Robert Oppenheimer is famous for uttering a quote from the Bhagavad Gita at the successful test of his brainchild, the atomic bomb: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Oppenheimer was an American theoretical physicist, best known for his role as the scientific director of the Manhattan Project, the World War II effort to develop the first atomic weapons. He was also a student of the Bhagavad-Gita, a Hindu scripture, going so far as to study Sanskrit to be better able to understand its text.

This statement of his, uttered as he viewed the awesome destructiveness of The Bomb, is commonly taken as a kind of “Oh shit!” moment for him; but in truth, the actual meaning of that quote shows instead that Oppenheimer’s reason for voicing it was his recognition that he had brought on the destruction of the world, because “death,” in the verse he quoted, is translating the Sanskrit phrase: “world-destroying time.” That is the description of one of the Hindu god Krishna’s modes of activity. Oppenheimer seems to have suddenly realized that he had brought about a modal change from Krishna’s creating the world, to its dissolution.

In short, Oppenheimer seems to have been stating that he acknowledged that he had participated in bringing on the “end times,” to put it in Christian biblical terms.

If we pause for a moment and take in that scene, I believe we would be justified in interjecting: “Well, wtf, did you think you were doing?” We would be justified, given Oppenheimer’s clear acknowledgement of the continuing reverberations of his work, to raise the question of whether he had had the ability to metacognize what he was engaged in doing, or if it was the case that he was oblivious to his own mental functioning during his involvement in the American effort to create a functioning atomic bomb. He was very intelligent — that is undeniable — but was he aware at a meta-level?

This question is of value, and certainly worthwhile to pose, during most human decision-making activities, whether they take place in government, industry, education, and particularly, in this epoch, in social acculturation (journalism, social media, etc.) today. We humans, as a general rule, seem to be oblivious of the effects of our actions — and our words — until they are thrust upon us, too late in the day for us to undo their damage. Isn’t this a good description of our current world-ending lemming march to environmental destruction (ecocide) through human-caused climate destabilization? We are certainly not engaging the Precautionary Principle.

Metacognition is not intelligence, it is a higher-order awareness and understanding of what we are doing — as we are doing it. This includes the ability to be aware of our thought-process in such a way that we become immediately aware that we are mentally constructing magical thoughts — whether they are magical in the sense of being conclusions unsupported by facts, or magical in the sense of creating relations of cause-and-effect that only seem to hold together because the meta-evident missing links in their causal chain have been pushed out of sight. It is the faculty of metacognition that allows us to see clearly when our thoughts, motivations, desires, ideas, and actions, are incoherent, even though we may think they are the most sublime creation ever borne of man.

Metacognition, in short, is like a dashboard for human intelligence. All those gauges, annunciators, and indicator lights that let us know how our mechanical inventions are operating are to those machines what metacognition is to human intelligence. And this faculty is, for the most part, a skill that must be developed. And one that, for the most part, we spend absolutely no time developing. Is it any wonder that our world is out-of-control, broken, ruining away, and certainly of no use to a large majority of us anymore in terms of being able to support a human life well-lived for each of us?

But metacognition is also not an independent skill. It requires and is totally dependent upon our ability to focus and concentrate our attention while imposing a doubt — call it a principle of precaution — into our judging the veracity of our reasoning.

Developing a foundational control over our attention is the initial goal of meditating — in its traditional usage.

In conjunction with learning to control our attention, though, we must also learn how to reason — another skill we spend almost no time, as a society, instilling in our future citizens. Ours is a system of education based heavily upon the accumulation of knowledge — not wisdom. It makes us much more malleable as a managed population.

The impetus for this short essay was a conversation that I took part in over dinner with friends. One friend mentioned the “Dunning-Kruger Effect,” a cognitive bias in which people of low intellectual ability have an illusion of superiority and mistakenly assess their cognitive ability as being greater than it is. The “stable genius” self-assertion by the last president of the United States being the epitome of this effect.

In his book, “Self-insight: Roadblocks and Detours on the Path to Knowing Thyself,” Dunning describes this cognitive bias as being analogous to “anosognosia of everyday life.” Anosognosia is the unawareness, or denial, of one’s own disability. He states, “if you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent.”

While this makes for a good soundbite, incompetence does not have a direct link to intellectual ability, low or otherwise. The example of the French fonctionnaire without a brain,¹ who functioned adequately enough to be a low-level government employee, shows that this is not the case. Rather, incompetence arises from a multitude of factors, the most obvious being a lack of training, and an inability to metacognize.

However, the common take-away from Dunning and Kruger’s work is one of a prejudicial judgement about the intellectual abilities of others that are deemed to be incompetent to make the correct decisions — which is exactly the kind of cognitive bias that the Dunning-Kruger Effect is directed at. In other words, those who most notice the intellectual deficiencies of others — while denying their own — are the ones most likely to be suffering from this cognitive bias.

And to be absolutely clear about this, I would be completely remiss and undermine my own argument if I were to fail to acknowledge that I am also guilty of this cognitive bias — if I did not notice my own prejudice in saying that those who read Dunning and Kruger’s work and see in it a rationalization for their own prejudicial judgements are suffering from a cognitive bias. This paragraph being, therefore, an example of metacognition in action.

In general, we seem to always prefer the simplest explanation for why something is the case, and this leads us to act in ways that all too often fail to solve the problem we are attempting to solve, or comprehend the situation that we are facing.

This is nowhere more evident at the time of this writing than in the current crisis facing humanity — the ecocidal destabilization of the organism commonly known as “Earth.” Perhaps we should pause here and reflect on this point before launching into potentially irreversible actions — whether in our own lives, or in our efforts to lessen or stop the effects of global climate destabilization — rather than dealing directly with its undeniable human origins that is our inability, on a daily basis, in all our activities, to metacognize what we are doing.

We could just keep doing what we’ve been doing all along, and simply pull out our favorite scriptural quote when we finally realize what unrealized “wise humans” we’ve been. Or we can make the effort to train our minds. As Betrand Russell pointed out: “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.”² Training our mind is our way out of that — in both cases.

ཨེ་མ་ཧོ། ཕན་ནོ་ཕན་ནོ་སྭཱཧཱ།


¹ https://www.sciencealert.com/a-man-who-lives-without-90-of-his-brain-is-challenging-our-understanding-of-consciousness

² In 1933 Bertrand Russell wrote an essay, in which he made this statement, titled “The Triumph of Stupidity” that lamented the rise of the Nazi movement in Germany. He may have taken this understanding from W.B. Yeats who, in a poem titled “The Second Coming” (1920), had written: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”

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