When we say that a person is intelligent, there's lots of vague and contradictory things we could mean. And when we say someone else is stupid, the same is true.

However there are, I think, two features of someone's psychological makeup that make them 'smart' or 'switched on'. And I think there are two corresponding features which make someone else 'dumb' or 'thick'. Everyday words are misleading when used as technical terms, but for convenience the words I'm using for the first two traits are Receptiveness and Skepticism, and for the second two, Arrogance and Gullibility.

Smart people do two things. They listen to ideas, and they think about them. They read, see and hear opinions, hyoptheses and reports - they display openness or Receptiveness. Then they critically evaluate this information, holding off acceptance or rejection until they've thought it over, and compared it with what they already believe and suspect. Then, they might accept the new information, perhaps modifying the old, or decide they don't know enough to decide. This is the proper meaning of Skepticm.

Stupid people display Arrogance - they just don't let much new information in. They display no curiosity about the world, let alone a sense of wonder - they are closed minded. On those occasions when new information gets in, it either gets uncritically accepted - slotted in next to other beliefs that may flatly contractict it - or uncritically rejected because some contradiction with prior belief is detected. 'Gullibility' only describes one side of this, but right now I can't think of a better word.

So, we have four features. Receptivity - an attitude of openness to new ideas, versus Arrogance - a hostility towards them. Skepticism - a carefulness about what is believed, versus Gullibility - a corresponding carelessness.

The question then arises, can these qualities be mixed up? Can a person be Receptive but Gullible? Yes, definitely they can. Consider the New Age mystic who packs their head with UFO abductions, CIA conspiracies, healing crystals, the Illuminati, pyramid power, lizard people etc etc. They are extremely receptive, but have no critical ability.

Could someone be Arrogant but Skeptical? Well yes, but their Arrogance means they have little information to be skeptical about. Someone who pours over theological manuscripts, analysing their content minutely, but never examining even the basic tennants of a different religion, might fall into this catagory.

There are two further remarks I'd like to make. The first is that these features of personality (which are only approximated by the labels that I've used for them) are the product of a person's life. Even Richard Dawkins would never claim there is a gene for blind acceptance of religion, or a genetic mutation that causes interest in the world around you. There is nothing innate or unchangable about these personality factors.

The second thing is that this model of human intelligence is obviously completely inapplicable to nonhumans. Chimpanzees, and indeed sheep, may have something that could be called 'Intelligence'. But human intelligence isn't simply 'animal intelligence but more of it', or 'animal intelligence but more complex'. Human intelligence is of a fundamentally different kind to other creatures.

Indeed, I think it's a bad idea to use the same word for the two. A gorilla might have 'intelligence' of some kind, but it doesn't have 'smarts'. It can't be 'sharp' or 'switched on' or 'brainy'. Humans can be incredibly stupid, but their stupidity is astrology, jingoism, celebrity worship, blaming gypsies for house prices, or joining the flat earth society.

1 comment:

  1. I'll have you know there is nothing wrong with membership of 'The Flat Earth Society', infact you get to attend several superb society dinners each year... erm... so I'm told.