A widespread American epidemic: intellectual brain freeze

September 23, 2007 | By | 10 Replies More

I don’t think anyone has yet invented a specific word for this phenomenon, but too many Americans are suffering from an intense craving for simple one-step answers to life’s most important questions.  Though people have always taken explanatory leaps, the mainstream media seems to tolerate them like never before. In the political realm, for example, the media should be ridiculing simpleton answers, but often doesn’t As case in point is Bush’s preposterous claim that “It’s better to fight them there than here.”  As though doing the former protects us from the latter.  Perhaps encouraged by the simple-mindedness of President Bush, the news media has taken a hands-off approach incredible amounts of simplistic nonsense. 

Many simplistic explanations, but not all, are religious claims. Before you crank out those e-mails arguing that I’m painting with too broad a brush, I will readily admit that many people who sincerely follow religions are incredibly deep and skeptical thinkers (though they have a hands-off approach to skeptically examining their own religious beliefs). Therefore, I am not arguing that all of those people who consider themselves religious are shallow-minded ignoramuses.  Nor am I claiming that those who are nonbelievers are necessarily disciplined and knowledgeable skeptical thinkers.  There are plenty of simplistic folks of all stripes running around.

In my own mind, I conceive of our over-willingness to accept simplistic views as a “treasure hunt” mentality.  All too many people seek ready-made explanations, where finding an minimally acceptable “answer” gives them a license shut down their sense of curiosity for the rest for their lifetime.  How do you know when you’ve discovered the an answer? You just know, according to those who believe.  It’s time for examples.

Religious believers commonly support their beliefs by asserting that the “Bible tells me so.”  They do this without any willingness to consider the numerous contradictions in the Bible and they do this without any curiosity as to when the Bible was written and by whom.  In other words, they are quite content to argue that the Bible simply tells them so, which invites them to cite the Bible as authority without any assurance that the Bible is an authority.  If you try to encourage them to question their treasure hunt ready-made answer, most religious people get aggravated [for example, look what happened in the comments to this post on Bart Ehrman].

There are many religious people who also pride themselves on being “philosophical.”  These are the people who pull out the “argument from causation,” another common example of intellectual brain freeze.  With great flamboyance, they start the argument by encouraging everyone in the room to assent to the following proposition: “Everything has a cause.”  This “obvious” starting point is far from obvious, of course.  Perhaps the universe is eternal, consisting of an eternal string of big bangs.  But let’s assume that the starting premise is correct.  Everything has a cause.  From that (they say) it follows that the universe must of had a cause and that cause is “God.”  But woe unto the un-brainwashed philosopher who dares to ask “What caused God?”  That is not deemed to be an appropriate question (according to most believers), even though religio-philosophers themselves began their entire argument with the premise that everything has a cause.  How strange that so many people who believe in the “argument from causation” will earnestly look you in the eye and tell you that God does not need to have a cause because “God always was there,” or “God is God,”  or some other ad hoc nonsense.  All of this hokum to save an argument that was wretchedly bad from the start, an argument that inevitably leads to an eternal regress.

People want simple stories in order to make sense of their world, even if these simple stories make no sense.  For instance, believers often point to the story of Adam and Eve as the origin of humankind, even though there are two contradictory versions of the creation story in Genesis. That doesn’t matter for most believers.  They insist that there is only one true Bible story, even though there are clearly two contradictory creation stories. 

Intellectual brain freeze occurs in many fields, not only religion.  A large segment of the United States “knew” that we had to attack Iraq and that good things would necessarily come of such an attack, even though red flags were everywhere that an invasion of Iraq would result in exactly the kind of quagmire we are now experiencing.  Just prior to the invasion, the mainstream media was leading the charge to invade Iraq, and there was no time for any alternative viewpoint.  There was no reason to ask simple important questions about whether any of this was necessary.  After all, the story was simple and that’s all that most people needed.  We needed to invade Iraq because Saddam Hussein was “bad.”

Millions of Americans know that we have the “world’s greatest country” despite knowing next to nothing about any other country’s quality of life, health care or freedoms.

Many of the explanations regarding human nature take the form of folk biology or folk psychology.  We commonly hear people explain human behavior in terms of love or morality, as though humans were not animals subject to the same biochemical and biological  limitations as all of the other animals.  As I’ve written before, there is good reason to take the time to explore both proximate and ultimate causation when seeking meaningful explanations regarding human behavior.  People don’t want to take the time to do this, however. They are content with overly-simple stories.  This approach is truly absurd and it can be illustrated with an example.  Imagine that we are studying the behavior of hamsters, and a purported expert on hamsters stands up at a conference to explain hamster mating behaviors in terms of “love” and then describing physical conflicts among hamsters in terms of “good and evil.” This would be laughable, yet it is exactly the kind of simplistic explanation that so many people are content to accept when they discuss human animals.  In short, there is wide resistance to applying evolution theory to humans.  People would rather tell simple stories about honor, evil and love than to frame testable theories regarding mate-guarding and a host of other well-established adaptations.

Many simple stories are dangerous stories.  For instance, many people cling to a belief in “race,” as though it is a useful term.  The people who most cling to the reality of “race” are those most likely to use such beliefs to divide people from one another and to stir up hatred.  Contrary to such dangerous beliefs, there is no useful scientific concept of race.  “Race” always boils down to incidental cosmetic features such as skin color and facial features. We are all fully modern humans, biologically speaking.  We are all cousins.  Nonetheless, the simple (and wrong) story of race is embraced by all too many brain-frozen people because it is simple and because it is easy to repeat (even though it is not meaningful on any level).

I could list dozens of additional examples of simplistic explanations on which people base extremely serious social and political decisions.  For instance, we often hear platitudes such as “Less government is better,” as though this statement is always true. In fact, the people most likely to utter simple statement are probably supporters of the huge current irresponsible deficit spending and the ghastly and uncontrolled growth in wasteful government. 

The peculiar thing about all explanations, even time tested explanations, is that they are never really complete.  Even explanations that can be substantiated through carefully controlled experiments are not stopping points for inquiry.  Every good explanation opens up the need for further explanations.  Worthy explanations invite the need for further work to develop further explanations.  Simplistic explanations, those embraced by people with brain freeze, are designed to shut down further inquiry.  They are the common currency of power-mongers.  Simplistic explanations mock further inquiry in order to protect the fantasy-bubble that surround the people who want so very much to believe and reside in their simple worlds. 

I wish I had an idea for inspiring those who are content with simple ideas to dig further and to ignite an ever-burning curiosity regarding the world around them. I don’t have much to offer in that regard, however.  I’ve often tried, in the company of those who want to believe in platitudes or fairytales, but I’ve almost always failed.  It’s an uphill climb, of course, criticizing simple explanations of people who prefer crude static happiness to the “opportunity” to have a deeper understanding. After all, the life of a skeptic can be an exhausting life of non-ending questioning, a life that guarantees hard intellectual work.  The life of a skeptic is a life that guarantees the failure to find a complete stopping point where one can proudly say that one has won the intellectual treasure hunt and now understands “everything.”

Here’s the sliver of hope.  Most people who think simplistically about big issues retain the ability to think critically about small things.  They get into deep, information intense, arguments about who was the best homerun hitter of all time.  They carefully sift through evidence when discussing Britney.  They don’t lack the ability to think, I think.  Rather, it is a matter of priorities.   I hope.


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Category: American Culture, Politics, Psychology Cognition, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Beware the eternal regress | Dangerous Intersection | March 3, 2010
  1. Skblllzzzz says:

    Ed Brayton coined the term Virulent Ignorance: "The systematic accretion in one’s mind of a collection of myths, half-truths and outright falsehoods that gives one the illusion of knowledge."

  2. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    I call it brain-laziness. Oddly enough, many who point the finger at the religious right/neo-cons are themselves just as bad.

    For those among us that recall the sitcom "All in the Family", an often missed point in the show was that the character of Michael Stivic was just as hard-headed, prejudiced, and un-thinking as Archie was.

    While the Bible-thumpers are (mis-)quoting the bible as proof of their argument, quite often the ultra-liberals that oppose them spew forth political dogma about environmental or pseudo-activist nonsense that they may not understand but beleive because a politician wrote in a book about how "scientists believe" something is.

    I, for one, am not content to take the word of any politician as the truth, however convenient or inconvenient that may be.

    So.. What is the consensus here? How many people really know what a consensus is? Who has looked the word up in their Funk and Wagnall's.. A show of hands, please.

    Intelligence is not about being able to regurgitate thousands of facts. That is basic knowledge. Intelligence is about being able and willing to apply that knowledge. Intellignce enables us to spot the lies. But only if we question what we want to believe as well as what we don't want to believe.

    Be vigilant.

    Be aware.

    Question everything, never stop learning, and

    When presented with a new idea, ask "Does this make sense?"

  3. xiaogou says:

    I wonder if any of these "Christians" that say "I do it because the Bible says it" realize that Jesus was put on the cross by the very same people that said "I do it because the Bible says it." Jesus was about thinking and doing what is right not what is necessarily written in the holy scriptures. The people of the time were locked into a fixed scripture thinking and being mislead by the religious leaders.

    The kicker to it all was whenever these religious leaders tried to trip Jesus up with scripture he retorted with wisdom and made the religious leaders look like a bunch of idiots.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    xiaogou: I certainly don't speak for everyone on this site; many types of people visit this blog. I'm concerned, however, that you don't seem to appreciate the diversity of this audience–you write as though everyone else is convinced that 1) Jesus existed and 2) The Bible is an accurate record of historical events.

    For you, the Bible is an unquestionable starting point for discussion. You have thus unwittingly become an illustration of the main point of this post. You appear to be curious only to the point where it becomes inconvenient to continue being curious.

  5. Xiaogou says:

    I do appreciate the people in this site. You say diversity of this audience yet, in the same breath to censor someone who has a view radical to what others think because I seem support Jesus and the Bible is rather contrary to what you just wrote. I believe because of my radical views you don't appreciate what I post because it causes others to think and maybe realize what they are angry about are not Jesus and the Bible, but people being human.

    And for the record, I do believe Jesus lived as a human being and had a great influence on people and was died for what he believed in. I am not going to as far as to convince you that he was the son of God or that God himself exists. That will be up to you to decide for yourself. The Bible is not accurate in any way as historical events go, but it does have wisdom and merit as a book to learn from. But, it is also misunderstood and misused by people who believe and do not believe in God. Just as all great religious books do.

    I present the views I do because I believe that no one else will speak up for the Bible because it is highly and I emphasize highly hated by some in this audience. I hope that what I post would get people to be curious about what I am talking about and read the Bible. Unfortunately, this makes me probably highly hated by some and I am sorry that they are angry. If you want a forum that covers a diversity of views please do not censor my posts. But if you want a one sided forum for hate against something that has been maligned just ask and I will stop posting.

    Finally, I am very curious about the world and I have things to say about bicycles and eating animals as well if you give me a chance. I was not able to post to those since my computer has been down for a long time.

  6. Ben says:

    Mr. Xiaogou,

    Good to meet you. I think Erich is honored and interested to have your input, I certainly am. (Btw, I have never read the bible, please forgive me, oh lord)

    I must admit that I sometimes get lost in your (longer) posts, Mr. Xiaogou. You seem to have an excellent sense of morality, but I sense a certain disconnect with reality. At least *my reality*. I will not be offended if you feel the same about me and my posts, and their reflection on *your* reality. To get to the heart of the issue… God does not exist for me.

    Please don't equate this with censorship, though.

  7. Vicki Baker says:

    Xiangou, don't be discouraged by Erich's comment.

    Jesus is certainly as real a character as "Socrates" or "Shakespeare", Yet probably no one here would fault you for saying "Shakespeare writes…" though his works are almost as much of a communal effort as the Gospels. Just remember Erich and I and pretty much everyone has to view reality through a prism of various competing narratives, the more powerful the less we are aware of them. As the Boddhisattva vow states "Delusions rise inexhaustibly."

  8. Erich Vieth says:

    I agree, Xiagou. Don't be discouraged by Erich's comments. I have to deal with his voice in my head all day long and he often oversteps his bounds!

  9. xiaogou says:

    Thank you all for your words of encouragement. I am sorry for posting at such a late date, but I have been busy and had no time to write a long post. I do have a strange sense of reality, as I tend towards idealism than practicality. Unfortunately, this has caused the conservative crowd to frown on my ideas and I have been told on occasions that I am not welcomed for my ideas. Ben if you have any problems understanding my reality I would be more than happy to discuss it with you. You do not have to agree with me, but at least understand what I am trying to say. I agree Vicki that each of us has a certain number of scripts that serve us and filters our views. It is as someone wrote, “If you don’t understand the man, don’t call him crazy. Ask him to explain himself.” Erich I do realize that people lose it from time to time. I do it too, except some of my friends can’t tell if it is really me or just one of my mock ups acting out. I do like posting here as it gives my brain or at least some of them an outlet. Thank you for allowing me to post.

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