Sentient Ideas

Ideas emerge from the ceaseless storm of bursts in a complex network of cells. At least that’s what many scientists believe. If the world is purely physical, how else would it be? But the relationship between neurons and the abstract things they generate is wholly unknown. How can an infinite imagination with its colorful images and perfect shapes look so different from the squishy matter that creates it? After all, they both share the same space in my skull.

The huge gap between the physical and the abstract worlds is counterbalanced by an equally strange similarity. Ideas, like physical organisms, are born with their own unique identities. They mate and combine conceiving off-springs that go on their own journey in search of meaning. They compete inside brains to make it out in the physical world in the form of writing, speech and action, spreading through other minds and infecting their behavior. They hijack our imaginations and drag us into obsessions, habits and addictions. They define us with beliefs and roles as much as we define them. They organize and synchronize millions of people through stories, transforming us into neurons of much bigger brains. They have lives of their own, as if independent of ours, with their own desire to survive and fear of extinction. They are memes, as Dawkins calls them: like genes, they use us as survival machines.

What makes ideas so powerful is not only our brains that breathe life into them. It is equally their ability to travel around from one brain to another, explore very different mental worlds and learn from different points of view. They do it by some sort of teleportation. Sometimes, they leave a brain in clustered shapes. They hibernate and wait in books and servers until another brain comes along and absorbs them into their own world of imagination where they are born again. Sometimes, they leave via harmonic vibrations of fleshy chords, traveling in all directions through pressure waves. If lucky, they excite tiny drums hanging on the sides of other brains in which they continue their journey of mutation and evolution.

Not being bound by the lifetime of one brain, ideas can survive for thousands of years, becoming ever more complex and more resilient with every passing generation. They transcend our ephemeral existence and free us from the tyranny of change. Unlike genes that can only survive through demanding mating rituals, ideas are free from the burden of the flesh. Our bodies can hardly last more than a century but the body of ideas, we call culture, can live for millennia.

For this reason, when we animate our minds with age-old ideas, we feel as immortal as they are. They are especially powerful when they are abstract; thus free from the changing reality they represent. And the more abstract our truths, the closer to immortality we become. For example, the idea of “god” might be as old as Homo Sapiens. In whatever form it comes, it is always a symbol of space-time transcendence: a means of liberation from our transient existence bound by birth and death. This makes it naturally very abstract, and consequently very resilient.

When an idea is very stable across ages, the less stable ones gravitate towards it and use it as a reference, just like people orbit around those in power. The most stable idea sits on the throne of our minds, where it controls the others and gives us the feeling of being as immortal as it is. Sometimes there could be competition for the throne. For example, science and math offer a great deal of space-time transcendence in physical laws that unify much of what we experience. Although equations and gods don’t strictly compete ideologically, because they specialize in different domains, they clash culturally because there is only one throne reserved for what can truly transcend space and time and liberate us from our finiteness.

The power of ideas to recreate the world around us and redefine who we are is phenomenal, but it comes at a cost. In our minds, it is hard to tell what is real and what is created. Even colors can’t exist independently of their perceiver. Ideas make us immortal but only at the expense of blurring the difference between reality and illusion. They transcend our finite existence, but they also project it on a world very different than the physical one we live in. How much can we represent reality with abstract symbols and still describe it faithfully? The reality of the mind can be quite different than that of the world. One seeks to be simple and perfect while the other is dense with complexity and imperfection. Maybe it is a matter of choosing which version of truth is dear to us. Is truth a transcendence of space and time or is it but a pure and honest reflection of reality? In other words, which would you choose: beauty or honesty? Blue pill or red pill? Ideally, we’d like to have both, but a trade-off seems inevitable.

Whichever we aspire to, we are bound to live with opposing extremes constantly tugging us in both directions. But neither can be practically achieved. We are too intelligent to experience reality-as-is and too dumb to unify it in a single encompassing Truth. The optimal attitude is to embrace this paradox, in the hope of one day seeing that it, also, is just an illusion.