Why ideas control your life

The whole world revolves around ideas. Every decision you make is because of your ideas. In fact, all human action throughout history – every uttered word, every daily choice, every conscious movement – is directed by the ideas and beliefs of each actor.

Don’t believe me? The argument can be summarized in one word: “Why?”

Take, for example, the following situations:

1. Talking on the phone
2. Choosing vanilla over chocolate
3. Mowing the lawn
4. Helping someone
5. Working for money
6. Paying your bills
7. Going to war

So, example #1, you are talking on the phone. Why? It might be because you are ordering a pizza, talking to your mother, calling the police, philosophizing with a friend, etc. There are innumerable reasons for you to be on the phone. There are also innumerable beliefs and ideas which must be held if you are behaving in such a way.

If you are talking to your mother, you must have believed in the effectiveness of pressing numbers into a telephone. You must believe that your voice has the capacity to communicate with another person, that the sounds coming out of your mouth will be understood as words. If you are calling the police, you have the idea that a certain situation is more likely to be ameliorated by contacting them than by not, that police station has a phone on their premises, and so on.

Granted, these might not be conscious thoughts passing through your head before you make a phone call, but upon introspection, you can see that your subconscious at the very least must have an idea about these things.

I will go through the list more quickly now, just to illustrate. Example #2, you’ve chosen vanilla ice cream over chocolate. Why? It must be because you believe that vanilla will more likely satisfy your goals than chocolate. Your goal might be to eat it, to give it to someone else, to paint with it, but whatever it is, you have chosen vanilla for a reason, based on ideas.

Example #3, you are mowing the lawn. Why? Doing something so boring still requires ideas and beliefs. You must hold the idea that your push-mower will do the job you intend it to do. You believe, for some reason, that the lawn should be mowed, perhaps you have an idea of responsibility which leads towards such behaviour.

Example #4, you choose to help someone. Why? You believe that your actions will be effective in helping that person. You have an idea that it is a “nice thing to do”. You might choose to help someone because of deeper beliefs that you hold, about morality or religion, that you “ought” to act in a certain way.

Example #5, you go to work. Why? You might not like working, but you go anyway because you believe that you will get paid. You also hold the idea that the money with which your employer chooses to pay you can be used to purchase other goods or services. You have an idea of value.

Example #6, you pay your bills. Why? You belief that there will be consequences if you do not pay your bills. You hold a conceptual idea about how the money you send off is to pay for services that you use. You believe in the idea that when a company sees the check that you’ve written them, they will accept it as payment.

Example #7, you go to war. Why? You have an idea of the enemy threat. You belief that violent engagement is acceptable to protect your country. You have ideas about guns, bullets, and human bodies.

Etcetera. You get the idea (pun intended).

While it may seem like, on the surface, humans simply act willy-nilly, this is not the case. We function entirely on ideas. But we aren’t done yet. Let’s dig a little deeper. After all, you can ask the question, “Why?” more than once.

So, you find yourself on the telephone again. We’ve established that you must hold the belief that number-pressing will result in communication. Why? You’ve called people a million times before, and seen it done by others a million times before that. You believe that the police will make a situation better. Why? That’s what you’ve been told? You’ve interacted with them before? Why do you believe that what you were told is true? And so on.

The deeper we dig, the more ideas, reasons, and beliefs we discover. We also find a chain. Reasons demand reasons which demand reasons for your reasons. There is a very long chain of ideas which you hold, and it runs very, very deep. If one of those fundamental ideas changes, everything following it changes too, and eventually, your behaviour changes.

Now, you might say, “Not me, I don’t worry about all that stuff. I just live to have fun.” Oh, it isn’t so. You may think you’ve avoided the power of ideas, but you are just as chained to them as everybody else. You hold a belief that “happiness” or “fun” should be the goal of your actions. You have an idea about what behaviours will lead to the most “fun”. You believe “family” or “marriage” or “love” is objectively more important. You believe that it is a waste of time to philosophize and think about these things. You identify with the idea that you can never know what truth is anyway.


Any response is another reason. Your life is completely dominated by ideas, and you can’t escape it. Are your ideas accurate? Have you given careful thought to the most fundamental ideas which you hold? The ones that shape all the other ideas in your head? Have you been living consistently with false ideas? How would you answer that, and why would you respond that way? Based on what other ideas? What amount of time should you dedicate to sorting all this out, before running into other endeavors?

Wow, heavy, right?

But don’t despair. The sooner you understand this truth, the sooner you can take control of your own life. It is easy to conclude, when we are overwhelmed, that the truth is unknowable, or that it is hopeless to try to sort these things out. Those ideas are fundamental; they have big implications, and they are false.

Here’s the cool thing: in the world of ideas, there are rules you can discover. There are critical thinking techniques which allow you to cut through bad ideas with a razor. Before worrying about the specifics of what to think, take the time to learn how to think. Reject the beliefs that you’ve held without good reason, and start over. It’s scary at first, but nothing is more valuable. You’d be surprised how quickly the fog lifts once you discover, and hang on to, the first bits of truth.

My advice: acknowledge that your life is completely determined by the ideas which you hold, and, given their importance, treat them with appropriate caution and respect. In other words, base your life around them (it is already, but acknowledge it as so). Treating your ideas frivolously is like treating the steering wheel of a car frivolously. In no time, you’ll wind up in a ditch, and you’ll never get any farther down the road. Before you start getting wrapped up with destinations, you should first learn how the steering wheel works.

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