Food for Thought (12/30/11)

If we proceed from the assumption that ideas are to the mind what food is to the body, some interesting lines of enquiry open up. Whether we conceive of ideas as subject matter for thought or as nourishment for the activity of thinking, it follows that a paucity of ideas would indicate malnourished thinking or even diseased thinking (because of something akin to vitamin or mineral deficiencies).

Just as food can come in a variety of different forms or levels of complexity—say, from staples like molasses, flour, beans, oil, etc., to Beef Wellington and Quiche Lorraine (with the obligatory dollop of Béarnaise sauce on top)—ideas admit of corresponding levels of complexity, sophistication, and richness. We have single, simple, particle-like concepts (say, of ‘untreated pine wood’ or a ‘blue plastic ballpoint pen’) and elaborate, multi-tiered ideas that are actually organized and assembled from smaller units or particle-ideas. Many philosophical and theological principles may serve as examples, such as ‘the fourfold root of the principle of sufficient reason,’ the ‘Fortunate Fall’ [felix culpa], or the ‘privatio boni’). Moreover, just as menu items that go by the name of ‘Fettuccini Alfredo’ or ‘Shrimp Scampi’ allow for a wide variety of modifications to a standard recipe, complex ideas that come under a shared general heading are often presented by individual philosophers, scientists, theologians, and moralists with noteworthy differences that reflect the idiosyncrasies, partialities, areas of principal interest or emphasis specific to that particular thinker. So much for an initial or provisional sketch of this analogy between food and ideas: nourishment for bodies and minds.

The goal of health—physical and mental—has traditionally been linked to the attainment and maintenance of a condition of balance, harmony, and just proportionality. If we apply our analogy of food to philosophical and psychological health, we must then be wary of a ‘dietary’ program that prescribes the relinquishment of acquired ideas or learning. We do not want to starve our minds—presumably, we want to make them fit and healthy. We don’t want gaunt, anemic, skin-and-bone intellects that go about with an alms bowl, like a sannyasin begging for a clump of rice. We want muscular, well-proportioned, vibrant ones, do we not?

When our foods are chock-full of sweeteners, chemical coloring agents, and pernicious trans-fats—and we get little or no physical exercise—our health will be thrown out of whack. We put on unwanted pounds, become sluggish and torpid. Similarly, when the ideas we consume contain harmful, addictive, or merely superfluous additives, they lose much of their mentally nutritional value, add unnecessary conceptual baggage to our minds, and disturb the balance of our mental vision and functions. Moreover, when we receive ideas that are predigested or watered down so that we can quickly swallow them down without any grimacing or difficulty, what little there is of value and substance in such ideas usually passes through us quicker than boiled asparagus.

The digestive processes that take place within our intestines occur automatically and without our conscious participation. Mental digestion, on the other hand, is a rather different kettle of fish—or, let us say, it should be. Unfortunately, the passive and unconscious imbibing of ideas, values, feelings, and prejudices (from our immediate ‘mental environment’) is distressingly common.   This is just one reason why so many persons have no real idea what they are talking about most of the time. They may be fine when it comes simply to reporting petty facts and everyday occurrences, but as soon as these passive intellects are summoned to make a carefully considered moral, philosophical, or spiritual judgment call, they are quickly out of their depth—having no other option but to fall back upon received platitudes, sterile clichés, and bloated banalities.

When our bodies fully digest and assimilate the foods we eat—with a minimal amount of leftover waste and maximal amount of energy released from the nutrients—we may rightly claim that such a diet agrees with our body and its natural requirements. Such nutrition is either burned off efficiently as energy or it becomes incorporated, contributing to cell and tissue growth, assisting in the maintenance of those complex systems that link the various organs into a unified, homeostatic whole. These needs are built into the body, as are the unconscious physiological processes that ‘know’ which foods are most nutritional and how to make optimal use of the foods we eat.

The mind appears to behave in an analogous manner where our nourishment from ideas, feelings, and sensations is concerned. Our intuitions—like our palates and our ‘guts’—seem to know without first having to be taught or instructed, that some ideas, sentiments, impulses, and valuations are sound, healthy, plausible, etc., while others are preposterous, unlikely, dangerous, depraved, or shallow. This inborn sense—the discerning intuition which sees into the essence of things—operates in the background region of the psyche for most persons—like a silent observer. Unfortunately, many of us have the foreground of our minds stuffed with signal-scrambling, disorganized information so early in life that we never actually hear the quieter, subtler comments, judgment calls, and observations that are being made from behind that wall of ‘noise’ we wake up to every day.

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