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Saturday, July 28, 2012

Michael Johnson on the Cosmic Schmuck Principle

Michael Johnson at the Overweening Generalist blog writes about Robert Anton Wilson's Cosmic Schmuck principle and then shows how the work of various social scientists and philosophers hews closely to the principle. For example, Michael writes about Daniel Kahneman's book, Thinking, Fast and Slow; I wrote about Kahneman previously, relating the book to Wilson's skepticism and model agnosticism. 

It seems to me that Wilson ought to have illustrated the Cosmic Schmuck principle with an example or two of when he himself was a Cosmic Schmuck. It would not have been too damaging to his reputation, I would think, to admit that his criticism of Bob Dylan, for example, was perhaps not the whole story. One of most affecting features of Kahneman's book is the examples he gives of times when he was wrong. For example, he once embarked with several other scholars on a textbook for Israeli schools on how to make good decisions. They discovered after they had begun work on the book that writing a textbook often takes several years. They should have abandoned the textbook at that point, but they persisted and finally completed it -- after several years. By that time, Israeli education officials had lost interest in the book.

Rather than simply insisting that everyone has should give an example of when they were mistaken, I will give an instance of when I was very wrong. After 9-11, I, in common with many other Americans, because so angry at the slaughter of so many Americans that I was ready to  hit back. I supported the war in Afghanistan (which doesn't seem totally irrational to me even know -- I didn't know we'd occupy the country for more than 10 years) and even supported the war in Iraq. Much of my politics since then essentially has been an expression of remorse for my Schmuckiness. 

And didn't you like the moment in Nixon in China when Richard Nixon sings, "I was wrong"?


michael said...

Thanks once again for the ultra-kind T-Jack Bump.

Nixon singing "I was wrong." Why does that affect us so? Why doesn't that happen more in real life? (Or does it, in politicians' memoirs, many years after they have left the World Stage? And some admission that they were just plain wrong gets buried under 944 pages?

I think a LOT of thoughtful Americans were with you w/re/to: Afghanistan. I had Afghan friends who knew it was inevitable that that the US strike there; they thought it was horrible, but they understood how the US acted, in general. They didn't like it, they thought their people would suffer all sorts of innocents' deaths and casualties. But none of us thought we'd still be there, over 10 years later.

There's been a lot written on scientific geniuses and hard-headed "I MUST be right!" attitudes. Look at Einstein and his refusal to accept quantum mechanics. Look at Chomsky's linguistic project. Witness Freud's break with his brilliant disciples.

But I think the Cosmic Schmuckiness thing has more to do with localized ethical behavior. Geniuses are going to be stubborn. I do not accept politicians as "geniuses" in the same sense as scientific and artistic genius. There's clearly something fucked up about, say, the Neo-Cons not coming out and admitting they were wrong about Iraq. I think that level of Wrongness is far, far beyond the Cosmic Schmuck Principle, because it involves untold deaths, carnage. I sincerely see the main NeoCons as international criminals who should receive trials in the World Court (I'm not letting Obama and Gang off the hook either); and just because this idea is not in the mainstream media doesn't mean we shouldn't at least THINK of the issue this way.

I remember sitting in a bar one night with a good friend, and I just went off about gun owners and their redneckedness and they probably can't get it up, they are more likely to kill their family members than any "intruder," that they probably need their guns as a penis substitute, that they're moronically delusional if they think they can hold off a government that has such high-tech weapons, on and on and on...and I had not known my dear friend - a thoughtful, kind, considerate, gentle guy - was a gun-owner who enjoyed shooting at the range, thought guns were fascinating technology, that there were all kinds of gun safety classes available and he usually took those, that he didn't like killing animals at all, that having a gun was a way of feeling a part of history, etc. He went on and on and on and I felt like...a Cosmic Schmuck. I had intellectually known there were "probably" some gun owners like him, but having one as a friend? Man, did I feel like a Schmuck!

I still don't own a gun. It just doesn't interest me. But after my friend kindly showed me how WRONG I was in my assumptions about "gun owners" I have had a much more nuanced view of gun owners.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

I deleted my post after reading your article. because I pretty much recomended something that you had already recomended. Which was the book by shultz. I borrowed it from a library because I liked the title, and was really taken by the analysis she gives of error.