The Problem With Smart People

The Problem With Smart People

Accomplishment without humility quickly ends in ruin

The following is from the Trumpet Brief sent out yesterday. These daily e-mails contain personal messages from the Trumpet staff. Click here to join the nearly 20,000 members of our mailing list, so you don’t miss another message.

Earlier this week I read a prophecy made by the Prophet Isaiah about 2,500 years ago. Isaiah was discussing the end times and wrote: “Their land is filled with idols [and] they bow down to the work of their hands, to what their own fingers have made.”

Coincidentally, a few minutes after studying this prophecy in Isaiah 2, I watched a video of Atlas, the “world’s most dynamic humanoid,” performing an acrobatic routine so impressive it made me jealous. (The first time I’ve been jealous of a robot.) Boston Dynamics posted this clip on YouTube about a week ago; it already has more than 11 million views.

I suspect a lot of people are, like me, unfamiliar with just how advanced science is today. It’s not until we see robots doing backflips that we begin to think about how extraordinarily clever humanity now is. Then, just as this reality is beginning to sink in, someone like Elon Musk comes along and tells us that today’s incredible accomplishments will soon be ancient news. “This is nothing,” tweeted the ceo of SpaceX after watching the Atlas clip. “In a few years, that bot will move so fast you’ll need a strobe light to see it” (emphasis added).

That’s incredible, and also a little disconcerting.

The natural response when we see technology like this is to marvel at mankind’s astonishing intellectual power and progress. We consider technological advancements to be a measure of mankind’s intellectual development and evidence of the astonishing amount of knowledge and experience now at our disposal. I have similar thoughts when I read about the developments taking place in the field of artificial intelligence (AI), or when a friend explains the algorithms behind Facebook and Google, and even when I look at my iPhone, a gadget now so common it is mundane.

Humanity in the 21st century is just so incredibly smart.

And there’s the rub. The logical progression from marveling at mankind’s intellectual brilliance is to trust in this intellectual brilliance for guidance and leadership. If we can figure out how to create an acrobatic humanoid, then surely we can eventually cure all diseases and ultimately erase human suffering altogether.

The more knowledge we acquire and the smarter we become, the more we tend to look to ourselves, and especially to the smart people among us—and the philosophies and products and technologies they create—for answers and solutions. Being smart—and being aware of how smart we are—inspires confidence and self-assurance.

This is why smart people can be dangerous. Brains (accomplishment) without humility quickly ends in ruin. (Consider the history of the Roman Empire, for example.) Without contrition, the acquisition of knowledge fosters pride and self-reliance. We develop confidence and hope, but in our own intellect and power. The smarter we become, the more we trust computers, algorithms, petri dishes and the thoughts of smart men.

The smarter we become, the more we lose sight of the fact that the human mind is ultimately limited, fundamentally flawed and troublingly dysfunctional. We lose sight of the fact that our most fundamental problems cannot be solved through science. We are convinced that we can fix every problem with our own intellect, and we never open our minds to the possibility of deeper causes, causes that cannot be fixed by knowledge or smart people.

Think on it. As magical as many of our technologies are, and as impressive as our intellectual capacity is today, is our collective pool of knowledge significantly and permanently improving the human condition?

Most importantly, our magical creations have separated us from God, just as Isaiah prophesied. We “bow down to the work of their hands, to what their own fingers have made.” We have made a god of our own intellects.

I’m glad I read Isaiah’s prophecy before I watched Atlas do his stuff. The creation of Atlas, and Facebook and Google, and the iPhone truly are astonishing, but haven’t we really just replaced idols hewn from wood and stone with idols hewn from tungsten and silicate? Sure, our 21st-century idols seem to be more practical and useful. But in the end we are doing the same thing: We are worshiping figments of our own minds and imaginations.

Think about the ultimate impact of these creations, and of all of our intellectual progress—on our brains and minds and emotions, on our societies and culture, on our relationships. Our phenomenal intellectual capacity and brilliance aren’t really solving our problems. Has Atlas the gymnast robot, or Facebook and Google, or the iPhone helped make mankind (and individuals) more humble and modest? More teachable? More selfless and service-minded? More happy and stable? Is humanity healthier and stronger, not just physically but also mentally and spiritually? Are human beings getting along better?

I’m not criticizing smart people, technology or the human quest to acquire knowledge. Believe me, I’m thankful to be living in the 21st century and to be able to travel to Europe tomorrow on a jet, not a sailing ship. The problem isn’t knowledge, gadgets or smart people. The issue here is human nature and our natural proclivity to marvel at the human brain and to invest our hope, trust and confidence in the human mind.

The problem, as the Prophet Isaiah warned 2,500 years ago, is that we have made an idol of the human mind!

Sadly, we are so blinded by our adoration of the human mind and our knowledge of the material realm that we fail to see God and His truth. We do not understand why God created man, nor do we see His wonderful plan for human beings. In Romans 1:20, the Apostle Paul tells us that God’s power and supremacy can be “clearly perceived in the things that have been made.” In other words, the material creation declares the supreme existence of God.

We wonder at the works of our own hands, yet smart people say that the myriad marvels in the natural world around us were not designed, engineered or created by a Creator.

Paul is saying that the material creation, that is, knowledge of the material worldand we have more of this knowledge today than ever—proves the existence of a Creator. Really, our belief in God ought to be getting stronger, not weaker—because we have more knowledge than ever that we can use to prove God’s existence.

The development of Atlas and all these other incredible products ought to cause us to marvel all the more at the God-given potential of the human mind and brain. If we are humble and teachable, we are going to watch that clip of Atlas and marvel that we even possess the ability to think and reason and create. We will wonder, Where did man’s creative genius come from? Let’s forget about how much knowledge we have and think about how man came to possess the ability to even acquire knowledge.

Remember too: While smart people might be able to create robots and iPhones, they cannot answer these questions. Their intelligence is limited and incomplete. This makes me a little cautious about investing my hope and trust in smart people for long-term solutions and right answers.

If you want to understand why human beings have had such success in some areas of endeavor and so little in others, request The Incredible Human Potential, by Herbert W. Armstrong. Outside the Bible, you won’t find a better book to explain the human mind and our incredible ability to think and reason and create. The Incredible Human Potential is unique and special—not because it comes from a smart person or because it’s the result of extensive experimentation or profound philosophical thinking, but because it comes from the mind of God.

And getting information from the mind of God—now, that’s smart!