Intelligence, Reason, Rationality, and Bullshit
I was reading an article this morning, from The Toronto Star, describing some research on bullshit and why some people are susceptible to bullshit. The research, entitled On the Reception and Detection of Pseudo-Profound Bullshit comes out of the University of Waterloo, and was conducted by PhD candidate Gordon Pennycook and which, for some reason, focussed on Deepak Chopra (an author I’ve never read).
I haven’t read the research as yet, which has apparently “gone viral” as they say, but judging from the article in the Star entitled “If you smell bull, you’re probably smarter, science says” the research, in its conclusions and premises, is itself ironically, bullshit.
The problem with the study, the “Bullshit Factor” therein that is a part of the general problem of bullshit itself, is its apparent understanding of intelligence as equivalent with analytical thinking. They are apparently treated as synonyms when, in fact, they are contraries. I quote from the article,
“We’re not trying to say that people’s beliefs are bulls—. We’re saying . . . the reason (some people are) less prone to bulls— is because they’re more intelligent and more analytical types of thinkers,” he [Pennycook] said.
The problem with that kind of conclusion is that analytical thinking and intelligence are precisely contrary in meaning. Analytical has the meaning of “take apart” or “dissolve” or “dissect” and so on, whereas “intelligence” (inter-ligere) means “to connect” or “to join together” or make whole, or “connect the dots”, as we say. Intelligence belongs to the detection of meaningful wholes and patterns, and for this reason alone we are compelled to distinguish between reason and rationality. And instead of speaking of “analytical thinking” or rationality, we should here rather speak of discernment and of discerning reason. When Einstein says that “imagination is more important than knowledge” (or William Blake that Imagination is the true life) this is the equivalent distinction between reason and rationality. The research has apparently confused things that ought not to be confused, and is therefore a failure of discerning reason itself. Discerning intelligence (or reason) and analytical thinking are not equivalent, and this bears on the problem Jean Gebser identified: the mental-rational consciousness now functioning in “deficient” mode. But intelligence and integral are related words.
This is not to say that there are not such deceptive “pseudo-profound” slogans and statements that constitute “bullshit”, but it’s not in the way the study concludes. Here again I invoke what I’ve come to call Khayyam’s Caution that “only a hair separates the false from the true”, or William Blake’s “Every thing possible to be believ’d is an image of the truth”. Bullshit, as the study understands it, is not so much a “lie” but the nonsensical. But every major change in human perception or revolution in consciousness in history has also started out as such “nonsense”. So, even in the “pseudo-profound” there may well be the presentiment of an emergent truth.
Major changes in the structure of consciousness do not emerge like Athena did, all at once and fully armoured from the head or thigh of Zeus. It slowly grows in the depths, as a kind of stress or pressure, and the human voice stammers and stutters in trying to give it expression. It is not, as yet, fully articulate, and appears first as slogan, chant, and so on an only gradually emerges into articulacy, and the struggle to become actual or real leaves its indelible imprint on language. A lot of Marshall McLuhan’s writings on media and consciousness were also dismissed as “nonsense” and “bullshit” in his time, but many of the things he foresaw, in his own weird way, have pretty much come to pass.
Any change in consciousness very often begins in fumbling and stumbling and stuttering and stammering, and it all looks like nonsense. Very often it is nonsense. But that nonsense (or “bullshit”) may actually signal a profound change attempting to come into being and full consciousness and to achieve realisation. There is a difference between “bullshit” and something true but which is unskillfully or ineptly put. Even the supposed examples of such bullshit stated in the Star article (which are supposedly random, but which are not random or are otherwise taken out of context. They are quite grammatical) are not bullshit at all. They are just ineptly put.
Take one of the examples of “bullshit” used in the study: “We are in the midst of a self-aware blossoming of being that will align us with the nexus itself.” If someone came up to you on the street and said that, you’ld think he was either a visionary or a madman, or maybe both visionary and madman. But it is not meaningless is it? It could be quite profound, actually. By “blossoming of being” the madman could be referring to a switch from “having” (acquisitive or possessive individualism) to “being”, which is a longstanding issue in philosophy, after all. And the “nexus” could be referring to William Blake’s “Marriage of Heaven and Hell” or the “meeting of man and God” or the conjoining of the infinite with the finite, eternity with time — a new “pivot” to existence in which mind and body, culture and nature, soul and world are no longer held, preserved and maintained in an antithetical relationship. No, the statement is not meaningless nonsense or bullshit at all. It’s just ineptly expressed. But if you know already that the “nexus” means the integral, in which the stress and tension between Having and Being will be resolved, then it’s not exactly bullshit at all, is it?
So, not everything that is claimed to be “bullshit” is bullshit. And some things that claim not to be bullshit are, in fact, bullshit.