Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Bad Ideas are Good for You!

In Blogistan there is much talk of the War of Ideas. Our mentality about certain aspects of the conversation is dominated by this metaphor of war. In some ways, the metaphor is apt, and useful for thinking about certain things.

We have to be careful, though, how literally we take the analogy. Ideas cannot fight each other as such. To the degree they do fight each other directly, they fight out in the world, as people try to implement them - good ideas succeed and propagate, while bad ideas fail and die out. That's closer to the idea of natural selection than war.

In mass media (including the Internet) ideas compete via the adversary system - certain people become advocates of certain ideas, and those people use various forms of leverage (rhetoric, market power, community-building, etc.) to advance their viewpoint.

The leap we often make, to the great detriment of our understanding of the dynamic power of the human mind, is to identify ourselves with the ideas we advance and defend, and our enemies with the ideas they advance and defend.

It's a natural enough tendency. The trouble is, people are large - they contain multitudes. Everyone has areas of their mind that function very well, and other areas of their mind that are underdeveloped and ineffective. Our good ideas come from the areas that work well, bad ideas from the less developed areas. The way you tell the difference is through a vigorous expression and defense of ALL your ideas, the good and the bad.

The trouble comes when people assign so much emotional weight to their ideas that they cannot accept that all their ideas might not be good. They become perceptively dead, spending all the energy that should be going towards development on defending their current view of the world.

Meanwhile their opponents see this and use it as an excuse to calcify their OWN opinions into beliefs - "if we are opposing THOSE people who are so obviously deluded and wrong, we must be right!"

Never forget that to whatever degree humankind can benefit from a true War of Ideas, it is a war that rages inside of the mind of the individual. If you cannot, at the end of a decade, look back over your life and survey a veritable wreckage of bankrupt thought and action, you have wasted ten years of your life.

Advance and defend your ideas unto their death, but no farther.


Anonymous said...

What about ideas that are actually correct and right?

Is it wrong to assign emotional weight to the proposition that (for example) evolution is true? Is it wrong to calcify my opinion about evolution into a belief that it's true, and become "perceptively dead" towards creationism? In order to be alive and honest, must I constantly entertain argument on this topic and endlessly re-evaluate all of the premises, and allow that war to rage on inside myself?

Granted most beliefs are not like creationism vs. evolution. They have to do with less solid, more fuzzy things like whether or not someone's foreign policy is a good thing.

So here's an interesting question. Some propositions that you believe are like 2+2 or evolution. Some propositions are on the opposite end of the spectrum of clarity, e.g. whether someone's foreign policy is "good".

How do we tell the difference?

Uncle Kevin said...

Aren't you confusing facts with ideas? 2+2, evolution, etcetera are not "ideas" they are demonstrable facts. Whether or not containment or engagement is the best strategy is going to be heavily grounded in opinion.

Without speaking for the Ape Man, I think his real point had more to do with the "tactics" of advocating for a particular idea. At some point advocacy can morph into negotiation which can then turn into confrontation. Advocacy is one thing, the next two steps can be the trouble, and bring in the "win at all costs" problem.

Anonymous said...

I'm intentionally confusing facts with ideas. I think it's highly relevant to what he's saying. Some people are emotionally convinced of the "fact" that we are in a pitched cultural war with Islam. They are emotionally involved in that "fact", and advocate it using any tactics at their disposal.

Some facts are facts. Some "facts" are actually beliefs. How do we objectively, within ourselves, disentangle the two? (In honor of Steven Colbert, I dub this the "truth/truthy" dichotomy)

I "know" that 2+2 is a fact and what I think of someone's foreign policy is an idea. But those are just examples where the boundary between fact and idea is clear-cut. What about when it's more fuzzy?

The distinction is important, because it shouldn't be considered bad, wrong, close-minded, or perceptually dead if someone refuses to entertain argument that 2+2 is something other than 4.

I agree with almost everything Ape Man said though about non-fact ideas. I'm just trying to point out that it's not always clear what an idea is...and what should be subject to this internal debate.

Raul Groom said...

I'm hesitant to get into the specific points here because it's taking things in a sense in the opposite direction from what I had intended. But you go to war, as they say, with the ideas you have, not the ideas you imagined you might have. So here goes.

Consider that in a sense what I am talking about in this post is not ideas at all, but rather behavior - thought and action.

One specific behavior is described thus:

"[T]heir opponents see this and use it as an excuse to calcify their OWN opinions into beliefs - "if we are opposing THOSE people who are so obviously deluded and wrong, we must be right!"

To which you say:

"Is it wrong to calcify my opinion about evolution into a belief that it's true, and become "perceptively dead" towards creationism?"

Which response serves as a neat illustation of the exact tendency I'm describing. Your ideas about evolution form a model that shapes your analysis and understanding of natural history. This model's efficacy on those terms is completely independent of anyone else's ideas, including such frank boobery as the idea that the universe was created in seven days by an extracosmic male superbeing.

But like many people (including me,) you find people who loudly assert that idea to be annoying. And like many people (including me) you spend at least some of your time remonstrating with such people about the foolishness of their views.

That being the case, I'm giving us both two specific words of caution. The first is, we should not delude ourselves into thinking that our rheotical battle with creationists is part of any grand "War of Ideas." It is a perfectly satisfactory type of recreational activity.

The second more subtle point is that to whatever degree the perceived foolishness of our opponents convinces us that we ourzelves are "correct and right," we run the risk of doing our own minds a great disservice.

Of course our ideas about evolution will be superseded in some way, at some point. To the degree that we let a battle with the foolish convince ourselves that we ourselves are wise, we risk inoculating ourselves against new ideas in this and other areas of thought.

Much of what is "known" today will, in the time of our grandchildren, be understood to be crude, mypoic, illogical, or irrelevant.

To the degree what we OURSELVES wish to avoid this fate, we must remember that what

A: what we know to be true and
B: who we are

are two different things.

Raul Groom said...

It's worth noting also the relevant point that psychologists and others who study human thought and action find that, ironically, people cling much more fervently to unverifiable beliefs than they do to verifiable ones.

Uncle Kevin said...

"...ironically, people cling much more fervently to unverifiable beliefs than they do to verifiable ones."

This is fairly easy to understand. The vast majority of folks can know something is verifiable by others, but has no capacity to do so on their own. So they basically understand that somehow tommorow another smart guy will "prove it wrong" and they'll be left as one of the "false believers". It's easier to have an unshakeable belief in something that you know can never be proven wrong.

There is a reverse of this in the attraction of conspiracy theories. On one hand they can accept the "official explanation" with an uncomfortable feeling that they've been duped. Or they can believe in a conspiracy theory that is so convoluted it can never be falsified, so in essence they are "safe". It's one thing to be thought an idiot by someone else. It's another to think that of ones self.