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Out of Our Minds: A history of our unruly imaginations

Review: A fascinating journey through the surprisingly small number of themes that humans think about

Out of Our Minds: What We Think and How We Came to Think It
Author: Felipe Fernández-Armesto
ISBN-13: 978-1786075819
Publisher: Oneworld Publications
Guideline Price: £25

Albert Einstein valued imagination over logic. “Logic will get you from A to Z”, he wrote. “Imagination will get you everywhere.” In Out of Our Minds, Felipe Fernández-Armesto brings us on a journey through the history of ideas from pre-history to the present.

In doing so, he shows that the power of our imagination lies in the fact that it generates ideas so powerful that they impel us to refashion our world. For good and for ill, we live in a world shaped by our ideas.

As the book shows, while we humans have had lots of thoughts over the centuries, they have concentrated on a surprisingly small number of themes. The questions explored here include, Is there a spiritual realm? How should we organise our societies? What is the nature of humanity? What is the reality of the world around us and how should we act in the world?

The first theme in Out of Our Minds relates to our ideas about a possible spiritual realm beyond our sense perception. As Fernández-Armesto notes, the idea that there may be more to the world than our senses can register has probably been around for as long as homo sapiens and may even predate our species.

Burials and cave paintings from 40,000 years ago, believed to be created by Neanderthals, indicate the existence among our close relatives of the idea of an afterlife. Many of the landmark structures we have created, from the Great Pyramid of Cheops to Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome and the Kaaba in Mecca, attest to the fact that ideas of immortality, judgment, heaven and hell have exerted a continuous and powerful influence over us since the origin of our species.

It was widely accepted women were mentally inferior to men, and 'superior' peoples had a right to brutally lord it over the 'inferior' peoples of the world

The book’s second theme, in contrast, concerns concrete, practical ideas about leadership and the organisation of society. In a practice still widely adhered to even now, leaders in the earliest human societies were alpha males who imposed rule by intimidation and violence. However, ancient cave drawings in southern France, depicting priest-like rulers in divine disguises, show that the idea of claiming a divine right to rule also emerged very early on.

Anthropologists and ancient historians have gathered hundreds, perhaps thousands, of examples of the ruler as god. Narcissism, it seems, has a long history as the basis of leadership in human societies. The modern idea of democracy still struggles with these opposing ideas of narcissism and brute force.

Human nature

A third theme that has preoccupied our species for millennia concerns ideas on human nature and, in particular, the idea of equality. The doctrine of equality was first recorded in an Egyptian text from the mouth of Amun-Re, where the god says he created “every man like his fellow” and sent the floods “that the poor might have rights in them like the rich”.

But for most of human history it was widely accepted that kings ruled by divine right, that women were mentally inferior to men, and that “superior” peoples had a right to brutally lord it over the “inferior” peoples of the world. It was only in the 20th century that the ancient idea of equality began to be implemented in practice.

Fernández-Armesto singles out the recognition of our common humanity as a single species as one of the most novel and powerful ideas that we have ever had.

The book’s fourth arena of ideas is science. As with ideas on the spiritual world, ideas about the nature of the physical world appear to be as old as humanity. The early foundations of science were laid by thinkers such as Confucius who sought to separate the natural and the supernatural, and early Christian thinkers including Anselm and Aquinas who urged the study of nature as a means of gaining insight into the nature of God. But it was the Scientific Revolution, in the period between Copernicus and Newton, that established science as a new and predominant mode of human thinking.

The torrent of ideas that have since flowed out of our minds, about astronomy, cosmology, evolution, relativity, quantum physics, human development, modern medicine, genetics, environmentalism, and more, have completely reshaped our views of ourselves and our place in nature. The exploration of material reality by science represents one of humanity’s greatest adventures and one of our most objective forms of knowledge.

Morality

In Out of Our Minds, the themes of spirituality, organisation of society, human nature, and science are all underpinned by a fifth theme that infuses them all, the idea of morality, or how we should live in this world. This theme is less fully explored but, as a conservative Christian thinker, Fernández-Armesto holds to Christian ethics as the soundest guide to moral living. But, as he also concedes, this overview of the history of ideas provides ample evidence that the incongruous diversity of Christian ideas, accumulated over millennia, does not by any means provide an unproblematic guide for human conduct.

Out of Our Minds appears at a moment in history when it is becoming ever more apparent that many of the ideas we use to construct our societies are no longer working, including foundational ideas of economics, politics and religion. The overarching lesson that emerges from the book is that further progress for our species will depend on our collective attempts to overcome wrong ideas and act for the benefit of humanity on what we have learned to be true.

While Out of Our Minds sets out the diversity of ideas that humanity has concocted, and makes clear the contingency and potential destructiveness of many of our most cherished thoughts, it says little about how we are to go about deciding which ideas will enhance our humanity and which ideas are leading us to destruction.

Contrary to Einstein’s assertion, agreeing on that will require that we make greater use of logic as a means to tame our unruly imaginations.

Ian Hughes is a senior research fellow at MaREI and ERI at UCC and author of Disordered Minds: How Dangerous Personalities are Destroying Democracy