This week I’m getting all metaphysical. Since arguing that we create science rather than discover it, then it follows that science and the laws of nature are not “out there” waiting to be found, but are ideas contained within our imagination. They have the same status as stories that we tell each other.
The same is true of mathematics. It’s just an idea. That seems paradoxical, because mathematics has rules, like 1 + 1 = 2 that we can’t change. The rules seem to be real. They seem to relate to real world things that we can count.
But that’s an illusion. When we create the idea of 1 + 1, we are putting together other ideas that we already had, like the number one and the idea of adding, and we are saying that they work like this. By imposing rules and constraints, other rules and constraints then follow. Otherwise, anything would be possible and meaning would disappear in a puff of smoke.
Except that maths seems to be real. I can count real objects. Or am I just assigning my internal forms to real things? No, that can’t be right, because I can see the things – there’s one, there’s the second one, etc.
But if mathematics is closely tied to physical reality AND is a social construction of our own creation, what then? Is the physical universe just a construction of human brains? No, that’s stupid. Then is the physical universe a mathematical construction, to the extent that it appears to be rather like a computer? Is physics just a branch of information theory? Is the universe some kind of giant computer? If it is, what is it computing? Well, itself, obviously.
Anyway, this isn’t the point. The point of this article is – where are the ideas? They aren’t “out there” waiting to be found. Ideas are in our head. They are created by our minds. But we can encode them in speech and writing and transmit them to others, or leave them in books to be discovered later.
So are they now “out there” somewhere? Do they have an objective reality? Could they live in a computer as well as in someone’s head? Could they live in a book? Could I transmit them across the universe in an encoded radio signal? Do they become real then?
If ideas aren’t physical entities with a location and an objective reality, then what are they? Are they real, or do they exist only in a metaphysical sense? Are there ideas “out there” that no one has yet thought of, or do we create them in our heads when we first think of them?
Plato believed that ideas (or “forms”) transcend space and time and are beyond the mind, although the mind can somehow grasp them. He believed that everything in the “real” world is an imperfect copy of one of these idealised forms. According to Plato, the real world that we live in is a kind of shadow of the perfect world of ideas. That explains the philosophical problem of a priori ideas – ideas that we seem to discover, rather than invent. Ideas like logic that seem to already be decided somehow, rather than us inventing them. Where do they come from and how do we know them? Don’t ask me, I don’t know.
Although ideas exist in our minds and in our language, they’re not really part of our universe. If other universes existed, they would have ideas too. And if there was a God watching over all the universes, he or she would also have ideas. But God wouldn’t be inventing the ideas and waiting for us to find them – he would be inventing or discovering them in the same way that we do. We might even share some of the same ideas as God, and if so, that would be a way in which we would be similar to God. I’m talking metaphysically now – I don’t really believe in God. But I do believe in the idea of God.
Without God or thinking creatures, there would be no ideas. So whether you believe in ideas being “out there” or “in here” there would be no ideas without us.
Our universe is full of empty space and dumb matter which is awesome, but even more awesome is this stuff of ideas which isn’t anywhere (out there), but is in our minds, and encoded in our language, and perhaps nowhere else. Perhaps ideas don’t exist in any objective sense. They’re a figment of our imagination. And yet they’re the most amazing thing ever, because really we know nothing except ideas. Ideas are magical and make us like Gods. And if you think you know where they are, please leave a comment below, or in some idealised version of the comment box below. Or check out my afterthoughts on this topic.