The Few Body Problem & the Metaphysics of Stupidity

13. III 2022

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it. (Max Planck)

A vibrating string represents the collective motion of a system of (practically) an infinite number of atoms. Its properties and behavior are very different from those of its constituents. When the collective sets in, the system loses knowledge of its building blocks and obeys an altogether different set of rules: A string made of nickel atoms behaves (acoustically) the same way as a plastic string composed of complicated organic molecules. In terms of complexity, the collective is a nonlinear function of the size. A one-body problem is easy to handle. A two-body is more complicated, but in most cases tractable. Three-body is very difficult, while the few-body problem is impossible. However, an infinite-body problem is easy. Loss of granularity washes away as the number of degrees of freedom increases. The wave equation describing a vibrating string is significantly simpler than the Schrödinger equation for a single atom; their discoveries are separated by two centuries.

Collective IQ < Average IQ

When it comes to intelligence, a similar pattern unfolds — size is its enemy. As the group grows, at some point, it inevitably begins to get stupider. It is not difficult to fool a single person. All you need is some persuasive skills and a little intelligence. Fooling two people can be complicated – they can compare their thoughts and come up with non-overlapping objections and increase resistance to persuasion by filtering out the nonsense more effectively. Fooling a few, say five, people is practically impossible, even if they are of average intelligence. They retain their individuality (and independent thinking) while their cooperation still remains strong. Manipulating large masses, however, can be very easy (as witnessed by numerous historical examples and confirmed by the experience of the last five years). Large groups would believe what even its stupidest members would reject on their own.

As the group grows beyond a certain size, the task of deceiving them becomes progressively easier. Individual wisdom and constructive cooperation changes and gives way to collective thinking where individuality is lost. In large groups, the collective IQ resides significantly below the average IQ – no matter how intelligent individuals are, their collective intelligence will be low. Although this inequality is an empirical observation, it is never violated in practice.

Size inspires special behavior: When a group become large, it has no resemblance to and no logic of individual behavior. Masses can always be manipulated with stories that would never work on individuals. It becomes increasingly more difficult to rebel against the consensus – the loss of individuality that results after such capitulation of the mind leads to loss of resistance to persuasion. You can disagree with collective stupidity, but your resistance is inconsequential.

Subjectlessness of humanity

Only individuals can be wise; institutions are well designed, at best. (Peter Sloterdijk)

Financial markets are often miscast as an example of an intelligent collective. Although they are treated as such, markets are not an entity in the true sense of that word, but a self-optimizing medium. All market participants have the same well-defined objectives, which streamline and unify their actions and push them to act in the same direction by doing everything possible in order to maximize profit. This leads to the propagation of ideas by the smartest players to everyone else and orients everyone towards the “smart consensus”, what is considered ex-ante as an optimal action.

Corporations are collectives. However, in their (misguided) attempts to emulate some of the market’s behavior, like meritocracy, transparency, and accountability, and transpose them to the context where they don’t belong, they create obstacles and impediments to their efficient functioning and permanent sources of corporate dysfunctionality. There is a long history of their continuous struggle against underlying the trappings which come with that predicament.

Casting businessmen (successful or unsuccessful) as political leaders is a bad idea, a very bad one, actually. Seeing society as a corporation and running it as such, cannot lead to good outcomes.

Humanity is even further removed from a market-like medium than corporations. It consists of people with heterogeneous (most often conflicting) objectives. Their goals cannot be quantified and are far from unifiable.  When applied to humanity, the classic model of learning from harm collapses before this fact. In the words of Peter Sloterdijk: Humanity is a priori learning impaired because it is not a subject. It has no self, no intellectual coherence, no reliable organ of wakefulness, no self-reflection capable of learning, no identity — building common memory. Humanity cannot be wiser than a single human being. It has no body of its own with which to learn the hard way – no hand to learn first-hand – but rather a foreign body, its place of residence, the earth, which does not become wise, but transforms into a desert[1].

Humanity is to humans what a vibrating string is to atoms — its intelligence is inferior to even the sub-average intelligence of all humans.

The intelligence problem and the power of 16-percenters

Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize half of them are stupider than that. (George Carlin)

Things don’t look encouraging when observed at higher resolution. This is a graph of the IQ distribution. The average IQ is around 100 with 68% of population residing inside the two standard deviations range, between 85 and 115, which means that about 16% are of deep sub-average intelligence. These numbers are fairly robust across different countries in the developed world.

This distribution becomes particularly alarming when applied to a large relatively non-oppressive country. In the context of modern liberal societies, the synergy of stupidity, size, and democracy reinforces the malignant potential of the stupidity of the collective.

Transcription of these numbers to America implies that about 53 million (16%) people (entire population of France) are of sub-average intelligence, out of which 7 million (entire Bulgaria) is seriously impaired. These people are empowered to express their opinion and impose their will in the ballot box.

By mobilizing the left side of the distribution behind a single political movement – a maneuver that represents a collectivization of mediocrity — makes them even stupider by lowering their collective IQ further, and persuading them to believe in pretty much anything. When their discontent is streamlined and wrapped into a single narrative, in an electoral democratic system, these 16-percenters can become a decisive factor[2]. Empowered by their malignant stupidity, such people are capable of committing the most extreme atrocities as they have been throughout human history.

Humanity cannot outgrow its own death drive

Intelligence is not a theoretical quantity, but represents a behavioral quality of creatures in an open environment. (Peter Sloterdijk)

Humans are generally intelligent, but this individual intelligence fails to get collectivized. This has only become worse with progress and the general trend of increasing acceleration and addiction to speed. The long term has become so long that it now exceeds our capacity for statistical prediction, but the short-term has accelerated so much that snap decisions are the only decisions ever made. The stakes have become higher – short-term survival is no longer guaranteed, which leads to a shift of focus.

In the face of the urgency of short-term survival, long-term foresight collapses. This defines the tradeoff — the lower the odds of survival, the weaker the desires and capacities for grasping the long-term. As the group size increases and individuality fades away, collectivization inevitably leads to abdication of responsibilities. This leads to collective myopia, which attracts its membership and supports the group’s desire to grow. As a consequence, we no longer engage in intergenerational projects — passing the baton to the next generation is the best we can do (as a collective).  

This removal of the long-term perspective, its subversion, leaves power dominated by short-term forces, which under the capricious conditions of the market forces requires adaptive, liquid or transient strategies as a basic skill set. At a systemic level, change is taking the form of positive feedback. In conditions of general info acceleration and hypercomplexity, as conscious and rational will become unable to adjust to the trends, the trends themselves become self-reinforcing (up to the point of collapse)[3].

For years now, the Right-wing populism of the capitalist West has been tapping into the left side of the IQ distribution. This has proven to be a very successful strategy for their project. Unsurprisingly, in the most spectacular staging of abdication of collective responsibility, thus cultivated populist movement became the epicenter of insane resistance to simple measures of containment of the COVID pandemic.

At the core of the incoherent response to the pandemic – the spectacular failure of adjusting to the most straightforward problem of self-defense of the collective body – resides collective abdication of responsibility. This was a simple test of common sense, accepting the most basic measures any single human would normally have no problems accepting, but which collectively encountered resistance on a large scale (bordering on hysterical) causing, at the end, massive casualties, financial and economic damages, and unnecessary complications and extension of the pandemic. The resistance to alignment with simple and logical adjustment to an existential threat is just another illustration of the erosion of basic survival instincts caused by decades of deliberate and programmatic anti-science project and glorification of mediocrity.

In the world of infinite acceleration, humanity is spontaneously converging towards a state of maximum cognitive incompetence, a collective Dunning-Kruger effect. According to the latest statistics, there are about 41 million Q-anon believers in the United States.

However, this does not mean that capitalist democracies carry exclusive blame for the degradation of intellect and the rising rate of malignant stupidity. Rather, it is a combination of human nature and the law of large numbers. As much as Soviet-style communism pretended to have sought to divert the inevitable self-destructiveness of capitalism, it merely reinvented different and more efficient ways of self-destruction. A similar story goes with fascism. Communism’s record of ecological misconduct, which has penetrated deep into the territory of criminal, is just one of many examples of its self-destructive overdrive. Its pretended ideological attempts to be something else from what it really was were just failed diversions that merely accelerated the inevitable.

Welcome to Asbest

Russia is the largest country in the world by size. Nazis dreamed of conquering it as the Lebensraum for the new super-race. They failed, but so did the Russians. Instead of converting their resource-rich land into a prosperous superpower, despite Russia’s considerable cultural heritage, they have been struggling for centuries and still resemble in many ways a third-world country with staggering levels of large-scale corruption, chronic scarcity, high levels of poverty, and rampant inequality. After the failure of the Soviet experiment, Russia became a different type of Lebensraum for malignant stupidity of griftopian turbocapitalism and a laboratory of myopic ecological experimentation.

On the east side of the Ural mountain range, about 1000 miles east of Moscow and 2000 miles north of Kabul, resides the town of Asbest, the three forming a nearly perfect rectangled triangle. Asbest (the Russian word for asbestos) is one of hundreds of mono towns of the post-revolutionary Soviet Union, established according to the tenets of planned economy. As its name suggests, Asbest is the center of asbestos mining, with the largest open pit asbestos mine in the world, 1000 ft deep and the size of half of Manhattan.

As 59 countries have outlawed usage of asbestos and phased out any production due to its carcinogenic effects on humans, Asbest has become the world’s largest producer of the substance, which, by global ecological standards, is considered a criminal enterprise. About 70% of Asbest’s budget comes from the asbestos industry.

At the town’s entrance, drivers are greeted by what looks like a béton-brut installation in place of a welcoming billboard – a concrete structure, suggestive of a stylized arrow pointing downwards, with a coat of arms, representing asbestos fibers through a ring of fire at the top, and the text, below, broken in two lines: Asbest, my town and my fate! It is not clear if this was supposed to be ironic or not, but it certainly has an ominous vibe and strong overtones of dark humor. There are numerous motivational billboards in the town itself with text emphasizing the compulsory optimism of yesteryear, the most striking one stating: Asbestos is our future!

Asbest, my town and my fate

Breaking rocks and extracting the chrysotile from the mining pit is usually done with dynamite. This creates enormous clouds of asbestos dust, which covers everything in the town, from cars, rooftops, window, and parks, to fruits and vegetables people grow in their gardens.

Compared to the rest of the Sverdlovsk Oblast, Asbest has 30-40% higher incidence of cancer, a fact that remains carefully hidden from the public. Most of workers in asbestos processing plant have persistent coughs, a symptom of exposure to what they call the white needles, and strange skin ailments. Its population is slowly depleting with high mortality — the town has been losing about 1% of its population every year since the 1990s. And as if afraid to miss inserting yet another piece of irony here, local authorities have erected a monument to residents who have died (presumably from asbestos exposure) made of an asbestos block with the inscribed text: Live and Remember.

After the collapse of communism, without skipping a beat, the town of Asbest transitioned seamlessly from the clutches of ideological incompetence of the Soviet era to the unconditional greed of post-communist kleptocracy. Unlike other mono towns (where about 25 million people, 16% of the Russian population, still live), which became dying cities, Asbest did not die instantaneously. Rather, it repositioned for a slow death.

Instead of regulating human nature, capitalism as well as both communism and fascism only continue to reaffirm, time and again, what humans are truly capable of and enabled the full realization of that potential. And we haven’t seen the last of it, not yet. Free or oppressed, unable to avoid the degradation of collective intellect and preserve the wisdom of the few, humanity will always find ways to hurt itself.

Like post-communist Russia, Western democracy has been caught in a hypnotic ritualistic trance of the spectacle of its own cultural creation and self-consumption, the two fatal modes of modernity Jean Baudrillard identified as: Carnival & Cannibal. The self-imposed ignorance and collective myopia have reached the point where the West has elevated its own annihilation to a supreme aesthetic act. Against that backdrop Asbest is our future has acquired a universal metaphoric ring as a mantra of the directionless escape of mankind where the endgame appears unavoidable — a slow death in a hyperoptimized dystopian trap. This is the realization of Arthur Schnitzler’s vision of the human race as an illness of some higher organism, within which it has found a purpose and meaning, but which it also sought to destroy, in the same way virus strives to annihilate the ailing human organism and in that process destroys itself.

[1] Peter Sloterdijk, Infinite Mobilization, Polity (2020)

[2] These numbers, although larger or comparable to the USA, are less alarming when it comes to Russia, China or India. In the former two, high coercive powers of the state prevent large-scale stupidity to metastasize, while in India, where more than 50% of the country is under no one’s control, it is the fragmentation and absence of coherence along the lines of language, religion, culture, education, and social hierarchies, that prevent the collective to set in.

[3] Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty, Polity (2006)

13 thoughts on “The Few Body Problem & the Metaphysics of Stupidity

  1. Pingback: Links 3/29/2022 | naked capitalism

  2. Pingback: Links 3/29/2022 | naked capitalism – Gnews Amrita Bazar

  3. Pingback: Links 3/29/2022 | naked capitalism – eConomies

  4. Pingback: Links 3/29/2022 |: naked capitalism: – Amrita Bazar News

  5. Pingback: Links 3/29/2022 | naked capitalism > Hirake

  6. Pingback: Links 3/29/2022 - Breaking News log

  7. Lee Robertson

    When the obvious becomes apparent to the hopelessly occluded things will be irrevocably FUBAR. So. . . . ? Charge windmills? Live it up? We find ourselves at a point just past the apogee in the trajectory of an artillery shell.


  8. Richard H Caldwell

    An interesting hypothesis. In following the chain of connections you make discussing it, I found myself wondering what parts, if`any of it, are empirically or scientifically supportable beyond conjecture. Still, an interesting line of thought. I found the transition to the Asbest paragraphs unexpected and jarring; I suppose that story is intended as illustration of your ideas in action, as a proof. Still, a good and thought-provoking read, and exactly what I hope to see when I tune in to notesfromdisgraceland. Thank you!



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s