(An improved and updated version of this essay has appeared in my book Brief Peeks Beyond. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)
Disclaimer: this essay adopts the format of a fictional medical description of a fictional psychiatric condition – called "intellectual fundamentalism" – for the purposes of social and cultural criticism. The essay should be interpreted metaphorically, not literally. The signs, symptoms, causes, risk factors, treatments and preventive steps described hereinafter are not – insofar as the author is aware – medically recognized or cited in, for instance, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The author disclaims any and all responsibility and liability for any and all damages incurred from misinterpretation of this essay.
Notice: although it would be natural for you to expect any criticism I write to be targeted at materialism or materialists, this time this post is not necessarily about materialists. What I say below, in my view, is as applicable to many materialists as it is to many religious literalists or people without any particular metaphysical position. Please keep this in mind while reading.
Intellectual fundamentalism is a dangerous condition that affects increasing and alarming numbers of people worldwide. Though its origins can be traced to the West (some think René Descartes was the index case), modern means of communication and easy travel have allowed it to spread far and wide into the East as well. This essay is an attempt to raise awareness of this dangerous epidemic, so people can identify the early signs of the condition and take appropriate steps.
DefinitionIntellectual fundamentalism is characterized by a severe psychological imbalance: exaggerated focus on one specific psychic function – namely, the intellect – to the detriment of all others, including intuition, poetic imagination, emotional intelligence, artistic sensitivity, empathy, perceptual awareness, etc. Curiously, the intellect isn't always the patient's dominant psychic function: often, those whose intellects are relatively limited also fall victim.
Signs and symptomsPatients tend to implicitly or explicitly deny the efficaciousness and reliability of all psychic functions except the intellect. They insist that the intellect is the only valid avenue for approaching reality, even though they are unable to coherently justify why. The condition blinds them to this obvious cognitive dissonance and causes them to arbitrarily consider their position self-evident. If, while in therapy, the patient is confronted with the fact that the human psyche is equipped with many other forms of cognition beyond the intellect, he will typically point at historical instances in which these other faculties have been unreliable, while ignoring all other historical instances in which they have been vital. Such tendency at selectively considering evidence is a hallmark of intellectual fundamentalism.
In social interactions, the condition manifests itself clearly in the patient's approach to communication. A psychologically healthy individual, when conversing, tries to look past the particular logical and grammatical constructs used by his interlocutor, so to understand what the interlocutor is actually trying to say. In other words, a healthy individual is interested in what his interlocutor means, as opposed to what his interlocutor says. A sufferer of intellectual fundamentalism, on the other hand, looses interest in intended meaning and focuses, instead, on the form of the logical and grammatical constructs used by his interlocutor. The patient will fixate obsessively on what is said, losing sight of what is meant. When a logical flaw is found in what is said, the patient will construe it as sure evidence that his interlocutor is unworthy and completely close himself up to the intended message. This fixation on form above intended meaning is not only detrimental to the patient – who misses out on much of the subtlety and nuance of what others try to convey to him, particularly those who have most to contribute for seeing the world in a different way – but also to his interlocutors: it is frustrating for family, friends and acquaintances to interact with someone who insists in finding flaws in the finger pointing at the moon, instead of looking at the moon.
Indeed, sufferers of intellectual fundamentalism derive great satisfaction from finding logical flaws, ambiguities and inaccuracies in the way others communicate. Since they see the intellect as the only valid psychic function, differentiating themselves from others on an intellectual basis provides them with powerful feelings of self-worth and adequacy, hiding whatever other unpleasant psychic issues might be present. This narrow field of awareness may seem naive and ridiculous to an external observer, but it is sincerely embraced by patients and has great importance in their value systems.
Because patients are severely dissociated from most other segments of their own psyches, they become delusional in believing that all reality is amenable to intellectual modeling and apprehension, despite the complete lack of any rational reason for such belief. In other words, patients believe arbitrarily that all reality fits into the only psychic function they acknowledge as valid: the intellect. This delusion is a natural self-defense mechanism attendant upon the condition: were the patient to acknowledge otherwise, he would have to face the anxiety of great uncertainty. Moreover, he would also have to acknowledge the severe limitations of his own psychic state, with associated feelings of inferiority and shame. The delusion is, thus, the patient's effective way to avoid distress by losing contact with reality. For this reason, intellectual fundamentalism is considered a psychosis, as opposed to a neurosis.
Associated with this, sufferers of intellectual fundamentalism display a tendency to interpret everything literally. Since they are alienated from the cognitive faculties necessary to capture the deeper meaning of symbols, allegories, metaphors, and other indirect ways of conveying ineffable meaning, they have no alternative but to try and make sense of reality on a purely literal basis. Indeed, many patients deny even that anything at all exists that can't be described or conveyed in literal form. They then project their inability to see beyond literal appearances onto all other human beings, deeming others' attempts to communicate ineffable meaning to be drivel.
Depending on the degree of advancement of the condition, the denial of all forms of cognition other than the intellect usually grows to become a fixation. At this point, if still left untreated, the condition can further evolve into a hero syndrome, which drives the patient to try and "save the world" by attempting to eradicate all human activities, views, and general outlooks that do not conform to intellectual value systems. If and when this happens, the patient may become a threat to the community. The condition is also particularly contagious at this advanced stage.
CausesThe causes are not yet fully understood, but well-substantiated hypotheses have been put forward. Some speculate that attempts at self-affirmation during adolescence can evolve into intellectual fundamentalism in later years. A hypothesis is that children who are socially-impaired and have difficulties commanding the respect of their peers find self-worth, instead, in lonely intellectual pursuits. Other times, an individual might even be reasonably well integrated into his peer group, but eventually discovers that he has an intellectual edge over others, which he then attempts to profit from. The self-worth found in both cases is, naturally, directly proportional to the individual's belief that the intellect is superior to all other cognitive faculties: one needs to narrow the playing field to the particular segment where one has a perceived advantage. This way, there is significant psychological incentive for the individual to dissociate from the rest of his cognitive faculties, eventually leading to full-blown intellectual fundamentalism.
The tendency displayed by sufferers to try and humiliate others during discussions arises from the need to increase this engineered perception of self-worth. Compensation for bullying suffered in early years is strongly believed to be a factor in this process, as well as the general psychological predisposition colloquially referred to as "nerdish."
- Receiving high academic education in science or engineering;
- Working in academic, scientific, or engineering environments;
- Being publicly recognized as an expert in a scientific or engineering discipline;
- Episodes of bullying in childhood or adolescence;
- Having a "nerdish" predisposition in childhood or adolescence;
- Difficulties letting go of appearances or social posture (that is, a strong persona);
- Lack of appreciation or patience for art, poetry, and psychology;
- Lack of appreciation or patience for myth and religion;
- Lack of empathy and sensitivity.
The cultivation of a rich variety of outlooks is essential for preventing intellectual fundamentalism. For instance, if one's professional life is highly specialized and focused on science or engineering, one can reduce one's risk by cultivating hobbies such as play-acting, reading poetry and the classics, volunteering for social work (particularly with senior citizens), cultivating a vegetable garden and other forms of interacting directly with nature, attending exotic religious rituals about which one hasn't developed early prejudices, cooking, painting, attending art exhibitions, meditating, going to silent retreats, etc. It is important that one insists in pursuits that one's first instinct is precisely to avoid.
Prevention and treatment
If intellectual fundamentalism has already taken hold, talk therapy with a qualified psychologist is recommended in addition to the steps above. With the guidance of the therapist, one can slowly bring up to awareness one's repressed psychic functions and cognitive faculties. In severe cases, confrontational therapy or medically-supervised journeys with legal and safe psychedelics can be last resorts.
(This essay has been written by a recovering intellectual fundamentalist who still experiences occasional rebounds of the condition.)