Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The thinker and the thought

I was thinking last night about a book, The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan. It's a book about how a few plants, Tulips, Potatoes, Marijuana, and Apples, have exploited certain characteristics of humanity to spread themselves around the world. It's run-of-the-mill Darwinian evolution mixed with the complexities of consciousness. It's an interesting thesis, but it's not the point that I want to talk about in this post.

In the chapter on Marijuana, Pollan suggests that drugs work by relaxing our brain's filter of reality. Every day we are faced with an overwhelming wealth of sensory information. If we were truly open to all of the sights, sounds, and smells of the world we wouldn't be able to do anything. We couldn't recognize faces, we couldn't talk, and we certainly couldn't walk down the streets of New York City. So, in response to this problem, our brains have developed coping mechanisms, ways to ignore the information overload, a reality filter. In Pollan's mind, certain psychoactive drugs impair this reality filter, allowing us to see what's really there.

I was thinking about this idea last night, and realized that I don't really agree with it. If a drug like LSD turns an ordinary wall into a colorful fractal, does that mean that the fractal was there to begin with, and our mind had previously been filtering it out? It's a possibility that I can't really accept.

Once I started questioning this particular idea that Pollan has about drugs, I started questioning his entire book. I thought, if he's wrong about one thing, he's probably wrong about something else. There was nothing specifically wrong with his other ideas, just the fact that he had also generated them. In other words, my mind couldn't separate the idea from the author. This phenomenon is everywhere, and I think it's a serious problem.

If we look at the world from the viewpoint of memetics, the close association between human individuals and ideas is severely limiting to the evolution of knowledge and ideas. (In my understanding, memetics is the application of Darwinian theory to the world of ideas. It states that memes, individual ideas or beliefs, are floating around in a world-wide meme-pool, interacting and evolving in a population of minds. The analogy is to genes in a gene-pool.) With this world-view, it's hard to justify ignoring an entire group of memes because they came from the same person. Maybe Pollan's memes have a certain flavor or character to them, but they are still distinct ideas.

At the root of the problem is our culture's individualism. We are obsessed with citing authors, giving credit where credit is due. (Think of the Social Network and the $65 million settlement to the originators of a simple idea.) As ideas and knowledge proliferate, this model may become archaic. Maybe the thinker is much less important than the thought itself.

The point I want to make is that ideas and the people who generated them are not inexorably interwoven. They can be pulled apart, one from the other, and doing so is important, lest we discount a good idea from a bad thinker, or accept a bad idea just because a smart person came up with it.

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