Ideas are Real
This is a follow up to Solitude of the Mind, which explains why I went on a “zero communication” diet. I was a tourist into the life of a monk, having taken a vow of silence in the interest of uninterrupted contemplation. That, and a chance to connect with some more fundamental reality.
Something I didn’t expect the night before, was going to bed feeling very nervous or excited, as if I was going in for some painful procedure the next day, or maybe like the night before Christmas as a child. I couldn’t pin down the source of my nerves except that I was undertaking a radical shift in my daily living, and change is scary. I pride myself on being able to change and dive into things without fear, but I guess I’m more susceptible than I thought!
I survived the night and woke up calm despite the previous evening’s nerves. When I woke up, I laid in bed for quite a while, alternating between thinking and trying not to think. I normally spring up around 6:30, and start writing or working immediately. That day I stayed in bed until around 7:30, when I got up, got some coffee (previously set up), and sat on the porch outside. It was chilly, but not altogether unpleasant.
First Idea: Solitude as a Dream
There’s a theory that says dreams are a way for our brain to process and organize the deluge of information it received throughout the day. When we sleep, our brain catches up on everything we saw, hear, felt, or thought about. Sometimes the answer to questions we’ve been pondering will present itself in a dream.
I noticed while sitting on my porch, that my thoughts, which normally race frantically through my head five or six at a time, slowed down. It felt like the back pressure of my queue of thoughts released, and ideas began to flow in a more orderly manner. It occurred to me that perhaps dreams did arise from a need for the mind to process the sensory input it receives, but that we didn’t evolve to be rational or analytical, and our capacity for abstract thought is only incidental to the need to trap prey on some grassy plain in our primordial past. Maybe, I thought, this quiet solitude was a better way to process my analytical thoughts. More on this later.
Second Idea: The Alien Sidewalk
It was later morning by the time I became active. Because this experiment was a watered down version of a real isolation journey into the wilderness, I decided that going for a walk wouldn’t hurt as long I avoided looking at or thinking about words. So around 11 (not sure, because I didn’t look at any clocks), I took my dog for a really long walk.
I stepped out onto my sidewalk, and looked up the block, at the straight edges of the concrete receding into the distance. I’d spent all morning dissociating my labels from the real “stuff” around me, so it felt strange to look at this bizarre, geometrically precise formation of rock. I was seeing it as an alien might: clearly it’s not natural, but what is it?
Equally strange was the compulsion I felt to trace its straight trajectory, and walk along its length, instead of walking some other way. I could walk in any direction I chose, but I was walking along this straight path, made by someone for the strange purpose of making me walk along it. How odd that someone would have the idea that other people, in the future, should walk along a particular path, instead of another, and how strange of them to craft this rock in such a way as to follow the planned path, and how triply strange it is that now, standing in that hypothetical future-cum-present, I was compelled to do precisely what they had planned.
This is the gravity of ideas at work, I thought.
Everything is an Illusion, Dude
Before I explain the epiphany about gravity, let me detour to suggest that the chair in which you are currently sitting doesn’t exist.
My chair swivels. It’s an upright, black desk chair, covered with pleather, with some kind of lattice and stuffing inside for support. There are wheels protruding from a central, metal pillar. It has knobs all over it to adjust various heights and ratios for comfort or ergonomics, or more probably to increase sales by looking impressive. None of that stuff exists.
You see, if I take the chair apart into all its component knobs, lattices, metal tubing, and molded plastic, then I’ll have a pile of parts. The arrangement of those parts into a form we recognize as a chair is precisely what makes it a chair, and that’s just incidental–it’s just a label that we made up, that informs us about how we should relate to this particular group of objects. In this configuration, we can use these parts as a place to sit, and it’s therefore a chair.
We can break down the parts further into molecules of plastic and alloy, and further into carbon and iron atoms. We can break those into quarks and leptons, and then we can theorize about strings or ether or Jerry Garcia, or some self referential quasiparticle that either exists or doesn’t depending on the weather. Whatever the case, any “part” you can name from your chair, only exists as a group of other parts that we labeled and that we find convenient to consider together, as a unit. But outside of our understanding of the “thing,” the “thing” doesn’t exist on it’s own.
In short, physical objects are defined by:
- A configuration of increasingly smaller subobjects
- Our mental categorization of what that group is, and how we should relate to it
The Idea Idea
So, gazing along this sidewalk that I was mysteriously drawn to following, it hit me. This sidewalk isn’t a path, it’s a lump of particles specially configured for me to relate to them as a “path.” Further, ideas are exactly that: my brain has neurons in it arranged in a particular way–at certain distances, and with certain pathways between them, and carrying certain chemoelectrical energy potentials–such that I can relate to it as an “idea.” So just like a chair, or the sidewalk, ideas themselves are physical.
Immediately, I began thinking through the consequences of my previous thesis being incorrect–the one that began this experiment about ideas being unreal because I couldn’t smell them or hold them. I began to think of ideas and intelligence (the ability to absorb and generate ideas) as a physical force, comparable to electromagnetism. I could see the paths of particle beams being distorted by a strong force, and I could see a table of iron shavings spontaneously arranging themselves according the magnetic field of the magnet underneath. It wasn’t much of a stretch to then imagine the motion of human beings being affected by ideas: the idea of America and all the underpinnings of it attracts immigrants from Mexico. The idea of unrequited love throws a heartbroken man off the Golden Gate Bridge early in the morning. The idea of a looming threat mobilizes the militaries of the world to converge on the same area, organized for a common purpose.
I imagined a man 5,000 years ago sitting under a tree, and telling the people around him to chill out, and how that message reverberates through time and space, distorted by the influence of other ideas, changing over time into the Buddhism we know today.
This is a physical force, this abstract, communicable mental configuration. It propagates, not unlike sound, through the medium of intelligence.
In future entries into this series I’ll explore the implications of ideas as a physical force in more detail, talk about the “supernatural” underpinnings (or lack thereof), and I hope generate some useful predictions about society, intelligence, and the spread of ideas.
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