The Origin of Ideas



Civilizations rise or fall on the strength of the level of intellectual development reflected in their cultures, which, in turn, revolves around individuals’ capability to articulate their thoughts in the form of ideas. These ideas are not restricted to any one type of accomplishment but are the motivating force behind achievements in all fields of endeavor. Thus, discoverers of truth, such as researchers in theoretical physics, as well as creators of beauty, who specialize in artistic endeavors, both share the characteristic that their insight and skill stem from the ideas they can articulate. But where do these ideas come from? And why do some ideas contain the seeds of important contributions to human history while others are forgotten? Perhaps the answers will shed light on the elusive concept of human significance, whereby a small number of individuals are remembered long after their deaths by people who did not know them personally, while history takes no note of the overwhelming majority, who are left to die in anonymity.

There are potentially many sources of ideas, but the most important are those that are central features of human consciousness. Of those, three in particular stand out: dreams, imagination, and memory. To evaluate these potential sources we propose to construct a four-fold table along two independent dimensions. One characteristic that distinguishes among these sources is whether they are the result of a conscious, active effort on the part of individuals or something that occurs subconsciously. Apart from this conscious/subconscious division, some possible causes correspond to actual events in a person’s experience, while others are purely fictional. Combining these two sets of distinctions creates four possibilities: conscious evaluations of actual events, subconscious processing of actual occurrences, conscious reviews of actual observations, and subconscious analysis of fictional matters.

One possible origin of ideas is in dreams. In terms of the four-fold classification scheme, dreams fall into the subconscious grouping, occurring during sleep, so that we are not actively involved in experiencing them.   And the possibility of willing the action during a dream to go in one direction or another does not appear to be an option. So, for instance, when people experience nightmares, they are usually unable to extricate themselves from the unpleasant dream. This dream state should not be confused with daydreams despite their similar name, as those attention lapses occur during waking hours and are therefore fundamentally different from nocturnal dreams.  Regarding the other dimension, dreams can draw from both actual and fictional experiences in the dreamer’s life. The former correspond to the subject’s obsessions, the latter to his or her fantasies.

A second area for analysis is the imagination, wherein an individual elaborates on an initial inspiration by an effort of brainstorming or freethinking. Almost by definition, all these episodes of “thinking outside the box” are exclusively examples of the conscious or active efforts to “take the ball and run with it.” The use of one’s imagination, like dreams, can apply either to ruminations about actual events or to things that have not yet happened but are only “imagined”.

The third area to consider is memory, which serves to insulate a person’s stockpile of ideas from the passage of time. Thus, while imagination develops ideas that don’t yet exist forward to completion in the future, memory is backward-looking, performing research on already-existing ideas to enhance the subject’s understanding of them.

Reviewing these observations at first glance, it seems that the inspiration for innovative ways of interpreting the environment is received subconsciously, rather than by some active, purposeful effort.  Moreover, truly new ideas often come from the quadrant of things that are not yet elements of actual experience, so that the subject is left with the impression that he or she is “taking dictation from God”. This line of reasoning is the justification for the argument that the ultimate origin of ideas lies in dreams.

If dreams were the only source of inspiration for new ideas, imagination would be the transmission mechanism for their development. Through their imaginations individuals would find creative ways to implement their received sources of inspiration. The most obvious manifestation of these creative efforts is in artistic expression. The development of new schools of painting or music exhibits a break with traditional forms and leads to the establishment of new ones.  Due to the subjective nature of art, however, it is not possible to say anything more definite than that one form follows the other, since judgments about the relative value of alternative styles in art would be inconsistent with their property of subjectivity.

In contrast, the research disciplines have adopted innovative strategies to utilize new technologies often aimed at improving the fundamental nature of life on Earth.   To date, these have consisted in the proliferation of new laborsaving devices and the search for increased efficiency in existing ones. Many of these innovations occurred during this past century and altered the ways in which human beings understood the nature of their lives. Most examples of these achievements implement what mathematicians and economists call “separation theorems”, in the sense that they delink phenomena that normally occur together in nature. Some examples are the electric light, which separated the workday from daylight hours; the telephone (and before that the telegraph), which separated communication from physical distance; the automobile (and later the railroad and the airplane), which separated physical presence from physical distance; the camera, which separated likeness creation from artistic skill; and the printing press, which separated experience from knowledge and memory.

In this century, the pace of technological innovation has accelerated. In America’s Silicon Valley, “high tech” corporations have combined scientific new product research development skills with production and marketing capability to transform the world’s populations from originally agricultural and later manufacturing communities to collections of cyber-based individuals communicating with other individuals in their isolated groups through their I-phones. Originally portable versions of the telephone and the telegraph to use for verbal and written communication, the newest versions of the I-phone now include camera and video features, as well as a portable version of the internet, which is the modern version of the printing press. As such, it enables users to access information well beyond that acquired from their personal experience simply by typing the appropriate keyword into “Google”. Even without this new technological capability, though, the ability to find inspiration in creative ways makes imagination an origin of ideas in its own right.

Beyond dreams and imagination, the other important role in the idea-formation process is played by memory. Through memory, people can review and refine the insights obtained from their dreams or their imaginations, thereby improving the extent of their understanding. Moreover, by leveraging their own personal experience through the incorporation of notable information of mankind’s historical achievements gleaned by accessing the internet, it may actually be the case that human beings have never before had such opportunities to be productive in their chosen endeavors.

While memory has the power in principle to craft a consistent idea acquired from a dream or through the application of the imagination, it is still vulnerable to potential pitfalls that could derail the process under less than ideal conditions. One possibility is that a dream containing the inspiration for a new idea is only remembered for a limited amount of time upon waking from sleep and then forgotten. There might remain a vague feeling that something important has transpired, but the exact details that constitute the substance of the dream cannot be recovered from consciousness. This temporary memory loss is exactly analogous to hearing a snippet of music that is instantly recognizable, but its name and composer remain elusive.

The other way in which memory can be misleading is in the case of false memories. There might be instances where someone is convinced that he or she remembers an inspiration, but when they go to apply their imagination to the task of fleshing it out, they become aware of inconsistencies, and ultimately they must confront the reality that what they originally thought was a new idea was is in fact not one. With reference to the four-fold classification scheme, this result is all the more likely if the dream or the application of imagination that conveys the new idea originates from the quadrant of things that did not actually occur.

Memory is not only important for individuals, enabling them to perform research on their own personal remembrances, but it also plays a larger role in forming the basis for collective memories that are shared by the larger community. Certain deceased individuals can have embedded themselves into the world’s consciousness for a host of possible reasons (beneficent or notorious heads of state, memorable discoverers of truth, (e.g., theoretical physicists) and famous creators of beauty (e.g., accomplished painters and musicians). And because significant human beings have the capacity to serve as the inspiration for others, memory, like dreams and imagination can also be an origin of ideas.

Although countless numbers of people throughout history have fulfilled these roles in a most competent fashion, very few are considered significant, in the sense that they are known about by large numbers of people with whom they were personally unacquainted. Why many accomplished people lead anonymous lives outside of their small circle of friends and family, while others rise to the level of significance, originating ideas judged to be seminal, remains a mystery. It appears that excellence during one’s lifetime is a necessary condition but not a sufficient one. What role is played by chance, not only being in the right place, interacting with colleagues who facilitate success, but also being there at the right time in history, cannot be overstated.

The final issue concerns the addition of future “aps” or functional capabilities to the I-phone device.  The basis for these new applications rests on the answer to a fundamental philosophical question: do human beings possess a soul independent of the physical body? On the face of it, most people would respond in the affirmative, that the human spirit or that spark of life, which uniquely defines each person, is different from his or her body. But is that soul immortal and not just an integral part the body, perhaps residing in the brain, but incapable of surviving apart from the body? If this mystery could be unambiguously resolved in the affirmative, the stage would be set for ambitious producers of I-phones to engage their medical research staffs in the task of engineering still another separation theorem, this time separating the soul from the body. In an updated version, the I-phone producers would provide separation services and functionality for instantaneous time travel and space travel for separated souls.

The implications of such a scenario coming to pass are staggering. There would exist two parallel worlds, one of unambitious physical bodies, serving life sentences in an “Eastern Pennsylvania State Corrections Institution”-like environment, plagued by the crumbling infrastructure endemic to aging bodies, and capable only of mechanical activities necessary to sustain their lives, but missing the functionality associated with dreams, imagination, and memory of the separated souls. These features would not only be sufficient to ensure self-definition distinct from other souls, but the enhanced capabilities would permit reunions with deceased loved ones and interactions with souls from different time periods and distant locations. The role of subjects’ dreams in making possible contact from others and subjects’ memory in bringing about active efforts to instigate contact with other souls could be important elements in creating this new reality.


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