Thursday, April 1, 2010

"A Second Rate Intelligence"

A quotation by F. Scott Fitzgerald maintains that “A test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

According to this quotation, a person with a first-rate intelligence can maintain opposing beliefs in their mind and not have to sit down, drink a glass of water and fan themselves till their equilibrium returns. They can simply do it, and go on with their lives. The top of their head doesn’t blow off, or anything.

By this standard, which I take seriously, because a respected “Man of Letters” maintains it’s the case, I hereby make this public confession:

I have a second-rate intelligence. (And possibly lower.)

Hard as I’ve tried, I cannot hold opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. Any effort to do so makes me dizzy, and I have to sit down. The water and the fanning myself are usually unnecessary, but I am really not in good shape.

I can’t help myself. If I’m partial to one idea, the opposing idea will find no room at the inn of my consciousness. (In my unconsciousness, all bets are off.) I do occasionally change the idea that I hold in my second-rate mind. But for me, it’s a matter of being a monogamous (albeit serially monogamous) believer. I can only believe one thing at a time.

This second-rate inflexibility is not a result of advancing age. I was always like that. An example. (Regular readers will not be surprised to find it coming from western movies. My world of experience doesn’t enjoy an enormous range.)

A rider gallops in on his horse. A shot rings out. The horse collapses, throwing the rider to the ground. The horse gets up and trots away…

Okay, we’ll stop right there. You see the problem? I do, and did when I was a kid watching the movie. My head spins just thinking about it.

A shot rings out, and the horse collapses to the ground. What does that mean?

The horse was shot.

The horse gets up and trots away. What does that mean?

The horse was not shot.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is two opposing ideas.

Idea Number One: The horse is shot and collapses to the ground.

So far, so good. But then comes…

Idea Number Two: The horse gets up and trots away.

My temples are beginning to throb.

Maybe there’s an answer I haven’t considered. Let’s see. If the horse was not shot, what then could be the reason for its collapsing to the ground?

Did the horse suddenly feel tired? Did the first shot make it decide to elude injury by deliberately dropping below the line of fire? Was it nursing a grudge against the rider, owing, perhaps, to some unjustified spurring, and it decided to repay this abuse by suddenly collapsing to the ground and throwing its rider…

At the precise moment the shot rang out?

I’d say, “Unlikely.”

What’s more likely is this. If the horse collapses, it was shot. If the horse gets up and trots away, it wasn’t shot. But it has to be one or the other. It can’t possibly be both.

The problem is your own eyes are telling you, it is. What we see on the screen is the horse collapsing – meaning it was shot – then getting up and trotting away – meaning it wasn’t.

Against all the known precepts of common sense, the horse appears to have been shot and not shot at the same time.

I would mention this perplexing conundrum to my ten year-old friends. And they would stare at me, often adding the word,


In a tone reflecting confusion, disbelief, and a soupcon of pity.

Apparently, my friends were all blessed with first-rate intelligences, and I was cursed with a second-rate one. Why they included me in their lofty company, I have no idea. And at moments like those, neither, I suspect, did they.

My friends instinctively understood that the moviemakers did not want audiences thinking that horses were injured or killed during the making of that picture. (Though in fact, many horses were, due to invisible “trip wires”, the “movie magic” reason for their collapsing to the ground.)

It’s exciting to see a horse fall down, and it’s a relief to see them get up and trot away. The moviemakers satisfied the audience in both regards. It just didn’t make any sense.

To a person with a second-rate intelligence.

The curse persists to this very day. A random example. (I’m sure I’ll think of a better one after I publish.)

There are people who believe that man (and woman) is inherently evil. Yet they oppose controlling their business practices with regulations. Leaving inherently evil people uncontrolled by regulations. Some people have no trouble holding these opposing beliefs. I can’t help myself. I do.

I guess you just never grow out of it.


Fred said...

Maybe the horse heard the gunshot and fainted out of fear, or merely collapsed out of fear, from the sudden loud noise. When the horse realized that the loud noise was not ongoing, s/he recovered and decided to get away before the loud noise resumed.

And MAYBE the inherently evil man or woman should have the opportunity to prove that s/he can do the right thing before we regulate him or her.

And I think I disagree with you. We have all sorts of laws to regulate people from doing bad things like imbezzlement, insider trading or false advertising. Why would you think we don't? In fact our thriving legal profession is making boatloads of money on exactly these laws that should prevent us from doing bad things.

Note however, that our law does not actually prevent people from doing bad things, but punishes them after they have done them. It is the fear of punishment that prevents bad people from doing bad things, right?

Or is your problem not that we don't regulate bad behavior but that we don't punish wrongdoers severely enough?

Maybe you want the horse to be shot and you want the bullet wound to hurt and you want the poor animal to suffer terribly before dying and you want to see all of this in gory detail on your television screen. To which I would say, abandoning the metaphore, just because you don't see justice working doesn't mean that it is not.

Of course it might be easier to understand your problem with opposing ideas if you didn't make it about horses and gunshots. Unless I missed something and you are actually honked-off about how animals are mistreated for the purpose of entertainment. If so, nevermind.

Anonymous said...

Fred, you've fallen into the trap of over-reaction to having your beliefs challenged. The blog didn't talk about the absense of laws, but about people arguing that there should be fewer laws.

It is interesting that you shoot your own horse down. You correctly claim that laws can only ever act reactively to one's behavior just after you plead to give an opportunity to prove one can do the right thing.

It's also interesting to note that those wild cowboys in the big banks have taken their continued opportunities to prove they can do the Right Thing (tm) by giving themselves big bonuses off the windfall money deisgned to save their bank from going under. The sheriff was naively giving them their chance to prove their worth... and they took it to improve theirs. Clever bunch.

growingupartists said...

I love your writing Earl, always have, always will.

Brian Fies said...

Look up Schrodinger's Cat; according to quantum physics, the horse could have been both alive and dead at the same time. You not only have a first-rate intellect, you're smarter than Einstein. Own it.

Anonymous said...

I wish I knew where I first heard this, but I've always remembered it. You cannot legislate morality. I agree that we can only set up regulations that punish after the act. You cannot force anyone to act in a certain way. And morality is so hard to define adequately. I might believe that it wrong to work on Sunday while you have no problem with laboring away any day of the week. I prefer the American Indian story of a grandfather telling his grandson that good and evil are like two wolves fighting within you. Both are always there and always at war with each other. His grandson asks who wins and he answers - whichever one you feed the most. I believe that we are inherently both good and evil. So I guess I believe in the Schrodinger's Cat theory that would have the horse dead and alive at the same time. Don't know what that makes me, intellectually speaking. Confused or conflicted, maybe.

Clint Johnson said...

I guess you've never been hunting. It is fairly common for a shot animal to drop to the ground and then jump up again to run off at top speed. I would assume that the horse was wounded and nobody was humane enough to deliver a coupe de grace- so it ran off to die a lingering and painful death.

That may not be the message that they were trying to deliver but it is the only one that fits the evidence.

People are most certainly not inherently evil.

Evolution has weeded out most of those who do not have a certain level of genetic self interest that extends out to the family and then the tribe.

There are outliers ... on one end are the sociopaths who become politicians and on the other end are those with martyrs complexes who become their useful idiots.

I get nervous when told that the middle needs it every action to be controlled and regulated by the sociopaths and martyrs.

growingupartists said...

You DO have enormous range though, Earl.

Anonymous said...

While horseback riding in the rugged mountains of western Wyoming one of our horse lost her footing and slid, rolled and cart wheeled about 100 ft down a steep canyon. We arrived at the canyon floor to find her lying in the creek and unable to get up on four feet. She could get on her front feet but her backend would not follow, and it appeared she had broken her back in the fall. We spent 30-45 minutes encouraging and assisting her to stand but each time she tried her back end would not move. To make matters she was lying in a creek of very old water and when she tried to rest her head, water would run into her nose. After much consideration it was decided to shoot her in the head and spare her suffering. A shot rang out and to our amazement she jumped, up shook herself, and then ran seven miles home. She experienced a full recovery and we continued to rider her for another five years. To whit: a horse that has been shot can get back on her feet and run.