Sunday, March 25, 2012

Einstein on Togetherness

Sometimes when your name becomes a common noun it’s a great achievement. Sometimes it isn’t.

If we say that someone is an Einstein we mean that he is a genius. If we say that someone is a Benedict Arnold we mean that he is a traitor.

Putting treason aside, let’s focus on genius. By definition, a genius is a superhuman being. The word “genius” comes from the Latin. It refers to what we would call a genie, that is, an angelic being.

We all respect genius. Some of us even worship it, to the point where we believe that if a certifiable genius holds a certain opinion, then that opinion must be correct.

Obviously, it’s economical to make decisions by echoing the opinions of a genius. At least, no one is going to say that you hold an ignorant opinion.

But, most geniuses specialize. You cannot be a genius as a generalist. The rest of us, the non-geniuses, do not have the time or the energy or the IQ to master the intricacies of quantum physics, so we rely on the opinions of geniuses.

It works reasonably well … until two certified geniuses arrive at different conclusions.

No one would doubt that Plato and Aristotle are geniuses. Those who have read into the two philosophers know that their opinions diverge more often than not. 

And, what happens when you consult with two genius physicians and they have different opinions about your case?

Being a genius and bring right are two entirely different things. We do well not to confuse the two.

We think well of ourselves as a culture because we respect genius. Yet, we also show great respect for the opinions of celebrities.

Apparently, we believe that the ability to achieve fame and fortune by pretending to be someone you are not makes you an authority, on matters political and scientific.

Celebrities have every right to their opinions. But, a culture that has gotten in the habit of calling on celebrities to voice cogent opinions has, regrettably, lost its collective mind.

In truth, a celebrity standing up for a cause, whether he is testifying before Congress of being interviewed on a serious talk show, is like a ventriloquist’s dummy.

You know that someone else is writing the lines and pulling the strings, but actors do know how to act and they are very good at pretending that they know what they are talking about.  

Besides, celebrities generate better ratings than geniuses, so  television stations want their faces on the air.

We think that we respect genius, but, more often than not we listen in rapt attention to the “thoughts” of celebrities.

Just as we assume that whatever makes a celebrity successful as an actor or singer will also make him knowledgeable about foreign policy, so we assume that genius is transferable. We assume that someone who is a genius in one field is automatically a genius in another field.

Regardless of whether or not Steven Chu is a genius, he is certainly very smart. He won a Nobel Prize in Physics.

Still, being a brilliant, even a genius, as a physicist does not qualify you to run the Energy Department.

An administration that has made Steven Chu the Energy Secretary is indulging in mindless idolatry.

Knowing everything there is to know about a branch of physics does not mean that you know anything about politics or policy. All the time you spent doing experiments in physics was time you did not spend learning how to administer a bureaucracy.

Geniuses become geniuses by spending an inordinate amount of time thinking. People who are lost in their great thoughts do not become effective executives.

On the other hand, being a genius in one field does not preclude your having pertinent thoughts about another intellectual field.
No one would ever imagine that Einstein could have been the Secretary of Defense, but his opinions on political psychology are worth examining.

Like this one:

When we survey our lives and endeavors we soon observe that almost the whole of our actions and desires are bound up with the existence of other human beings. We see that our whole nature resembles that of the social animals. We eat food that others have grown, wear clothes that others have made, live in houses that others have built. The greater part of our knowledge and beliefs has been communicated to us by other people through the medium of a language which others have created. Without language our mental capacities would be poor indeed, comparable to those of the higher animals; we have, therefore, to admit that we owe our principal advantage over the beasts to the fact of living in human society. The individual, if left alone from birth would remain primitive and beast-like in his thoughts and feelings to a degree that we can hardly conceive. The individual is what he is and has the significance that he has not so much in virtue of his individuality, but rather as a member of a great human society, which directs his material and spiritual existence from the cradle to the grave.

You might be thinking that Aristotle said it first. In fact, he did say it first, in his Politics, Book 1, Chapter 2.

Aristotle put it somewhat differently. He said that an individual, left alone from birth, would never survive. On this score Aristotle was more right than Einstein. After all, philosophy was Aristotle’s vocation; it was Einstein’s avocation.

Still, both the scientist and the philosopher have something in common here: they are looking fearlessly at objective reality.

Quibbles aside, both geniuses are making a simple and salient point. You cannot understand human beings or human behavior if you believe that humans are basically a bunch of individuals who come together to form social groups.

Your thinking will have gone astray if you believe that humans must sacrifice something of their individuality when they join social groups and that they should live their lives trying to regain their autonomy and independence.

Aristotle posited that an individual who manages to separate off from a social group will either be a beast or a god.

He means that if we construct psychology on the basis of individual behavior, and if we assume that we can best understand that behavior by separating individuals from groups, we will have moved from reality into the world of fiction.

An independent, autonomous individual is a splendid fiction, but fiction he is. 

1 comment:

Ares Olympus said...

My favorite "genius" would be E.F. Schumacher, and I love his final attempt at wisdom in a small booked called "A guide for the perplexed", good summary at:

I like it as his attempt to map differences that try to hold the tension of the known and unknown. I like his idea of "convergent and divergent problems", the first being generally technical problems about dead things, while the second deals with living beings, where there are contradictory values, and so there can be no simple answers that are sufficient to the widest considerations of the problem.

So I think Schumacher is wise for stating it like this even, if obvious, also easy to forget, so when "two experts" (or any two people) differ in their opinions then its wise to consider if they're both just describing different parts of a larger elephant. Or at least that can explain how contradictions may not be "who is wrong?", but "How is each right?", and that gives some hope.

Richard Feynman is another man I admire, a certified scentific genius and rebel, and spent a lot of effort piercing through BS and pseudosciences, and wanted to teach people to think rationally, even as he had no fear to explore his own irrationality as well. He had advice for new scientists:
"In 1974, Feynman delivered the Caltech commencement address on the topic of cargo cult science, which has the semblance of science but is only pseudoscience due to a lack of “a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty” on the part of the scientist. He instructed the graduating class that “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.”

You gotta love someone like that, even if he was a trickster too!