Being able to think is a disadvantage with which most people are not burdened. Being able to think merely makes you aware of the outrages around you. – Arthur Jones
You should not be over much righteous nor should you seek overmuch to be clever. Why destroy yourself? Ecclesiastes 7:16 (author’s translation)
When I was in high school my senior English teacher taught us basic logic and recommended to us that we read Aristotle. He was pretty sure that Aristotle was the smartest man who had ever lived. I did that. I also read several books on logic and how to use it. In this process I was still trying to learn to be a disciple of Jesus. The skills acquired from studying basic logic helped me tremendously in my efforts to understand Scripture and theological debates throughout church history. I remember during my seminary certain students would get frustrated that I could read the books so quickly, like I had some sort of unfair super power. It really wasn’t that. It was nothing other than an application of logic that allowed me to move beyond difficult paragraph arrangements and enthymemes (arguments that skip steps) quickly.
In the mean time, I tried to stay out of any debates involving politics with other people simply because I saw how divisive and ugly they could get. I was certain that there was some moral flaw in the very nature of modern political discourse that required people to be so harsh and illogical. I simply tried to stay out of it. Fast forward to a few years later and (I’ll leave my stances of political issues out of this) I started getting into political thinking because I realized how many poor decisions seemed to be made by politicians with a non-understanding of statistics. I started reading pundit pieces from various sides of numerous debates, reading actual books about economics from various perspectives (even the books on probability and human nature by certain famous economists), I started looking at (insofar as it is possible) the progress of various civilizations and the narratives that purportedly led to their demise, and then something interesting started to happen.
I found myself looking at people, individuals, in terms of their participation in ideologies (which is certainly a part of their lives) and not in terms of their need for grace. I’d look at people and think, “dude, that kind of behavior and thinking has obvious deleterious effects upon yourself and the culture upon which you parasite (if I can use that as a verb).” Now, it certainly is important to think of our actions in terms of personal/subjective as well as civilizational impact, but that does not change the fact that people are still intrinsically valuable (especially if Christianity is true).
- I love making fun of the city in which I live and its denizens. It is, in terms of markers of social health (road quality, obesity rate, literacy rate, teen pregnancy, civil participation, etc), one of the silliest places on the planet. But that does not make the people less created in God’s image.
- I love making fun of people at the gym. I affectionately call them gymbeciles. But once again, these people are in the gym because they don’t want to contribute to my city’s health crisis!
- I love making fun of people who make basic factual errors.
- I love making fun of scientists who try to be historians and fail to get simple timelines correct. My favorite is the claim that the medieval church persecuted Galileo (who was a contemporary of Descartes).
- I sometimes use the phrase “maliciously stupid” to talk about the things people do.
Now, making fun of stupid things is an important inoculation against them. But, making fun of people as though they are objects of contempt can really dehumanize them outside of the rhetorical context of debate (in debate, if you’re correct you might have the moral obligation to not only prove your opponent wrong but if the opposition’s idea is dangerous, to make the idea look positively stupid). This habit can very easily lead you (at least it leads me) to treat them with contempt. It is so very easy to go from the ability to point out simple reasoning errors, then to finding those errors funny, and finally to finding human misery caused by bad ideas funny.
The quip from Qoheleth and the note from the inventor of Nautilus equipment are both important to take in to account. Not because thinking is intrinsically wrong, but because logic divorced from ethics tends to produce judgmental attitudes toward people rather than compassion. Thus, Paul notes that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”
Anyhow, Jesus said, “Whatever you want others to do to you, you should do to them (Matthew 7:12).”
This tells me three things:
- I do not want to be written off because of my intellectual errors, therefore I should not do the same.
- I do not want my individuals actions to be judged solely on the basis of my ideological commitments (even if there is a connection between them), therefore I should not do the same.
- I do not want my actions done on the basis of mistaken logic to be treated as though they reveal my intent, therefore I should not do the same.