Christopher Michael Langan lays legitimate claim to having the highest IQ of anyone in the United States. He is a scholar in the original sense of the word. Scholar in its Greek root refers to leisure for reflection, and Langan has devoted his spare time to intellectual pursuits. That said, Langan is an unconventional scholar. Most scholars are associated with universities or think-tanks; they are paid to think. Langan’s day jobs, by contrast, have tended to be in the blue collar world — most colorfully as a bouncer. And yet he continues to read, research, and write. In addition, through his Mega Foundation, he helps others who, like himself, are so far out on the IQ scale that they’ve had difficulty adjusting to the plodding pace and low expectations that characterize much of conventional education.
Mr. Langan, on IQ tests you don’t just score in the 99th percentile (as members of Mensa, the high-IQ society, do), but more like in the 99.9999th percentile. How is this difference measured?
There are distinctions to be made between conventional IQ tests designed for the vast majority of test subjects, and experimental tests designed to pick up where those tests leave off (around IQ 160 or so). Due to the nature of these distinctions, the difference of which you speak can only be estimated, not directly measured.
When one exceeds the ceiling of a full-range standardized IQ test like the WAIS* (as I have, for example), one’s IQ is said to be “off the charts”. As it cannot be fully measured with a standardized IQ test, further refinement requires an experimental test with a higher ceiling. However, because off-the-charts IQ’s are so rare that they are unlikely to be found in the limited samples on which conventional IQ tests are directly normed and statistically calibrated, experimental high-ceiling tests designed for them can only be indirectly calibrated. Basically, one sees how test subjects have scored on other tests, establishes a correspondence, and extrapolates for the very highest scores. At best, this yields an “estimated IQ”. [*WAIS = Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale]
The items in experimental high-ceiling IQ tests tend to be complex and quite difficult, and more time is needed to properly solve them. This affects the requirements of such tests and the manner in which they are taken, which in turn raises the question of exactly how they relate to standard IQ tests. The field of high-ceiling IQ testing is thus open to controversy, as is IQ testing in general.
This controversy is worthwhile in some respects, but misleading in others. IQ is a politically loaded topic on which misinformation abounds; purportedly “scientific” criticisms of the IQ construct and its associated statistics are often motivated less by science than by fear that they somehow threaten fairness and equality, or by the exploitation of such fear for hidden social or political agendas. Similarly, critical commentary about the IQ of a specific person is often a thinly disguised way of attacking intellectual content.
In my view, ideas and other intellectual productions are more interesting, more indicative of intelligence, and more productively debated than IQ alone.
Kids who score that high on IQ tests tend to be so far ahead of their peers and teachers that they’re often bored out of their minds in school and thus, ironically, don’t tend to be considered great students by their teachers. Is this how it was for you?
Much of the time, yes. I had more than one teacher who considered me a let-down, and sometimes for what must have seemed good reason.
For example, I sometimes fell asleep in class. I can remember trying to resist it, but I wasn’t always successful. I was even known to fall asleep during tests, sometimes before completing them. And by “asleep”, I do mean “asleep”. It was once reported to me by one of my teachers that she had amused the entire class by repeatedly snapping her fingers in front of my face and eliciting no reaction whatsoever.
In fairness, this wasn’t always due to boredom alone. I was often tired and exhausted by distractions. For example, what pugnacious little thugs would be waiting in ambush as I left the school grounds at the end of the day? How many friends and helpers would this or that bully bring with him to the after-school fight for which I had been reluctantly scheduled? Would my stepfather be in his typical punitive mood when I got home? And so on.
Sometimes, I had trouble paying attention even when I wasn’t asleep. I had a habit of partially withdrawing from the class discussion and writing down my own thoughts in my notebook; this made me appear to be attentively taking notes. However, when the teacher would sneak up on me from behind or demand to see what I was writing, the truth would out, and one can imagine the consequences.
As time passed, I would have to say that I grew increasingly resistant and unresponsive to the Pavlovian conditioning on which much educational methodology is based. I suspect that between home and school, there had been a certain amount of cumulative desensitization.
These problems eventually got me stationed nearly full-time in the school library, where I greatly preferred to be anyway. Later, I was finally excused from attendance except as required in order to collect and turn in my weekly assignments.
Please describe your pre-adolescent years growing up? How precocious were you? Did any teachers see your potential during that time? Were any effective at guiding you?
I was precocious in some ways, normal in others. I had three little brothers; except for the youngest, we were only a year or so apart in age. We played together like normal kids, ignoring differences of scholastic achievement.
Our family situation was somewhat extraordinary, and we felt the consequences acutely. We moved around a lot, and were usually the poorest family in town. My stepfather sometimes worked as a journalist, and when doing so, he could be brutally honest about things like small-town corruption. This often resulted in harsh feelings against him, and by extension, against all of us, inevitably leading to prejudice.
Teachers are supposed to be immune to this kind of prejudice. But as my brothers and I learned the hard way, not all of them live up to ideals. Add to that the social liabilities of often being “the new kids in town” and the tendency of schoolchildren to shun or mistreat out-group members, and the result was a mostly unpleasant K-12 experience.
A few of my teachers – perhaps as many as one in four – sometimes tried to make things a little less unpleasant and a little more rewarding for me. However, this sometimes backfired, as when they would arouse the resentment of other students by holding me up as a scholastic exemplar.
Adolescence is a time of big changes. Describe your high school years. In what ways were they better and worse than your first years? Presumably, you blew away all standardized tests. Were Harvard and Caltech beating down your doors to have you as a student? If not, why not? What happened after your high school years? When did your formal education end?
I’ll be candid. I quickly came to see high school as an extended, survival-of-the-fittest physical combat regimen punctuated by the occasional brief oasis. A not insignificant number of people know, or at least think they know, what it feels like to be among the least popular kids in high school; for a male student, it means that one either fights to defend oneself, or swallows an unlimited amount of disrespect and abuse from other kids, right down to mockery and physical assault. I usually opted to defend myself, thus precipitating a further decline in personal popularity while at least salvaging a modicum of respect.
As far as I was concerned, I was “ready for college” by the 10th grade (and arguably before that). But of course, that meant nothing without an advocate within the system to furnish advice and recommendations. As I was without a mentor and in no position to pursue my own interests, that was the end of the story until graduation.
I applied to two colleges, each of which offered me a full academic scholarship. One pressured me to major in ancient languages, but as I preferred mathematics and philosophy, I chose the other. Unfortunately, for various reasons I hadn’t foreseen, this was not a good choice. To make a long story short, I found myself with a case of culture shock and intellectual alienation, an “advisor” harder to track down than Bigfoot, and sharp personality conflicts with two or three of the worst and most self-absorbed instructors I could have imagined … and after my K-12 experiences, that’s really saying something! I was even accused of participating in a riot at which I was never present, and given no opportunity to respond. All in all, I’d have to call it a disappointment.
Then, after taking a year or so off to work and save up a little tuition money, I tried to make a fresh go of it. This turned out to be yet another waste of time. Although I encountered unexpected physical difficulties that I tried hard to resolve, the university administrators – citing my problems at the first institution – refused to budge in my direction, leaving me no choice but to depart in mid-winter. At that point, having finally read the writing on the wall, I shook the dust from my work boots and took my intellectual destiny into my own hands as best I could. As Wittgenstein might have put it, I resolved to “go the hard way”.
On several occasions after that, I allowed myself to be persuaded by others to give the system yet another chance. On the first occasion, the college claimed to have “lost” my application after the enrollment deadline. On the last occasion, I applied to the PhD program at a foreign university only to have my application rejected without explanation despite glowing written recommendations from various highly credentialed people. I could go on.
Evidently, my reconciliation with academia was not to be. Experience has taught me that I was right to trust my intuition: there is nothing to be gained by pretending that academic involvement is necessary, or even always desirable, in the quest for truth and knowledge. In fact, owing to the academic penchant for orthodoxy and political correctness, it can be a hindrance.
For many years you earned your livelihood in non-intellectual pursuits. When 20/20 did a story on you in the late 1990s, they described a long string of jobs you have held, including bouncer. What were some of these jobs? Which of them did you enjoy most?
I’ll skip the boyhood lawn work and paper routes.
My first real job was farm work…weeding potatoes (fifty cents per hour) when I was 13-14 years old or so. The money went to my mother for groceries. The next, which occupied me until I was about 17, was working as a ranch hand on various ranches, where my regular duties included stacking hay, manual irrigation, and working with horses and cows (12-14 hours of labor per day, 7 days a week come rain or shine, $200 per month before taxes plus a bunk in a covered wagon and all the eggs and stew I could eat).
My next employer was the US Forest Service, in which I served as a firefighter, lookout, and regional fire guard (something less than a full ranger, but with direct responsibility for a relatively large geographic area). This work was seasonal and spanned about four years. During the winters, I began working construction, from digging ditches to banging nails and pouring concrete on projects from small houses to ten-story grain elevators.
Only when I was in my twenties did I get around to nightclub security, i.e., being a bar bouncer, interspersed with yet more construction work. It was risky and often distasteful, but it let me save a little money and usually left me enough physical and mental energy to pursue my studies during off-hours.
There were other jobs as well – e.g., digging clams on the Great South Bay of Long Island, a bit of ocean lifeguarding, a few weeks spent installing and reconditioning tennis courts, and so on. And of course, when the weather was bad or times were tough, there were also a few stretches of unemployment.
In keeping with my days as a ranch hand, I now finally own a horse ranch, but at a time when the horse market is severely depressed. While this has kept my income not far above its previous low range, at least the lifestyle is clean and healthy.
As far as enjoyment is concerned, almost all of these jobs offered a little of that, though in most cases not enough to make up for the pain (the potato weeding and tennis court work were uniformly boring and hell on my back). It’s notoriously hard to work for someone else when one’s true calling beckons; scheduling conflicts are unavoidable and tend to be painful.
Now that I own a ranch, most of the scheduling is up to me. That alone makes it the best “job” I’ve ever had, all the more so because it calls on much of what I learned in other lines of work.
Why, despite your intellectual gifts, did you turn to non-intellectual pursuits for your livelihood?
I did so by necessity.
Through its jealous stranglehold on intellectual certification, academia has all but monopolized gainful intellectual activity; if one has no money, no connections, and no degree, one’s intellect is all but vocationally irrelevant. Given two people, one with an IQ of 100 and a college degree and the other with a 200 IQ and no degree, all else equal, any job that involves much intellectual processing will go to the former in almost every case. This is because academia has managed to convince the world that intelligence equates to academic certification, when in fact, it is a largely innate capacity independent of academic training and credentials.
When I first parted ways with academia, I understood that this would hurt my chances to make a good living; I had no choice in the matter anyway. But in deciding to make an intellectual go of it on my own, I simply discounted the tremendous obstacles I would face in getting attention for my work. After these obstacles began to emerge, I moved on several occasions — always at the urging of others that I not “give up on the system” — to give academia another try. But even after I’d been featured in the national media and presented in a #1 NY Times best-seller as someone who would probably be well-suited for a faculty position at a university such as Harvard, my efforts were either rebuffed or ignored!
It seems that academia, rather than encouraging the participation of anyone in particular, finds comfort in the assumption that no matter whom it excludes and neglects, no good idea can possibly elude it. But of course, this assumption is absurd on its face. Academia is a function of individual minds which exist independently of it, not vice versa; individual academics serve its educational mandate, produce its scholarly output, and harbor its loftiest aspirations. Without them, academia is literally nothing.
This makes it all the sadder that by ignoring outsiders and thus keeping a closed shop while cravenly submitting to the diktats of their institutions and embracing “consensus” at the expense of intellectual freedom and honesty, many academics unwittingly reinforce the hubris of an overweening bureaucracy which sometimes places its own interests above truth itself. Clearly, this is not the way to do justice to the intellectual potential of humanity.
As I have no more time to waste on vain attempts to penetrate the academic bureaucracy, it now behooves me to seek freer channels of communication.
Despite earning your living largely through blue-collar jobs, you never stopped learning. Indeed, most of your education has come through self-study. Please describe the course of study that you set for yourself. What were you reading? How much were you reading? What fields of inquiry most interested you? Who were your conversation partners (literally and metaphorically)? What were you trying to accomplish through all this study?
When I was very young (up to about the age of 6), I concentrated on the books in my grandparents’ bookshelves, on subjects ranging from science to Egyptology and Asian culture (my grandfather was a shipping executive who made frequent trips to China, India, and other Asian countries). I remember being especially fond of the encyclopedias. Then I discovered fantasy and science fiction, reading extensively in those genres.
By the time I was 13 or14, I had moved on to authors requiring a bit more emotional maturity, e.g., Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky, as well as philosophers like Charles Darwin, Bertrand Russell, and Albert Einstein (Einstein is widely regarded as a physicist, but his work goes so deeply into the fundamental nature of reality that he can also be read as a metaphysical philosopher). When I went away to college for nine months, I read a considerable amount of classical literature as part of the curriculum. This included Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas, who provided me with an introduction to theology and metaphysics. Meanwhile, when I could afford it, I’d buy and pore over dense but influential works like Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica.
After that, my access to good reading material was often quite limited, and I was forced to become more opportunistic as a reader. Translation: often lacking access to a decent library or bookstore, I read what was available. Books that I went out of my way to acquire usually involved technical subjects like logic, mathematics, philosophy, physics, and biology.
As one might gather from this reading list, I was feeding the general hunger for knowledge typical of bright youngsters. But at all times, my underlying goal was to know deep reality, the world as it really is rather than as it is superficially presented to us by the senses. I had discovered early on that no matter how smart the people I questioned, they really had only the vaguest understanding of the world, and I found this particular kind of ignorance totally unacceptable. Why live this life we are given without knowing it for what it really is?
Thus, while other kids worried about being liked and looked forward to making money, acquiring lots of cool stuff, and having an all-around good time, I poked around by myself in the deep, dark crevasses of reality in search of meaning and flashes of enlightenment…always a strange occupation for a young person, and becoming more so with each passing year.
In the last decade, you’ve been actively developing what you call a “Cognitive-Theoretic Model of the Universe.”
Actually, I’ve had the essence of the CTMU (Cognitive-Theoretic Model of the Universe) for well over two decades, and began to publish essays on it in 1989.
Since then, I’ve been periodically amused to watch academia and/or the media get excited and wax philosophical over the rediscovery of what seem to isolated, vaguely-formulated scraps of it by “approved” sources.
While I certainly don’t want to downplay the insights of others, I’ve come to suspect that in the dog-eat-dog, publish-or-perish world of academia, few if any are really up to making a forest of the trees.
Can you sketch the CTMU — in plain English — for our readers?
The name literally says it all. The phrase “Cognitive-Theoretic Model of the Universe” contains three main ingredients: cognitive theory, model, and universe. Cognitive theory refers to a general language of cognition (the structural and transitional rules of cognition); universe refers to the content of that language, or that to which the language refers; and model refers to the mapping which carries the content into the language, thus creating information. The way in which the title brings these three ingredients together, or “contracts” their relationship to the point of merging, reflects their perfect coincidence in that to which the title implicitly refers, i.e., reality (the physical universe plus all that is required to support its perception and existence). Thus, the CTMU is a theory which says that reality is a self-modeling universal language, or if one prefers, that the universe is a self-modeling language.
The operation of combining language, universe, and model to create a perfectly self-contained metalanguage results in SCSPL, short for Self-Configuring Self-Processing Language. This language is “self-similar” in the sense that it is generated within a formal identity to which every part of it is mapped as content; its initial form, or grammatical “start symbol”, everywhere describes it on all scales. My use of grammatical terminology is intentional; in the CTMU, the conventional notion of physical causality is superseded by “telic causation”, which resembles generative grammar and approaches teleology as a natural limit. In telic causation, ordinary events are predicated on the generation of closed causal loops distributing over time and space. This loop-structure reflects the fact that time, and the spatial expansion of the cosmos as a function of time, flow in both directions – forward and backward, outward and inward – in a dual formulation of causality characterizing a new conceptualization of nature embodied in a new kind of medium or “manifold”.
That’s as simple as I can make it without getting more technical. Everything was transparently explained in the 56-page 2002 paper I published on the CTMU, which has been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times. But just in case this still doesn’t qualify as “plain English”, there’s an even easier way to understand it that is available to any reader familiar with the Bible, one of the most widely read and best-understood books ever written.
In the New Testament, John 1 begins as follows: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (my italics). Much controversy has centered on this passage, as it seems to be saying that God is literally equivalent to logos, meaning “word”, “wisdom”, “reason”, or “truth”. Insofar as these meanings all refer to constructs or ingredients of language or to language itself, this amounts to the seemingly imponderable assertion that God, of Whom believers usually conceive as an all-powerful Entity or Being, somehow consists of language. The CTMU is precisely what it takes to validate this assertion while preserving the intuitive conception of God as the all-knowing Creator – or in non-theological terms, the “identity” or “generator” – of reality. Nothing but the CTMU can fully express this biblical “word-being duality” in a consistent logico-mathematical setting.
The CTMU is not just a theory; it is logical model theory applied to metaphysics, and as much a logical necessity as any branch of mathematics or philosophy. One can no more escape from it than from X=X or 1+1=2. But when it comes to something that packs this combination of scope and power, many people, including certified academics, committed atheists, and even some religious believers, are apparently afraid to stare X=X in the face.
Little wonder. After all, once one has beheld the metaphysical structure of reality, there is no longer any such thing as plausible deniability or defense by ignorance; it’s the end of innocence, so to speak. Understandably, many people find that a little scary.
What are you trying to accomplish with the CTMU?
As a general theory of reality – or if one prefers, the general framework of such a theory – the CTMU has potential applications in virtually every field of human inquiry and endeavor.
Human knowledge is a veritable Tower of Babel. Various theories of science, mathematics, and philosophy centering on various parts and aspects of reality are couched in diverse formalisms and vocabularies that often bear little resemblance to each other and exhibit no obvious connections. The situation is reminiscent of a disorderly range of mountains; one can get from one valley to another by climbing the mountains, but by the time one gets to the next valley, the last is no longer visible. Worse, the inhabitants speak a different tongue with no discernable connection to the languages spoken in other valleys.
Theoretical compartmentalization creates the impression that certain parts or aspects of reality are indefinitely related to each other or not related at all, causing rifts and false divisions to appear in our conceptual and perceptual topography, fracturing and fragmenting our worldview. Sometimes, this leads to scientific crises; for example, relativity theory is seemingly impossible to unite with quantum theory. Some rifts may even be seen as mutual irrelevancies; for example, science and theology are often considered to be separated by an unbridgeable gulf, and thus mutually irrelevant.
This is hardly an ideal situation. In a reality where the physical world is held accountable to empirical or mathematical science, any scientifically irrelevant theology is implicitly displaced. This makes theological systems untouchable by science and vice versa, depriving science of moral guidance and encouraging the revelatory creation of different metaphysical realities associated with conflicting promises and instructions involving the physical world. (These metaphysical realities include not just overtly religious frameworks, but the random materialism embraced by many scientists and followers of science.) The resulting disagreements cause, or provide pretexts for, real-world conflicts.
In order to unify and make sense of our knowledge, we must have a universal foundational language in which the special-purpose languages of science can be consistently expressed and interpreted. The fact that this foundational language controls the interpretation of physical theories demands that it be metaphysical; it must refer to science “from above”. Yet, in order to do its job, it must also be necessarily true, which requires that it be a mathematically verified ingredient of science.
In other words, the required metalanguage is that through which science, including both mathematics and empirical applications of mathematics, becomes self-referential and self-normative…the “bootstrapping” of ordinary mathematical-scientific discourse to a higher verificative level of discourse spanning science in its entirety. This requirement leads directly to the CTMU and SCSPL, exactly as described in this interview and elsewhere.
Among the benefits of such a language are these: properly developed and applied, it can synergistically unite the various fields of science; it can remove false conceptual divisions, reconciling science with philosophy and theology, mathematics with physics, and physics with metaphysics; it can promote a general understanding of reality, so that people cannot be so easily cheated of meaning by those wishing to create an illusion of amorphous “relativism” in order to exploit the attending moral vacuum; and it can serve as the basis of an overarching worldview capable of modeling all lesser theories and creeds up to mutual consistency, thereby promoting intellectual accord and conducing to peace and harmony on earth.
Obviously, the CTMU is a cross-disciplinary project. On what disciplines does it draw?
Because an ultimate theory must accommodate every valid theory pertaining to every part or aspect of reality, it must be approached in the most general terms possible. It must also be formed from the top down rather than just from the bottom up, as it is easier to maintain initial coherence as specificative distinctions are added than to create it ad hoc by cobbling together distinct entities. This means that we must begin with a perfectly general theoretic identity and work inward.
One therefore begins with mathematical logic, all the way from the propositional and predicate calculi to lattices and model theory; arithmetic, abstract algebra, and elementary analysis; basic probability theory and statistics; foundational mathematics, including the theories of sets and categories; and of course, metaphysics and theology. One can then move on to the theories of computation and information; the algebraic and computational theories of language, generative (computational) grammar and the logical theory of metalanguages; geometry and the theory of manifolds; classical and quantum physics, including relativity theory and cosmology; the study of causality and evolution in fields like biology, neuroscience, and cognitive psychology; decision theory and economics, especially as they relate to the nature and maximization of utility and the stratification of utility functions and distributions; and so on up to (intellectual) exhaustion.
I’ve just named what some would view as an intractable multiplicity of disciplines, each splitting into branches, each of which is rich enough to occupy a dedicated specialist throughout his/her entire academic career. This naturally presents a problem for generalist-interdisciplinarians, especially independent researchers without access to academic libraries or the academic grapevine. Outsiders are seldom invited to academic conferences and symposia designed to bring interested academics up to speed on the work of specialists; they may even lack knowledge of up-to-date search terms through which to filter recent academic literature for material relevant to their work. Accordingly, they may find it more expedient to address conceptual deficiencies and solve problems from scratch than to sift through vast piles of academic literature for what they need.
Take mathematics, for example. The scholarly output of the mathematical community has been nothing short of tremendous. This obviously has an upside: mathematicians who are “in the loop” can often find what they need in the prior work of other mathematicians, or at least determine that they’re in virgin territory unexplored by others. But it also has a downside: those who are not in the loop may literally find it easier to discover or rediscover the mathematics they need than to scour the literature for some intelligible indication that somebody else has already written about it, and then decipher and back-engineer the meaning of the complex vocabularies and symbologies employed by previous authors. Personally, I’ve found myself in this position on more than a few occasions.
Much the same applies to other fields of science, where it can be even more difficult to solve problems instead of looking up their solutions. So let’s just say that I’ve had my share of challenges along the way…and that I really appreciate the Internet!
Have you completed work on this model or is it still a work in progress? What, if anything, remains to be done?
The classical Laplacian-deterministic worldview is all but dead. As reality is affected by every possible kind of ambiguity, uncertainty, indeterminacy, and undecidability, no theory of reality can ever be complete. In principle, this makes any such theory a permanent work-in-progress in which a very great deal always remains to be done. Exploration must continue.
However, a theory of reality can still be comprehensive, classifying knowledge in the large rather than determining it exhaustively. The CTMU already provides a self-contained framework for theorization about reality, represents a pronounced departure from established lines of inquiry, and was ready for prime time even as presented in my 2002 overview The Cognitive-Theoretic Model of the Universe: A New Kind of Reality Theory.
Of course, the CTMU doesn’t end with the paper. I do something new to develop and refine it nearly every day, and it all adds up. As a metaphysical (ontological, cosmological, and epistemological) framework, the CTMU has no real competition, and can thus be developed without fear of having to start over from scratch.
What has been the model’s reception in the academic world? How are you publicizing this work?
“What reception?” indeed.
While it’s true that I sometimes see my own concepts, some of them decades old and ostensibly original with me, flow from the pens of properly-certified academics and regurgitated in the lofty ad hoc speculations of university philosophers, I have (to my knowledge) yet to be officially cited by any of them. While I’ve been told that some influential academics have privately admitted to finding my work “ambitious”, “interesting”, and even “admirable”, they would apparently need to be coaxed out of the closet before admitting it publicly. (After all, I’m not a member of the club.)
The CTMU is a profound departure from other theories of reality. To a typical academic snob, my status as a working man with only a year or so of college no doubt suggests that it cannot withstand expert analysis; given its unique structure, any flaws should be readily apparent to some qualified expert who can be attached by name to his arguments and thus held to reasonable standards of analysis and debate. But despite occasional incoherent sniping by anonymous Internet gadflies, no qualified individual has ever found fault with it. This is not only because it is (as some claim) “incomprehensible” or philosophically and theologically loaded, but because it is substantially correct.
Again, I’ll speak freely. It appears to me that the academic world is far too wrapped up in itself to make time for anything or anybody else. The situation is exacerbated by a tendency among academics to assume that if it wasn’t coughed up from the belly of the academic beast, it can’t be worth a glance. The prospects are especially dim for potentially “game-changing” work that is perceived to run afoul of academic orthodoxy, threaten the economic status quo, or have difficult social or political ramifications.
As I’ve already mentioned, academia has all but monopolized gainful intellectual activity through its stranglehold on intellectual certification. The dependence of economic opportunity on academic certification is impossible to miss; it should be no less obvious that this dependency relationship extends to the intellectual advancement of mankind. Woe to any would-be contributor who parts ways with the academic machine, for intellectual commerce is governed by a “publish-or-perish” economy of publication and citation in academic journals, wherein the obstacles to publication and proper attribution are proportional to the obscurity of the author, the importance and controversiality of the topic, and the level and prominence of the periodical. As a result, important technical works by authors without academic credentials and affiliations are unlikely to be published or cited, and even if these authors beat the odds against them, they cannot benefit in any meaningful way from their effort.
There are at least two obvious reasons for this situation.
(1) Much like an intellectual trade union, academia reserves all of its benefits for members, affording nonmembers no standing, no incentives, and no avenue of recourse should others use their ideas without credit. By making sure that people cannot get along without academic credentials, academia assures itself of a continued influx of paying clients and thus feeds its pyramidal growth economy without necessarily delivering all of the educational services it owes the public.
(2) Professional academics consider it risky to associate with those who may be perceived as “unqualified”, preferring to cite well-credentialed, well-connected authors likely to reflect well on their academic reputations. This aversion to risk applies a fortiori to journal editors and reviewers, and even to the commercial publishing houses specializing in scholarly nonfiction. This greatly increases the likelihood that meaningful contributions by academic outsiders will not be published, and if they are, that they will be used without credit.
Unfortunately, this means that people without academic credentials have nothing to gain, but everything to lose, by attempting to publish in academic journals, and thus that academic journals do not qualify as a rational venue for their ideas. Just as one need not step off a succession of cliffs to understand what will happen if one steps off the next cliff, one need not repeatedly hurl oneself at the closed shop door of academia to know that one will simply bounce off, the sound of impact echoing without citation or appreciation if at all.
As far as publicity is concerned, I’m afraid that I’ve been derelict in the self-promotion department. As a matter of personality, I’m far more interested in generating and pursuing the implications of my ideas than in selling them to the media and the public. I’ve never been keen on the salesmanship aspect of anything I’ve done; there are too many accomplished salesmen out there who excel at attracting attention to themselves despite having nothing of real value to sell, and competing against them is nearly always a waste of time. This is especially true in the intellectual sphere. Unless the audience is able to follow complex argumentation while steadfastly resisting sophistry and rhetorical trickery, such competitions usually devolve to shouting or pissing matches.
Of course, despite my contempt for sales, I keep promising myself that in the future, I’ll do a better job of disseminating and promoting my work. I think that once the Mega Foundation Media Center is up and running, we’ll start gaining more headway in that department.
You founded the Mega Foundation to “create and implement programs that aid in the development of extremely gifted individuals and their ideas.” Why is it necessary to help these exceptionally gifted kids? Don’t they have a leg up on the rest of us already? How many deal with challenges similar to your own in growing up?
Owing to the shape of a bell curve, the education system is geared to the mean. Unfortunately, that kind of education is virtually calculated to bore and alienate gifted minds. But instead of making exceptions where it would do the most good, the educational bureaucracy often prefers not to be bothered.
In my case, for example, much of the schooling to which I was subjected was probably worse than nothing. It consisted not of real education, but of repetition and oppressive socialization (entirely superfluous given the dose of oppression I was getting away from school). Had I been left alone, preferably with access to a good library and a minimal amount of high-quality instruction, I would at least have been free to learn without useless distractions and gratuitous indoctrination. But alas, no such luck.
While my own background is rather exceptional, it is far from unique. Many young people are affected by one or more of the same general problems experienced by my brothers and me. A rising number of families have severe financial problems, forcing educational concerns to take a back seat to food, shelter, and clothing on the list of priorities. Even in well-off families, children can be starved of parental guidance due to stress, distraction, or irresponsibility. If a mind is truly a terrible thing to waste, then the waste is proportional to mental potential; one might therefore expect that the education system would be quick to help extremely bright youngsters who have it rough at home. But if so, one would be wrong a good part of the time.
Let’s try to break the problem down a bit. The education system is subject to a psychometric paradox: on one hand, it relies by necessity on the standardized testing of intellectual achievement and potential, including general intelligence or IQ, while on the other hand, it is committed to a warm and fuzzy but scientifically counterfactual form of egalitarianism which attributes all intellectual differences to environmental factors rather than biology, implying that the so-called “gifted” are just pampered brats who, unless their parents can afford private schooling, should atone for their undeserved good fortune by staying behind and enriching the classroom environments of less privileged students.
This approach may appear admirable, but its effects on our educational and intellectual standards, and all that depends on them, have already proven to be overwhelmingly negative. This clearly betrays an ulterior motive, suggesting that it has more to do with social engineering than education. There is an obvious difference between saying that poor students have all of the human dignity and basic rights of better students, and saying that there are no inherent educationally and socially relevant differences among students. The first statement makes sense, while the second does not.
The gifted population accounts for a very large part of the world’s intellectual resources. As such, they can obviously be put to better use than smoothing the ruffled feathers of average or below-average students and their parents by decorating classroom environments which prevent the gifted from learning at their natural pace. The higher we go on the scale of intellectual brilliance – and we’re not necessarily talking just about IQ – the less support is offered by the education system, yet the more likely are conceptual syntheses and grand intellectual achievements of the kind seldom produced by any group of markedly less intelligent people. In some cases, the education system is discouraging or blocking such achievements, and thus cheating humanity of their benefits.
The Mega Foundation hopes to provide a modicum of damage control by offering encouragement and fellowship to those who were accidentally left behind the door, or deliberately held back for the sake of expediency or “social justice”, by those running the education system.
When did you start the foundation, where is it located, and what programs are you currently offering through it? What are the three best things that could happen to help your work with the foundation? It is organized as a non-profit. Where can interested persons give donations to it?
The Mega Foundation was begun in 1999 and incorporated in Connecticut. In 2004, it was relocated and incorporated in Missouri. It was established for the benefit of gifted people of all ages, as well as for all of those who can benefit from their insight. Ultimately, this means humanity in general.
While our wider mission has not changed, most of our recent programs and activities have been geared for adults, particularly along lines of networking and fellowship. This is largely due to the fact that while there are many programs for gifted kids these days, there are few for gifted adults who have fallen through the cracks of the education system.
Despite many challenges, we’ve managed to acquire a building for use as a media center. For the last couple of years, my wife and I have steadily worked to repair and renovate it with limited funds, but have been held back by cost factors and a local scarcity of workmen qualified to repair and maintain this kind of facility (a massively-constructed decommissioned power station). At this stage of the project, many of our planned activities are temporarily on hold. We estimate that the renovations should be complete within two years, at which point we will expand our current networking capabilities and resume conferencing.
The long-term needs of the Foundation are pretty generic. As one might expect, lining up sources of funding and generating exposure and public interest would probably top the list.
For anyone who is interested, our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Looking over American education, K-8, high school, college, and graduate school, what say you? Does the U.S. education system make it possible for people like yourself to thrive? Should they?
From where I sit, the bottom line is really very simple. There are many people these days who are quite low on knowledge and ability, but sport impressive college degrees and great jobs, sometimes even in academia itself. Yet, there are others who are at least as intelligent as the average college professor and possessed of the will and ability to contribute to society, but without a degree and at best menially employed. Many intelligent people eventually reach an impasse with the education system despite their best efforts, but when they attempt to make do without its stamp of approval, their situation becomes well nigh impossible.
There is something very wrong here, and given the power of the system, it cannot deny a measure of responsibility for this imbalance and its harmful effects. So my answer would have to be yes, the education system should try harder to let the highly intelligent thrive within it. Where circumstances make this difficult, it should at least make remedial allowances for the exceptional individuals whom it has clearly failed. Through standardized testing alone, for example, it could make low-cost or no-cost degrees available to capable individuals who cannot afford tuition or benefit from its regimented mass-production style of instruction.
Unfortunately, there appear to be some rather unsavory reasons for academia’s reluctance to make such allowances. Historically, it has always been subject to pressure by powerful economic and political interests. This pressure is generally directed toward the creation of a self-reinforcing arrangement: those in power tell academia how they want students to think; academia produces a constant supply of certified experts guaranteed to tell those in power what they want to hear; and those in power, having placed these experts in advisory positions, encourage them to uphold whatever consensus appears to justify their actions and desires.
Obviously, far from wanting to stimulate and empower their future competition, the socioeconomic elite would rather mold potential competitors into docile workers and consumers. Just as obviously, this has nothing to do with maximizing the intellectual potential of individual human beings, especially those with psychological traits that could make them “problematical”. Woodrow Wilson, speaking as the President of Princeton University in 1909, put it like this: “We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another … a very much larger class of necessity … to forgo the privileges of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.” This has been impressed on academia through economic and political pressure exerted over many decades by various well-funded and tightly-controlled nonprofit foundations, policy institutes, learned councils, and advisory committees.
In other words, while education is obviously a dire social necessity, the education system shares a peculiar distinction with the mass media: both are ideal means of indoctrination, mental and behavioral conditioning, and social manipulation, all of which are practiced by the wealthy and powerful out of sheer self-interest, and all of which are diametrically opposed to intellectual depth and objectivity. This exposes the education system to forms of interference which bias it against certain ideas and compromise its basic educational functionality. Unfortunately, it appears to be unable to defend itself against such interference; while subjecting nearly everything but itself to ruthless deconstruction, it remains perfectly blind to its own systematic abuse.
Largely thanks to such interference, the education system is now seriously flawed. Its problems are almost too numerous to list: it is bureaucratic and peremptory, profit-oriented in a pyramidal way, full of prejudice against traditional American culture and values, and addicted to various articles of PC nonsense which it prosecutes aggressively and with astonishing intolerance and sanctimony. It worships orthodoxy, punishes originality, and often rewards intellectual mediocrity as if it were the sacred torch of human brilliance. Though unable to justify its highly standardized worldview, it demands near-perfect intellectual conformity therewith, thus creating a suffocating atmosphere for students and teachers alike. One could easily go on.
Despite these failings, most people still see the education system as the universal incubator and caretaker of human knowledge, the cynosure of human intellectual progress, and a safe repository of the priceless intellectual resources of mankind, naively trusting in the integrity of honest and dedicated teachers and researchers to prevent outside forces from subverting its machinery for ulterior purposes. However, America’s steady decline in overall academic performance, and our current dismal socio-economic predicament – for both of which academia clearly bears a large measure of responsibility – show that this faith has been largely unwarranted.
While some of the responsibility can be “kicked upstairs” to the political realm and beyond, educators are still left holding the bag. It is time for them to worry more about education, and less about guarding the power structure and promoting its conceptions of political correctness and social justice at a net loss of our most crucial intellectual resources.
What’s good about the education system? What isn’t? What would you change?
What’s good about the education system is that it provides a bit of worthwhile instruction to those who need it while bringing people together to exchange information and share ideas. What’s bad about it is that it does so more inefficiently, inequitably, and unaffordably by the day, and mixes legitimate educational content with various questionable assumptions that turn up, unsurprisingly enough, in questionable social and economic policies.
If I could change this, I would. Unfortunately, it appears to be driven by large concentrations of money and power, and the kind of media and government cooperation that only big money can buy. Since I don’t have that kind of money, I’ll confine my answer to educational methods themselves.
First, let’s make a distinction between the bottom-up and top-down approaches to learning. Bottom-up learning starts with the details and basic skills and works toward the big picture; top-down learning starts with the big picture and uses its overall organization to motivate and clarify the details. Those who favor the standard bottom-up approach hold that in any subject, the requisite skills and details must be mastered before higher-level knowledge can be imparted; those who favor the top-down approach hold that the big picture provides crucial motivation and clarity regarding the requisite skills and details. Learning is best achieved by constructive feedback between these two approaches.
Unfortunately, this constructive feedback is seldom if ever properly achieved in standard curricula. Instead, one usually finds a cumulative sequence of tedious courses designed to teach facts and skills without concern for student interest or motivation. Generalization tends to be excessive; guiding principles are offered without sufficient justification, while in mathematics, methods and details are shorn of motivation and understanding for the sake of “abstraction” and “rigor”. Essentially, the student is expected to trot briskly on the academic treadmill like a donkey after a carrot on a stick, eyes on the prize of a prestigious degree and the material rewards that it seems, ever more deceptively, to promise. The all-important flashes of insight craved by gifted minds are regarded as superfluous.
Thus, the standard curriculum may be likened to a play which keeps its audience engrossed with a series of portentous mysteries and cliffhangers, except that the portent is largely missing, and the mysteries appear disconnected from each other and therefore utterly trivial.
In technical fields, the problem is exacerbated by the way in which textbooks are often written. Background knowledge is assumed, rigor and abstraction are rigorously and abstractly pursued, and motivation and proper interpretation are left to the instructor, without whose helpful hints and background explanations the text is all but indecipherable. This prevents the text from being of much use to academic outsiders, and is seemingly calculated to make even the brightest and most eager autodidact throw up his hands and slog resignedly back to academia, hat and money in hand.
Obviously, this sort of thing is very supportive of the academic profit incentive and the long-term financial security of academia and academics. After all, academia does not need to worry about engaging the student when attendance is either compulsory or coerced by threats of lifelong poverty and frustration for want of credentials.
Unfortunately, it is not nearly as beneficial for the student or for the world at large, which loses the insight of brilliant minds unable to make the academic connection.
Where to from here? What are your aspirations for the future? What projects are you working on now and what projects would you yet like to undertake? Any final thoughts you would like to share with our readers?
Distilled to a single sentence, my aspirations come down to making the world a better place.
I’ve already mentioned the Mega Foundation Media Center. Despite the fact that it’s still full of lumber, tools, and scaffolding, we’ve already got it outfitted with some sound and video equipment. Our idea is to produce educational films and related documentaries. We have some very promising projects on the drawing boards.
Some of these projects relate to a book I’ve been writing on mathematically proving the existence of God. Surprising as it may seem, this can certainly be done. In fact, save for a few crucial ingredients, it was nearly accomplished by (e.g.) Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th century AD. (Sadly, neither Anselm nor his various followers and modern analysts were able to pin down all of the logic and ontology required to fill out and support his essential argument.)
Some people, reasoning from past failures, regard such a proof as impossible. But then again, many people had considered it impossible to solve the venerable chicken-or-egg problem, for which I presented a concise case-by-case solution around a decade ago. The chicken-or-egg problem and the existence of God both relate to the general issue of circular dependency, a connection to be explored in the book.
I would hope that in time – if we still have the time – my work along these lines could revolutionize theology. Some will no doubt warm to this prospect; others will not, including committed atheists, uneducable agnostics, and theists who insist on ascribing illogical “divine properties” to God on dogmatic grounds ultimately having little to do with core scripture. But no matter what anyone may say, truth, logic, and God are equivalent concepts. To cheat one of them is to cheat all of them.
I believe that we can afford to cheat none of them, and I’m quite sure that God would agree.