The Idea: Ideas have enormous power, since they form the frame of our understanding of the world, inform our beliefs and drive our behaviours. Great ideas are so profound and frame-shaking that they quickly topple many of the things we believe, and transform our worldviews, our values and hence our actions. We need more great ideas, and a deeper understanding of how and when they transform our understanding, our culture, what we do and who we are.
Last night I went to the neighbourhood bookstore, list in hand, looking for 18 books on my “to read” list, most of them suggested by readers, and to do some serendipitous browsing. I went through the politics, cultural studies, and science sections, but most of what I bought I found in the ‘nature’ section. For some reason I was dissatisfied with all the new books on political agendas and misdeeds, on Iraq, on the history of civilization. What I was looking for was new ideas. The most promising book I bought was Bernd Heinrich’s new book The Geese of Beaver Bog, which explains how geese make a living together, how their communities work.
And then it hit me. The Power of Ideas. I’ve long believed that there are no new ideas out there, just new articulations, conceptions, models, all based on what we sense and observe, first-hand, and to a lesser extent what we learn from others. But I’ve realized that our framework for understanding our world is like an inverse pyramid — each idea built on a simpler foundation, and that if you can change one of the foundation ideas in people’s heads, shake the windows and rattle the walls of their understanding, you can cause them to rebuild their entire frame of thinking on that new foundation idea. And since that frame of thinking informs our beliefs and cultural values, and those beliefs and cultural values drive all human behaviours and actions, if you can change one of those elemental, foundation ideas in people’s heads you can do anything.
The best-known case of this happening was the ‘discovery’ by Galileo that the Earth was not the centre of the universe. This discovery, like everything in science, is nothing more than an idea, a conception, a model, a representation of the physical world, interesting and occasionally useful. This model, this representation of reality, was so offensive, so threatening to the centuries-engrained religious dogma of the day that the mere act of expounding this model as a better representation of the physical world than divine creation would bring lifelong imprisonment or even execution. Such is the power of ideas.
Likewise, Darwin’s model of the evolution of all life so threatened the orthodoxy of ideas that to this day, centuries later, religious fanatics remain in denial about its validity, and try to deprive it of its credibility by calling a ‘theory’ rather than ‘truth’. But all science, all philosophy, all politics and economics and religion are just theories, alternative models of varying degrees of correlation with what we know of reality, from which each of us can choose. Politics is nothing more than the art of trying to persuade others that your model, your representation of reality, is more credible than others. Philosophy and religion are the arts of interpreting what an accepted model of reality implies for human values and actions, for those unable to make these connections themselves.
All of the books in my Save the World Reading List present elemental, foundational, frame-toppling ideas. For example:
The most intriguing best-sellers of the past few years, books like The Tipping Point and The Wisdom of Crowds, also feature foundational, profound, essential ideas that change the way we see the world. Each threatens and undermines orthodoxy: The Tipping Point shows us that ideas propagate virally in a way that can be used for brilliant, inexpensive marketing or abused by propagandists, and that great ideas don’t need the backing of wealth and power to infect millions any more than pandemics need a perfect breeding ground of ignorance, bureaucracy and poor hygiene. The Wisdom of Crowds shows us that the best answers come from the masses, not from expensive experts, executives or consultants. These are powerful ideas that could potentially transform the way business is conducted and important information communicated.
Rob Paterson has just written a blog post that suggests that social networking tools could free the people from all the world’s agents, corporations, and bureaucracies, and let us re-communitize our culture, peer-to-peer. I’ll be writing about this idea later this week, but it’s another potentially foundational, frame-shattering, transformative idea. Here are 15 more such ideas, laid out as ‘laws’. This one, by Stephen J. Gould, has become another of my foundational ideas, upon reading his book Full House: If one could rewind the tape of life and let events play out again, the results would almost certainly differ dramatically. Had the major extinction of the dinosaurs occurred earlier or later, for example, or had dinosaurs never evolved, subsequent biotas would have been wholly different, and we almost certainly wouldn’t be here to contemplate nature and meaning.
And these two are specially pertinent, because they are, like this article, ideas about ideas:
Daniel Dennett‘s Law of Needy Readers: On any important topic, we tend to have a rough idea of what we believe to be true, and when an author writes the words we want to read, we tend to fall for it, no matter how shoddy the arguments.
George Lakoff: Frames trump facts. All of our concepts are organized into conceptual structures called “frames” (which may include images and metaphors) and all words are defined relative to those frames. Conventional frames are pretty much fixed in the neural structures of our brains. In order for a fact to be comprehended, it must fit the relevant frames. If the facts contradict the frames, the frames, being fixed in the brain, will be kept and the facts ignored.
What are the implications of all this? If we really want to change someone’s mind, we need to understand not only the frame of the other person, but the foundational ideas that underlie that frame and the way in which that person internalizes information (how they process ideas and ‘learn’). For a new profound idea to supplant an old one, it has to get deep enough to displace another foundational idea, and cause everything on top of it to come crashing to the ground so it can be rebuilt in the listener’s mind. If it merely scratches the surface, the top layers, it will simply not penetrate, not ‘stick’. You can’t convince a conservative that freedom of reproductive choice for women trumps the rights of the unborn by arguing at that high level. You have to get down to the core beliefs and rattle them, the way the founders of civilization did thirty millennia ago when they suggested that people could live better by staying in one place and cultivating crops instead of hunting and gathering; the way the founders of Christianity, Judaism and Islam did two millennia ago when they challenged animist and pantheistic beliefs; the way Galileo and the scientists of the middle ages did in turn; the way the industrial revolutionists did when they suggested that since energy and work were the same thing, maybe it made sense to have machines do things instead of people.
I’ve concluded two things as a result of my own thoughts about ideas: First, I’m going to try to put forth more foundational, profound, essential ideas in this blog. I’ve always prided myself on idea transfer, the ability to take an idea from one domain of knowledge or human endeavor and transplant it effectively into a completely new domain where it can take root and flourish. I don’t exercise that skill nearly enough on this blog, and I will undertake to provide more ‘original’ (transplanted) ideas and fewer regurgitations of others’ ideas on the pages of How to Save the World. Secondly, I am going to start each article with one or two sentences that convey its essential idea.
Is it possible that ideas are the elements of the much-sought-after universal taxonomy of the blogosphere and of all human knowledge? Are ideas, and not subjects, domains of information, the fundamental building blocks of human thought? If so, why not index everything we write and share according to its idea rather than its subject (now there’s an idea).
We need more profound, foundational, worldview-shaking, transformational ideas, and we need them now. But just as important, we need better mechanisms to understand how people come to accept, and sometimes change, the idea frameworks that inform our beliefs and values, and hence drive our behaviours and actions. And we need to understand what it is that causes us to supplant one idea with another, in a way that fundamentally changes the way we see the world — in other words, how we learn, and why we don’t.
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Dean Spillane-Walker (US)*
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Doing It Ourselves (AU)
Dougald & Paul (UK)*
Gail Tverberg (US)
Guy McPherson (US)
Ilargi & Nicole (CA)*
Janaia & Robin (US)*
Jim Kunstler (US)
John Michael Greer (US)
Kari McGregor (AU)
Keith Farnish (UK)
NTHE Love (UK)
Paul Chefurka (CA)
Paul Heft (US)*
Post Carbon Inst. (US)
Sam Rose (US)*
Tim Bennett (US)
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My Bio, Contact Info, Signature PostsAbout the Author (2016)
--- My Best 94 Posts --
Preparing for Civilization's End:
A Culture of Fear
What Will It Take?
A Future Without Us
Dean Walker Interview (video)
The Mushroom at the End of the World
What Would It Take To Live Sustainably?
Community-Based Resilience Framework (Poster)
The New Political Map (Poster)
Complexity and Collapse
Save the World Reading List
How Collapse Will Begin
What a Desolated Earth Looks Like
Giving Up on Environmentalism
What Happened When the Oil Ran Out
The Dark & Gathering Sameness of the World
The End of Philosophy
The Boiling Frog
Conversation & Silence
The Language of Our Eyes
Cultural Acedia: When We Can No Longer Care
Several Short Sentences About Learning
Why I Don't Want to Hear Your Story
A Harvest of Myths
The Qualities of a Great Story
The Trouble With Stories
A Model of Identity & Community
If We Had a Better Story
Not Ready to Do What's Needed
A Culture of Dependence
So What's Next
Ten Things to Do When You're Feeling Hopeless
No Use to the World Broken
Living in Another World
Does Language Restrict What We Can Think?
The Value of Conversation Manifesto Nobody Knows Anything
If I Only Had 37 Days
The Only Life We Know
A Long Way Down
No Noble Savages
Figments of Reality
Too Far Ahead
The Rogue Animal
How the World Really Works:
Ten Things I Wish I'd Learned Earlier
The Problem With Systems
Against Hope (Video)
The Admission of Necessary Ignorance
Systems Thinking & Complexity 101
Several Short Sentences About Jellyfish
A Synopsis of 'Finding the Sweet Spot'
Learning from Indigenous Cultures
The Gift Economy
The Job of the Media
The Wal-Mart Dilemma
The Illusion of the Separate Self:
Nothing On Offer Here
Even Simpler and More Hopeless Than That
What Happens in Vagus
We Have No Choice
Never Comfortable in the Skin of Self
Letting Go of the Story of Me
All There Is, Is This
A Theory of No Mind
The Fortune Teller (Short Story)
Non-Duality Dude (Play)
Your Self: An Owner's Manual (Satire)
All the Things I Thought I Knew (Short Story)
On the Shoulders of Giants (Short Story)
Calling the Cage Freedom (Short Story)
The Other Extinction (Short Story)
Disruption (Short Story)
A Thought-Less Experiment (Poem)
Speaking Grosbeak (Short Story)
The Only Way There (Short Story)
The Wild Man (Short Story)
Flywheel (Short Story)
The Opposite of Presence (Satire)
How to Make Love Last (Poem)
The Horses' Bodies (Poem)
Distracted (Short Story)
Worse, Still (Poem)
A Conversation (Short Story)
Farewell to Albion (Poem)
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