In Praise and Dread of Crazy

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: When the Real goes mad, sanity can only cling to delusion.


What if sane is stupid and smart is crazy?

I’ve been thinking about Neuropath a lot lately. I’m doing an interview on the book with Peter Wolfendale (whom I’ve invited to rebut Roger’s excellent post on ancient skepticism), as well as discussing it with Frank Cameron, a friend of mine who has it assigned for one of his philosophy classes. At the same time I happened to bump into a paper by Eric Schwitzgebel, entitled “The Crazyist Metaphysics of Mind.”

The question, ‘What if sane is stupid and smart is crazy?’ is pretty much Neuropath in nutshell. It depicts a world where the cracks between human intuition–sanity–and scientific knowledge–craziness–have yawned into a chasm, an anomie that either drives us further and further into fantasy or swallows us whole.

Of course not all ‘sanes’ and ‘crazies’ are equal. At the very least we need to distinguish stupid sane, from smart sane, and likewise, smart crazy from stupid crazy. So how do they rank? Like ‘chaotic evil’ in the moral metaphysics of the old Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, you might think stupid crazy would be the worst kind of crazy. I mean, what could be worse than a crazy idiot?

Well, it depends on your time-frame. The thing about stupid crazy is that it tends to be as self-defeating–not unlike chaotic evil. Think of the difference between Hannibal Lector and Buffalo Bill: Buffalo Bill did a lot of damage assembling his wardrobe, sure, but there was no question of him getting the best of the delicious Agent Starling. No. That entree (and the sequels) were reserved for Hannibal the Cannibal.

It’s the smart crazy that we need to worry about, the lawful evil. Like the line from the old Tragically Hip tune says, “The smarter it is, the further it’s gonna go…” Consider the Standard Model of Particle Physics, which is not only the gold standard of scientific theory, but the very definition of smart crazy. Think chalk, blackboard, Niels Bohr, Hiroshima…

“We are all agreed that your theory is crazy,” Bohr once famously said to Wolfgang Pauli. “The question which divides us is whether it is crazy enough to have a chance of being correct.”

And now, as Schwitzgebel argues, we have cognitive neuroscience nipping at our mental health.

The problem, it seems, is that human evolution only really cared about good enough, that the cognitive tools required to reproduce human children who reproduce only needed to land a glancing blow on the way things really are. And as a result, we find ourselves stranded with a near miss as the very yardstick (criterion) for what we call ‘sane’ – simply because it’s the only yardstick we got. The problem, in other words, is that the world really is crazy.

A psychopath, as Neuropath would have it.

So I thought I would pitch this as my counter-argument to throw into Roger’s wheelhouse (one that sidesteps all the tiresome charges of self-refutation philosophers typically used to stuff wax into their dogmatic ears): “Yes-yes. Your logic is as impeccable as always, Sextus, my dear man. That has to be the smartest defence of stupid sanity I have ever encountered.”

So the very game of giving and asking for theoretical reasons loses the game of giving and asking for theoretical reasons–fair enough. The powder is wet. The very inference structure of philosophy is self-defeating…

But who said all defeats are equal?