The fear of ideas and the playful creativity of curiosity

I saw this article in the current Economist, and I liked it so much that I wanted to share part of it. It was written by an African author called Chigozie Obioma.

I BECAME CURIOUS at a young age, radically so as I grew older. In keeping with Albert Einstein’s dictum that “the important thing is not to stop questioning; curiosity has its own reason for existing,” I exposed myself to every possible idea.

I have studied religious texts from the Bible to the Koran to the Book of Mormon to the tenets of Odinani, the pantheistic religion of Nigeria’s Igbo people. I have read political philosophies from Winston Churchill’s “The River War” to Karl Marx’s “Communist Manifesto”. I have read books considered to be standard-bearers of leftist thinking and those seen as right-wing intellectual staples.

Sometimes I find myself holding several conflicting, incommensurable beliefs, but most often I arrive at a centre—a rich ground that enables me to fully appreciate the complexity of the human condition, to understand the substance of different ideas and why others might hold them. I am forever open to the possibility of changing my mind.

That is why I got such a shock in my first few weeks in America. At an event at the University of Michigan an African-American speaker was hectored and shouted down by a mob. I could not understand; why wouldn’t the audience hear him out? The response I received—that the speaker’s view was “problematic”—would reverberate through the next few months and years. Speakers across various platforms in America were drowned out, attacked and silenced

These conflicting actions and reactions, I think, are a result of a societal malaise that has been developing in the past decade or so: radical incuriosity. It is, in essence, the fear of ideas.

Obioma then goes on to describe the importance of what he calls ‘provisional thinking’: a capacious open-mindedness, encompassing both the moral and the political, in which one’s assumptions can constantly shift, unattached to ideology or dogma. And arrives at a natural resting place for him, namely agnosticism.

This is logical and I warmed so much to what he wrote. But I wonder if agnocisim itself is also a little flimsy as a resting-place for your soul. I may be wrong. But if you are open to everything, on what do you base any judgements you make? What values can you hold that are not themselves potentially valueless? I struggle to understand how being agnostic about everything (if that is what is being argued) can enable you to form judgements about anything? Presumably, better minds than mine, not hard to find, have views on this.

But that is why I like the position of Christ as truth, as he claimed to be. Perhaps with him (and what he said) as the foundation, we are able better to judge the value and utility of multiple different political and moral viewpoints? At least we have somewhere to start.

And that starting point, Christ himself, was and is iconoclastic, turning some truths upside down, reshaping others, fulfilling others, just like Truth would if ever, like some icebreaker, it started ploughing through the frigid accumulation of our reasonings. Hmmm..

Created by Dall-E-3

Dopamine – our dangerous friend

Just read a fascinating book called ‘Dopamine Nation’ by Dr Anna Lembke: ‘Why our addiction to pleasure is causing us pain’. It’s not clear what faith Dr Lembke has, if any, but I was struck by how Christiany, how committed to patient revolution, were some of her remedies. (Some other reviewers really hate the book for this.)

First, the problem. Dopamine, a happy hormone, is what we give ourselves when we reward ourselves, and evolved to keep us doing good things that make us healthy.

The problem is that our society is awash with unhealthy ways of giving ourselves a squirt of dopamine– rewarding us for unhealthy behaviours. So, for example, sugary and fat-laden foods; swiping on your phone; recreational drugs; shopping; opening a bottle; a long list of things we compulsively do but which aren’t that good for us.

Worse, our body adjusts to its squirts of dopamine. We come to need more reward to get the same feeling. We feel scratchy and irritated if we’re not doing whatever gives us our dopamine rush, and so we go back to it to get some more. So we spiral into addiction. Among the most compelling parts of the book are stories of her own addiction (she mentions an obsession with vampire romances) that are sobering because they show any of us can go there — if not with vampire romances, with something else.

The people who make it to Dr Lembke’s office are seriously addicted to lots of things. But her solutions are fascinating. They include:

  1. Making it difficult to do the thing you’ve been doing. She got rid of her Kindle, by which she’d been loading up on free books with no-one watching. A person troubled with sex-addiction had to root out all the triggers from his life, some of which were not triggers for other people. This is strikingly like the Bible’s command to ‘flee’ sexual immorality; get out of there.
  2. Quit, and endure the deep unpleasantness that comes from quitting. It will pass.
  3. Develop a habit of radical honesty. Again, this echoes scripture, ‘confess your sins to one another’.

What do you get back out of this? A happy life, untroubled by shame or secrets, not plagued with anxiety, back among the humans.

Plenty of people have issues with this book, but as someone starting from no-where, I enjoyed it.


Am in the midst of a book that my son bought me, lamenting ultra-processed food (UPF). Not news for many, I suppose, but an intriguing read for me. UPF is food that contains ingredients that you wouldn’t find in an ordinary kitchen. It’s put in to make products cheaper, longer lasting, easier; food designed for the poor.

I’m not sure I quite buy the idea that Big Food is evil like Big Tobacco (but I might be wrong). While Big Food makes a profit for shareholders, a lot of the shareholders who are thus enriched are poor people with pension funds, not the uber wealthy. And I think the scientists behind UPF were doing their best to make interesting and enjoyable food available to the masses. I’m sure I could, given a few changes of path, have become a food technologist myself with altruistic aims, spending my life on a good thing, not needing to channel my inner Cruella d’Eville.

But there are problems. Because UPF isn’t food, though it may have been once, it isn’t (so the argument goes) suited for human consumption. Obesity and many diseases follow in its train, and it targets the poor and nestles among those who struggle to make ends meet. (Or as Terry Pratchett described a maker of dodgy sausages, struggling ‘to make ends meat’.)

There are problems with this kind of book. How many books have been published over the years promising to be the definitive answer to the problems of good diet? Many. How many were backed by research? Many. How many have fallen out fashion? All of them. What will people think of this theory in 10 or 20 years? We shall see.

And yet the book’s appeal to make and cook food out of simple ingredients that belong in a kitchen, rather than engineered substances that are developed in a factory or delivered by a tanker, is appealing. Today I made a tomato soup for my grandchildren from just four ingredients (tinned tomatoes, an onion, chicken stock, and a wedge of butter. I deployed a slow cooker and a blender.) I make my own granola from honey, a neutral oil like sunflower oil, and oats, adding nuts, seeds and dried fruit and no funny stuff. I make my own bread on the same principles.

Better and deeper: I want to be simple before God. I love the description of bread back in the Old Testament, the bread for offerings: finest flour and the oil of squeezed olives: simple, simple. Pure, actually, because simple. That’s how I want to be before God, finest flour and oil mixed into a cake, not a packaged, complex, looks-good-but-isn’t convenience food.