Saturday, March 15, 2008

Ideas are Real Things

I was talking with some online acquaintances about the nature of what is "proof" and I found myself taking a stance that ideas are actually real things. Maybe that alone will make a good post on this blog, so here it is:

Most people I know would probably define ideas as things in a realm of abstract objects that are apart from things in the "real" world. The number zero is in a world apart from a book or a grain of sand. I also used to think this way.

But I am starting to think that ideas themselves are actual "objects" in the real world. I'm not the first to think this, but I'll explain it my own words. A real object is made of matter, which exists in the universe. An idea exists as energy floating around in your mind. Maybe the energy is active, like electrical and chemical signals floating around in your brain. Maybe the energy is static, like a chemical signature in the neurons that doesn't ever change. In any case, the "idea" is data, and data is energy.

But as Einstein said, energy has mass. So ideas are energy, which have mass, which means that ideas are real objects just like a grain of sand, but exist simply a different real state of existence than a grain of sand; an idea exists in the real universe as energy rather than matter. Therefore ideas are real.

If you want, you could also say that the realm of the abstract things is a subordinate realm of real things, i.e. everything that is abstract is also real because abstractions are real data in real human minds.

What is that "idea" made of? It depends on the medium of thought. If it is in a computer, the "zero" is made of electrons in a circuit. If it is in a human mind, it is made of lots of things in your brain. It could also be made of ink on paper.

How can a single idea exist in multiple minds at once? It doesn't exist in many minds at once. Rather, the structure of the data that symbolizes the idea can be copied into many different minds. If you and I both know what "zero" is, then we both have structured data in our mind that symbolizes the number zero.

Is your understanding of "zero" the same as my understanding? Not at all. No two energetic structures are alike any more than two snowflakes. Though functionally, the ideas are exactly the same. The data which constructs "zero" in your mind is different than the data that constructs "zero" in my mind, but when we start talking about the number "zero", our understandings of the idea (our data) are similar enough that we can perceive no difference between them. Just like we can't see the difference between two identical coffee mugs. Certainly, at an atomic level, the structure of the two coffee mugs are very different, but at a macro-level of human perception, they are the same.

I think it is especially interesting that ideas can be copied from one location to another. We can write our ideas down on paper, and have someone else read it. They will get a reconstruction of your idea in their mind. The reconstruction wont be perfect, but perhaps refining the idea with more information, through conversation and debate, can allow the idea to be understood (structured) more consistently between those who are talking about it.

But it is not only ideas that are able to copy and transfer themselves. Living cells can copy themselves and move to another location in an organism. If you think of society as an organism of ideas, then ideas can copy and transfer themselves just like cells in an organism. I think it was Richard Dawkins who popularized this idea, but he likened ideas to DNA, rather than actual cells.

Well, hopefully those who have read this blog post will have an accurate reconstruction of my idea in your mind. If not, please post a question or comment.

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