The headmaster of my high school, once substituting for our history teacher, imposed this idea on us that none of us have any original ideas and that we are not exceptional. He insisted that none of our ideas are truly novel and that all of our ideas are derivatives of others in some way. Even Einstein once quipped that
The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.
So it seems that Einstein, a creative genius, was also on board with this idea on some level.
My headmaster’s idea challenged me for many years as I self-reflected and tried to come up with examples of my own creativity, examples where my ideas weren’t influenced by anyone else in any way. It’s really hard and it is easy to conclude that I therefore must not be very creative and I must not be very exceptional.
Everybody Does It
Like Einstein, many successful people seem to be able to “steal” people’s ideas and sell them as their own. Nassim Taleb became famous after appropriating the idea of the Black Swan from Karl Popper; I studied the epistemology of inductive knowledge in high school (International Baccalaureate) and when Nassim was becoming famous for Popper’s idea put forth in the early 20th Century, I always felt a little irritated when people talked about him or his book. I didn’t think it offered anything new and insightful and he shouldn’t have deserved the attention that he received. It was copied work but he contributed by making it relevant to current times, and OK, he *is* a terribly intelligent, and fascinating man.
Similarly, Jordan Peterson, is promoting the idea of responsibility, but I haven’t seen him give credit to where credit belongs, to Viktor Frankl, who is sort of the father of Logotherapy who explained that freedom and happiness is one thing but to truly have a successful life, you have to be willing to rise up to the occasion and to contend for something meaningful. And that means putting certain freedoms in liberties in balance with meaning and responsibility, such as can be obtained by starting a family and taking care of your children and your loved ones. Peterson at least has never claimed to have invented anything new, but he doesn’t always cite his inspirations.
People use other people’s ideas without necessarily giving credit, and honestly I’m trying to learn from the masters and do the same. Sometimes my points get lost in the sources and the references. So, it shouldn’t be very surprising to find evidence of people copying other people’s ideas and having them come across as if they were their own, even though they never claimed such a thing.
OK, this essay IS NOT about other people’s ideas and I’ve finished my resentful rant now. This is not what is interesting to me right now. What is interesting is that ideas propagate and that they come from somewhere else. What is interesting is that ideas are made up of a combination of more primitive ideas and I want to explore the implications of that.
There’s More Than One Idea
But here’s the thing, IF I’m not able to generate ANY novel ideas, and IF all my ideas are just derivatives of some other parent ideas, as in the case of the famous examples above, then, can we first establish that there *are* different ideas in the world? Can we establish that the idea of money or “currency” did not derive out of the idea of love or its constituent “atomic” ideas (if there are any). I call these ideas atomic because they cannot be broken down into simpler ideas. Can we establish that today, there are thousands if not millions of ideas in the world? All making love and rebelling against each other, alike.
Whether or not ideas truly are derivative is actually less important because I’d like to know, what was the original idea? If all our ideas are little branches and leaves, then what idea is the trunk of all those? Where does it all start? The general public has saturated the contemplation of the original human being, but what was the first moment of abstraction?
And what does it mean to have an idea? I think it means to transcend simple observation. Pure video-graphic input processed by my visual-cortex through stimulus by photons on my retina is not an idea. An idea is inherently much more transcendental. An idea is understanding. And understanding is consciousness. I doubt that cockroaches are able to have ideas. It’s not algorithmic. What was the first moment of consciousness that gave birth to a watcher?
The “Atomic” Idea
When you think about it this way, when you think of ideas as being the cross-pollinated emergent of other ideas, producing little baby ideas, then you start thinking about what ideas are atomic and cannot be broken down any further. If colors can be broken down into a set of “prime” colors from which all other colors can be created, then what are the prime set of ideas? What was the first color we understood to be different from others? And what was the first idea, ever, in the history of human consciousness? Was it discovered or was it created? And are there an infinite number of ideas?
Is A Word an Idea?
Language is a possibility. The most basic idea that I can think of is embodied in a single word. To recognize something as “fire” or “not fire” is in a way a very basic, binary, digital recognition of the world into two categories. The word “fire” or “bird” or “water” is a very basic concrete idea that takes something that exists in reality and conceptualizes it in the brain. Perhaps, later in our evolution some of these words became more abstract such as “time” or “love”.
In computer science, and in machine learning, they actually often model language as a “one-hot vector”. Each slot in the vector can be either “on” or “off” and each slot represents a different word and only one slot can be “on” at any given time.
In a way, each slot is a vibration into consciousness. It’s a perturbation of the world from pure chaos into recognizable order. It separates what is from what is not on some axis or dimension. It’s an “atomic” pulse that makes sense of the world and if we have a sufficient number of these “atomic” ideas, we can create terribly sophisticated, complicated super-molecular structures and ideas upon which whole societies can be created and to drive economic and scientific progress.
I imagine the first human being, or perhaps he/she wasn’t even human, but some other animal, wherein consciousness arose, and I imagine this idea being a simple word of some sort. I imagine the first slot in the one-hot vector being created – the dictionary of one slot. And I wonder… what was that single utterance?
I also imagine, if I could experience more kinds of conscious awareness, that some modes of consciousness would not be able to develop or perceive ideas that only exist in other forms of consciousness. If a mushroom gave me black-and-white vision, and if it was permanent, then I’d never be able to develop the idea of “blue”. Or if I lost my sense of ego, I might never be able to distinguish myself form the rest of the universe and I’d never have the subjective idea of “self”. I’m not often traversing realms of consciousness, except through meditation, so my experience is limited and my speculation is vast. But in that imagination is a multi-verse of sorts of ideas that are achievable only in one universe but not in the other.
Regardless of my speculations, it turns out, surprisingly, that what I’ve been talking about is kind of religious, or perhaps more accurately, it tells us something about one of the mysteries of a well-known Biblical phrase. It turns out that I’ve worked my way backwards in this essay, from the notion of ideas, to the inheritability of ideas, to their constituents parts and to their emergent convolutions, to thinking about the very origin and “Big-Bang of Consciousness”, where ideas (and therefore consciousness, too), are continually expanding and I’ve come to this unexpected, but natural conclusion that:
In the beginning was the Word…
And you get to decide what that Word was.