Margaret Sleeboom, Ph.D.
IAS, Leiden University, Noonnensteeg 1-3-2311, VG, Leiden, The Netherlands
Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 13 (2003), 91-3.
This essay is a comment on the Human Idea Map, central theme of TRT8, and the proclaimed follow-up of the Human Genome Map. One aim of making a Human Idea Map, according to initiator Darryl Macer, in the Proposal for an Integrative Mental Mapping Project [abbr. 'Proposal'] is to answer the question of the universality of ideas. The aim will be realised by mapping all ideas (in the absolute sense of ‘all and every idea’), which, according to the Proposal, are discrete (countable) units. This map, it is argued, would help us ‘when we’re faced with dilemmas like should we have common guidelines to regulate the use of new biotechnology or assisted reproductive technology using cloning’.
I believe, however, that a focus on the countability of genes, ideas and neuronal states does not necessarily lead to a better understanding of human behaviour, and proceeds, in my view, from just one a-historical idea: behaviourism. The notion of an idea as a mental conceptualisation cannot be measured by rational choice theory as presented in the Proposal, because it excludes other notions of what counts as an idea. Therefore, I disagree with the argument that because the number of possible choices for action is finite and the number of sensory states of animals is finite, the number of human ideas is finite.
Even if Mental Mapping were to be the solution to the world’s problems, trying to explain some ideas by means of sources, which in fact may be just other ideas, is a tautology. In this case, it is a tautology symptomatic for a reductionist approach towards human expression and history. Disregards the question of whether or not it is possible to create a Human Idea Map, instead of creating a mental map of all ideas, it may be more useful to put together a Thesaurus of Human Folly. At entrance number one, in my view, we had better put human over-self-confidence.
The historical nature of ideas
One presupposition of Mental Mapping is that man can find and create common guidelines to solve bioethical dilemmas, that are direct and give shape to human history. However, whether or not we use a new technology does not mainly depend on the question of whether we have ideas in common, leave alone bioethical ones. To paraphrase Karl Marx, People make their own history, but not always in the way they meant to. In other words, structural problems exist independently of our ethical stance: different human groupings may have different interests. The fact that bioethical choices are perceived as dilemmas cannot be understood without reference to the particular situations in which they occur. Thus, in principle, one could agree with the idea of developing, say, cloning technology, though in practice one could advise against it, owing to the realisation that the technology could be misused in particular situations.
In other words, technology, its use, and its purpose cannot be understood fully or adequately through the ideas they represent. Instead, they gain their meaning in ever changing historical contexts and vary according to who is observing. Thus, in one situation, the possession of biological weapons is met with the idea of making money based on profit maximisation and in others with that of military destruction based on moral indignation. Rather than regarding mapping ideas as the key to difficult questions of warfare, bioethical dilemmas, and animosity, religious clashes and political inequality, we need to understand how inequality in power relations have come about historically. For ideas have no neutral value outside history: they change along with the rest of the world, which we perceive through them.
The Enlightenment and the instrumentality of Mental Mapping
The Proposal’s idea that a universal Idea Map could somehow be completed and used for solving bioethical problems to me seems to be an optimistic one, reminiscent of the pursuits of Don Quixote. Many thinkers have warned against the naivety of overrating human knowledge, as human impulse and accident cannot be ignored with impunity. However, resolving clashes of ideas by placing them into a gigantic Idea Bank would require the help of an immense dosage of scholastic fervour, and a belief in the mediation of God or a very cunning management corporation.
The belief in the omnipotence of human control has been criticised as a product of positivism and the Enlightenment. One of the ancient pillars of the positivist belief in the power of human knowledge is Plato’s view of ideas. Plato regarded ideas as mental maps, as the shadows of a finite number of images. They were types, or archetypes. In short, ideas were depicted spatially as related types that varied according to the way you looked at them. These types were eternal, constituting an a-historical taxonomy. Such a-historical taxonomies revived during the Renaissance. They were also part and parcel of developments in biology, such as the taxonomy developed by the Swedish botanist Linnaeus. His taxonomy, similarly, was flat: it was timeless. The philosophical current has been criticised over and over again in East, West and elsewhere for its neglect of temporal relations and for its universal pretences.
Darwin’s evolution inserted time into this equation. Social Darwinist, however, inserted a new kind of time into human history: a notion of time that linked primitive societies to complex societies vertically. A serious accusation, that still holds today, was directed at the attempts by social Darwinists to project their taxonomies onto human society, which has led to both ideologies of the eugenics and universalistic ideologies of behaviour. Both have enormous potential for human conflict: the former regard some categories of humans as better equipped and, therefore, superior to others; the latter tend to relate human equality to one ideal-type to which the rest of humanity is expected to conform. In times of conflict, an Idea Bank containing predefined and ordered ideas of race, physical health and behaviour norms (i.e. mental health) may be a powerful instrument when mobilised by authoritarian regimes.
Of course, many conflicts are only triggered by the clashes of ideas, not caused by the ideas themselves (for no idea exists independently!). Thus wars usually occur as the unintended consequences of actions and non-actions. In turn, these are part and parcel of complex processes, which are irreducible to cerebral neurology.
The survival value of ideas
The belief that a better understanding of the thinking of others has survival value in evolution (p. 203) is another notion borrowed from biology. In this case, it is used in support of a blind form of idealism that ignores the complexity of power relations between people. For in what situations and for whom does the understanding of others lead to survival? In wartime by knowing ones enemy? Or by knowing ones partner in love? Often it has been said that understanding the behaviour of others is the forte of women: can we say that it has contributed to their survival value? How do we historically show that the understanding of others has led to an increase in survival value?
I do not proclaim the uselessness of ideas, but object against the notion that ideas could ever be thought or understood outside their (historical) context, and that they could be ascribed some generalised function.