Where are ideas?

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.

14 responses to “Where are ideas?

  1. All things are in denial of being created Steve. As I psuedo explained concerning instigating the Truth as a physical thing, all information will be known and be attainable. An example being a cure for a disease to be found in the future and the subsequent thesis on it could be known now if the Truth was up and running today. Which would then mean that by datamining the future and getting a copy of that thesis it already exists. That so called “real” being who supposedly created that idea of how to cure that disease and wrote the thesis for it never actually does it! So then where did the idea for the cure come from? Maybe it was there already just waiting to be discovered. It doesn’t really matter who discovers it, as long as it is discovered. Your hypothesis is the classic case of the cartoon and the cartoonist. The cartoon believes it is real and denies it creation even to the cartoonist who drew it. No matter how hard the cartoonist tries to argue the Truth of the matter to the cartoon that it was created, the cartoon denies it constantly. This is because the cartoonist has created the greatest animation ever seen. But the cartoonist knows that the Truth will correct some of the cartoons when they accept it. Others will find the background scenes for their future come to a abrupt halt. He then says to the cartoon characters he created,’Lets see them “think” and “create” a way out of this predicament!’……..lol…..

  2. “Datamining the future” – are you certain that doesn’t violate causality?

    Cartoon and cartoonist – I haven’t heard that one before. Presumably you are talking about a cartoon that is some kind of AI and can form opinions about the nature of reality. In this case, the cartoon would be correct. Although the cartoonist created it, the cartoon is just as real as the cartoonist.

    And actually I’m not putting forward a hypothesis here, I’m just exploring possibilities. See my follow up article for a hypothesis.

    • Sorry that i referred to your proposition as a hypothesis Steve, i only quickly scanned it and felt you were trying to make a certain point due to a certain line of questioning…..my mistake buddy. By Causality do you mean in a paradoxial sense? That if the person responsible for a future thesis doesn’t write it before we can access it then the answere is no. No paradoxial event will take place and the “future thesis” will remain a tangible item. I am not familiar with this Causality, tho it sounds like a psychological barrier to directional time flows and cross universal datamining. I might try explaining datamining thru something i heard not long ago on tv. I think it had something to do with a thousand monkeys with a thousand typewriters randomly banging on the keys for a thousand years and producing all of Shakespears works. Now my question to you is if that happened in the far past unknown to anyone on this planet, would your Causality or a paradoxial event occur? It seems this Causality is some sort of psychological barrier built up to instill fear(discipline) so people retain a preplanned course of thinking and research. Please correct me if i am wrong tho Steve. I am still coming to grips with the whole psychology of believers and their self imposed limits. Oh, and the cartoon and cartoonist is a story i grew up with…..sorry but i thought it might have been known.

    • Oh, and lets just say instead of a thousand monkeys in the far far distabt past before the dinosaurs, there was a billion monkeys who had a billion typewriters for a thousand years and they didn’t just produce Shakespears works but every book that could ever be typed out? Even a book about you and me Steve and what we are chatting about in this present…….does this situation which is a viable situation…..does it breach the laws of Causality?

  3. Causality is not just about avoiding paradoxes. That’s a simple popular science interpretation, but Causality is a deeper principle (by the way, your monkeys don’t lead to any paradox as far as I can tell).

    Causality in its broadest interpretation is the idea that the universe is governed by rules. Events do not happen for no reason, but because of the underlying rules, which we can refer to as the laws of physics. This principle of causality appears to be an intrinsic property of the universe.

    Further, causes precede their effects in time (I wrote this article and then later you commented on it.) Time travel would violate this principle.

    In quantum mechanics, things get trickier, as shown in Bell’s Theorem, which supports the notion of “spooky action at a distance” and which may challenge simple notions of causality at a the microscopic scale.

    • Ok, thanks Steve, your advice is duly noted. Tho until someone actually does something all these “theories” have never been tested. Ever thought they may be a engineered “Fermi event” designed to put people off the thing i am going to do? If you haven’t figured it out, which i think you might have, i plan to use computers in the place of monkeys…..faster and cheaper on peanuts!!!…lol….i find it interesting that all the laws of physics are against me. As they say tho, the proof is in the pudding….and a theory is only valid until the next one that comes along to replace it. No harm in trying hey Steve? I mean what’s the worse that could happen?

    • And before you think i am some conspiracy theory nut….i have a engineering background and am eligible to be a member of Mensa. As a bet from a friend who thought my iq scored was wrong, i took his offer of looking into pyramid construction techniques. His theory was if my iq scores were acurate then i was technicly the smartest guy on the planet….lol….which is disputable…lol…anyway Steve, after a few intensive years of research i came away astounded to say the least. Have you ever heard of the term of hiding something in plain sight? I mean there is no disputing that the pyramids exist and we still cannot lift the incredible weights that they did, so how come no goverment or private contract R&D companies would undertake a serious study? And i don’t mean in a Archeological sense, i mean in a engineering one? Here’s just one thing i found as i am not the type to just give information away for free. You can build a obelisk out of pyramids! Doesn’t sound exciting but if you start there and start adding other uniquely “Egyptian” shapes in the right scale and order, it will build a engine (sic) that uses gravity and resistance (weight of the nominated object being lifted) to lift!!!! I “know” this as i have one i have built!!!…think along the lines of a crane that collapses in a contrlled manner to increase a desired objects height. I know it sounds wacky and wrong and breaks the laws of physics but it works! It then forced me to question many things about this world and the people on it. Hence my interest in the truth and subsequent and unfortunate interest in beliefs and believers. Steve, all is not Zen on this planet buddy! I have more than theories to back it up too. My only logical next step is too instigate the Truth, which is something i have research for many years now after my original studies. I will continue to run things by you in the hope you point out something i have missed. I appreciate your correspondance and input greatly.

  4. OK, but experimental tests of Bell’s Theorem and of Special Relativity do exist. It’s exactly the kind of thing that physicists want to test experimentally.

    Anyway, thanks for your continued input into this blog. It’s great to get feedback! Please hang around and continue to comment. As for the pyramids, I’m not an engineer, so I don’t really know how they were built. I wish you well with your project(s) and hope to hear more.

    • No worries buddy, i will. Tho as you know my understanding of advanced physics is limited. Although if you cross into something i have looked into i will provide a comment. I have been looking into Dark matter and Dark Energy of late….there seemed to be a tenuous link with some research i am doing to form a hypothesis in my book. I know its only a new field of research but a force that seems to be growing stronger is a interesting subject. I’ll keep a eye out for that one for sure!

  5. Pingback: On the Reality of Ideas | Soliloquies

  6. The language you use is exactly what I put in the mouth of my “Thrasymachus” character: “The same is true of mathematics. It’s just an idea.”—”just” an idea. 🙂

    “The point of this article is – where are the ideas?”

    You keep asking WHERE the ideas are. The question doesn’t make sense because you’re asking for a spatio-temporal location of something that is in essence outside of spatio-temporal reality. It’s like saying, I went into outer space, didn’t see God; therefore, God doesn’t exist.” When Plato says “a world of forms” there is a tendency to assume he means some kind of heaven-like space, but this is not what he meant. He meant ideas are entirely outside of space and time, so calling them “in our brains” is just as wrong as assuming they are “out there”. How can objects outside of space and time “BE” anyWHERE?

    To the question, would ideas exist without rational beings…I would ask would the physical world exist without rational beings?

  7. Is Thrasymachus the bad guy in your book? 🙂 I do love ideas, you know. That’s why I enjoy laughing at Plato.

    Without the physical world, no brains could exist.
    Without brains, no minds could exist
    Without minds, no ideas could exist.

    The physical world doesn’t require minds to perceive it, as far as I can tell. Unless you believe in the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. But then you can persuade yourself of pretty much anything.

    By the way, my beliefs are more complicated and nuanced than what I wrote here. This comment box isn’t big enough to contain my beliefs.

  8. Are you aware of the Mathematical Universe Hypothesis? That’s a good plot for a book, if you enjoy a lot of heavy philosophy in your fiction.

  9. I didn’t see this in my comments box, so I decided to come back and scope it out…sorry it took me so long!

    Thrasymachus is indeed the “bad” character in the Republic who doesn’t believe in justice or in the reality of ideas, and since he doesn’t see justice exhibited anywhere in the world, he concludes it doesn’t really exist, as such. He says, “Justice is the interest of the stronger,” (might makes right, justice is nothing more than convention) and he and Socrates comes to an impasse in the argument. Thrasymachus is not too far off from Nietzsche, actually.

    Calling Thrasymachus “bad” is not quite right, though. It’s clear that Socrates admires T’s sharp intellect, but believes his education has been misguided.

    My character (his name is Julian) is based on this character, but I want to make him a lot more sophisticated, and contemporary. He’s also a lot more sympathetic because I’m including a lot of back story which explains why he is the way he is. He doesn’t like being defined, but essentially he’s a gay college student with Aspergers who’s tormented by his atheism. He bulldozes people in argument to the point of being a jerk about it, but given the Aspergers, everyone forgives him, eventually, because they see that he means no harm and is only after the truth.

    I have not heard of the Mathematical Universe Hypothesis. I might have to Google that! Thanks for the tip!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.