Mental Immunity: Infectious Ideas, Mind-Parasites, and the Search for a Better Way to Think

Andy Norman | 2021
Posted in: Political Philosophy
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 I feel like our country is being torn apart by differences in opinion that sit upon poor foundations of fact and logic, kind of like our collective consciousness is infected.  I always have to wonder if I’m the sick one or is it you.

This new book by Andy Norman is a succinct and perceptive exploration of the topic   

Andy Norman is a professor of philosophy and while sometimes the language is a little dense, it is well-worth the effort.  (One of the terms he uses often is “heuristic”.  Which threw me at first until I realized it a big word for what I used to say in mechanic-speak,  “keep trying stuff until it works.”)

Here’s an excerpt that embodies a very central concept in the book:

The Way of the Culture Warrior

A culture warrior understands that ideas can be dangerous and works to combat the ones he or she deems evil.  The aim is to defeat those ideas and make the world safe for beliefs that are good and true.  Culture warriors typically locate the evil ideas in others and the good ones in members of their own tribe.  We see this all the time in politics and where competing religious sects contend for dominance.  It even surfaces in scholarly debates between rival schools of thought: between advocates of competing economic theories, for example.  It’s easy to grow attached to an idea — the idea, say, that a free market is fundamentally just —and begin bending the facts to fit.  Zealous culture warriors treat words as weapons of war: they use reasons to attack the ideas they take to be evil and defend the ideas they take to be good.  They treat them, in other words, like sword and shield.

I think too many us are “culture warriors”, despite the lack of success from our struggles.  I also believe that too many of us are too willing to bend the facts to support our viewpoints.

The author proposes that we should try to abandon our roles as “culture warriors” and, instead explore a middle way of inquiry.  Here’s an excerpt that I liked:

 In the end, it was my willingness to learn from others that allowed others to learn from me.  I let go of the pretense that I had all the answers, and my attitude and posture changed.  Sensing this change, others opened up, and the answers came–not to me, but to us.  This is the essence of the way of inquiry.  It’s also essential for mental immune health, and the solution to our ideology problem.

Unfortunately, this middle way is very seldom used with cable news and social media.

 I think the best thing I got out of the book was the author’s comparison of our mental immunity being comparable to each individual being comparable to a plot in a community garden.  Here’s an excerpt that says it better than I can:

Think of your mind as a garden.  You could seed it indiscriminately, but that doesn’t seem wise.  You could weed it indiscriminately, but that, too, seems unwise.  Ideally, we try to seed our minds with good ideas and weed them of bad ones.  All this is done with imperfect knowledge of which is which.  Yet we know this much:  if you neglect your mental garden, weeds will eventually overrun it.  Now think of your mind as a plot in a much larger community garden.  Neglect your plot, and the weeds  run riot.  When they germinate, weeds will spread into neighboring plots.  Clearly, you have an interest in your neighbors weeding theirs; don’t they have an interest in you weeding yours.  Good neighbors care enough to weed their mental gardens.

The point can also be put in immunological terms.  Good neighbors care enough to keep their mind’s immune system in good working order.  They screen out mind-parasites for their own sake but also for the sake of others.  Cognitive immune health is a team sport.

 The great coronavirus epidemic of 2020 is teaching the world a comparable lesson.  Just yesterday, I came across a Facebook meme that said: “The coronavirus is an important reminder that health isn’t private.  As a species, we live in herds.  Everyone’s health relies on some extent on everyone else’s.  Healthcare has to be public because health is public.”

The anonymous author of this meme was surely thinking of biological health, but the claim has got to be true of cognitive health as well.  Shouldn’t the science of public health, then, be working to prevent outbreaks of bad ideas?

 I can’t say this book was an easy read (maybe if you’re a philosophy major it is an easier read).  It is, however, a book I am very glad to have read and I do believe I may read it once more to more fully absorb the contents.  Go ahead and read this book with your dictionary handy.  I think you’ll be glad you did.