Traps for the Imagination

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Modern society doesn’t emphasise enough how hard it is think freely. In the 60s many thought they had thrown off the shackles of socially constructed ways of thinking about the world, and finally unleashed free and unprejudiced thought. The sad thing was that the clothes, the language, the music, and the lifestyle quickly became a new category which people even fifty years later use to define their identity as ‘alternative’. How self-defeating that the symbols of breaking free from categories themselves become a kind of category.

The moral of the story is that one can’t become a free thinker just by declaring oneself to be so. Socially conditioned ways of perceiving the world are subtle and ubiquitous. I’ve noticed through regular meditation that even the way I think about my breath is deeply socially conditioned. It’s a life-long struggle to move a little bit closer to seeing reality as it is. The 20 year hipster who declares himself free from social conditioning is anything but.

When we don’t realise how hard it is to think freely, we don’t make the effort to examine whether our habits of thought block us from seeing all options in a rational and objective manner. I call such habits of thought ‘traps for the imagination’. I would like in this post to draw attention to two especially pernicious examples.

The first is the habit of thinking in terms of the dichotomy between Soviet-style communism and US-style capitalism. Of course we know there are other options: European capitalism is very different to US capitalism for instance. But the ‘big ideas’ of a state-run system and a market-run system tend to dominate the imagination, limiting discussion of more nuanced positions in between. Here’s an obvious truth: just because people sell things it doesn’t mean the market has to dominate all aspects of life. We could if we wanted refuse to have multinational chains in our city centres; destroying their beauty and sucking money out of the local economy. We could choose not to have advertising everywhere. We could take arts, music and entertainment, the things that make life worth living, out of the market altogether, making them publically funded and free at the point of delivery. But the dichotomy between Marx and Uncle Sam hangs so heavy that even the modest German-style rent controls proposed in the UK before the last election were regarded by many as a radical move towards communism.

The second ‘trap for the imagination’ is the habit of thinking in terms of the dichotomy between the reductionist scientist and the dogmatic religious believer. You are supposed to either think that physical science will one day explain all aspects of reality, including consciousness, value and the origin of the universe, or you’re supposed to think that some really old book got absolutely everything right: the bible, the Koran or some other sacred text. “Come on quickly, whose team are you on?? Richard Dawkins’ or the Pope’s?” The Dawkins team scoff at the idiocy of the dogmatists; the dogmatists react defensively and dig in deeper. Again, we know in some sense there are other options, but they are rarely acknowledged in the public imagination.

My own political and philosophical views don’t fit into these categories, and the result is that I often find it quite difficult to communicate to people where I’m coming from. We think we’re terribly free thinking these days, but we’re actually quite narrow-minded. I blame people in the 60s for not realising how hard it is to be free.

The Author

I am a philosopher and consciousness researcher at Durham University, UK. My research focuses on how to integrate consciousness into our scientific worldview.

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