September 27, 2022
The expert is given power over us because we believe that we are stupid and they are knowledgeable. But this is a mirage... expertise is not intelligence, but merely one way of exercising the potential of our intelligence. No amount of expert knowledge will prevent us from falling prey to those blind spots in our understanding where despite our expertise, despite our knowledge, despite our intellectual prowess, we all remain - every one of us - equally stupid.
One of the throwaway comments in my short philosophy book, Wikipedia Knows Nothing, is that we are all equally stupid. This is not the triviality that it may at first appear, but a reworking of the French philosopher Jacques Rancière's concept of 'equality of intelligence' from The Ignorant Schoolmaster. Knowing how much resistance there would be to the idea that 'we're all equally intelligent', I inverted Ranciére's concept to claim the same thing in reverse: 'we're all equally stupid'. Hidden in this apparently idle remark is a revolutionary way of thinking about humanity.
Rancière's equality of intelligence emerges from a particular way of thinking about what it means to be a human: as a will served by an intelligence. 'Intelligence' here isn't anything like IQ (which is, rather circularly, merely a measure of the ability to complete IQ tests) and it is nothing much to do with education either. What Ranciére means by 'intelligence' is our potential as thinking beings to learn skills and solve problems. This intelligence is our own mental tool that is deployed by our will, which is our capacity to set our sights on future states (to set 'ends', as the Enlightenment philosophers put it). We are all a will (our sincere intentions) served by an intelligence (the capacity to fulfil those intentions), and on this understanding, our intelligences are equal.
I know the objections - intelligence is 'obviously' not distributed equally, what about those with congenital defects, and so forth. This misses Ranciére's point. We choose arbitrary measures of competence and then name this 'intelligence'. But this is rigging the game such that whosoever happens to match our chosen measures will seem 'intelligent'. Intelligence for Ranciére is not any kind of measure at all, but rather a name for the human potential to master any skill. Nobody has devised - or could devise - a measure of all the infinite potentialities of the human mind. In this respect - our potential to learn - we are all equals. This is equality of intelligence, and it is fundamentally opposed to expert power, which assumes there must be a hierarchy of intelligence that education magically reveals.
The evident inequality in the manifestations of our potential has no bearing at all on equality of intelligence. Besides, does anyone truly think that a 'one size fits all' education is the optimal way of encouraging learning...? No, we are far too focussed on regulating assessment, and not at all interested in facilitating learning, because assessment serves our desire for hierarchy. Likewise, the teacher is supposedly superior to those they teach - expert power in microcosm. Yet whenever a teacher exercises authority rather than building trust, it is a betrayal of their students' unbounded potential. The different outcomes of our education systems are not evidence of inequality of intelligence, but merely the inevitable consequences of their design.
A will served by an intelligence explains our varying intellectual circumstances in terms of differences in our will, our commitments. We can only master what we will that we shall learn. It is probably worth stressing that what we will and want we desire, are not the same. I can want a single malt whisky (I frequently do!) but I cannot will a whisky. I could, however, will that I would run a whisky distillery. Our will, therefore, is about ideals in our imagination, future states that we commit to bringing about. I sometimes suspect that the reason that a multitude of marriages fail is that many people merely desire to get married, or even just want a wedding (which is not the same thing at all). If you do not will the marriage, the partnership, it cannot last, for then it is merely an expression of our fickle desires. Only if partners truly will a future together as equals can any marriage honestly persist.
A will served by an intelligence draws attention to how we can be equals, whether in marriage or as citizens (our equal potential), as well as why we would support democracy (because we all will different things). My own concept of 'equal stupidity' inverts the idea of 'a will serving an intelligence' such that we foreground the commonality of our limitations instead. Yes, we can learn anything provided we will it... frankly, trying to learn what you do not will is nothing less than excruciating. But nobody can learn everything. As a trivial example, those who learn arithmetic but do not learn algebra can often conduct sums in their head quickly and easily. Those who learn algebra tend to lose this ability - the more complex mathematics supplants the simpler habits. Furthermore, those who can solve the most complex mathematical equations tend to be lacking when it comes to, say, diplomacy or poetry. Similarly, a professional poker player can be loathe to play against amateurs because the skills they require to win against other pros are radically different from what it takes to play against those who never learned all the outs and pot odds. We can learn anything, but we cannot learn everything.
There is at least one sense in which 'equal stupidity' exceeds 'equality of intelligence' as a means of understanding human capacity. 'Equality of intelligence' implies that everyone can get to grips with every problem, given both the time and the will. I believe this to be true, as illogical as it sounds. But 'equal stupidity' reminds us that whatever we can or cannot achieve on our own, we can achieve far more when we work together. The aspect of our stupidity that is equal is the degree of our fallibility as thinking beings. But we fail in different ways, and we fear different pitfalls, precisely because we will different things and this draws our intelligence into thinking about problems in different ways.
It is hard to avoid the obvious, recent example. You see the urgency of saving the vulnerable from a deadly infection, I see the health harms inflicted by your untested proposals for how to achieve that goal. If we could have co-operated, who knows how many people might yet have lived...? Yet again, as with so many times before, our hate and fear destroyed our unity, and while we were squabbling, expert power betrayed us, as it always must when left unchecked. Equal stupidity makes it too dangerous to let a solitary individual work on any serious problem. Mistakes are certain to be made by anyone acting alone. But we can defend against our equal stupidity if we open ourselves up to trusting one another, thus pooling our equality of intelligence. First trust, then truth. Else first fear, then failure. Forever and ever, amen.
'Equal stupidity' thus helps to draw attention to the ridiculous assumptions of expert power. We are besotted with the fantasy that there are those with a super-intellect who can solve any problem as simply as snapping their fingers. Magical science has become the literary mythology of scientific research... As I have said before, Sherlock Holmes always has a flawless investigation, which makes him a terrible model for actual detectives. Likewise, a movie scientist can make anything happen given a sufficiently long montage. Equal stupidity is a maxim reminding us that these glorifications of individual intellect are fantasies. The true power of scientific investigation lies in the redundancies brought about by pooling our intelligences - empowered by network effects, whatever truths can be ascertained by these methods can be carefully revealed, and whatever mistakes have been made will be exposed.
The power of the sciences lies in overcoming our equal stupidity through open co-operation. Authentic research is nothing like this idolatrous beast we have named 'the Science', which is merely a mask for expert power. When our talents are pooled successfully in scientific investigations, when our wills are committed to finding the truth together, we can indeed defend against our equal stupidity. But it is not only the sciences that can benefit from pooling our equality of intelligence to overcome our equal stupidity. We can take this idea far further, as long as we can remember how to trust one another. Within this concept of equal stupidity lies a warning about how we have failed to live up to the ideals of equality, and perhaps also the possibility of restoring our dreams of democracy.
Next week: Meritocracy vs Equitocracy
The opening image is My Stupid Head by Mitsi b Kral, which I found here. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.
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