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[ba-ohs-talk] Fixed ideas and polarization

“Ours is an age which is proud of machines that think, and suspicious of any man who tries to.” – Howard Mumford


In earlier emails I have proposed that much of what makes the “complex, urgent problems” which are our ultimate focus complex is that they all have a socio-political component as a substantial part. This email discusses some of these mechanisms.


A “fixed idea” is an idea or belief that the individual considers cannot be questioned.

I first encountered the concept explicitly in Ayn Rand’s work, and have found her observation and analysis to match my experience.

A fixed idea is impervious to any reason or any amount of data that conflicts with it. Fixed ideas are seldom arrived at through reason, but even when they are, once an idea becomes fixed, it cannot be questioned and so is impervious to any form of reasoning.


Nearly everybody has at least a few fixed ideas unless they are extremely diligent in routing them out, and possibly even then. There are some people who have nothing but fixed ideas.


A debate or a discussion has “polarized” when it consists only of 2 opposed fixed ideas. Since the poles are both fixed ideas, neither is approachable by reason, and the discussion takes on the flavor of the childish “did too!, did not!, did too!” exchange.

Any attempt to investigate the facts in any polarized discussion is met with opposition from both poles or simply goes unheard since nobody involved can really think about the issue any longer.

While religious fanaticism is one of the best-known sources of fixed ideas, there are numerous examples from politics, social debate, and even science, which is supposed to be immune to such things.

It is unfortunate but true that many people become unthinking “disciples” of someone who may have done excellent thinking. Such people adopt the ideas of the leader as fixed ideas, rather than reasoning with them.


I believe that much of this tendency has a genetic component, in that it is counter-survival to think too deeply about a situation if your life depends on rapid response. It is, however, a tendency that needs to be overcome if we are to progress.


“Arguing with a man who has renounced reason is like giving medicine to the dead” – Ayn Rand

“You cannot by reasoning correct a man of ill opinion which by reasoning he never acquired.” -- Bacon


I am indebted to Mark Clifton for an concept that I encountered in his science fiction novel “Eight Keys to Eden”

<aside>I find that SF often has valuable ideas that could not find a foothold in the “real” world </aside>

The concept is that of the science vs. the pre-science or non-science mind – the science mind is concerned with truth in order to achieve dominion over things, while the pre-science mind is concerned only with dominion over the judgments of others. The primary goal of the pre-science mind is that he and his be ascendant at the center of things.


Eight Keys to Eden, p. 138

... Ah, here it was, perhaps the most significant sentence ever written by man.

          "They have attempted to free it from the artifice, and humors, and passions of sects, to render it an instrument whereby mankind may obtain a dominion over Things, and not only over one another's judgments."

          That was it.  That was the essence of its difference from non-science, for the only method discovered until then was the non-science method of making its judgments prevail over others.


Since this distinction is seldom known or understood, and we receive little or no training in thinking, we are predominately pre-science minds. Even those who are truly scientific in some area are usually pre-scientific overall. It is most distressing to see people who claim to be scientists engaged in battles for “dominion over the judgments of others” instead of any real search for truth.

There are too many examples of the totally pre-science mindset. It has taken me many years to recognize and wrap my mind around the fact that this sort of person really doesn’t believe in reality – they operate on the belief that anything they want is possible, and anything they disagree with simply never happened.

Another fallacy to add to our growing list – In a just cause, any means will work. I continue to hear people argue that a completely impossible scheme will achieve the goals they espouse just because the goals are lofty and just. Such arguments will persist in spite of any amount of evidence to the contrary. One definition of stupidity is to continue to do the same thing and expecting a different result.


All utopian concepts boil down to “the world would be perfect if only reality were what I wish it to be rather than what it is”. This is usually more specific as in “the world would be perfect if only all people were as I wish them to be rather than as they are”. There are any number of ideas that might work if only everyone were different than they are, if only reality were not real.


When we look at a combination of pre-science mindset with fixed ideas and a polarized area of discussion, we have the sort of socio-political component that makes problems complex. There is no possibility of investigating the problem because all those involved are operating on fixed ideas and are thus impervious to reason, and their goal is the pre-science one of dominion over the judgments of others rather than dominion over things.


I have spent more than 40 years trying to understand the ramifications of this as it pertains to individuals and organizations and to the possibility of bringing about positive change. I know a lot more about these mechanisms now than I did when I started, but I am not much closer to any workable notion of how they might be circumvented.


What I do know is that any hope of changing this situation (or indeed, any situation) begins with individual minds. Individuals can, by choice, move toward science and away from pre-science; toward thinking and reason and away from fixed ideas. Groups cannot do this until individuals do, though a group can foster or impede progress.


This is why I continue to insist that any collaboration system must serve the individual first and group(s) second. Stephen Covey has observed that an individual much become independent before he can succeed at becoming interdependent. For an individual to be of value in a collaborative effort, he must bring something to the discussion. Any tools to support collaboration must first support the individual in his attempt to make sense out of the information that he needs to understand. The organized understandings of individuals can be shared, discussed, refined, added to, argued for or against, but that is all better done if we can support the individual’s efforts to manage his own knowledge. All ideas originate in individual minds. Knowledge is individual first, and becomes group knowledge only when it becomes knowledge for the individuals and is captured in such a way that it can become knowledge for individuals who were not involved in the original discussion.





Garold (Gary) L. Johnson