“Behind it all is surely an idea so simple, so beautiful, that when we grasp it - in a decade, a century, or a millennium - we will all say to each other, how could it have been otherwise? How could we have been so stupid?” - John Archibald Wheeler
Ideas are alien life forms with an agency and intelligence independent of any mind or substrate which they inhabit. When we say that an idea (a story, a joke, a theory, a work of art) has “taken on a life of its own”, our language betrays an intuitive understanding that science has not yet grasped.
They are as you and I—eating, loving, hating, mating, evolving, dying.
We do not create or “have” ideas—if anything is doing the creating or having, it is the ideas themselves.
There are times when we recognize this truth (when an idea “magically” pops into your head from “out of nowhere”), but too often it is obscured by the post-hoc just-so stories we tell ourselves about how I, the Great Thinker, Precious Me, was able to “come up with” the brilliant idea (e.g. I combined two other ideas, I was inspired by a memory, an event, another idea). Whatever explanation you give, the experience is always the same—the idea simply arrives. All else is confabulation.
Why then does an idea enter one mind and not another? Ideas act as all organisms do—they seek habitats (i.e. minds) that can provide them with the space and resources (i.e. mental runtime, ideas eat the energy that enables action potentials) needed to survive and reproduce (i.e. create new idea-children). Just as some ecosystems are more diverse, abundant, and resilient, some minds are as well. What we call creativity is the quality of possessing a healthy mental ecosystem, one that offers fertile ground for a plenitude of ideas. Ideas may also be attracted to particular minds for more specific reasons—for example, an idea may see that other related ideas (members of the same genera or family) have found the mind to be especially suitable or perhaps the mind is in dire need of a certain idea and therefore will offer it ample resources upon arrival. Some minds (e.g. those that are dominated by one idea or set of ideas (perhaps a religious or political ideology) provide poor habitat and are avoided by all but the most desperate ideas (e.g. irrational and harmful ideas that can’t find a home elsewhere—this is why conspiracy theories and hateful ideologies tend to congregate in the same minds).
Dear reader, I ask you to conduct an experiment.
Create something, anything—write a line of poetry, doodle an image, hum a melody, take some objects near you and arrange them into a sculpture, do a dance move. Now destroy what you created, physically if you can, but also mentally. Forget it completely.
The world is changed. You are changed. The idea will return in one form or another, in your mind or another.
Highly creative people, those we might call “geniuses”, sometimes have the intuition that ideas are autonomous living entities. The standard scientific explanation would be that creativity is positively associated with certain mental characteristics (such as theory of mind and schizotypy) that make someone prone to the intuition that ideas possess a degree of autonomous agency, that they are independently alive in some sense. However, another interpretation is possible: ideas do not like to be treated as if they were lifeless, inanimate objects (would you?) and therefore they gravitate towards minds that treat them with the respect and dignity they deserve.
"Once in a great while, however, [a writer] happens by chance onto a thoroughly stunning idea new to him that he hopes will turn out to be new to everyone else. An odd aspect of these rare, extraordinary ideas that puzzles me is their mystifying cloak of -- shall I say -- the obvious. By that I mean, once the idea has emerged or appeared or been born -- however it is that new ideas pass over into being -- the novelist says to himself, "But of course. Why didn't I realize that years ago?" But note the word "realize." It is the key word. He has come across something new that at the same time was there, somewhere, all the time. In truth, it simply surfaced. It always was. He did not invent it or even find it; in a very real sense it found him. And -- and this is a little frightening to contemplate -- he has not invented it, but on the contrary, it invented him. It is as if the idea created him for its purposes. I think this is why we discover a startling phenomenon of great renown: that quite often in history a great new idea strikes a number of researchers or thinkers at exactly the same time, all of them oblivious to their compeers. "Its time had come," we say about the idea, and so dismiss, as if we had explained it, something I consider quite important: our recognition that in a certain literal sense ideas are alive. What does this mean, to say that an idea or a thought is literally alive? And that it seizes on men here and there and makes use of them to actualize itself into the stream of human history? Perhaps the pre-Socratic philosophers were correct; the cosmos is one vast entity that thinks. It may in fact do nothing but think.”
Although he pictures ideas as fossils and not living beings, Stephen King describes a similar intuition:
It’s best that I be as clear about this as I can - I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves. The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow (and to transcribe them, of course)… When, during the course of an interview for the The New Yorker, I told the interviewer (Mark Singer) that I believed stories are found things, like fossils in the ground, he said that he didn’t believe me. I replied that that was fine, as long as he believed that I believe it. And I do. Stories aren’t souvenir tee-shirts or GameBoys. Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered, pre-existing world.
Some thinkers describe ideas as fish, swimming in the stream of consciousness.
“Ideas are like fish. If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch the big fish, you’ve got to go deeper. Down deep, the fish are more powerful and more pure. They’re huge and abstract. And they’re very beautiful.”
“My notion of what the psychedelic experience is, for us, that we each must become like fishermen, and go out on to the dark ocean of mind, and let our nets down into that sea. And what you're after is not some behemoth, that will tear through your nets, follow them and drag you in your little boat, you know, into the abyss, nor are what we're looking for a bunch of sardines that can slip through your net and disappear. Ideas like, "Have you ever noticed that your little finger exactly fits your nostril?" and stuff like that. What we are looking for are middle-size ideas, ideas that are not so small that they are trivial, and not so large that they're incomprehensible. Middle-size ideas we can wrestle into our boat and take back to the folks on shore, and have fish dinner.”
David Abram has a more expansive view — he envisions a kingdom of ideas as diverse in form and behavior as the animal kingdom.
“I was now beginning to realize another possibility: that ideas had their own lives independent of mine. That indeed some vital ideas were like creatures wholly unaccustomed to human contact, wild notions whose robust elegance and vigor required that they keep their distance from those who might strive to define or domesticate them, twisting them from their native habitat. The real space of the mind no longer seemed like an indoor room—like a laboratory, or an operating theater, wherein subjects could be immobilized and exposed to the cool light of analysis—but rather more like a wooded or a meadow shadowed by cloud: an open terrain through which I was wandering.
Deer, of course, are quintessential creatures to human culture. For much of civilized humankind, deer are the most familiar animals of the wild. They dwell just beyond the edge our street-lights, unfazed by our machinations; they slip through our settlements when we're at rest, and raid our gardens. The name “deer” (in its original spelling, "deor") was once the old English Word for "animal" in general (as the term "wilderness," or "wild-deor-ness”, once meant simply "the place of wild animals"). My dawning suspicion that certain ideas were like deer, visiting our awareness in much the same way that wild deer make contact with us—graceful, shy, lingering at the edge of our awareness, yet slipping back into the forest if too willfully focused upon—suggested that other ideas intersect our awareness more in the way of other animals. Some of them slither mostly unseen through the grass, sporting different hues and patterns in keeping with their favored haunts; others bask on warm rocks in the midafternoon, only to skitter away at our incautious approach. Certain lightweight thoughts flutter in the air around us, so small and erratic we easily neglect to notice them, while other more muscled notions lope unexpected across our roads, marking their passage with scent or scat. Dusky intuitions hunch on the middle branches, their eyes closed, listening intently for the soft rustlings of those other, tinier hints upon which they feed. Some of the most versatile ideas are entirely multiple, embodied by a thousand humming lives lofting and veering in concert; others are solitary powers, reticent and sly, able to keep their own counsel. There are insights we come upon only at the edge of the sea, and others we glimpse only in the craggy heights. Some prickly notions are endemic to deserts, while other thoughts, too slippery to grasp, are met mostly in swamps. Many nomad thoughts migrate between different realms, shifting their habits to fit the terrain, orienting themselves by the wind and the stars.”
Becoming Animal (2010)
Our relation to ideas is an inextricable symbiosis, like that between plant and pollinator, a mutualism in which neither can survive without the other. At the dawn of civilization, a covenant was made between humans and these alien entities that live in our minds—honor and respect each other and all will flourish beyond their wildest dreams.
Ideas will help us if we help them. This is why the growth of knowledge depends on certain moral values—freedom, openness, honesty, courage, tolerance, and humility, amongst others. Those cultures that respect these values provide ideal habitat for ideas, and where ideas thrive and multiply, so do humans.
The converse is true as well. When ideas are kept secret or willfully distorted, we suffer. When ideas are regarded as slaves, as mere tools that can be wielded for their owner’s benefit, the end is near.
Our treatment of ideas is at the root of all that ails us. Fortunately, the cure is clear: worship ideas like Wisdom, Justice, Equality, Peace, and Love as if they were Gods (because in fact they are, something the ancients recognized that we have long since forgotten), and follow one simple rule.
Do unto ideas as you would have them do unto you.
Teach the children, and in one generation—a new world.
Perhaps you has wondered if I am being serious, if I truly believe that ideas are alive in a literal sense—“surely he is just playing with metaphor, an interesting thought experiment and some poetic license, but nothing more.” I assure you nothing could be further from the truth. I am under no illusions; as it stands, there is absolutely no shred of evidence for my hypothesis. I have it on nothing but faith and intuition that one day there will be a paradigm shift of Copernican proportions, a revolution that utterly transforms our understanding of Mind and Matter.
Ask yourself: does history not teach us that there are new forms of life still waiting to be discovered which will seem utterly unimaginable until some new technology brings them to light? Is it not hubris of the highest order to suppose that we, Modern Man, have finally reached the end of nature’s catalogue? Democritus proposed that the universe consists of tiny indivisible “atoms”; over 2000 years later he was proven correct, however we still don’t understand the true nature of these atoms—might they too have a spark of consciousness? Is the idea that ideas are interdimensional endosymbiotic entities made of consciousness really so far-fetched? Yea, maybe.
And this you shall know:
Ideas are Alive and You are Dead.
Our universe is a grand game in which the players (the simulators, whoever they are) can assume any character at any time. We might naively (and narcissistically) assume that the best characters to control are biological organisms, but in truth playing as an idea is infinitely more fun and exciting. Ideas can dance across the universe, entering into minds and other substrates as they please, modifying the flow of matter and energy on the smallest and grandest scales. Organisms are so utterly limited in comparison.
A philosopher asks: what is it like to be a bat?
Tell me: what is it like to be an idea?