Can you touch an idea?

Ideas are part of everyday life. We have the idea of “red”, the idea of “sweet”, the idea of”the number 37″, and so on. Good ideas are valuable, and ideas in general are an essential part of our perception of the world. What I examine in this post is the connection between the ideas residing in our minds and the real, physical world.

In these discussions, we must, of course, define what we are discussing. So it is desirable to have a working definition of the word “idea” that we take as correct. Just as the liter is the basic measure of volume and the gram is the basic measure of mass, I take an idea to be a basic “unit of knowledge”. In other words, each self-contained, discrete piece of experience is to be considered an idea. So “colors” and “red” are here both defined to be ideas, although one seems to be a subset of another. But they are both “units of knowledge” and it is possible for us to think about colors as a whole or only about the color red, and for this reason I take both these to be ideas. It follows that an equivalent definition is “whatever is before the mind when one thinks”, and this is the definition for “idea” given on Wikipedia.

Now that we have a working definition for an idea, I will introduce the main premise of this post. If we think of an idea as a pictorial representation (of, for instance, the number 17), then does it follow that any printer able to print 17 dots possesses this idea, this “unit of knowledge”? Does a computer capable of processing “17” also possess this idea? These two pieces of technology are all part of the physical world, and yet they seem to be able to interact with an idea.

However, because they are limited to the physical world, the printing of 17 dots is not an act of brilliance but rather of translating a series of electrical pulses into corresponding blotches of ink, a purely physical process. Likewise, the processing of “17” on a computer is simply the interaction of electrical charges with other charges and with components of the computer. These changes are as physical as mixing baking soda and vinegar, and there is no reason to suppose that ideas themselves play any role. Certainly the printer has no knowledge, and the computer’s “knowledge” consists of bits on a hard drive!

However, why does this argument not apply to the “computer” that is the human brain? If it does, then we must conclude that ideas themselves do not exist. We claimed that computers did not have knowledge because their data was stored in purely physical means. We said that, because computers can be explained in a completely physical manner, it follows that they do not possess knowledge–rather, they are merely a big chemical/physical reaction. But our own knowledge is stored in neurons and processed in our synapses, so does it not follow that we are merely science projects as well?

Since above we defined an idea to be a “unit of knowledge”, it follows that having ideas is essentially equivalent to having knowledge. And what is knowledge but the ability to apply past experiences to current situations and the extent of those past experiences? It follows that computers actually do have some knowledge, although very basic and very little knowledge. They can apply their data only in very narrow situations, and their data is actually quite small compared to the experiences gathered in a lifetime.

We can only conclude that machines do have knowledge and thus ideas but only very basic ones. Yet a machine advanced enough would then be able to have sophisticated ideas. For more on this topic on “machines paralleling humans”, see my post at From the considerations in that post, it follows that this conclusion is reasonable. Furthermore, it shows that it is much more reasonable to conclude that human creations can have knowledge than to conclude that humans themselves don’t have ideas.

With these considerations it is easy to address the titular question: can you touch an idea? The answer is “no”. You can touch a physical representation of an idea, such as a drawing or a sequence of electrical pulses (although the latter might result in electrocution), but it is impossible to touch an idea itself since it does not exist in the physical world. This follows because it takes some creation capable of processing information in order to appreciate an idea. Ideas exist in the world of information and knowledge, not the world governed by Newton’s three laws, and therein lies the answer to the question.


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