Idle Theory is based upon a physical model of life that sees living creatures as acquiring and expending energy. In this model of life, a brain (if present) is just another useful component of a living creature, much like a foot or a hand, which just helps a bit in the business of acquiring energy. Human life is just another variant of natural life - with a slightly enhanced mental capability, and slightly degraded physical capabilities (no claws, big teeth, or heavy body armour). In Idle Theory's account of mind, having ideas is primarily about thinking up easier ways of doing things, solving pressing practical everyday problems, and gaining a more realistic and practical understanding of the world in which human life is lived. In its view, mathematics and physics provide the principal path toward realistically understanding that world. And general philosophical speculation is about putting together hypotheses about the nature of whatever, and then shooting them to bits.
By contrast a psychological account of human life starts with the psychological experience of living - with thoughts, with emotions, with hopes and fears and wishes and desires -, and almost entirely disregards the physical human body with which the human mind is conjoined. In this mind-centred vision of human life, it is in the mind that fears and desires and ambitions and lusts arise, and it is the mind that is the master of the subservient body, which exists only to act upon the mind's command. Psychologism is the belief that it is human psychology that determines human action; that if we are to understand human nature, we must first understand human psychology.
In a psychological account of human history, that history is entirely determined by what people wanted. People stopped wanting to live in mud huts and started wanting to live in brick ones. They stopped wanting to ride horses, and started wanting to drive cars. They stopped wanting to kill each other with swords and pikes, and started wanting to kill each other with rifles and howitzers. And so on, and on, and on. In this account of history, it was ambition, impatience, hatred, greed, and other psychological traits, that provided the motor of history. And accordingly, history might have been completely different, had people been of a different mentality. And furthermore that, for any sort of society to come into existence, it only requires enough people to want it for it to be realized.
Psychologism's attraction is that it can explain everything and anything. Whatever happens, it is because somebody somewhere wants it to happen. Psychologism replaces the mind of God with the mind of Man, so that instead of the will of God commanding events, it is the will of Man that is now held to determine the course of events. And rather than appealing to God, psychologism appeals to Man. Abandoning the theological attempt to know the mind of God, it sets out to understand the mind of Man. Psychologism is simply the transposition of the object of theological inquiry from the mind of God to the mind of Man.
It is, for example, a form of psychologism that underlies the belief that it is human greed that is the prime driving force behind economic growth and wealth creation, either as a vice or as "divine discontent". And it is a also a form of psychologism that underpins every sort of moral crusade that seeks to reform society by changing individual behaviour - which crusades become ever more intense the more humanity is identified as the first cause of its own troubles.
From the point of view of Idle Theory, psychologism completely disregards the physics of life, and the problem of just staying alive. Instead it assumes people to be free agents, freed from necessity, and that everyone is always doing whatever they they choose to do - and what they choose to do is the product of their internal psychological processes. Psychologism, in Idle Theory's terms, assumes perfect idleness, much as theology assumes divine omnipotence.
For as Idle Theory sees it, people are not free agents, but rather part-time free agents. They are free to choose what they do in their idle time, and constrained to some activity while they work to maintain themselves. They are only as free to choose as they are idle. In low-idleness societies, people have very little freedom of choice, and most of the time they are doing what the necessities of life demand: working at one or other chore. It is only in high-idleness societies, where people are bound by necessity for a relatively small proportion of their time, that people are largely free to choose what to do. It is only in these high-idleness societies that unfettered human psychology - its various wants, urges, passions, desires - comes into play.
In Idle Theory's view, psychologism is built upon an insupportable assumption of complete and undiluted human freedom. And a purely psychological account of human affairs is as unrealistic a description of human life as those economic accounts of life which would have it that we are all just selling each other toys and amusements which afford us pleasure or satisfaction. Indeed, it is no great surprise that the rise of psychology has gone hand in hand with just such an economic vision, and indeed with an idealism in which only ideas have any real existence.
In place of humanity's supposed greed as the principal driving force behind wealth creation, Idle Theory simply supposes that modern economic systems structurally act to convert gains in idleness into new forms of employment. That instead of economies simply generating leisure, the leisure they generate is used to set people to work making and selling new products. The result is that, in these economies, everyone works just as hard as they ever did, but producing more and more goods, and generating more and more pollution and waste, and eating up natural resources at a higher and higher rate. It is not greed that drives this treadmill, but ignorance - an ignorance about the real workings of economic systems that renders control of it impossible. And this ignorance in large part derives from the fact that much of the economic theory that has been written over the past few centuries - with its emphasis on the pursuit of 'happiness' or 'satisfaction' - is itself based upon psychologism.
Rather than seeing human mind as directing and controlling human destiny, Idle Theory sees human mind as being largely controlled by human physical circumstances. In busy societies, most people's attention is directed to the work in which they are engaged. It is only in relatively idle societies that people can think about something else. And even then people worry about all sorts of matters, ranging from their personal bank overdrafts to global warming. To a great extent, what people think about is determined by what is actually happening to them. If one wants to know what people are thinking about, one should consider what has happened in their lives. The human mind is the mirror of the physical world which is sensed via eyes, ears, nose, and fingers. The task of human mind is to construct as accurate as possible a map or model of that world. And these models are invariably inaccurate.
Instead of supposing that the economy (or anything else) is driven by human desire or greed or hunger, Idle Theory instead suggests that much of what happens is the result of ignorance and incompetence. Nobody is control of the runaway freight train. The driver's cab is empty.
The problem is not that we are in control of our destiny, and simply lack the will or good intention to make a better world. The problem is that we are in control of almost nothing at all.
When at last one day we understand how the human mind works, we will probably find that it initiates very little, and that it is almost always simply responding to external circumstances as they present themselves, rather than generating opinions and passions. In short, human mind will be found to be a largely passive recipient, rather than an active donor. And the study of the human mind will lead us back out into the world that human mind so imperfectly reflects.
Author: Chris Davis
First created: 13 Jan 2004
Last edited: 28 Feb 2006