Yesterday I was wondering, where are ideas? Then afterwards, I had another idea (did you also lie awake at night worrying about this?)

I was discussing how ideas can be encoded in language, perhaps in a book or in a computer memory, or as a radio transmission. And this I think is the key point – ideas exist purely as encodings of information in some kind of physical form.

We like to think of ideas as abstract entities, existing “beyond”. But they aren’t really. When you die, all the ideas in your head will disappear. Only the ones you wrote down or told to someone else will outlive you.

So I’m pretty sure that Plato was wrong. Ideas don’t exist “out there”. They are right here, in our thoughts, in our books and on our computer screens. Encoded data is all they are. Encoded data is a subject that computer scientists and mathematicians study and it’s related to the physical principle of entropy, or disorder.

Let me illustrate what I’m talking about. In maths, we have created the idea of an infinite set of numbers 1, 2, 3, etc. We have created rules that let us write down numbers, compare numbers, and perform operations on them, like addition and multiplication. But that doesn’t mean that an infinite number of numbers actually exists. Until somebody writes them down, they merely have the potential to exist, according to the rules we devised.

Here’s a number that’s probably never been written down before:


It’s conceivable that someone wrote that number down or that a computer calculated it, but let’s suppose for the sake of argument that this is the first time it’s appeared. Where did it come from? Did I invent it? Did it exist as one of Plato’s forms, waiting to be plucked out of the ether? I don’t think so. I think I created it by applying the rules of what constitutes a number. Before I typed it, the number didn’t really exist. Only its potential existed, described by the rules of mathematics. The rules of mathematics are sufficiently general for an infinite number of such numbers to be created. The same is true of language.

If I delete this number from this website (and all copies of it), then it won’t exist any longer. But the rules that created it will enable it to be created again.

I can’t prove my theory. The scientific method would require me to outline some real or imaginary experiment I could perform that would distinguish between ideas as encoded data and ideas as abstract forms. I can’t think of one right now. Maybe later?

You may think this notion of ideas as encoded data rather prosaic. You might prefer to imagine ideas as more like Plato’s’ idealised eternal forms existing beyond the physical universe as pure abstractions.

But how about this? Think of ideas as more like living things. We forge them out of our own imaginations. We breathe life into them through the act of creativity. They exist in our world as fragile, brightly-coloured creatures that must be nurtured and cared for. We can set them free by sharing them with others so that they spread and grow, or if unloved, they will be extinguished and die.

I just love ideas. Don’t you?


One response to “Afterthought

  1. Yes … and wow. Good stuff.

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