More destabilizing ideas, please.

An idea doesn’t have to be objectively true to be valuable, does it? Some ideas are intrinsically valuable, irrespective of their truth or practicality. Sometimes, an idea is good simply because it’s destabilizing.

By destabilizing, I don’t mean “disruptive,” at least not in the way that we like to romanticize in startup culture. Not like, “Uber is disruptive to the taxi industry” or “AirBnB is disruptive to the hotel industry.” I find that word annoying because it’s often used right before someone makes a claim of reinvention. Like, “Square is disruptive to the point-of-sale terminal industry. Square is reinventing the cash register!” Oh really? Are you reinventing the cash register, or are you just creating a new cash register. Do I still hand you my credit card and do you still swipe it and do I still get a receipt? I think you’re just creating a new cash register. Same thing for Uber. Do I still call you to pick me up someplace? Do you drive me to the airport? Do I then pay you? I think you’re just creating a new taxi service. This is all fine, of course, but let’s just be a bit more straightforward with the language. These “disruptions” aren’t new ideas, really. They’re improvements on old ideas. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. So, moving on.

No, I’m interested in ideas that destabilize old ways of thinking. Ideas that are just crazy enough to be rejected by most people but just not-so-crazy enough to nag at you a little.

There are plenty of ideas like this. Most of them are on the internet because someone with a tin foil hat put them there :D

But I tend to like them. Even the truly nutso ones. I like that these ideas exist because they help me in figuring out where my edges are — which of my ideological commitments are weak, and which are non-negotiable — and keep my mind open to adjacent possibilities. I like them because they undermine thought-comfort. I’d rather have an open mind and count the cost of grappling with anxiety and doubt than be blissfully WRONG. I mean, who wouldn’t?

So what are some destabilizing ideas? Off the top of my head, here are some fun ones that are worth considering beyond whether they’d make a good scifi story:

  • human history is deeper than we thought
  • ancient cultures were more advanced than we are
  • there are undiscovered beings and places on Earth
  • there is life off Earth
  • there is intelligent life off Earth
  • there is intelligent life occupying other dimensions of reality
  • there are physical laws to the universe we still don’t understand
  • there are parallel universes
  • consciousness survives physical death
  • reality is a simulation

Have you laughed yet? Rolled your eyes? Fair enough. But you know what? I find it troubling that we don’t have the freedom — not really — to seriously consider the fantastic without worry of reputation damage. Case in point: Check out this review in the New York Times of Max Tegmark’s latest book, Our Mathematical Universe. In the book, Tegmark states his intention to essentially write two books. One is the work you’d expect of an M.I.T. physicist — a careful and scientific take on the current state of astrophysics, cosmology, etc. The other is the sort of thing that I bet many scientist would love to publish but are too afraid to — a speculative and imaginative exploration of what might be going on just beyond our reckoning. The author of the review writes, “There is nothing wrong with contemplating speculative ideas, but the problem is that while pretending to stay in the realm of science, the”Mr. Hyde” part of the book crosses over to what I must consider science fiction and mysticism.” But wait, didn’t Tegmark say that he was going to cross that line? And didn’t he make clear where that line was? It seems grossly unfair to acknowledge that, but then go ahead and criticize the guy for speculating because it’s not scientific enough.

The funny thing is, my list of wacky ideas is full of stuff that plenty of people think is absolutely true! What if I’d included stuff I just made up completely, like there are five more colors in the spectrum that technology will one day allow us to see, or that time is actually running backward and nobody realizes this? I’m just saying that even those completely false ideas might have some value if they nudge us in a creative direction we otherwise would have overlooked.

I think the world could use a few more Tegmarks out there who have the courage and clarity to entertain destabilizing ideas. It also seems like it’s our job to not pig pile on them when they do.

Written by Christopher Butler on February 20, 2014,   In Essays

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