Thursday, May 01, 2008

Everyone Orders Off The Menu

There are topics which attract unoriginal comments delivered in overconfident declaratives, as if the author has learned important secret information you might not have heard before. Discussions of the existence of God invariably bring out guys who just have to tell you that religious belief is a result of people being afraid to face reality. Oh goodness, no one’s ever had to confront that opinion before, eh? Golly, we never thought of it that way – if Augustine and Luther had had to deal with that argument the whole faith would have just fallen apart, y’know? I guess we’ll all have to go back to the drawing board now.

I was at an outdoor medieval event years ago, all the participants in costume. A car with several young men drove by, and one leaned out to yell “F – You!” Gee, do you write your own material? drew a laugh, though the car was out of range.

Politics brings out equivalent bromides: You can’t legislate morality. The oil companies had record profits last quarter. All those jobs are going overseas. A lot of rich people don’t pay any taxes. If you talk about education, someone has just got to compare things to their own school days, which were much better. Someone else has to bring up that just learning facts isn’t education, kids need to be taught to think about what it means. Sports: You know they don’t call traveling anymore? Those guys take an extra step…

Cliches have their value; they wouldn’t have become cliches if there weren’t some truth in them. It is the speaker’s determination to share these profundities with all present that gets under my skin. Folks are convinced that these are fairly original thoughts that they thought up themselves or learned from unconventional sources. A lot our holiday customs have pagan origins. No, really? You sure? A lot of wars have been started because of religion. Yeah, Western European Christians did attack back for fifty years out of the 1000-year Islamic Crusades, that’s true. And Western Europe did have a century-plus of religious wars 400-500 years ago. And this is particularly relevant today because…? Irritating.

Intelligent people, or those who consider themselves so, often think that they haven’t ordered off the menu for their beliefs. They went back into the kitchen themselves and made up their own dish. Well that’s great, Gustave. It looks a lot like a ham sandwich, but I’ll take your word for it that you made it up yourself. My, my, Selena, what a great idea to dip chicken into egg and flour and then fry it.

Twenty years ago when I was in the Prometheus Society a lot of guys were writing interminable essays of what they thought about God, reality, and the meaning of life. At one level these were original. The writers had thought through many issues without consciously imitating other thinkers. This does take considerable brain power and perhaps deserves some credit. They hadn’t looked at a cookbook. They had, however, taken materials from the bins that were there. They used flour, eggs, and sugar – they hadn’t discovered them. They arrived at a vaguely cakey substance which they brought out triumphantly, expecting applause. They deeply resented being told they had discovered cake, and not a particularly good one. What you’ve described is a lot like logical positivism, Herb. You might want to read up on that and save yourself further trouble…Yeah, that’s the difference between deductive and inductive reasoning. Fancy that.

I suppose there’s some comfort in knowing that if you are making this error, you are at least making the same error that many people with high IQ’s make. Clever foolishness is still foolishness, though.

There are deeper and deeper levels of this, with genuinely intelligent and curious people working through issues on their own, which I suppose is a good thing. They want to show that they can cook for themselves and not just take what’s plunked down in front of them like any old Baptist or Presbyterian. Yeah, fine. So you made it all the way to inventing the cheeseburger on your own, but you don’t call it a cheeseburger because it’s got a new spice or sauce combination. Yes, look! You sliced your new peanut paste and preserved fruit on bread on the diagonal. You’re going to call it “sorbet?” Great. No chance you may have run across that idea somewhere before?

Actual original chefs learned from other chefs, and their creations are expert recombinations of previous ideas. They didn’t start from the beginning, wondering if rocks are edible.

I thought of picking on atheist/agnostic/whatevers in particular today, but I’m feeling expansive. Political guys, social critics, you’re all in there. You guys all ordered off the menu just as much as those you criticise. The buffet, the salad bar…that’s all on the menu. The self-congratulation is just not warranted.


cold pizza said...

Y'know, I was gonna post a comment that was witty, urbane, and cathartic (life changing, actually). But then I realized it was merely derivative. And a cliche. And it was also repetitively redundant, too. (sigh)

There are enough daily miracles surrounding "life," "intelligence," and human existance that I have a hard enough time struggling with the very faint whisperings of understanding and comprehension.

The only reality I know is the one I've created within the privacy of my mind, sensory interpretation notwithstanding. Staring into the quantum abyss can really mess with one's sense of reality. -cp

Anonymous said...

I have some questions.

I came here via the link on Maggie's. The blurb next to the link says:

Mea culpa! Everyone orders off the menu. AVI, friend, Who has original thoughts? "If there's an original thought out there, I could use one right now."

The first question is, why did you delete that line from the article? Did you find an original thought and thus don't need one anymore? Or did you decide that there's actually no such thing and decide the question was superfluous?

The second question is, while we note that you complained mightily that there are no original thoughts out there, we also note that you didn't offer up any, yourself. So, the question is, do you have any original thoughts of your own, or are you just complaining for complaining's sake?

Finally, to get back to the first question, are you still looking for original thoughts? It's just possible I might be able to squeeze out a few, but it seems silly to burn out a couple million synapses in the process if you don't care anymore.

I'm actually serious (it seems like a fun challenge) so let me know if you're still in the market. I'll check back later today.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Hey, Dr. Merc. I've enjoyed your computer series over there.

I didn't delete anything from here. That's their comment, I suppose. I didn't know they had linked, and will have to confirm that later.

Yes, even I mostly order off the menu, and I'm a very out-of-the-box thinker (Out-of-the-box thinking is overrated, not incidentally). I have an original thought from time to time, or more likely, a new combination of older things. For example, I once rhymed "assiduity" with "promiscuity" in a song about Sir Lancelot. That's certainly original and out-of-the-box, but it's also pretty lame.

My objection is to arguers believing that their points are original, or at least, that their opponents have never heard them yet. My irritation increases the more hackneyed the offering. I don't mind at all if someone didn't invent the thought themselves, so long as it's not the same head-banging point that you can find in every discussion of the topic. Each century's new heresies look an awful lot like earlier ones, but various religious groups keep thinking they've acquired some bold new insight.

There is a doubling effect when the knee-jerk statement is also flat wrong, one of the many urban legends that float about in religion and politics, but that is a secondary point.

Anonymous said...

It might be helpful to supply a definition of what exactly constitutes an original thought. To play off an analogy used above, would such thought necessarily constitute discovering some form of rock that is edible, or simply the creation of a new kind of food from ingredients already known? To follow along, is original thought a function of discovery or creativity? Or simply a recognition of what was before inconceivable due to unenlightened perspective?

Perhaps it's some combination of the above. Perhaps I'm way off the mark.

But either way, we should never make the mistake of assuming that an original thought, however we define it, is by definition correct. There are plenty of original ideas that have become piles of rotten bricks tossed into the ditch beside the road of human advancement.

(Disclaimer: I used other concepts to form that hackneyed analogy.)