Saturday, April 18, 2015

A Philosophy as a Flourishing Ecosystem of Ideas

These days you are encouraged to focus and specialize, both in academia and in the business world. By finding one thing you can do really well and becoming an expert, you more easily garner money and fame because you've got something rare and special to contribute to society.

But might this tendency be harming our mental ecosystems?

Just as a forest ecosystem can be weakened or destroyed by a too-successful insect or vine, a human mind can be weakened or destroyed by a too-successful idea. Examples of this are common among scientists, philosophers, and poets. The mathematician Georg Cantor (1845-1918) was the first to develop a detailed theory of infinity. By the time he was thirty he had published a paper proving that there was more than one kind of infinity (“countable” and “uncountable” infinity). Many of his mathematical peers ridiculed him. Still, he continued to develop the theory, proving that there were in fact infinitely many infinities, increasing in size without limit. He became so obsessed with his theory—equating infinity and God in his mind—that as time went on he had difficulty thinking about anything else. A certain result known as the “continuum hypothesis,” which stated that there was no infinity between “countable” and “uncountable,” proved particularly elusive, and his obsession with proving or disproving it became so powerful that he neglected his wife and children and was in out of sanitariums for the last two decades of his life.

Cantor's fascination with infinity became expertise—but expertise became obsession. Like a parasite or invasive species, infinity destroyed a mind that lacked any ideas capable of balancing it.

Similar examples are manifold. The greatest logician of the 20th century, Kurt Gรถdel, who thought exclusively about a handful of foundational problems, began to see the world in terms of ancient struggle between intelligence and non-intelligence. Fear of poisoning by hidden enemies led him to starve himself to death.

Robert Pirsig, the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, recounts the story of how the singular question "What is Quality?" led him step-by-step to madness, an asylum, and electro-convulsive therapy before he recovered.

Many other philosophers appear to have lost their sanity to singular questions, from Zeno to Nietzsche. The psychologist Kay Jamison estimates that at least 40% of famous poets have had psychotic episodes, including Lord Byron, Alfred Tennyson, Sylvia Plath, and Robert Lowell. In most cases these episodes are characterized by thoughts either racing out of control (mania) or plodding in a slow circle (depression)—a few unbalanced ideas dominating the mind.

To explain what I mean by saying that the mind is an ecosystem, I need to give clear idea of what an ecosystem is. We'll need to talk about the theory of evolution for a bit.

Originally, Darwin said that evolution depends on three basic principles: (1) Variation, (2) Heritability, and (3) Natural Selection. His followers, trying to be concise, took (1) & (2) for granted and spent most of their time arguing for (3), redubbing it “survival of the fittest” to make it sound more intense. T.H. Huxley in particular led this movement, which succeeded spectacularly in popularizing Darwin's ideas, but led to widespread misunderstanding of the theory.

The problem with the term “survival of the fittest” was that it made Darwin's theory sound like a huge bloody free-for-all, favoring the strongest fighters. This point of view obscures that fact that different organisms and species often work together. Once this fact had become obscure enough, you had a whole movement among biologists trying to prove that species could work together -- and their theory was called "group selection."

A decades-long, academic bloody free-for-all ensued. One side argued, "If you don't pass down your genes you don't survive so it's really about genes, not groups." The other side retorted, "What difference does make whether you talk about genes or groups? If a group doesn't survive that is just as fatal." Back and forth it went, getting more and more technical until no one was even sure what was at issue, because yes, organisms do help each other and work together in many cases, but should we call this behavior selfish or unselfish, given that all organisms must survive to survive?

To this day the debate goes on. But it has illuminated something interesting about ecosystems that has gone largely unremarked. An ecosystem can be considered a web of what gene selectionists call "mutualists." The organisms in an ecosystem all help one another in certain ways in the expectation of being helped in return. For this reason group selectionists will often promote ecosystems to the honorary status of "group," something that can be selected in its own right.

Gene selectionists like to say that these are really just two different ways of looking at the same thing. I will agree with them but take this insight one step further and say that the group-selectionist way of looking at it is more useful. Let's call an ecosystem a group. That means an ecosystem is an organism in its own right. Now we can talk about how it evolves much more easily, even if this can be “reduced” to individuals doing what they can to survive and pass on their genes.

I think it makes good sense of ecology to say that ecosystems are organisms, that ecosystems evolve. Imagine you've got a territory with forest, plains, and desert. What if the organisms in the forest tend toward mutual destruction? For example, maybe you've got a parasitic insect that spreads from tree to tree and kills the trees faster than they can recover. Great for the insect (short term), bad for the ecosystem. Eventually the forest dies out, and the grasses of the plains and the scrub of the desert are given a chance to move in and take over. Ecosystem selection. And that selfish tree-destroying insect has actually caused its own destruction because it could not live in balance with the rest of the forest.

Maybe you have another forest without any insects to decompose trees. The growth gets out of control and you get frequent fires that kill everything. Also an "unfit" ecosystem that dies out.

Now imagine a third forest, where you've got a certain kind of bird that loves to eat the tree-eating insect. Now you've got an insect to control the growth of wood and prevent fires, but you've also got a bird to control the growth of the insect. The forest thrives! It spreads across the territory!

Ecosystem evolution.

The sorts of phenomena I just described are real. They happen all the time—ask any conservationist or ecologist. It doesn't matter if you call it group selection or gene selection. It's the way the world works.

Now let's bring this back to philosophy and see how we can apply ecology and evolution to ideas.

Every idea, and in fact every bit of culture, is subject to natural selection. Why? Because they all require matter to survive. Ideas must be stored on paper, on a hard disk, in a brain, a picture, or some piece of technology. All of these things take matter and energy, and there is only so much matter and energy on the planet. Millions of people write books every year but only a tiny fraction receive significant public notice. The same goes for music albums. Everywhere you turn people are trying to sell their ideas. But not everyone can write a bestseller; it's physically impossible because if the 300 million citizens of the U.S. each sold 1 million books, then your average person would have to buy a million books.

Is this situation unfair? Probably. I'm sure there are plenty of great books out there that should have been published but were never advertised enough to take hold. But maybe the situation isn't quite as unnatural as it seems. Frogs typically lay several hundred or several thousand eggs at once. For a frog population to remain roughly constant, only two out of these thousand eggs can result in a breeding adult frog. Some eggs are eaten, perhaps, and when they hatch most of the tadpoles will also be eaten. Maybe they weren't fast enough swimmers, or couldn't find enough food. Maybe as adult frogs they don't catch enough flies and never survive to reproduce. Maybe they can't find a mate to breed with. Some of these factors are pure luck, many involve natural selection that allows for evolution.

The eggs of the wood frog and the northern red-legged frog are symbiotic with a kind of green algae that provides oxygen in return for certain nutrients expelled from the eggs. So frogs belong to an ecosystem even at the earliest stages of life, and of course I'm not even mentioning the millions of species of bacteria involved as well, which are still little understood. You and I, in fact, are walking ecosystems, containing many times more bacterial cells in our body that human ones. Don't panic—this is a good thing. It's good to be an ecosystem.

So really, each of those frog eggs is not just an infant frog but an infant ecosystem. And most of these ecosystems will perish. What we think of as the evolution of a single species is really the evolution of an ecosystem. Almost all evolution can be seen as ecosystem evolution.

The organism/ecosystem of ideas known as "the writer" will struggle mightily to spread his or her eggs—books—across the literate world. Success, as in biological evolution, means that these books will help construct new ecosystems-of-ideas that will themselves be fertile and create still more.

Ecosystems thrive best on diversity. If you play around with an online ecosystem simulator (I'll provide a link later), you'll find that if you put more species and connections in, it will usually reach equilibrium sooner, and with less chance of extinction. It also helps to have top predators—without enough vertical eater-eaten relationships it's more likely someone will spread out of control. Predators will often help the species below them survive in the long run. Species help each other best by preserving the overall equilibrium, even if this involves predation, which non-ecologists often mistake for a form of competition.

For example—and this was a something that actually happened in a number of national forests—if you get rid of wolves and bears your deer population is likely to explode. As a deer population grows it can strip parts of the land bare of vegetation, expose the soil, and cause massive erosion. Without anything to hold river banks in place, rivers disperse and evaporate, and forests can become deserts. Famine sets in and even the deer populations themselves eventually dwindle or disappear. This process is called desertification and it is happening world-wide, often as a result of livestock like cows and sheep that are allowed to grow out of control. In some national parks wolves or bears have been re-introduced, stabilizing the deer and moose populations and restoring much of the ecosystem that has been lost.

Complex interactions form an ecosystem. Thought is an ecosystem. Thought evolves. Monocultures—fields of a single crop, sterilized by chemicals—are harmful because they destroy the ecosystems of the soil and halt evolution. When thinking is dominated by a small collection of ideas, it destroys the natural soil of the mind, which should be alive with a thousand skills, ideas, reasons, and myths.

Life is flourishing diversity. The most ancient forms of agriculture respect this principle. Like most traditional societies, the Amish always leave some fields fallow, allowing them to relax and play and foster new diversities of wild plants and animals. This restores the soil for free, and keeps populations of predators like birds healthy and present to control outbreaks of insects or mice.

Philosophy is flourishing diversity of thought. The greatest thinkers have been renaissance men and polymaths: broadly-read, creative, less narrow than their peers. Charles Darwin was an avid reader of not only botany and zoology, but of philosophy, geology, agriculture, animal-breeding, and plant-breeding. Thomas Jefferson was a scientist, philosopher, scholar, lawyer, inventor, and agricultural pioneer. Isaac Asimov wrote both fiction and non-fiction, and popularized every field of science from mathematics to biology. Masanobu Fukuoka, one of the founders of the modern sustainable-agriculture movement, was a trained scientist, a Buddhist philosopher, a mystic, a poet, a father, and of course a successful farmer. It is said that human knowledge is now too vast for there to be polymaths anymore. It's more reasonable to think that the more there is to know, the wider and more diverse your knowledge can be, and the more fertile the soil for polymaths. Broad knowledge gives a thinker stronger context. A scientist seeking knowledge for its own sake will probably find nothing of interest. A farmer without any reading or education will probably do what his neighbors do. But a passionate farmer who uses science to improve his farm is far more likely to advance both science and farming.

The greatest novels show deep insight into human nature, careful thought concerning the individual's place in the world, and broad learning about many diverse aspects of life and nature that are portrayed. Music is the same, though less obviously so. The most powerful melodies evoke a range of emotions, challenge the mind, and show intricacy of structure that can only come from active and diverse thought. Classical painting, too, shows geometric reasoning, deftness of hand, an understanding of human and natural forms, insight into human emotion, and dramatic expression. And if broad thinking can benefit us in making likenesses of life, how much more might it help us in living our lives, in seeing the big picture, setting higher goals for ourselves, and achieving them? How much more might it benefit our family lives and our culture as a whole? This is what leadership is made of. Alexander the Great was the student of Aristotle, the greatest philosopher of Greece. Charlemagne was considered the wisest king of his time in Europe, and helped keep Roman learning alive through the Dark Ages. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, and other founding fathers were profound thinkers, broadly read, with well-trained rhetorical skills. I can't help but feel that this is precisely the sort of thing that the 21st century is already lacking. You don't see technical logicians – who specialize in elliptic curves or Hilbert spaces – accomplish anything of note. Leave it to the Einsteins of the world, fed up with narrow scholarship and working in patent offices.

Modern philosophers love to praise the Greeks for being more "objective" and "scientific" than any other ancient civilization. This is nonsense. It forgets that modern mysticism, magic, music, poetry, and art also have their origins in Greek culture.

Ancient Greece was the first nation to produce a written tradition of philosophy, but also of tragic and comic plays, of political theory, of ethics, logic, physics, literary criticism, and axiomatic mathematics. Other subjects which they did not invent they brought to their highest pre-Renaissance level, including geometry, arithmetic, algebra, astronomy, poetry, epic poetry, mysticism, and music. No single society has had as big an impact on Western culture. We still use Greek harmonies in our music, we still learn Euclid's theorems in geometry class, and Xenophon's writings about horses were still considered authoritative among cowboys of the old west.

Why were the Greeks so intelligent, so wise?

There were other empires throughout the Middle East that were larger and wealthier. What was truly remarkable about Greece was the richness and plenitude of culture there. It was a healthy and thriving ecosystem of ideas. Greece excelled in so many things because it was so many things. History suggests that novelty is the result not of specialization, but of variety. We might expect our philosophy to be Hittite, our military theory to be Assyrian, and our music to be Egyptian. But it all came from Greece, because that was the first place that reached a critical diversity of ideas, a prototypically healthy cultural ecosystem. While the Persian empire was a vast machine designed to produce only conquest, wealth, and power for the Emperor, the Greeks—who lived in autonomous city-states—admired wisdom over wealth, and preferred the advice of their barefoot philosophers to that of fearsome tyrants. The first democracies were Greek. The Greek philosophers were all polymaths and were expected to be. If a man did not value virtue above all else, Plato would refuse to call him a philosopher. And if a man did not know geometry, or had no practical inventions credited to his name, Plato would also withhold the title. For Plato, a philosopher must be an ethicist, an inventor, a mathematician, an astronomer, a dialectician, a logician, a politician, a metaphysician, and a physicist. His student Aristotle demanded mastery of biology, meteorology, and epistemology as well. This way of thinking stretched back to Thales, reputedly the first Greek philosopher, who was skilled in science and math, an inventor, a businessman, and at the same time considered one of the "Seven Sages" of Greece for his dedication to virtue. Philosophy was not simply a thing to read about or study for the Greeks. It was an entire way of life.

***

In a book about permaculture, Masanobu Fukuoka wrote,

"It seems that the main goal in the life of the average American is to save money, live in the country in a big house surrounded by large trees, and enjoy a carefully manicured lawn. It would be a further source of pride to raise a few horses. Everywhere I went I preached the abolition of lawn culture, saying that it was an imitation green created for human beings at the expense of nature and was nothing more than a remnant of the arrogant aristocratic culture of Europe" (Sowing Seeds in the Desert, p. 129).

Instead, Fukuoka suggests scattering seeds of clover and daikon over your existing lawn and letting it grow wild without using chemicals from the store or replanting. This works because it creates a natural ecosystem that is self-sufficient. Clover fixes nitrogen so that you don't have to add fertilizer, and it naturally gives your turf a deeper green color. Daikon is a kind of radish that prevents soil compaction and can even be eaten.

Recently I went to a Cal Ranch store to find some organic gardening supplies (which they didn't have) and was astonished at how many shelves of chemical lawn products they had, including pest poison, weed poison (products promising to get rid of clover!), and artificial coloring to cover up “dog spots.” If you use these sorts of products you'll have to reseed or spread sod every couple of years. You won't build an ecosystem at all, and though it will look like nature it'll be a factory-made product. This is why Fukuoka calls it "fake nature."

A healthy ecology sees a balance of creativity from every species. No one substance or process or rule of order dominates the rest, and thus there is a perfect balance of power from largest to smallest. Even the lion must answer to the grass because without the grass there are no deer.

No one book or thinker or discipline can teach you how to think, or what wisdom is. There are thousands of classics out there—why not make use of them? There are thousands of skills to learn, thousands of points of view to understand.

It is not possible to learn everything, nor is it possible for most of us to be heard by everyone. But I think it is beneficial to find ways to keep your ideas your own, to keep them rich and diverse and different from the almost univocal perspective of the media. Here are some of the ways I've been attempting to do this:

(1) Keep a journal of ideas that's uncensored, uninhibited, and completely honest. Go back and reread all your entries every year or so. Over time you will start collecting your best entries and learn how to write better, more insightful entries. This is evolution taking place inside your own mind/journal ecosystem.

(2) Read classics. These are filled with robust ideas that have managed to replicate themselves for centuries or even millennia. Plant them in your mind and let them grow. The most brilliant philosophers, writers, scientists, and leaders all had a solid education in classic literature. Their minds had become rich, healthy ecosystems.

(3) Have as many “deep” and “honest” conversations as you can. This is the best way to spread your ideas and allow others to spread their ideas to you. Ask for sincere criticism. Good critique stings, but you can't do better until you know what you've done wrong. Like a good top-level predator, honest criticism (from yourself and others) can help keep obsessive ideas from taking over.

(4) Cultivate practical skills. Challenging yourself, whether it's in gardening or fitness or writing a computer program or learning a new language, will put selective pressure on your ways of thinking and force bad, impractical ideas out.

(5) Learn how to express yourself clearly in writing. Blogging is a great way to do this because you can get immediate feedback from people you know and give your ideas a chance to spread more widely. Write letters to the editor of your local paper. Write letters to your family and friends. There are many things that can be expressed better in writing, and by writing an idea down you create a seed that can spread far and grow into new thoughts in faraway places and times.

(6) Keep cultivating new passions. Don't schedule away all your time. Always leave “fallow time” to investigate new things, or simply think about whatever comes to mind. When you learn something interesting, put aside time to read more about it. This will happen less as you get older, but don't let your playfulness die completely if you want to stay creative.
(7) Stick to the one hour a day rule. I am at my happiest when I have a least an hour a day for my research and writing, and one hour a day for random meditation or thinking. The latter is easy to fit in—do it in the shower and while driving.
Evolutionary quality gives ideas power. Books or statements that became famous simply because they were provocative or well-advertised will not last through the ages. This gives me peace of mind. It reminds me that chasing fame is ultimately useless. An honest, insightful idea may spread very slowly, like a plant whose seeds are carried on the breeze, but if it is good and true it will spread steadily and may stay vital for ages.


A previous post about the decline of philosophy:



A post about localism of ideas:



An ecosystem simulator:



Some ecological problems with mass media:




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