Are We Getting Smarter?

When I was a kid, I scored fairly well on IQ and aptitude tests. I have an extensive education. I’ve got 51 years under my belt (I’ve got a lot of belt), twenty years of marriage, four kids, and I’m an avid student of philosophy.

And I’m an idiot.

I’m not talking false modesty here. Most of you know exactly what I mean. For all my intelligence, experience, and education, I’m clueless about an awful lot. I know nothing about military history, or most of economics … heck, there are …

  1. dash

    First, congratulations on a tremendous post that deserves so much more than the flippant reply I’m about to give it.

    Short answer: No.

    We’re getting neither smarter nor wiser since it requires great effort rise above our natural states of ignorance and foolishness. And who today wants to put any effort into that? 

    I speak from authority,as member of the Dazed and Confused (or as we call it here “Without Form and Void”) generation, who could more easily list Gilligan’s Island episodes than say,  number (let alone name!) the constitutional amendments (27 according to Wikipedia).

    Thankfully there are legions of experts on the internet–let’s call them  “society”– who will kindly school us, at length, should we expose our ignorance on any topic; supposing we posses the wisdom to separate the wheat  from the chaff. Which I see is  precisely the chicken/egg conundrum to which you allude.

    I posit that to gain wisdom requires an openness of mind, either through repeated blunt force trauma (i.e. the hard way), or through intelligent imagination. Clearly, the second way, the easy way, is much more rare than the first, as any parent can attest.

  2. Percival

    There was once an English schoolboy named Isaac. One day when the teacher needed a little quality time without the incessant questions from the class, he assigned them to add up all the numbers from 1 to 100.

    “5050″ said Izzy, before the teacher could get his nose back in his book.

    “How do you know that?” asked the teacher.

    “If I add 1 to 100, I get 101.  If I add 2 to 99, I get 101.  I can do that 48 more times.  Fifty 101s is 5050.”

    The teacher saw to it that Izzy got more schooling.  That paid off.  The Laws of Motion, the Law of Gravitation, the calculus. (Leibnitz came up with the calculus too, but I don’t have any ‘little Gerhardt’ stories.)

    Later, when he was older, Newton wrote in a letter “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

    A lot of people have no understanding of history.  They marvel at the Pyramids, and postulate “ancient astronauts” created them.  Nope — just some folks every bit as smart as we are thought very hard about how to do it.

  3. Percival

    And, because I’m in the mood to quote Newton (and because it is on-point):

    I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

    Even Newton marveled at all there was that he didn’t know.

  4. Herkybird

    Are we smarter?  Of course we are.  Our mastery of the practical arts has provided the modern world with a demonstrably better way of life in ways that can easily be measured.  The Greeks had a word for this kind of knowledge: Techne’.

    But there is another scale of knowing upon which we do not rate so high: Wisdom. What the Greeks called Sophia.

    Since Francis Bacon we have convinced ourselves that the so-called “Wisdom of the Ancients” was as the learning of children.  Have we not harnessed the atom?  Can we not fly faster than sound?  Who before us has left footprints on the moon? The sum-total of all human knowledge sits on our desktop, each home having easy access to its own Library richer than that of the fabled one at Alexandria.  And yet, faced with  questions of Right and Wrong the best we can offer by way of answers are gut-level intuitions about “Caring” or “Fairness.”

    We are shepherds on a hillside surrounded by the remains of great civilizations and not even curious about who they were, much less realizing they were our ancestors.

  5. Fake John Galt

    Knoweledge can only be accumulated but never mastered in the end we are just as confused but at a higher level knowledge.

  6. 10 cents

    Knowledge is like food, too much does not make you wiser just as too much food does not make you healthier. To eat wisely people filter their choices likewise to learn wisely you also filter choices. Unfortunately people are throwing away their filters and becoming fathead.I also feel I am idiot but a lucky one because everyone around me teaches me something..

  7. Foxman

    Give me your thoughts on Fr. Teilhard de Chardin and the Noosphere.

  8. Illiniguy

    As I’ve aged, I’ve found that wisdom is often gained by keeping one’s eyes open and one’s mouth closed.

  9. The King Prawn

    Define wisdom. A friend of mine once defined it as the ability to live life skillfully. Expanded, the definition would mean the ability to use what one has access to (physically, mentally, spiritually, materially) to achieve one’s desired end. To complicate matters, the end has to be good in itself. If one’s end was to bugger boys, then accomplishing it would be evil, not wise. If we measure progressivism this way, especially if we look at the actual outcomes of progressive policies, then there is no way to declare humanity wiser for having followed it. The end is not good, therefore applying all of one’s (or society’s) abilities toward it is not wise and often evil.

  10. KC Mulville
    Foxman: Teilhard de Chardin and the Noosphere. …

    A huge topic that may take a conversation to develop the idea. And of course, just because he was a Jesuit doesn’t mean that I agree with him. In fact, I don’t.

    The noosphere suggests that wisdom and consciousness is a product of nature. Human beings will become gradually more conscious (and somehow wiser) simply because of the complexity of nature. To Teilhard, consciousness is as inevitable as gravity. Teilhard designated evolution as the mechanism that moves everything toward consciousness.

    I have problems with that. Evolution depends on random, natural selection. A giraffe’s taller neck is a random mutation that improved its survival chances, and over time, that advantage perpetuated itself through reproduction.

    But the fact that a taller neck was an advantage in the first place was purely accidental. The qualities that improve survival in any particular environment are accidental.

    For Teilhard’s theories to hold water, the environment must be “hard-wired” to give preference to consciousness-friendly mutations.

    But if you’re going to jigger the results to God’s design anyway, why bother with complexity?

  11. KC Mulville
    The King Prawn: Define wisdom.

    My immediate concern was to rebut the assumption that progress, by itself, confers wisdom … I deny that.

    However, you raise an interesting point, so let’s explore it.If progress doesn’t confer wisdom, what does? And how will we know wisdom once we see it?

    On an individual level, wisdom is more than just knowing what options could work … it’s knowing what option will work best in any particular situation. Golf is a nice way to explain it. To make a good shot, you have to weigh a lot of variables: the lie of the ball, the wind, the slope of the landing area, and so on. Is the ground wet? Does your back hurt? Such variables aren’t fixed in stone; they change at every shot. How do you know which variables matter more, at any given time?

    Usually, that enhanced ability to weigh possibilities comes from experience.

    And that’s where I make my distinction. Individuals acquire experience and can profit from it. But society doesn’t automatically profit from those experiences. The mere passing of time guarantees nothing.

  12. KC Mulville
    DocJay: We are by no means wiser but our knowledge base has improved.

    True, but having more books available in our collective library doesn’t necessarily mean that any one of us has read them.

    Society is nothing more than the sum of individuals. If some individuals gain wisdom and then share it, great. But that’s something they achieve as individuals. Society as a whole doesn’t automatically gain wisdom just because time passes or the knowledge base widens.

  13. Mel Foil

    We’re getting smarter in the way that Adam and Eve got “smarter.”

  14. Terry Mott

    No society that worships youth as ours has for the last 40-odd years has any claim to wisdom.

  15. Nick Stuart

    Then there’s the field of practical stuff like building a fire and purifying water, practical skills and knowledge possibly more useful than anything de Chardin has to say as we march boldly Forward into the 21st century.

  16. The King Prawn
    KC Mulville

    And that’s where I make my distinction. Individuals acquire experience and can profit from it. But society doesn’t automatically profit from those experiences. The mere passing of time guarantees nothing. · 28 minutes ago

    Another definition is required, this time for profit. It comes back to the good, again, and in defining what is the good is where society has gone off the rails. Yes, we have more experience, but we’re applying it collectively toward only God knows what.

  17. Sandy

    Taking KC’s  (properly)  humble sense of the possibility of progress, one might make an argument for reading  less widely, but more deeply in the canon that Western civilization has winnowed for us and which still lives, despite the attacks on it.  I would suggest, too, that the practical knowledge that we all need–medicine, husbandry, technology and its management, etc.–are better learned in the light of that older, deeper wisdom.   Think only of the advantage Abraham Lincoln had in not having had to study a modern curriculum.  The Bible, Shakespeare, and Blackstone, and of course the Constitution and the writings of the founders,  were his written guides, as I recall.  

  18. Foxman

    Have you ever heard the ice-fishing theory of intelligence?  The theory posits that ice fishing improves the average intelligence of the population.  Stupid people go fishing on thin ice.  They fall through the ice and drown, weeding the stupid genes from the population.

    Modern society protects people from the consequences of bad decisions, thus stupid genes are preserved and we become dumber.

  19. Herbert Woodbery

    Wiser? Maybe not, but it seems to me that at in least those countries who have chosen some form of democratic government. They Have evolved over time to societies where a larger percentage of its populace have enjoyed more and more freedom and equality. The latest push seems to be equality for gays and lesbians.

  20. KC Mulville
    Foxman: Have you ever heard the ice-fishing theory of intelligence? 

    The Darwin Awards …

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