The Wealth and Poverty of Ideas:


(Photo credit: The Noun Project)

The English word theory comes from the Greek root “theoria”, which means roughly; “to look at”. Theories are the ideas through which we look at things – a lens. Like any lens, theories can contain distortions and flaws can affect the image it renders. Theories are the pivotal ideas we use to navigate as individuals and as a culture. This is sometimes called our “world view” or our “cultural lens”. The fact that ideas powerfully steer what we experience does not speak at all to their level of effectiveness as a steering mechanism toward a satisfied experience of life. Distortions and flaws produced through the lens of our ideas can diminish the accuracy of the view and consequently destroy purposeful navigation or worse, lead us to passionately participate in our own destruction.

Some of us struggle to navigate effectively toward fulfillment. This is even more obvious when we broaden our view to include larger cultural contexts. While diminished or thwarted fulfillment can stem from circumstances outside our control, it often stems from distortions and flaws in our lens. To this degree, finding ideas that enable clear vision with respect to ourselves are of great value because with them, we can effectively steer our lives toward fulfillment. How to measure the effectiveness of the lens through which we see ourselves is what we will focus on here.

The value of the lens we use to navigate can be measured by its ability to accurately represent what is going on in reality, and in its predictive power. The predictive nature of sound theoretical ideas enables us to see the possibilities we would otherwise miss. Sound theory forms a map that can effectively point to a destination and help avoid pitfalls such as wasted effort and danger.

Another quality of clear vision is how it affords us the capacity to navigate with intention and purpose. In this sense, clear vision is the cornerstone of freedom and choice. With clarity of vision, we can effectively plan before we act, without it, we can plan, but not effectively. We have less freedom and less choice if we are in the poverty of deception and/or ignorance. Reality sets the rules for what is possible, but the wealth of opportunities available to us must first be within our field of vision.

If we objectively observe our current capacity to navigate toward fulfillment as individuals and as a global culture, it’s clear we have deficiencies. While theory doesn’t translate into a reality of “being” without concrete corresponding action, it is the nonetheless a necessary first step in the process. If we can’t see choice because of deception or ignorance, the result is the same – choice eludes us and we are engulfed in an experience impoverished by our lack of vision.

As biological creatures, the lens by which we can navigate toward fulfillment must by necessity involve a clear understanding of our nature. In addition to necessity, we also need sufficient vision. It is necessary to know that we must breathe air, but this is not sufficient by itself. The integrity of our biological system is dependent on meeting a host of needs that range from chemical to social to environmental. The more we understand the total context of biological needs on which we are dependent, the better equipped we are to effectively respond to them.

This is just one example of how our biology speaks to what we need to know about ourselves and what fulfills us. Another example can be found in observing that we are born dependent on specific kinds of nourishment and as mature adults we also need to take care to nourish in order to maintain the continuation of our species. Depending where we are on the maturation spectrum we need to both give and receive differing forms of nourishment to each other. To sum up, we are part of a community that hungers for balance to both give and receive nourishment in the context of a sustainable environment. This is the cornerstone of a fulfilled life. If we behave this way toward each other, toward ourselves and toward the environment on which we depend we can experience a more fulfilled life. If we do not, we will not. It is that simple.

Those of us who are most satisfied do not occupy ourselves with excesses on either end of the hunger spectrum if it is within our capacity to influence our environment to this end. We find ways to authentically produce something of real nourishing value in the context of the larger community of life and we are open to receive nourishing value from that community. Biologically speaking, fulfillment is defined by an economy based on the exchange of mutually beneficial values. The cornerstone of all activity in a system of biological integrity is active participation to bring balance – satisfaction, not excess or malnourishment.

Ironically the limits by which the balance of relational needs we have are met is the foundation of real wealth. This is spoken through every fiber of our biological nature. The fact that our cultural values are out of alignment with this is a statement about the deficiency of our cultural lens. Those of us with the vision to influence the environment so that it sustainably delivers the nourishing economy of relationships on which we depend have the capacity to produce the most personal and social wealth. Enough really is enough. Any deviation toward excess or starvation is poverty. Life is an idea worth living by.

[1] For more information look up the term “probiotic”.

[2] See “The human microbiome project” Turnbaugh PJ, Ley RE, Hamady M, Fraser-Liggett CM, Knight R, Gordon JI. Center for Genome Sciences, Washington University School of Medicine. For more information on how this works in humans and other functional biological systems at differing perspectives, look up the term “superorganism” and “the Gaia hypothesis”. This is not an endorsement of the ideas associated with these terms in their entirety, merely to serve as pointers for a broader perspective.


3 responses to “The Wealth and Poverty of Ideas:

  1. “Balance in all things,” as the Taoists say.

    One thing that I find absolutely crucial and very interesting is the distinction between how the word “theory” is used in the formal, scientific sense versus the informal, cultural sense.

    In science, a “theory” is a very specific thing, and calls for very specific action. A guess about how the world might work is a “hypothesis”–a “theory” is what a hypothesis becomes when it has been supported by experimental data, and therefore there is empirical evidence to believe it is true.

    In culture, a “theory” is seen to be a belief about how the world works–it need not be confirmed by hard, experimental and measurable evidence. This is one root of a lot of confusion between scientists and non-scientists–non-scientists think that when scientists say “theory,” they’re saying something is a guess which is not really known to be true, so the “theory of evolution,” for example, is therefore “just a theory.” Folks seem not to realize that the two communities use the word quite differently.

    Now, wouldn’t it be nice if non-scientists started relating to “theory” in a more scientific way? I would love to see more people forming hypotheses about the world, testing them and looking for evidence. So often these days, “personal freedom” has somehow come to mean that we’re not responsible for testing our theories and seeking the truth–we can believe whatever we want to believe, because not only do we have a legal right to our opinion…apparently that right does not come with much responsibility.

    Just my two cents. Nice post!

  2. Thanks for the comment. I agree on the conflicted cultural use of theory and its damage to our capacity to be socially responsible. Both inductive and deductive reason does have a certain element of uncertainty. I suppose our certainty could sway all the way to the staunch fallibilists and the Münchhausen Trilemma where all arguments are seen as having either circular, regressive or axiomatic logic, each with a certain amount of “faithy” guesswork in them. I tend to see belief from a behavioral perspective. Even a staunch so-called “bible-believing” Christian does not typically see a truck rolling down a hill at them and command it to be flung into the ocean by faith. They get out of the way. Our behaviors are a more accurate lens through which to establish what we really believe, not the squishy ill defined words that sputter so cavalierly out of our faces.

    Reality appears to be incapable of lying. We can jump off a a cliff and argue the non-existence of gravity, but reality will assert the gravity of the situation despite our words. I find listening to and learning from reality a far more reliable source of freedom, guidance and comfort than even the biggest of promises that can only stand on great leaps of faith, followed by a disappointing splat.

  3. Pingback: Refuse to let poverty define you «

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