousands, even millions of jobs indirectly, in the process.

Once you stop believing in the mystical importance of intelligence, I think it’s very easy to accept that it’s unequally distributed (as athletic talent certainly is). I understand that this is very hard for our society, and especially for people like me who grew up believing that good grades were holy and professors were gods.

Right again. Moldbug mentions athleticism as an example of obvious biological inequality, but based on my own observations (and probably his own, too), people don’t get worked up over that, but people do get worked up over IQ. The declarative statement ‘blacks are better at jumping’ is not nearly as controversial as ‘blacks score lower on IQ tests, and thus may be less intelligent’. So why is this? Probably because of the increasing premium modern society places on intelligence, whereby IQ is a measure of personal worth in an economy that is becoming increasingly automated, which from a Social Darwinist standpoint favors smarter people, whereas a century ago, well-before the information revolution, things were reversed and a greater premium was placed on physical strength. It’s intelligence more so than athleticism which makes us ‘human’, and for someone – or some group – to to be less intelligent is to be ‘less human’, less sentient. Nowadays, people who can code are ‘wired for success‘, whereas 300 years ago those who could work for eight hours in the sun without passing out from exhaustion tending to crops, were at an advantage.

Mysticism, wishful thinking, and fairy tales are unhelpful rather than just the truth. But some of the ‘mysticism’ arises not from the properties of IQ or the biology of intelligence, but how smarter people may be more valued in a post-labor society, and how the social implications of IQ may be unsettling to some people.

What I learned in an American high school was that intelligence does not make me special or better. I agree that if I thought smarter people were better people, given the fact that no magic process has distributed the smarts equally, I would be a racist in the classic sense. (I also don’t agree that the talent to be a master, or the talent to be a slave, makes a person better or worse.)

High school, fortunately, is only four years of life, and many smart people tend to thrive afterwards, in college, or in technical jobs, or entrepreneurship. Although the data shows that smarter people tend to earn more money and are also more successful in terms of creative output, this may not bring happiness if their close environment doesn’t appreciate their talents, as in the case of high school.