How to Be Free
Author: Joe Blow

Chapter 22
Impasses to Thought

If you think that what I say here makes sense and you wonder why you havenít come across these kinds of ideas before it is because the evolution of ideas, like the evolution of species, is obstructed by impasses.†

For a long time animals only lived under the sea. The land represented a great opportunity for the flourishing of life, but fish were suited to life under the sea not to life on land. I donít know what lead to the first fish developing the ability to spend some of its time on land, but once it was there there were opportunities for new variations which, if successful, could proliferate and diversify and make full use of the terrestrial environment. When that first fish crawled up onto land it bridged a significant impasse. Similarly when we humans developed the ability for complex reasoning we bridged an impasse inherent in the limiting effects of the survival imperative and competition for mating opportunities in other species. Once that impasse was bridged we gradually took over the world.

Ideas develop in a similar way to animal species. We have ideas and if they seem useful others adopt them. Particularly powerful ideas which seem to be useful descriptions of aspects of the world take hold and become dominant. Then somebody comes up with a variation on one of those ideas, the thinking equivalent of a species mutation. Whether that idea takes off and leads to new ideas or perishes quickly depends on how well it fits either the needs of the society or the information that has been gathered about the world. Some ideas, like the theory of gravity, take hold because they are an effective description of observable reality and are useful in that way. Other ideas, such as the idea that behaving badly can lead to an eternity of pain in Hell, take hold because they effectively serve a social function, in this case control of antisocial behaviour.

So there is a survival of the fittest amongst ideas. Some ideas, such as that the sun revolves around the earth, die off when a more accountable explanation comes along.

But in the development of ideas there are also impasses. Of course in science we can be held back by the technological limits on gathering of information in our era. But, in broader philosophical thinking and in the development of a big picture framework for our scientific knowledge we can be held back by a fear of allowing ourselves to think certain thoughts.

In religious thinking we have the concept of blasphemy. While this doesnít directly effect philosophical or scientific thinking it is important to realise that religious thinking has had a tendency to have a big influence on acceptance of even scientifically valid ideas. Darwin was fearful about publishing his work on evolution because of the effect that it would have on peopleís religious beliefs, and, even today, some religious individuals resist accepting its validity.

But for the non-religious thinker there are still taboos. For an atheistic scientist any thought that might be leading him in the direction of acknowledging something that looks like God might be a taboo. And there are sexual taboos. Any re-examination of the nature of human sexuality can lead the individual to come up against those. And there is our natural fear of committing hubris. If our reason or intuition tells us we should turn the whole history of human thought on its head we may wonder who we are to do such a thing and we may doubt our own sanity.

The thoughts that can lead us to a concept of the world and ourselves that appears to work can include ones which we feel that we dare not even contemplate lest they lead us down a path to madness or irredeemable depravity. But once the impasse has been breached and those thoughts have been thought, then sometimes all the pieces of the picture rush together.

In my case, my mind was liberated by madness. I feared insanity, but I ended up there anyway, and, by good luck, it didnít kill me. And, as the psychiatrist R. D. Laing pointed out, breakdown can also be breakthrough. During my psychotic episodes my mind broke every taboo and committed every blasphemy. Caution was not an option. I had no control over my own mind. But when I returned to sanity, the impasses had been breached. I could travel back through those previously forbidden pathways if it were required to piece together a consistent explanation for my experiences and what I perceived about human behaviour generally.

 

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