Journal, 10/1/17

How many ideas are there?

Well if I began to count those just on my blogs (of which I’ve published 1179 as of today) I wouldn’t be able to do so, (l have tried). For I could never make a final count because, as they are now fixed in place on my web site, they are of a single piece, and if ever again I were to try to count them I would encounter immediately an infinite number of ways of breaking them up. Our ideas do not remain isolated but have a way of joining up with other ideas as on my blogs, without obvious lines of separation between them.

Of course I’m not alone in my attachment to ideas. There was Charles Beard, the historian who wrote: “the world is largely ruled by ideas,” and Ludwig von Mises, the economist who said: “The genuine history of mankind is the history of ideas.” And there are of course hundreds, thousands of others saying much the same thing.

And when I think about my own history, if there were no ideas of my own would I even have a history? Would the events of my life stand on their own without ideas supporting them?

Furthermore don’t we hold onto the past in as much as the past is a history of ideas? For it is the ideas, not the proper names of the rich and famous, that enable us to remember. The history of the modern world is not the history of its kings and presidents, but the history of its ideas, those for example of the American, French, and Russian revolutions. Also, our history is no less the ideas of the great scientists, those of Galileo, Newton, Maxwell, Einstein and countless others. It’s not the life stories of its kings, as fascinating as these stories might be, but Galileo’s rolling a ball down an inclined plane that means more to me than all the names and dates of the English kings and Russian Tsars.

Furthermore, I might ask do the countless ideas that encompass our lives form a hierarchy, those higher up and those lower down? The idea of God being way up there, and evil and the Devil way down? Up there being Thomas Jefferson’s all men are created equal and way down the ideas of our president, the ideas of white supremacy and America First?

Is there a single greatest idea, one up above all the rest? For a few thousand years it was the idea of God, but now that God has been replaced by the findings of science is there an idea above all the rest? Newton’s theory of universal gravity, no less applicable to us than to the lowly apple? Or perhaps Darwin’s theory of natural selection, which according to Daniel Dennett was the “single best idea anyone has ever had.”

Well we’re not there yet. We don’t yet agree about any single idea, let alone God. We’re still looking for God’s replacement, although in my own case I’ve found it, and for me it’s a combination of liberty and fraternity, the two qualities (ideas) that in my own life are at the top of a hierarchy of ideas.

What are the worst ideas anyone has ever had? After the Devil embodying the  acceptance of the existence of evil in the world, the worst ideas just have to be those motivating Stalin, Hitler, Mao and their ilk who created, from their own terrible ideologies, the killing machines of the 20th. century.

What follows, here and in additional blogs, are a few of the ideas that I’ve been “entertaining” lately, ideas that I’ve run into and to which I respond with ideas of my own. For example, here’s an idea that I recently encountered, that one cannot think in a vacuum, that one’s thinking is best done, in fact probably only done in the company of others, or rather in the company of the ideas of others, and that the birth of new ideas is always the result of a collaboration, of one’s ideas joining up with those of others, learning itself being therefore a kind of collaboration.

Here then is the idea (not new and not mine) —that ideas exist less by themselves, in individual brains, than on networks, in my own case the network now being the Internet (whereas before the network was that of the books collected over many years and placed on my shelves). No question that we reach the ideas of others much more efficiently on the internet (which I carry around with me in my pocket on an iPhone supplied with digital copies of thousands of books). My paper books remain out there on my shelves, still lovely to look at but almost never opened.

Following that thinking here’s another idea. Libraries, much as book stores, are on the way out. Why? Simply because the internet makes ideas more accessible, and more accessible to almost everyone, much more than ever did even the best of libraries.

I won’t get to it now, but as many of you are probably thinking, aren’t ideas like Dawkins’ memes? those cultural “genes” that as we choose between them we are growing and changing our culture, selecting some memes (that could be as grand as social ideas, or as little as expressions in our language) much as genes for this are selected, as being more “fit” than genes for that.  Here my thinking comes close to the idea of progress and to develop that idea, of course, I would need to write a book that which I’m not about to do.

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