Posted by: Millard J. Melnyk | August 4, 2015

Fools

I know. I really do.

I know. I really do.

A couple of Bible verses from long past Christian days keep recurring to me, because I see them played out regularly. It’s really quite revealing.

A fool does not delight in understanding, But only in revealing his own mind.
— Proverbs 18:2

Though you pound a fool in a mortar with a pestle along with crushed grain, Yet his foolishness will not depart from him.
— Proverbs 27:22

Why would someone be obsessed with revealing his own mind? It’s even more curious when you consider the fools you’ve dealt with: They don’t even seem to know their own minds, but instead blather on about what they believe must be the case given what they managed to learn from other people’s minds. Don’t be fooled by the copiousness of the information they imbibed. Folly has nothing to do with quantity and everything to do with lack of quality.

Three things seem true about fools:

    1. They cling to their beliefs so strongly that you can’t separate them from theirs no matter what you do.

 

    1. They base their beliefs on the authority of others, not on their own experience, thinking, or wisdom.

 

    1. They refuse to shut up. No matter how foolish their soliloquies and diatribes make them look, they just don’t get it.

 

So what would make a person behave this way? The only answer that makes any sense to me is they are desperate to avoid the alternative: understanding.

What would make a person fear the prospect of understanding? In a word, vulnerability.

To understand something you need to:

    1. Admit you don’t understand.

 

    1. Open yourself up to information that doesn’t make much sense to you or seems downright wrong.

 

    1. Gather enough apparently nonsensical, erroneous information so that you start to get a feel for it and start to see its logic — i.e., recognize patterns in it.

 

    1. Evaluate the information and the patterns it presents.

 

If you don’t do all these steps, you have no intelligent basis for forming judgments and making claims about the information. The fact that information seems wrong does not make it wrong, because you could be wrong. You could be looking at it wrong. You could be making erroneous assumptions about what it represents. You could be missing crucial distinctions. If you give the information a sincere chance and it still seems wrong, it could nevertheless be right and you could still be wrong. Only further information and reflection could possibly reveal it, but it might not. That ultimate, undetected state of being wrong, left out of the loop, thinking one thing when the truth is another — in other words being fooled — is what fools seem to be afraid of.

For that matter, who isn’t afraid of being the last to know and maybe never finding out? The potential for terminal ignorance like that is part and parcel of being human; but fools refuse to face it. Instead, they resort to denial and bullshit, investing in education, credentials, and feats of accomplishment and, especially, amassing huge followings that attest to their rightness, supporting the pretense that it ain’t really so, there’s no way they could be wrong. Fools. Of course they and we could be wrong. Those of us more honest than that admit it and deal with it. We could be wrong about everything. At least it would mean that we weren’t right about wreaking the havoc we’ve done.

One thing is certain, though: Closing the door to further information and reflection and question is always wrong, because imposing ignorance on yourself (or others) is always wrong. Honest belief and genuine knowledge are provisional, subject to new information and revision upon reflection, always open to question. Trying to eliminate this provisionality is bogus, hypocritical, and abortive, resulting not in knowledge but dogma: the stuff of fundamentalism, the mind-child of fools.

But fools refuse to take even the first step. They pretend that they’ve already gone through all four steps, but that’s a lie. Others might have gone through those steps and fools latched onto the results of that thinking as if they understood it, but they don’t.

It’s pretty easy to discover whether people understand the matters they hold beliefs about. Just ask them questions about alternative or conflicting beliefs, preferably opposing beliefs. (By the way, characterizing alternative beliefs as being opposed to one’s own is a clue that folly is involved: folly revolves around the problems that constitute opposition, but wisdom revolves around common truths which serve as a basis for resolution. Huge difference.)

If people arrived at their beliefs by rational processes, then they must have considered, understood, and rejected alternatives. They can tell you what the rejected beliefs entail and why they rejected them. Fools can’t do this. If honest people aren’t aware of an alternative you asked about, they’ll admit it. Fools can’t muster that kind of honesty, because limitations, inadequacies, ignorance, and being wrong or uninformed are precisely what their folly was designed to cover up.

So, folly seems to be a preemptively defensive measure used by fear-ridden people who can’t bear the prospect of risking the vulnerability involved in understanding. Then, in order to appear as other than foolish, they go on and on about what they pretend to know and its superiority. Like they say: You can tell a fool, but you can’t tell him much. Almost nothing, in fact.

If you disagree with wise people, the first thing that occurs to them is, “Oh, this is interesting. I wonder why we disagree?” The second thing that occurs to them is to find out why — they try to understand. They are also very interested in knowing whether they succeeded in understanding you before they form judgments. Fools do exactly the opposite: They use their presumed knowledgeability and your presumed wrongness and ignorance to show that there’s no need to understand, because they already do, and there’s nothing more to understand than what they already have understood. The marvel is that they don’t seem to realize how transparent they are.

It’s not hard to tell when someone understands you, and it’s not hard to see when someone is genuinely trying to understand you, even if they haven’t succeeded yet.

If people aren’t even trying to understand you, they are foolish.

If they immediately respond to disagreement by proving themselves right and dissenters wrong, they play the fool, although they might not actually be fools. It could have been just a lapse.

But if they cling to to their refusal to understand and their presumed rightness in opposition to your supposed wrongness and ignorance, even though you pound them in metaphorical mortars with pestles — which you should do, just like the author of those proverbs did — they prove themselves to be fools.

Unfortunately, that includes the authorities and leaders and bosses and so-called experts who got us into the mess we’re in now, all who claimed to know so right but got it so heinously wrong — and us for letting them do it.

Don’t take such people seriously, and don’t let them suck you into acting the fool like them. Get out your mortars and pestles. It won’t do the fools any good, but you and your friends will learn a shitload. 🙂

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