The Doctrine of Goofy Ideas

As a human being, I am entitled to my goofy ideas–and boy, do I have a lot of them. I can’t help it. I have a brain, and it has to do something while it’s waiting for the teapot to boil. Some people think about knitting, some people think about sex, I tend to think about things far beyond the norm. Hey, I write science fiction, right? It’s kind of my job.

You have goofy ideas too–I know you do, because one of my goofiest ideas is that reality is to some extent knowable (which puts me two goofy steps out from the perspectives of certain Hindus and Buddhists I know personally), and in a universe this big the statistical likelihood of anybody actually having all the right answers to all the possibly questions is pretty much zero.

Still, it’s kind of rude to say someone has goofy ideas, isn’t it? Particularly when you use words with more bite than “goofy”–words like “screwy,” “stupid,” “false,” “questionable,” or worst of all, “wrong.” It rubs a lot of people the wrong way, like it’s contrary to the spirit of tolerance–or, maybe, it devalues the person who holds the goofy idea.

I think it’s quite the opposite. Without overstating methods, I humbly submit that recognizing that people have goofy ideas is the soul of tolerance and the backbone of civil society. As Douglas Adams observed, the universe is an unsettlingly big place, so most beings attempt to move somewhere smaller of their own devising. He tells the story of a curious race on the planet Hogloroon who live their entire lives in a small and crowded nut tree–the only Hogloroonians who ever leave the tree are those that are thrown out for the heinous crime of speculating whether any of the other trees might be capable of supporting life. He concludes the parable by saying:

“As exotic as this behavior may seem, there is no being in the universe who is not, in some way, guilty of the same thing.”

Through most of the world, throughout most of history, the proper and expected response to a person who trespasses upon your ideology has been to cast them out of the tree–and often to slit their throat or bash their head in before you throw them out. Even more important than family, the ideas you have about reality, morality, and knowledge are the things by which we demonstrate our belonging to certain groups.

The problem is, when ideas are this important, civil discourse is impossible. But when we can share ideas, our ideas (as Matt Ridley puts it) can have sex. They affect each other, and they allow us to do more extraordinary things than we could do alone. Libraries, Internet forums, twitter, and universities (where they don’t enforce idealogical conformity) are essentially idea brothels with an open orgy policy.

On the other hand, ideas really are important. As recent history demonstrates, the way we perceive reality severely restricts the courses of action and the kinds of creativity available to us (a six-day creationist will almost never make an important scientific discovery–the idealogical framework into which he’s invested is too restrictive, and the stakes for violating it are too high).

The genius of civil discourse is that we can separate the ideas from the people who hold them, even while understanding that some kinds of goofy ideas, which I’ll call “evil,” can damage or pervert the personalities of the people who hold them. We can let our ideas have sex, we can cull the herd of culture through conversation, and never feel so threatened that we must hurl someone else out of the tree. Sometimes we might be tempted, but we know through experience that we don’t have to do it. As long as someone’s actions and character comport with civility and a willingness to accept responsibility, we don’t ever have to throw them out of the tree. In fact, the goofiest ideas will often move their owner to jump out of the tree voluntarily, because the goofier an idea is, the more prone its owner is to feeling insecure.

In a universe this vast, we’re all bound to have goofy ideas. In a liberal society, when we don’t chose to jump out of the tree to find somewhere smaller of our own devising, we’re going to have acquaintances, or even friends, whose ideas we consider goofy, wrong, immoral, or truly evil.

I have a lot of friends like that. Because of the stridency and vociferous of many of my opinions (particularly in culturally sensitive areas), I’m fairly sure that some of those friends feel the same way about my ideas. But our ideas have sex anyway, because we recognize the fuzzy boundary between the idea and the individual.

And, so far as I can tell, we’re all enriched by the experience. So let’s embrace the Doctrine of Goofy ideas. Let’s argue Let’s fight. Let’s get into the boxing ring and duke it out–and then let’s go out for a drink afterwards. It is the most remarkable thing about our civilization, and this very minute it’s in the process of disrupting very old parts of the world.

I think that’s something worth celebrating.

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  2. “In a universe this big the statistical likelihood of anybody actually having all the right answers to all the possibly questions is pretty much zero.” This one of the most freeing concepts I’ve ever learned and I was fortunate to learn it a long time ago.

    I like to think that as much as we people get things wrong that there is a nugget of truth in every school of wisdom, in every intelligent endeavor, in every good soul. To refuse to see truth wherever it may be, just because it doesn’t fit with our preconceived ideas is foolishness.

    Of course we are all fools, but in some sense we are all at least a little wise. True wisdom comes from seeking the light of truth wherever it is. And in knowing we never get there, so we need to learn patience with others and with ourselves. And that the joy is in the journey, because we never really arrive.

    We fall into divisiveness so quickly, because we fear finding out how very wrong we are. We find it easier to fight and exclude, when in truth, inclusion and hospitality is the route that will prove to be kindest to our own heart in the end.

    Let us try to take things in life seriously but not more seriously than they should be. And let us take joy in the diversity of the people who live in this Earth, instead of spending so much time and energy cursing it.

    Thanks, Dan. I’m sure that there is an awful lot that we strongly disagree about. I can honestly say that that is one (but far from all) of the reasons why I admire you so much. Peace to you, good fellow 🙂

  3. “a six-day creationist will almost never make an important scientific discovery–the idealogical framework into which he’s invested is too restrictive, and the stakes for violating it are too high”

    What a goofy idea.

  4. Richard —

    Wisdom in various traditions? Certainly–I think it’s a pretty fair bet that most humans are smart enough that long-held traditions capture something important (at least, important to the cultures that created the traditions) about human nature and/or culture. However, I don’t buy that this implies all traditions are “equally valid” or have an equal claim to truth. Though that might seem appealing, there are too many cases where it’s demonstrably untrue. I much prefer epidemiologies that allow for self-correction, encourage questioning, and prize inquiry and verifiability above received wisdom. Fortunately, such epidemiologies also give me the freedom to plunder other traditions for things they might have gotten right (which is one of my favorite hobbies, as you might have gathered).

    So I’m all for divisiveness in the arena of ideas and discourse–conversational intolerance is a wonderful spur toward integrity, because it encourages the testing of ideas without damning those whose ideas are found (or presumed) to be inferior. Because, hey, everyone’s got some goofy ideas 🙂


    Why is that a goofy idea? Make me an argument! 🙂

  5. I wouldn’t claim that all traditions are equally valid at all. Only that there is some truth buried in pretty much all of them. I would totally agree with your points in that regard.

    And yes, there is necessarily some divisiveness of ideas. Some views held by reasonable people are mutually exclusive. But in the process we don’t have to allow that necessarily to create a wall of division between people. Christians and Jews have very different ideas about Jesus. It doesn’t mean that they can’t live and work and discuss together. It does mean that they need some time to be separate for their communities’ worship of God. Not that there isn’t a place for interfaith efforts.

    Likewise I wouldn’t support forcing Atheists to religious worship (which has happened a lot in the course of history). Not that religion is the only place we need time together with like-minded people. But if that is the only place we ever live, we are missing out. Plus whenever other groups become *too* much of a “them”, we get into real trouble as human beings.

    Rather there needs to be different circles of “us”. One’s family, one’s faith community, one’s work place, one’s social group, one’s nation, etc … just so long as there is place for the circle of “all of us, everywhere”.

    But yeah there is evil and willful ignorance to rail against, and some people that, while they have worth as a human beings, are people that we unfortunately have to lock up to protect society from them.

  6. Can we drink first *and* afterward?

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