Are We Responsible for our Ideas?

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It often happens that we are facing the dilemma of which interpretations should be given to certain ideas. Therefore we can distinguish three main approaches that I would like to call negativism, positivism, and neutrality, although they are not necessarily used here in their usual sense. Neutrality is counterproductive, because once an idea gets its material incarnation it ought to be appraised in a certain way. Positivism is very productive, because we try to find ways to use such ideas so that they can benefit us a lot. Negative ways of thinking are even more counterproductive than the neutral approach.

Submitted: January 29, 2008

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Submitted: January 29, 2008

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Ideas are responsible for organizing matter, at least on the human level of perception. We use ideas in order to adjust our current environment according to our needs. We also use ideas to change ourselves by accommodating to our ideals of self-perception. We are living objects in a material world, and it is accepted by the majority of us that in addition to this material world there are also some concepts that are not material: for example, consciousness, which is the basis for our thoughts and ideas. 
In order to enjoy the fruitful discussion of any subject in question we must first of all define the terms we are using. The word ‘material’ is defined for the purpose of this book as anything that is bound to matter and energy in physical terms.
Since the time of Plato ideas have been defined as purely non-material. They serve only as the concepts behind material objects. According to Plato:
The visible world is what surrounds us: what we see, what we hear, what we experience; this visible world is a world of change and uncertainty. The intelligible world is made up of the unchanging products of human reason: anything arising from reason alone, such as abstract definitions or mathematics, makes up this intelligible world, which is the world of reality. The intelligible world contains the eternal "Forms" (in Greek, idea) of things; the visible world is the imperfect and changing manifestation in this world of these unchanging forms. For example, the "Form" or "Idea" of a horse is intelligible, abstract, and applies to all horses; this Form never changes, even though horses vary wildly among themselves—the Form of a horse would never change even if every horse in the world were to vanish. An individual horse is a physical, changing object that can easily cease to be a horse (if, for instance, it's dropped out of a fifty-story building); the Form of a horse, or "horseness," never changes. As a physical object, a horse only makes sense in that it can be referred to the "Form" or "Idea" of horseness.”[1]
This makes it clear that an idea can exist independently from its material counterpart. Ideas have an eternal nature, the idea of the horse existing long before any real horse ever roamed the earth and continuing to exist after the last horse has vanished from its surface. An interesting question is whether intelligible ideas are entirely products of our mind or if they exist independently. We can easily imagine other intellectual beings that might operate and comprehend the same ideas; moreover, we have already created an artificial intelligence that can deal with the same ideas that we do.
Immanuel Kant, in his revolutionary Critique of Pure Reason, made a successful attempt to analyze the nature of things and their dependence on and apparent independence from human reason. His book looks like a textbook that is entirely based on definitions of new terms invented and introduced by this philosopher.
I always wondered how it would feel to write an entire textbook filled with self-made terms. Or, even better, how it would feel to write a book entirely in a self-made language that would be comprehensible only to the author himself. Despite the fact that such a book might face some obstacles on its way to becoming a genuine best-seller, we cannot discard the possibility that it might still contain very valuable thoughts. 
This brings us to another question: how much do we depend on society when creating the imaginary worlds that might be reflected in such a book, worlds that serve as an example of the imprint of our enclosed and self-sufficient consciousness.
First I thought that a human being is an independent creature and should oppose the oppressive nature of any society, even the ideal one. The Social Contract by Jean Jacques Rousseau has always been my favorite text: His statement that “man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains”[2] unfortunately has always sounded as true to me in our day as it was in his. Even the most democratic society in our modern world still restrains the freedoms of its members and not just in cases where this is necessary for the common good. Therefore I always prepare myself to keep a close watch on the society governing my private life and object in any possible legitimate way to its brutal interference.
But lately I have come to realize that a human being cannot be brought up as an intelligent creature without the educational impact of society. This makes society the primary source of our intellect, leaving the human to play only a secondary role. But then I thought again, and realized that the fact a flower cannot grow without compost doesn’t mean that we have to give compost instead of flowers as birthday gifts to our loved ones. Society is the soil that is needed to produce us, the beautiful flowers of independent minds.
Moreover, if you use too much compost it will actually kill the flower. The same is true with society. As Seneca observed, once you are a part of the mob it will always make you dirty both directly and metaphorically. Sigmund Freud concurs by stating that the individual will always succumb to the intelligence level of the crowd. 
Therefore, I am trying to take everything from society that I can use, and first of all this means the human language. It is the only instrument given to us to express our thoughts. Taking language as a gift from society, I am using it to communicate not with society as a whole, but with individuals, those flowers that we happen to be. 
Society is like a household that ought to provide us with all the necessary conditions to thrive. But its role shouldn’t dominate our lives. Society is utilitarian and will try to take advantage of all its members for the sake of the so-called common good, which is not necessarily as good as it looks when applied on the individual level.
Ideas are never utilitarian; they exist independently of society, beyond the universe and even beyond existence itself. The only thing that ideas cannot exist beyond is God, because according to a commonly used definition God is almighty and nothing can exist beyond his almightiness.
As we said above, the idea of the horse exists before, after, simultaneously with, and independently of the real physical animal. It is a concept, and like any other concept it cannot be destroyed. So the question is whether ideas can be considered as being material. In order to answer this question we have to determine how to define ‘material’. 
The easiest way to approach this problem is to look at anything that consists of matter as a material object, but is the material object still material in the past or in the future? Can the material object still be considered material if it exists only in our memories or in our dreams? In both cases it will be perceived by our mind in the same way and it will actually exist only through our perception. 
Is energy material? Albert Einstein’s famous equation (E=mc2[squared]) shows that matter can be transformed into energy and probably vice versa, if you try really hard. So defining energy as material will define, in the same way, all sorts of energy both known and unknown. 
 
Ideas are concepts of the organization of energy and matter that have proved to be material, as we have discussed. Because there is no difference in our perception of these concepts and the corresponding matter itself, we might consider ideas as material to the same degree as anything else considered material. Ideas are even superior to the matter they govern, because the same ideas can govern any other kind of matter in any other sort of physical universe. 
 
As society is a medium for the development of the individual, matter is a medium for the development of ideas, although once they are formed they get a superior position to matter. Let’s consider the state of an imaginary universe described as chaos. It seems that the possibility of the existence of a universe without any order proves that matter can exist without ideas, but this is not true because there will still be the idea of chaos itself that might exist independently.
Even though we have defined the terms ‘material’ and ‘non-material’ in the beginning of this chapter, the problem is that nature itself doesn’t like to operate within such well-defined boundaries.
I strongly object to any attempts to implant physical principles into the social sciences, like the comparisons between the gravitational influence of mass and economic wealth, for example, that have been made by Dr. Joel Primack andNancy Abrams in their new book, The View from the Center of the Universe.[3] That is, unless the attempts are accompanied by the precaution that they are made only for the purpose of better explanation of the concepts and are not based on actual belief that such comparisons can be substantiated. By making such precautions I am trying to make sure that any following comparisons will not be considered in any way but for illustrative purposes.
When these precautions are not made the consequences can be quite severe, as in the case of Nietzsche’s application of the Darwinian principle of natural selection to human society. This in turn led to the development of his own ideas regarding the ‘Superman’ that eventually inspired the Nazi ethnic cleansing tragedy of the twentieth century. 
As an illustration of my statement that nature doesn’t like well-defined boundaries I would like to remind the reader of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which states that the more precisely the position of a particle can be determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known in this instant and vice-versa.[4]
Moreover, in physics wave-particle duality means that both electro-magnetic waves and matter exhibit properties of both waves and of particles. As a central concept of quantum mechanics, such duality represents a way to address the inability of conventional concepts like ‘particle’ and ‘wave’ to adequately describe the behavior of quantum objects. We don’t generally perceive the wave-like quality of everyday objects, not because they don’t possess such qualities but because the wavelengths associated with people-sized objects are extremely small. Wavelength is given essentially as inverse to the size of the object, with a constant factor given by Planck's constant h, which is an extremely small number. 
If we measure ourselves by our ability to introduce certain changes to our environment through direct and indirect interaction with it, we may claim that this ability can be described as a wave function with its peaks and valleys. For example, my calling someone at the far end of the world can initiate actions far beyond what would be influenced by my physical presence. Moreover, this influence can not only go beyond my presence in terms of space, but also in terms of time—just as this text may trigger some thoughts in the minds of its readers well beyond the time in which it was written. Therefore, this example poses the question of whether there is a real boundary separating the material from the non-material. This separation merely implies the limitations of the human mind, which needs such roughly defined terms in order to operate with some degree of success. 
Long ago Socrates showed us that there might be substantial difficulty in defining virtually anything because of the inherent limitations of human language, which in turn arise from the ultimate limitations of the human mind. Nevertheless, let’s try to define the term ‘material’ in a slightly new way by arguing that matter is an integral part of the universe that somehow uncovers its presence to human senses enhanced by scientific instruments. Therefore nothing can be considered as material unless we can determine its presence by the use of appropriate technology. But then some distant galaxy which may consist of about two hundred billion stars would be considered as non-material and non-existent only because we don’t have an appropriate instrument to detect it. Also, we cannot adjust our definition of ‘material’ by saying that it is anything that might be detected with future means because we don’t know what the future holds for us. For example, a couple of hundred years ago no one could imagine that it would be possible to transmit and receive radio waves, which are now considered well-defined characteristics of a material world filled with electromagnetic radiation that was unknown in the past. So, what is considered as non-material in our day might be reconsidered as material in the future.
Ideas as concepts of the organization of matter can be considered as material if we take into account our inability to define the term ‘material’. But by doing so we may need to rethink our approach toward ideas, because people usually treat only objects of the material world seriously, rather than non-material issues. For example, ideas can kill and cause as much harm as any material object once they influence the minds of an unwary public. So understanding that ideas are material must make us cautious about producing them. Humans are generators of ideas and we have a moral responsibility for the ideas that we dare to bring to our world. We must think of the consequences of such ideas.
At one time I thought that once a philosopher, or any ordinary person, became the creator of a certain idea they could not be responsible for the consequences that came after the idea was let loose on the world. Should Prometheus, who allegedly gave fire to humans so they might cook their meals and keep themselves warm through cold prehistoric winters, be held responsible for the fires of the Nazi concentration camps? Is Jesus responsible for the fires of the Inquisition? Is Einstein guilty of bringing the nuclear bomb to the world? I assumed that it didn’t matter what the idea is, even the most innocent one, that a person introduces to humanity; it would eventually be compromised, corrupted, and used for evil purposes no matter how hard its creator tries to prevent it.
But nevertheless people do have responsibility for the ideas that they give birth to. Didn’t Einstein know his fellow men well enough to realize what they would use his ideas for? I don’t mean his signature on the famous letter to President Roosevelt urging him to initiate the building of the nuclear bomb as a counter- weight to Hitler’s plans for nuclear weapon development. It was too late by then to think of the consequences of Einstein’s work. Of course, we can assume that the development of nuclear weapons would have been completed even without Einstein’s personal contribution to the field. If not him, then someone else would have eventually come up with the necessary equations. The General Theory of Relativity is not exactly a complete set of instructions on how to produce a bomb. Although teaching people things well beyond what they were and may still be ready to handle was his free choice, why didn’t he just keep his position as a patent officer for the Swiss government? 
People! Keep your ideas to yourselves! Fame and success are very cheap currency. Not every step of progress is good for humankind. Probably this is the reason why we are so conservative about our habits. We sit around the dinner table, we use candles to set aromantic mood, and we listen to the sound of the rain.
An idea, as an emerging concept, is separated from its material incarnation only by two tiny matters: time and probability. Time and probability are the factors that determine when and how an idea will be implemented. 
Since the term ‘time’ is more applicable to living things, and because physicists argue that the basic concepts of the laws of physics do not require time at all, then the factor of time in the implementation of an idea can be dismissed. Since we don’t know how many parallel universes might exist, we don’t know how many different scenarios of the same event can occur and so the factor of probability can also be discarded. 
Let’s look at a simple video game that has the same settings every time you start it. Once you run it, however, it can have an almost uncountable number of probable scenarios. Video games thus alter our perception of time as an irreversible factor. We can re-run the game an infinite number of times, every time starting from the same initial settings. Does it really matter if we actually run any particular scenario or not? We know that the status of different implemented and non-implemented scenarios is quite the same. For us it is sufficient to know that they all are possible and we really don’t need to run them in order to prove that. 
The real world might resemble such a video game, but it is even more complicated because the players in real life actually have the ability to alter the settings and thereby make the number of possible scenarios ultimately infinite. 
The interesting thing is that the physical basis of a video game is the CD that it comes on and the computer that is able to read it. Both of them have nothing to do with the content of the virtual world represented on the particular disc nor with the scenarios that can be run on the computer. This means that all scenarios co-exist simultaneously as long as the computer disc is intact, and it doesn’t really matter which of the scenarios is implemented or which just have the potential to be implemented. It is possible that the physical basis of our universe lies well beyond the settings that can be studied from within our world. But we will discuss this issue in more detail later on in this book. 
 
If we give some consideration to the preceding argument, we will discover that the difference between an implemented and a not-yet-implemented idea is an illusion. Ideas are usually neutral by their very nature. Their materialization is neutral as well. It all depends on what meaning we give to these neutral ideas and their implementations. The Bible story where God appoints Adam to give names to the plants and animals actually illustrates the relationship created between the universe and ourselves as thinking creatures. You may object to anything except the fact that we are indeed thinking beings. As stated so concisely by Descartes, “I think, therefore I exist” (“Je pense, donc je suis”), and most of us won’t object to the idea that we are involved in some sort of existence. It is both interesting and ironic that Descartes used the most seemingly non-material thing, thought, to prove his material existence. This only goes to prove that ideas are indeed material, because ideas are the ultimate product of thought, which is used as a proof of existence of the material world. 
The universe is neutral and probably exists independently from our minds, even though this idea was challenged in a dispute between Plato and Aristotle. This famous dispute was about whether a tree makes a sound when it falls if no one is there to hear it. Humans decipher the ideas that govern the universe and create their own, new ideas. Therefore we are an integral part of this universe, even though some weird aliens (if there are any) might compete with us in this regard. 
We are ambushed by our own consciousness. We think only along the lines of human logic, which can be as far from the real universe as the settings of a video game are from the computer disc that encodes them.
The universe for the most part has neither ups nor downs, but humans measure everything according to the human scale. The universe lives on without regard to time, but humans measure it in hours and light years. This is as if an ant were to measure human love in terms of its miniscule ant legs: “they felt love for a million light-ant-legs and kissed each other.” This is what our attempts are comparable to when we try to measure the universe in human terms. We can’t think any thought that wouldn’t be dictated to us by the conditions of our life. We are the prisoners of our own prejudices about ourselves and about the world around us. But we are the only known creatures that animate the ideas of the universe. 
By the way, are there any animals that pay attention to stars? As a matter of fact nocturnal animals can accumulate many more photons of light on their retinas, and that is why they can see only by the light of the stars. If they are capable of that some of them can probably see the light of distant galaxies exactly the way our telescopes do. But having the ability doesn’t mean that these animals are particularly interested in such pursuits. I am inclined to believe that the stars do not interfere much with their processes of digestion and mating. If we had their eyes we would have discovered the vastness of the universe a long time before our instruments helped us do so.
The problem is that biological evolution didn’t have any such aim as producing creatures with the ability to observe the universe. This ability of ours came to us as a side effect of our ability to hunt down prey and find berries in the bushes. Evolution was worried only about our survival and our offspring. Humans, obviously, were not built for solving the riddles of the universe. Evolution had to bitterly punish those that were trying to gaze at stars while their more practical relatives were hiding in the safety of the caves. But I believe that this is the true aim of evolution: to bring into existence a species with the ability to observe the universe in all its unobservable vastness.
We, as humans, have free will to assign our interpretations to ideas that are neutral by their very nature. Ideas are neither bad and evil nor good and kind. Nor are they smart or crazy. Ideas just exist, independently of space and time, and only once they are animated by humans do we equip them with such characteristics. 
It often happens that we are facing the dilemma of which interpretations should be given to certain ideas. Therefore we can distinguish three main approaches that I would like to call negativism, positivism, and neutrality, although they are not necessarily used here in their usual sense. Neutrality is counterproductive, because once an idea gets its material incarnation it ought to be appraised in a certain way. Positivism is very productive, because we try to find ways to use such ideas so that they can benefit us a lot. Negative ways of thinking are even more counterproductive than the neutral approach. 
You might ask, however, who is in a position to decide what is negative or positive for the purpose of evaluation of a certain idea. Many would argue that there is no common frame of reference once it comes to defining good and evil, and therefore positive or negative. I propose to use as a frame of reference for good and evil Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. According to Maslow, everything that might help meet our needs is good and everything that prevents us from meeting those needs is obviously evil. Of course this works only when, by meeting our needs, we are not preventing another from meeting theirs. 
The basic needs according to Maslow are biological and physiological ones: air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex, sleep, etc. Then come safety needs: security, order, law, limits, stability, protection from the weather, etc. Then come the needs of belongingness and love, which include relationships at work and within any other social group such as family and friends.
Esteem needs include the overall need to be accepted by society—including self-esteem, achievement, independence, status, prestige, responsibility, etc. Knowledge needs include acquiring and processing new information which is considered by the individual as useful or interesting. Esthetic needs include the attempts of a person to surround himself or herself with things of beauty according to individual taste. Self-actualization needs include realizing personal potential, self-fulfillment, seeking of personal growth and peak experiences.
And now we come to the highest needs, the ones met by those very few individuals successful enough to reach this level. They include assistance to others in achieving their self-realization. Any idea that we intend to animate by bringing it into the material world should be evaluated in a positive way, so it can help us meet the needs mentioned above. 
I would like to conclude this chapter with the following story that shows how different ways of interpreting a newly emerged idea can shape the fate of a small island nation. Once upon a time, a new star appeared in the sky that was an incarnation of the idea that a new star can appear. There were two small tribes that inhabited two separate islands in the ocean. The first tribe decided that this star was an asteroid that was going to hit their island. They built rafts and left the island, giving themselves to the mercy of the sea. The second tribe decided that the star was a sign that their Gods were satisfied with their prayers and they decided to go uphill to continue with their rituals.
As a matter of fact the first tribe was right; it was an asteroid, but it missed their island and splashed into the sea. Being right didn’t spare their lives, however, because the waves created by the impact swallowed them up. And even though the newly emerged star had nothing to do with their Gods, the second tribe was spared because they had made a right decision, albeit one based on the wrong assumptions. 

[1] ©1996, Richard Hooker http://www.wsu.edu:8001/~dee/GREECE/PLATO.HTM, Sept, 1 2006
[2]http://www.constitution.org/jjr/socon_01.htm#001, Sept 1, 2006.
[3] Joel R. Primack, Nancy Ellen Abrams., The View from the Center of the Universe: Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos,  Riverhead Books, New York, 2006.
[4]Heisenberg, uncertainty paper, 1927
 


© Copyright 2017 Bruce Kriger. All rights reserved.

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