12.29.07

Evaluating Ideas

Posted in Philosophy at 9:24 am by Haider

We’re constantly bombarded with ideas. Every conversation we have, every TV program or movie we watch, every song we listen to, and every sentence you are reading is presenting you with ideas. But how do we decide which ideas to accept, and which to reject? This post will look at some of the ways to evaluate ideas. To demonstrate these evaluation methods, I’ll use the example of the world-renowned documentary: The Secret.

Ideas are extremely important, and they should not be taken lightly. While some may confine ideas to the realm of thought and imagination, the consequences of ideas are very real. They can help bring joy or steer towards depression. They can be used to build empires or to destroy nations. The reason why I have chosen The Secret to present the principles of evaluating ideas is because the message of The Secret is very powerful, and has the potential of producing many positive consequences in the lives of those who embrace its message. But, at the same time, the way this message is presented and explained can have enormously negative consequences, which can undermine the positive consequences. This makes The Secret a perfect candidate for this topic: the importance of evaluating ideas is mostly felt when an idea has both positive and negative consequences, and we need a tool to take the good and reject the bad.

What is The Secret About?

To put it simply, The Secret is the Law of Attraction. As explained in the documentary, this law is the governing law of the universe, and is the reason why some people become rich and lead happy lives, while others are poor and live in misery. The law, just like any other natural law, works whether you believe in it or not. The way it works is simple, and as stated by one of the presenters in the documentary: “Thoughts create things.

In other words, the thoughts that you have determine the reality that you live. If you think you’ll have a lousy day, then you will have a lousy day. Not because the day is cosmically (objectively) lousy, but because you altered your reality to make the day lousy for you. The reason why people are unhappy, or do not experience financial success is because they choose to be unhappy, and they choose to repel financial success. It all begins with your thoughts. What you think and think about determine your reality. The documentary also states that your brain emits brain waves, or frequencies, that alter the universe to create the reality that you thought about.

There are many examples given in the documentary, one of them being a child hoping to receive a bicycle, and having the bicycle presented to him as a gift. The causal relationship is seen as a direct link between the thought (or hope) and receiving the bicycle. That is: The hope brought the bicycle.

This is a basic summary of the key ideas in the documentary. We will now evaluate these ideas to determine what we should accept and what we should reject, or at least continue to question.

Evaluating The Secret

For those who have already watched The Secret, is your impression of it positive or negative? And for those who haven’t watched The Secret, is your impression of the documentary positive or negative?

It may seem like an odd question to ask of those who haven’t watched the documentary, but it reveals an important truth about how we evaluate ideas: we tend to form opinions and impressions of ideas we are not fully familiar with. I know many people who are staunchly against The Secret, even though they haven’t watched it. I also know some people who gave their blank approval of the documentary before watching it!

The first principle for evaluating ideas is: go for the original source of the idea. What I have mentioned about The Secret above is my impression of the documentary. I may have misunderstood something, or there’s a totally different way of understanding the documentary that I haven’t thought of. You can’t take my word for it. It’s best that you watch the documentary for yourself, and see what you understand from it.

There is a saying of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him and his family) that the distance between the truth and falsehood is four fingers: that is the distance between your eyes and your ears. What you see with your eyes is the truth, and what you hear from others is false. This isn’t an absolute, but the message to gain from the saying is that we must always resort to the original source, rather than get our information from others who apply their own judgement and filtering before they present the information to us.

Misunderstandings are usually the result of understanding (or interpreting) things differently. This also applies to the phenomena that The Secret tries to explain: the explanation The Secret offers to these phenomena is not the only possible explanation. For example, simply because a child gets what he wished for doesn’t mean that his wish was the cause. It could be that he made his wish known to his kind and generous parents, who decided to buy him what he wanted.

A good example of this is the success or failure of a student. Although The Secret would explain the success and failure of students to be the direct consequence of the thoughts they have about their success or failure, there is an alternative explanation to this phenomena:

When a student thinks that he will pass an exam, he will usually continue studying and putting in all his effort to achieve that goal. However, if a student believes that he will fail his exam, he may give up trying, even though he is capable of passing the exam! Humans also have the tendency of trying to prove ourselves right. Therefore, when a person states that he will succeed, he will work to prove himself right, and if he states that he will fail, he will work (or not work) to prove himself right. The relationship between the thought of success and the physical outcome from the exam is not a direct link. The direct link is between the thought and the psychological effects on the student, which will usually lead to the expected result. This is by no means how the law of attraction was explained in the documentary. The documentary states that it is the frequencies emitted from our brains that alter our reality directly.

We can come up with other explanations besides the one The Secret presents, which means that The Secret’s explanation is not the only possibility and, therefore, we should not assume that it is. This is the second principle for evaluating ideas: Consider alternative explanations.

The Secret uses two objectionable approaches to assert that its explanation is correct: the claim that their explanation is scientific and the use of stories and analogies. Both approaches need to be scrutinized whenever they’re used.

It is extremely easy to claim that a theory is scientific. All you have to do is make the claim. But science isn’t about claiming, it’s about proving through demonstration. The documentary claims that the law of attraction is scientific because it has been scientifically proven that our brains emit brain waves! But the existence of brain waves cannot be used to prove the entire law of attraction. The existence of brain waves doesn’t prove that they alter reality. Whenever science is used to prove any idea or theory, we must determine precisely what the scientific observation proves.

The use of science is a valid approach, but can be misused. However, the use of analogies is flawed to begin with. The only possible use of analogies is to help explain what the idea means. It cannot be used to prove anything. One of the most prominent analogies used in The Secret is that of Aladdin’s genie. The “universe” is likened to Aladdin’s genie: it receives orders (wishes) and executes them. However, this doesn’t come close to proving that this is how the universe actually functions. There is no connection between the nature of our universe and the analogy of Aladdin’s genie, unless this is how our universe really works. But this isn’t the job of the analogy to prove. Analogies can be extremely powerful in explaining vague ideas, but they cannot function as proof for the validity of an idea. This also applies to stories, to a great extent, because stories can be fabricated to assert the validity of an idea.

What made The Secret resonate with many people is the similarity between the message of The Secret and people’s own beliefs. The Secret didn’t need to convince those who already believe in the law of attraction that the law is true. They saw The Secret as an expression of their beliefs. However, while similarities may exist, it’s important to make the distinction where there are differences. Some people don’t bother identifying the differences, and so they go on believing that the ideas similar to theirs are 100% identical to their ideas. However, we cannot assume such compatibility when it doesn’t exist. Otherwise, we will accept ideas we disagree with as well. For example, Muslims believe in One, absolute God. If a non-Muslim was to go up to a Muslim and say that he believes in one God, there would be a common aspect in the beliefs of both. However, the Muslim would need to know the attributes of the non-Muslim’s god before he can assert that they worship the same god. If the non-Muslim went on to say that his god is a three-headed cow, then the commonality is only in the number of gods they worship. The Muslim cannot immediately assert that their beliefs are identical before finding out what “one God” actually means.

The same is true with the law of attraction. There are many Islamic resources that allude to the idea of the law of attraction. The closest is the saying of Prophet Muhammad: “Expect good and you will receive it.” However, this single saying cannot be used to assert that what is meant by “the law of attraction” in Islam is the same as what is meant by the law of attraction in The Secret, especially not in its entirety.

And this is when we need to dig a little deeper to understand what is mean by The Secret’s version of the law of attraction, and Islam’s version:

The Secret states that everything that happens in our lives is our own making, and that we have the absolute free-will to alter anything in our lives, simply by changing the way we think. If we are experiencing negative events, it is because we are “creating” these events in our lives. We take the credit and the blame for everything that happens to us.

This issue deals with the concepts of free-will and determinism. In Islam, there have been three prominent understandings of the relationship between free-will and determinism, and the extent to which we have free-will, and to what extent we are predestined to do what we do. These are: that we have total free-will, that we are destined to do what we do and to experience what we experience, and that we have free-will in some matters, but are determined in other matters.

Imam Ali (peace be on him) believed that there are matters in which we exercise free-will, and matters that are predetermined. When asked to explain the connection between the two, Imam Ali asked the questioner to raise one foot off the ground. When the questioner did, Imam Ali asked him if that was due to his free-will, or if he was predestined to raise his foot. He said that it was out of free-will. Imam Ali then asked him to raise his other foot off the ground at the same time. The questioner said that he couldn’t possibly do that (i.e. he can’t remain floating in the air with both feet off the ground). Imam Ali then asked him if that (limitation) was a result of his free-will (i.e. did he decide to have that limitation) or was that predetermined. The man said that it was predetermined.

This can also be explained in another way: natural phenomena are predetermined (we don’t decide how nature works), but human actions are based on the choices we make. Therefore, in Islam, if we are to accept the third understanding of the relationship between free-will and determinism, we exercise free will in what we do, but not in what happens to us. We are responsible for the decisions we make, but not the conditions that we make these decisions in.

It is quite clear from The Secret that the producers and presenters believe in total free will. This cannot be said to be totally compatible with Islamic beliefs, as I have explained above. The Secret gives the example that if you have a car crash, then you should take responsibility for it (even if it’s the fault of the other driver!). Therefore, we must fully understand the idea presented, and its implications, before determining whether we agree with it or not. We cannot assume that ideas are identical when we haven’t fully understood them.

The final principle I wish to mention, and which has been completely ignored by many people who have watched The Secret, is that we cannot accept or reject ideas based on our emotional response to these ideas. Many people wanted the message of The Secret to be true, and so they began believing that it is true. However, whether we want an idea to be true or false is irrelevant. What we must consider is the evidence in support of the validity of ideas. The reason why we need to evaluate ideas in the first place is to determine the extent to which they are true, not the extent to which we want them to be true.

To point out how flawed this approach is, and to stress on the importance of correctly evaluating ideas, I wish to mention three negative outcomes of the message of The Secret:

  1. Making the law of attraction the governing law of the universe means that we undermine the role played by all the other laws. But no matter how desperately people want to jump from a cliff and fly, the law of gravity would always take precedence over the law of attraction whenever such a feat is attempted. To make the right choices, we need to take all natural laws into consideration, and not assume that the law of attraction can simply bypass these laws on a whim.

  2. By assuming that we have total free will, we must also accept the consequences of this idea: If people are responsible for everything that happens to them, then we must always blame the victim for the crimes committed against him or her, and absolve the criminal of any responsibility. If a woman gets raped, it’s not the rapist who’s at fault, but she brought on this crime on herself! Try to imagine what kind of a world we would be living in if this is true.

  3. By accepting responsibility for everything in our lives, we will begin to feel guilty over issues we have no control over, even while assuming that we do. I have seen many, many Muslims who believe that they are responsible for the salvation of mankind, only to lead extremely depressing lives, because they don’t acknowledge the fact that every human being has free will, and chooses what to believe and what not to believe, what to do and what not to do. By ignoring other people’s free will, and assume responsibility for their lives, we will feel guilty when we can’t convince others to change their beliefs and actions, or we would resort to force to make this change a reality. Refusing to accept that there are things in life we cannot change will make us aim for the impossible, and always feel guilty and impotent for failing to achieve it. This isn’t to say that everything we assume to be impossible is impossible, but we need to have the knowledge of what can and cannot be done, rather than act on the hope that everything can be altered in the way we want.

In its simplest form, the message of The Secret is positive, in that it teaches us to work and anticipate positive outcomes. This hope will lead us to continue working without giving up or claiming defeat before trying. There are many things that we can achieve, but we sell ourselves short because we assume that we will fail. And to this extent, the message of The Secret is extremely beneficial and rewarding. However, the explanation given for the law of attraction in The Secret is unnatural, and will lead to negative consequences, as I have pointed out.

The message of The Secret can be very liberating, but we must ensure that it liberates us from the false ideas about our own limitations, and not by rejecting the natural limitations that reality provides.

7 Comments »

  1. Seth said,

    May 21, 2008 at 9:44 pm

    I should have read this before making my post under “Free Your Will.” THIS is the kind of writing I would like to read from you. It is wholly analytical, and has a tone not of teaching but of self-discovery and understanding. I have a feeling that while writing this, you had a relatively low concern for the reader. This, as opposed to the ‘Free Your Will’ article, was to be written more so than read. It’s formulation seemed to benefit no one but yourself, for who is really all that concerned over whether the Koran is compatible with a new pseudo-psychology? (Judging by the number of replies to this article it seems no one) And yet, the ideas and skills you present here are more valuable to me than any of your advice to free my will. Here, you have shown your ability as a writer and thinker. Here, you wrote not to some nameless, faceless, and often brainless humanity, but to an analytical mind, your own. I, for one, wish you would do it more often.

  2. Seth said,

    May 21, 2008 at 9:54 pm

    Why is it that I have been the only one to reply to this wonderful article? I believe it is because I am the only one who has read it entirely.

    Let this be a testament to the intellectual capacity of your audience. Do not handicap your writing to fit some arbitrary length limit of some of the baffoons who read your blog.

    And for Christ’s sake, Haider, what the hell was up with the SUMMARY? Are you an aspiring philosopher, novelist, or are you trying to land a job as an editor of a teenage magazine? There does not exist a man in the world who does not have the patience to read an article, but who’s attention is worth catching with a summary. If people want a summary, kindly direct them to a center of second-rate journalism.

    Alright, I am done for the day.

  3. Haider said,

    May 22, 2008 at 9:52 am

    Seth, interestingly, this is one of the rare posts that began as a speech that I refined and made into a post. I took my audience into consideration, and I intended to make a case for the importance of ideas and how to think about the ideas that we come across (this I think is a problem that people do not usually address).

    You’re right, I usually use writing to refine my own thinking. Regardless of the topic, I usually write for myself before anyone else. But like I mentioned in the “Free Your Will” post’s comments, I have to take my audience into consideration if I wish to communicate with them.

    The summary is to make my ideas more accessible to more people. Many people don’t have the time, or the patience, to read a long article. It may be bad judgment on their part, but this isn’t to say that I shouldn’t try to get my message across to them.

    Finally, I know several people who appreciate my writings but have not left any messages on my blog. The fact that they haven’t left a message is no indication to their intellectual capacity. They may prefer to speak to me in person, or have too much to say that they can’t fit into a comment, or any of a number of possible reasons.

    Thanks for all the day’s comments :)

  4. Seth said,

    May 22, 2008 at 9:49 pm

    I didn’t consider the fact that not everyone who reads your blog is thousands of miles away, and so the idea that they would raise questions about your writings in person does make sense. I still wonder, though. The kind of discussion that some of your other posts have generated as opposed to this one is still a statement to something.

    We will have to agree to disagree on the idea that you must ‘get your message across to’ as many people as possible. I do not think it is very important at all. Write, and it will find it’s correct audience.

  5. Haider said,

    May 23, 2008 at 12:23 pm

    Seth, let’s take your website as an example: the idea that people should not vote if they don’t find a worthy candidate isn’t simply a moral position people should take, but a social movement that aims to better a nation. You can bring the site down, and decide to discuss your mission statement with three of your friends in a coffee shop. But how would that serve your purpose? How would that lead to a difference in society?

    For you to influence society, you will need to influence a sizable portion of the population. If 100 people abstain from voting for the reasons that you’ve highlighted, your movement won’t amount to the type of influence needed to change the nation. You need numbers to make your movement influential. This isn’t to say that those influenced by your ideas should begin preaching your message. You can have only 10 people who understand your ideas and become spokesmen on behalf of your movement. But those who act on your ideas need to be in large numbers in order to make your movement effective.

    Now, should you simply appeal to academics, or do you need to appeal to the masses? Can you shun people for being too ignorant, and below the intellectual level you desire? Or should you make your message *accessible* to as many people as you can, according to how *relevant* it is to their lives? If your message won’t affect their lives, and you do not need their participation, nor wish to be an influence in their lives, then you can, by all means, ignore them.

    But if you wish to change a nation, I don’t think you can afford to.

  6. Seth said,

    May 25, 2008 at 11:55 pm

    The analogy is a little inaccurate, since my website is a for-profit venture, which obviously includes marketing to specific people, whereas your blog is more of a place for intellectual growth. However, if we build on this analogy we might get somewhere…

    Read the posts in the Forum under ‘Right to Vote for President.’ The first post is by a guy named Max. He begins by telling me that he ‘even agrees with me…’ Now, what a nice thing to say, right? Notice how I respond.

    He then proceeds to say two wholly irrational things (1. that he votes to secure his desired profession and 2. that America’s two party system is inevitable). Notice how I respond.

    One line in particular, in relation to the two-party system. ‘The two-party system is not inevitable. Their existence, however, does depend on you thinking so.’ HIGHLIGHT the ignorance.

    I think our main fracture here is the fact that I accept that not everybody is going to understand my arguement, no matter how rational it may be. I cut my losses. There is no point in spending valuable energy on a moron who will never understand, when that same energy can be spent with three people who already partially understand and are wanting to take the next step.

    So, if I was in your situation, and someone started trying to explain how, in fact, The Secret could be a scientifically validated mechanism, I wouldn’t bother explaining how I do see some positive aspects of it, but the overall doesn’t cut it. I would handle it like my response to DrShredd. Because guess what? You are brilliant, but you will never be brilliant enough to get through to people if you allow them to hold on to their old, irrational thoughts. You aren’t breaking down barriers, you’re creating a labyrinth for them to run through. Bulldoze and re-build, bulldoze and re-build. Your mind is sharp enough to do the bulldozing, and more than creative enough to do the re-building. And like I said before, those who are worth the time to do it are not going to resent your efforts.

    I do not know for sure, but it seems you do not want to offend anybody. It is impossible to have an effective intellectual debate without offense, for someone is bound to be wrong and must be shown it. Passive absorbtion of ideas is what has gotten this world into the mess it is in (which we’ll have to talk about some other time). I personally do not want someone to be able to read my writing and then be able to flip on the TV. I want them to get excited, or angry, or anything other than this passive zombie state that most of my country now operates in. If you want to help people then THAT is the way to do it- break down the wall that seperates them from reality. And stones do not fall quietly.

    One last question: Is this a world of Truth, or a world of opinions?

  7. Haider said,

    May 26, 2008 at 5:29 pm

    Seth, I can appreciate how your approach can build excitement, but don’t agree that it’s the only way to do so.

    I’m not ignoring people’s irrational beliefs, or trying to incorporate them into my ideas. There some who are genuinely mistaken about what science means, for example. If they say that The Secret is scientific, I wouldn’t reply with: “Oh don’t be stupid, it has nothing to do with science!”

    If he accepts the significance of science, I can explain to him why The Secret is unscientific, and what science actually means.

    Please bear in mind that some people are ignorant (i.e. they lack the knowledge needed to form a rational opinion). Just because they are irrational (given what they don’t know) doesn’t mean that we must ignore them. We can provide them with the ideas they can use to re-shape their thinking.

    I’ll write more about the issues you’ve raised in separate posts.

    Thank you for the interesting points that you’ve raised :)

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