Monday, September 27, 2010

Why we should outrightly dismiss (some) repugnant ideas

Some people argue that we should not outrightly dismiss repugnant ideas. They are wrong. Outrightly rejecting some repugnant ideas provides a people with an overall evolutionary advantage over a people who, collectively, refuse to dismiss all repugnant ideas outrightly.

Before examining why this is so, we should first consider the evidence. In this case, the evidence is that no civilization, either historic or present, has consisted entirely of individuals who do not outrightly reject repugnant ideas. Rather, all civilizations foster society-wide taboos and other social structures that, among other effects, limit individuals' modes of thinking. Religion (including secularism), politics, art, economic ideology and so on—these are all mechanisms by which societies outrightly dismiss repugnant ideas and become self-policing. For example, democracies outrightly dismiss, in theory, the idea that some people should have a greater voice in governance than others and that inherent inequality between people is repugnant. If, as the pro-repugnance people argue, we are better off not outrightly rejecting repugnant ideas, then why is it that humans have not already evolved not to reject outrightly repugnant ideas? The implication of their argument is that there is a benefit to be gained in considering the validity of a repugnant idea, and yet we exactly do not observe a trend away from the rejection of repugnant ideas. Clearly there is no evolutionary advantage, at least with humans' current relationship with their environments.

Why is this? How could it be that an individual or a society can be better off by limiting their modes of thinking, possibly even to ones that do indeed project falsehoods onto the universe? (It has not escaped this author's attention the irony that the optimal survival strategy for humans may entail the acceptance of falsehoods is itself a repugnant idea that the pro-repugnance arguers would be, by their own argument, burdened with considering.)

If the path to wisdom is “the ability to see things different ways”, then it's worth considering the possibility that having an expanded world view is not a net benefit. Take as example the idea that the future will be better than the past (or present), or, expressed as a Beatles's song lyric, the idea that things are getting better all the time. (And people often forget that that song has an undertone of deep pessimism.) The pro-repugnance argument takes the viewpoint that there's a likely possibility that things are not getting better and that progress is illusory. They allude to the ever present phenomena of poverty and warfare as examples of how, despite our seemingly continual technological innovation, humanity is stuck in a rut of folly and real misery. But what are we to do about this? Would collectively changing our dispositions and rejecting the idea of progress enable societies to reduce poverty and war? It seems strange that the route to reducing poverty and war would be exactly accepting the idea that poverty and war are necessary burdens of humanity. Though it is possible, it seems that either poverty and war are indeed burdens some of our kind must suffer (presumably for the good of the species) or else we are powerless to affect a lasting reduction in either.

This is a truly repugnant idea, and doubtlessly many people are quick to reject it out of hand. Why bother at all trying to make things better if we are fated to such widespread and everlasting poverty and war? It is not hard to see how rejecting the repugnant idea and thus opening oneself to the possibility that the problem can be alleviated if not fixed outright—even if the actual possibility is zero—may provide societies with exactly the sort of illogical framework needed to induce social efforts needed to keep the society flourishing. For, though the widespread existence of poverty and war is unfortunate, if the alternative is the eventual extinction of the species, then, evolutionarily, we are doing quite okay, though as individuals we may not feel that way. The idea of progress, however illusory it may be in fact, may be the force that equips individuals with the mental resolve necessary for dealing with an imperfect universe.

Progress and its antithesis, undirected adaptive change, together make up only one repugnant idea. There are many more, such as covered by religion and politics and other ideological frameworks. However, many repugnant ideas that are frequently outrightly dismissed by individuals deal within the realm of self-policing, whereby a society's culture feeds back on its individuals to limit behaviors. People who argue that we should all be open to accepting any idea, however repugnant, are carelessly suggesting that we discard these evolved self-policing mechanisms. If it weren't that doing so is an impossibility due to the physiological characteristics of the human mind and its proclivity for myth and mythic thinking, the pro-repugnance argument would be folly.

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