Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Are ideas life?

Is life nothing more than an idea?  Are ideas really life?  An interesting thought.

In a recent article in Smithsonian Magazine (next to the ads for jitterbug phones and Gov't Gold Coins) was an article that made the interesting premise that life is really nothing more than information - DNA being merely a means of communicating information - and that by extension, information or ideas were analogous to, or in fact, living things.

And in fact, if you look at even inanimate objects, one could argue they they are really nothing more than ideas or data, either.  We break down atomic particles into sub-particles and then into strings or vibrations - frequencies, if you will.  Really little more than resonances or data sets.

But without getting too metaphysical, the article (which was rather long-winded and had too much about Twitter in it) got me to thinking.  If ideas are like a form of life, are some ideas basically little more than viruses?  Or bacterial infections?

The analogy is apt, and the authors infer as much by referring to how some ideas can spread like viruses and take on a life of their own, combine and mutate, and then recombine, building up resistance to antibiotics.

Fundamentalist religious causes, for example, take fractured parts of religious ideas and recombine them into new forms than can infect unsuspecting minds - just as viruses take broken bits of DNA and find a way to infect and self-replicate within a cell - often destroying or sickening the host species in the process.

End times theologists take broken bits out of the Bible, combine them with the religious teachings of various ministers, throw in a little whole cloth, and create a perfect virus that can infect the minds of people looking for simple answers to complex questions in life.

Of course, some might argue that all religion is in fact, an informational virus - or any political movement or other movement which requires you to suspend disbelief in favor of mantras, orthodoxy, catechisms or dogma.

Communists believe, against all sanity, that you can direct the economic actions of an entire country more efficiently than individual self-interest can.  Tea Partiers believe that taxes can be lowered - or even eliminated - while still preserving their own personal payouts, such as Social Security or Medicare.  And some Republicans believe, against all logic, that Sarah Palin is Presidential Timber, with her "now you see me, now you don't" hide-and-seek non-campaign campaign trip. Uh, yes.  I've seen children more mature than that.  Who is running the campaign, Pepper or Piper or whatever her name is?

Rational thinking is indeed a struggle, and oftentimes, we believe we are thinking rationally, when in fact we are building a house of cards on a very shaky foundation - a poor premise.  When you pull out that foundation - destroy the premise - it all comes tumbling down.

And as with organic life, bacteria and viruses are, from nature's standpoint, value-neutral.   What survives, survives, whether it is perceived to be "good" or "bad" is irrelevant.  The only important thing is that a disease-causing bacteria or virus not kill off its hosts too effectively, lest that also kill themselves off in the process.

So perhaps irrational thinking is something that will always be with us.  A certain percentage of the population will always be infected with crazy, no matter how much you try to immunize (educate).  And in fact, when the disease of irrationality spreads far enough, the very means of immunization becomes the means of spreading the disease, as we saw in Fascist and Communist countries in the last Century or in the fundamentalist madrases of this Century.  Or perhaps in the Socialist thinking that is bankrupting many European States today and threatens our economy as well.

Crazy ideas that are not-sustainable propagate.  Fascism, in retrospect, seems almost infantile.  The idea that a dictator can effectively run a country is nonsense, in retrospect, and the idea that one race of people can take over the whole planet (without the rest of the planet perhaps having different ideas) also seems rather, well, infantile.  But Italy and Germany embraced this idea, even when it became self-evident that it wasn't going to work out.

Similarly, Communists really believed that they would one day rule the world, when they could not even keep the supermarket shelves stocked in Moscow.  Hard to run the world when you can't even bake a loaf of bread.  But they believed - until almost overnight the premise from their house of cards was yanked out and it all came literally (in the case of the Berlin wall) tumbling down.

Today, fundamentalist Imams in impoverished Arab countries preach that they can force Islam on the rest of the world and kill off all the infidels - who outnumber and out-arm them by a factor of 10 to 1.  Sure, that could happen.  But young kids raised with nothing else are infected with this message, as there is no immunization in the form of other, contrary ideas presented.

And in the West, the idea that we can put an end to poverty by giving money away seems to have a permanent hold in our consciousness, even as our countries go bankrupt, one by one, as we pay people not to work, while taxing those who do.  At the same time, we vote to throw out Immigrants, arguing that they are taking away jobs.  Meanwhile, here in Georgia, in the midst of a world-wide food crises, crops rot in the fields for lack of field hands to harvest them.  The Governor vows to throw out the immigrants and get the "unemployed" to work in the fields.  He is infected with the idea that a welfare recipient will take a pay cut to do the backbreaking labor of picking melons.  Or that a 300-lb obese person on disability for obesity and diabetes can be "put to work" harvesting crops.

One virus infects another.  You can't throw out the immigrants and expect welfare recipients to take those jobs, unless you cut way back on welfare.  That is just logical thinking - and logical self-interest on the part of those receiving welfare.

But once the virus takes hold, it dominates the body.  And in America, as in the rest of the Western World, we are rapidly reaching a point where more people will be on some form of government assistance - Social Security, SSI, Disability, Welfare, Unemployment - than not.  Once our generation retires, the smaller generation behind us will be asked to pay for our retirement - as well as the rest of the population "on the dole".  If there every was a time to open the doors to immigration, now is the time - to fill in the bottom of that pyramid.

But the virus has taken hold - immigrants are bad, we are told, even as they are the cure to the disease taking over our economy.  So the disease spreads and accelerates.  The economy worsens, and people look for more scapegoats.  Immigrants were first.  Who will be next?  Already we are hearing the mild fascism of "Buy American" with its implications that anyone who fails to do so is "disloyal" - and hyper-patriotism is the order of the day.

Is it possible that our country could be at risk for a wave of irrational thinking, as happened in Germany and Russia in the last Century?  In both of those cases, the irrational thinking disease took hold after the host body was weakened by recession and depression.

If irrational thinking is a form of informational illness, then the cure - or the immunization - is the free-flow of information.  When information is restricted and thought becomes a crime - as it did in Germany and Russia - then conflicting viewpoints are never heard from.  And such conflicting viewpoints are the sort of thing than can collapse an information virus, but pulling out that false premise that holds up the entire thinking structure.

One would hope that the Internet would be a cure for irrational thinking.  And sites like Snopes, even through they are flawed, try to rationally analyze claims and legends on the Internet.  But true irrational thinkers listen to only one source of data - even on the Internet - and shout down or filter out conflicting or opposing views.

Or they chose ideas like one chooses a sports team - hooray for "our side" and boo for the other guy!  Both Democrats and Republicans fall victim to that sort of thinking - marching in lock-step with whatever thinking the "party" promotes, without critically analyzing their own candidate on occasion.

Perhaps ideas are like life forms.  And perhaps, like life forms, they can be infected and diseased on occasion.  Here's hoping we all get well.  And soon!