We Need to Build An Intellectual Immune System

Nature has equipped us with an autoimmune system of dazzling complexity and uncanny efficiency. It consists of 100 billion immunological regulatory receptors that are capable of distinguishing the self from the non-self. Its function is to protect the self from alien substances that are potentially harmful to it. No matter the shape or form of the enemy invader, there will be some correlative receptor that can recognize it and effect its elimination.

Added to the wonder of how the autoimmune system recognizes self from non-self is its ability to distinguish between invading carbohydrates, nucleic acids, and proteins from those which exist within the organism, often in shapes that are exceedingly similar to those of the invaders. When the autoimmune system is functioning properly, it never gets activated by self-substances and unerringly responds to and rejects nonself-substances.

Whereas nature has endowed us with a splendid autoimmune system that takes care of the body, it is our responsibility to establish an intellectual immune system to protect us from accepting bad ideas. Dostoevsky spoke of how easily incomplete ideas that float on the wind can infect the minds of university students. He used this theme as the basis for his novel, Crime and Punishment.

We need to protect ourselves from such half-baked ideas by installing a number of good ideas. Choice, for example, is an incomplete idea since it does not specify an object. Psychiatrist Viktor Franks has referred to a wrong set of ideas in culture as constituting a “psychic epidemic”. Whereas somatic epidemics are typical results of war, he goes on to say, psychic epidemics associated with a virtual absence of a sound, realistic philosophy of life are possible causes of war.

It is encouraging to note that although there are an infinite number of bad ideas, only a relatively few good ideas are needed to establish a reliable intellectual immune system. The operation is far less complicated and contains far fewer elements than what is required to create a fire wall to keep out computer viruses.  A person does not need not know very much in order to be wise. The knowledge explosion need not be a source of confusion of discouragement for the person who wants to be properly educated in the fundamental sense of being able to distinguish between good and bad ideas.  Philosophy, both speculative and practical, has made few if any advances in modern times.  In this regards, there is hardly anything new under the sun.  In fact, much has been lost as a result if errors that have infected modern thinking.

Education and a virtuous life are of critical importance.  Philosopher and educator Mortimer Adler has written two books which marvellously illustrate the relatively uncomplicated way in which the mind can recognize error as such and reject it.  The titles alone are instructive: Six Great Ideas and Ten Philosophical Mistakes.  The former deals with Truth, Beauty and Goodness (ideas we judge by) and Liberty, Justice, and Equality (ideas we act on).  The latter deals with 10 areas of thought that can protect us from commonly made errors. Dr. Adler’s aim as an educator, indeed, is to help us to establish and strengthen our intellectual immune systems.

When we realize the importance of establishing a strong intellectual immune system, we realize, at the same time, the importance of philosophy. Philosophy as the pursuit of wisdom, it must be stated, is not to be placed alongside of trendy alternatives such as deconstructionism, relativism, scepticism, or cynicism. We need philosophy, not as an amusement, but in a fundamental way, the way the lungs need oxygen, the digestive system needs food, and the circulatory system needs blood.

According to St. Thomas Aquinas, we are inclined by nature to seek Truth, Beauty, Goodness, and so on. These inclinations are an elementary part of the Natural Law. Nature does not incline us to seek error.  No one ever asks for the wrong time.

Every person wants to be an authentic “self,” that is, a whole self both in body and soul. It should be noted, as scientists of immunology agree, that a healthy mind, consisting of good ideas, is a significant aid in strengthening the autoimmune system. Philosophy, then, is not only a pursuit of wisdom, but a path to fuller self-possession.

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels

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Dr. Donald DeMarco is Professor Emeritus, St. Jerome’s University and Adjunct Professor at Holy Apostles College. He is is the author of 42 books and a former corresponding member of the Pontifical Academy of Life.  Some of his latest books, The 12 Supporting Pillars of the Culture of Life and Why They Are Crumbling, and Glimmers of Hope in a Darkening World, Restoring Philosophy and Returning to Common Sense and Let Us not Despair are posted on amazon.com. He and his wife, Mary, have 5 children and 13 grandchildren.  

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