The garden of ideas

What is a person? What are you?

Mostly we don’t exist. The self, the thing that we experience as such, is one of many mental constructs, and not a particularly important one.

What each of us is is a collection of active ideas. Memes is the trendy word. The mind is only a vehicle and an environment for them. If we want to undertand human actions and work effectively with each other, or take moral decisions, the conscious mind or the self aren’t very useful theories. The garden of ideas is the theory that works.

The ideas are active and have a dynamic relationship with each other. Ideas have their friends and enemies, like different plants fit well or fight each other. Examples of ideas that are positively linked are a love for power, a hard notion of justice, a strict father, and a conservative outlook. Another cluster may be pleasure-seeking, personal freedom, a forgiving social environment, and a relaxed and open attitude to others. These two clusters are in conflict, but you have many such conflicting clusters in your head.

The ideas that are already active in your mind intercept ones that try to enter from outside and either welcome or fight them, much like the current flora of a garden affects what else might succesfully take root in there. If you have mystical or religious ideas about the world, you may welcome scientologists or horoscopes. If you believe in the socio-economic status quo you’ll reject a deep critique, but if you have in mind examples where it breaks down you’ll hear alternatives.

Rational argument matters relatively little compared to the web of ideas that you already have and the way an incoming idea relates to them. If you are religious, a logical argument about evolution will only face enemies. A secular idea may succeed if it doesn’t fight the religious camp too hard and if it finds some friends. For example if there are humanist or rationalists clusters elsewhere in your head, an idea like evolution may join them and eventually these clusters may overpower the religious or mystical ones. Conversely, you may be converted to religion if the mystical web of ideas grows stronger in your mind through exposure, hardship, or simply because it serves you better.

These are relative fights between webs of ideas. If you have ideas that are coupled to ideas of convincing or influencing, they might cause you to write or speak whole clusters of ideas into the minds of others. There they might bond with friendly ideas and get stronger, and they may fight opposed ideas with more or less success. Rationalism is only as good as the rationalism that can be found in the other mind as common grounds, and appeals to some absolute and essential rationalism are missing the point. It’s not you who is doing the influencing or the convincing either. It’s some of your ideas.

Some ideas create concepts of self. In the West we have a very unitary idea of self, which thinks one thing, believes there is one right way to act, tries to rationalise its emotions, and judges others as if they were self-consistent. We project this in our single-minded god Yahveh, as much as in our sometimes blinkered scientific reductionism. Our movie characters are either angels or demons. Oriental people seem to have a softer, more pluralist mind where different models of reality co-exist and people as well as imaginary beings more fully reflect the society of ideas inside them.

Our concept of self is usually transcedental. We are not transcedental, we die, but we think most of the time as if we’re immortal. We accumulate properety with little regard to enjoying it in our finite lives, and we’ve invented the concept of inheritance to disguise that stupidity. We think of life as a construction rather than a journey. Artists or other extraordinary people who live short but intense lives are usually pitied. Some people try to imagine that they transcend death through their kids. There is no self to die or be immortal. There is only your genes and your memes, which live on, separately.

You are not happy or unhappy, or rather that’s not a useful description because the self is not a major player in it. You experience various physical things, mostly unconsciously, as your mood. The ideas in your mind, and the state they’re in, are experienced as emotions. If some of your ideas seek expression and don’t find it you feel frustrated. If they do you feel fulfilled. If you have stong conflicting clusters of ideas you may feel guilt or stress. If some ideas are in danger, like the idea that you should be fit to mate, you can feel very scared. A lot goes on in your mind and you feel all of this at once. Otherwise you feel bored. There’s not much of a “you” in this, except as the sum of sensory experience coupled to the idea of your existence. The self is a counter-productive tool for understanding and improving how you feel.

Morality is another web of ideas. The cornerstone is the idea of moral reciprocity, in other words the expectation that the other is going to treat you well. We think that our friends and ordinary people close to us have it, but we’re prone to suspect that foreighners, strange people, or criminals don’t. If we think the other mind doesn’t contain moral reciprocity we torture and kill, no matter how alive, similar, or cute the other body may be. Please hold dear the idea to fight any suggestion that another mind doesn’t contain moral reciprocity.

Insofar as people do bad things, it’s their ugly ideas taking control, much as a garden may be overrun with weeds. Our methods of punishment attempt to deal with the whole garden, rather than tending to the ideas in it. We kill the person, which amounts to burning the garden, or simply fence it off for several years in jail. We’re then surprised when we take the fence down and the garden hasn’t transformed itelf into a welcoming lawn or neat productive orchard all by itself.

We need to learn to confront individual neegative ideas rather than the garden/mind/vehicle and the way to do this is though integration, contact, and openness. That’s uncomfortable for both the mind with the sick ideas and the healing minds, but it’s necessary if we want to save the beautiful ideas that are unlucky enough to share the garden with the weeds. Transgressions should be forgiven quickly, not because they don’t matter but because different ideas grow in a mind and they change. If there is contact, the person in jail five years later is no longer the person who committed the crime. Isolation and censorship lock bad ideas with the good ones and prevent this change.

The sin, which turns the garden of ideas into a sealed plot, is to attack or defend people. There are no people who are good or bad, or who matter. There are only ideas. The people you love harbour many wonderful ideas, one hopes. If not why are you attached to them? Those whom you consider your enemies either harbour negative ideas or, more likely, you and they harbour excessive ideas of competition, and you’re simply in conflict.

To overcome this you must learn not to attack people. Fight the idea and the behaviour, not the person. Argue. Listen. The other person is a garden, just as you are. Spread your positive ideas and hope they will take root in there. This is the easier part to learn.

The harder part to learn is not to defend – yourself or others. There is no you to defend. There are only ideas. You have to be open and support free speech, because otherwise there is no peaceful means for new ideas to enter your mind and fight the ideas you have inside. You are only worth as much as the good ideas inside you, and they can fight much better than your clumsy defenses.

You should not seek privilege or competition for yourself. To do so is to make yourself a walled garden, immune to all that’s good outside. Inter-personal competition, such as for wealth, will make you see others in the same sealed way. That is why so many wealthy and powerful people apparently have so little to add or say to the world. They see themselves as a real estate plot rather than a garden of ideas.

By all means do seek power and a wide reach for your ideas. Be a visionary, a leader, or an artist. Broadcast your best ideas to the world and see the best ones grow. Allow others to take your ideas, improve them, and pass them on, because your ideas are not yours. You are them.

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