Blank Stares in the Real World

Blank StaresAs I write this, it is the day before Christmas. So I’m looking forward to how Christmas will go. What I know is that in as much as a talk about anything of substance, no communication will go on. I will get a lot of blank stares. This is one of the reasons that I do my best to stay busy cooking on holidays. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten to the point where I find very few people are able to understand what I have to say when I am talking about anything that matters to me.

I’ve heard this about this blog. “I checked out Frank’s blog, but I really couldn’t understand what he was talking about” — virtual blank stares. And the first time I heard that, I was shocked. Frankly Curious is hardly filled with deep subject matter. And I go out of my way to write in a simple style. But over time, I’ve come to understand it. And it concerns me greatly, because it isn’t just about me.

I’ve long held that intelligence is a kind of myth. Indeed, my major takeaway from the Flynn effect is that IQ scores tell us about the way people think — not their absolute abilities. So “intelligence” is more a function of how we were raised to think about thinking than anything else.

The Intellectual Blueprint

But it still scares the hell out of me. To most people, I must be an unbelievably boring person. I’m very interested in ideas — maybe because they are the only things I feel I can control. But if I think about something enough, I can get to the point where I have a kind of intellectual blueprint — a map of what there is to know, what I feel fairly certain I do know, and what is foggy or worse.

I seem to live in a world of people who are only vaguely aware that such blueprints exist. Instead, they have intellectual index cards — and even the space on them seems to be daunting. My father has been reading articles about people who were exonerated after being on death row. And he seems to be trying to change his mind to be against the death penalty, after being for it for almost 84 years.

He keeps approaching me on the subject, and I’ll admit: I’m not very nice about it. I’ve reached a point in my life where I don’t have the patience to teach remedial moral philosophy to adults. I’m pleased that he’s struggling with the issue, but I don’t think we are even involved in the same kind of intellectual endeavor.

The Intellectual Index Card for the Death Penalty

My father’s thinking on it (and like I said: he is really struggling in an admirable way) goes like this:

  1. An eye-for-an-eye is common sense
  2. But so much evidence shows it doesn’t work
  3. Polly Klaas.

In other words, it’s just a muddle placed on top of his “common sense” that the right response to murder is murder. It’s probably this effort to find a practical reason to be against the death penalty that makes it hard for me to be helpful. Yes, just from a practical standpoint, the death penalty is wrong. But that is not why I’m against it. And it is not the reason that I want anyone to be against it.

Intellectual Canvas Size

But the broader issue is the size of the intellectual canvas that any of us are going to work on. I always thrill to the experience of seeing a problem in a larger context. Currently, I mostly see the death penalty in the context of free will — or rather the lack of it. That’s not to say that I have found the ultimate context. But it’s a context that easily includes the other issues that people talk about the death penalty.

So yes, I can have a conversation with people about our flawed criminal justice system — and our racist society. And I can have a conversation about two wrongs not canceling each other. I can have a conversation (Gladly!) about mercy. But if we are talking about the death penalty, I will eventually get to free will. And that means blank stares in most cases. And when not, I get misunderstandings about nature versus nurture.

No Blank Stares at Frankly Curious

I don’t mean to flatter my readers, but one big reason I continue to write this blog is that the regulars around here don’t give me blank stares. We constitute a group that can communicate. And I say that knowing full well that we don’t communicate at a particularly high level. But each of our intellectual cutting edges are compatible.

Around here I neither need to put on airs nor talk about things at a level I don’t care about. Too bad it isn’t that way in the real world. Of course, the truth is that I don’t change in the real world. That’s why I get all those blank stares.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

6 thoughts on “Blank Stares in the Real World

  1. Yeah, sorry…the intellectual leap from the concrete “killing because killing” to broadly abstract “free will” is so long that I’m staring a bit blankly here. The lack of scaffolding has got me head scratching “which aspect of free will is the crux of this particular biscuit..?”

    • My understanding is thus: we don’t have free will-we have after the fact rationalization of why we did something. So when someone does a particular act, they didn’t choose to do it because they wanted to, they did so for some other reason and then said afterwards they chose to do it.

      A person who kills isn’t necessarily choosing to do so because they want to-they are choosing to do so because their brain makes them do it. Or something along those lines. Which makes me wonder a great deal about psychopaths as their brains don’t work like the rest of humanity’s brains.

      • Hmm. Not sure whether this doesn’t presume more forethought than is actually involved in most killings, which AFAIK often include panic/fear, alcohol, testosterone, and anger. I tend to agree that a LOT of murders involve “free will” in the same way that someone going the wrong way on an escalator has the free will to get back to where he started from.

        That said, I’m not sure that a “free will” argument against killing people for killing is any better, or more effective, or more philosophically valid than the “police, labs, judges, and juries fuck up all the time and once we’ve killed the wrong person “oopsie” is not really a valid argument”. I’m not saying it isn’t…but I’d need to hear more convincing reasons than “‘we’re just hardwired that way so there’s no real free will and person X didn’t actually CHOOSE to kill person Y”.

        • Panic, fear. and alcohol. Now you’re talking in my terms!

          Who chooses to be under the power of these things? To take my good friend (and dearest enemy!) alcohol, nobody chooses to be a drunk They choose to drink, as drinking is quite fun. But who chooses to be a drunk? Who chooses the compulsion to drink alcohol? If you could put me in a time machine, take me back 25 years, and give me the choice, “you’ll be drawn to either alcohol or stamp collecting,” I sure wouldn’t pick alcohol! It’s pricey!

          Panic and fear are often manifestations of schizophrenia. And nobody with schizophrenia decided, “this’ll be a jolly good thing to have!”

          So, perhaps we disagree. But thanks for engaging with the argument using your wit, intelligence, and wisdom. More of those, and the Internet would be a good place. I grow less and less fond of the Internet daily, since it exhibits few of those attributes.

  2. To me the logic of “eye for an eye” is tough to grasp. I can’t help but break it down like this:

    1. The only persons with any right to demand death in vengeance are the loved ones of the victom(s).
    2. But some victims have no loved ones. This should not mean their murder is any less of a crime.
    3. Hence, the state must demand vengeance equally for every murder.
    4. But not all loved ones of a murder victim demand death in vengeance. Some would prefer a prison term.
    5. So how can the state mandate death in vengeance?
    6. For the state to have moral authority to punish all murders, the punishment must be uniform. It should be harsher than pure forgiveness (what some loved ones would grant), more lenient than death in vengeance (what some loved ones would desire).
    7. Execution is not in the middle ground. It is the harshest penalty. Hence the state should not apply it.

    That’s about as far as my wee brain can go.

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