Most “New” Ideas are Recycled; the Brain’s Design is 50k yr old
|June 28, 2014||Posted by Staff under Editorials|
This 2014 excerpt of Aeon, Jun 23, is by Andrew Crumey.
In nearly every era there arises, in some form, nearly every idea of which humans are capable. Certainly, there is the emergence of new ideas. However, the vast majority of ideas are recycled.
It is not hard to find fossilised ideas all around us. We still say that the sun rises and sets, or that we cast a glance over a page, though we know that the Earth rotates and rays come into our eyes, not out of them.
There are an awful lot of present-day theoretical physicists whose untestable ideas about superstrings or multiverses possibly put them in the same category as the jocular British pop-astrologer Russell Grant.
Intuition, however, could be considered revelation by a more secular name. We willingly attribute it to discoverers and innovators of all kinds – as long as their guesses are right.
The standard model of elementary particles grew out of studies of ‘symmetry groups’, an area of mathematics related to Kepler’s geometrical exercises. In each case, the idea was the same: start with a concept of mathematical symmetry and try to make it match reality.
The harmony of the spheres also has its counterpart in modern-day superstring theory, which supposes particles to correspond to those same vibrations that captivated the Pythagoreans, though, after more than 30 years of intensive study, the theory has yet to make a single prediction borne out by experiment.
An ‘occult force’, in Newton’s terms, was any hidden principle not directly observable in phenomena, and his opponents claimed that his version of gravitation was itself an occult force since it assumed some mysterious ‘action at a distance’. An analogous situation was thought by some to arise in quantum theory, leading to what Albert Einstein allegedly disparaged as ‘spooky action at a distance’.
Newton sought the original unit of length. In a different way, so do today’s physicists, though rather than cubits they speak of the ‘Planck length’, a unit determined by some juggling with fundamental values such as the speed of light and the gravitational constant.
The recurrence of ideas over the course of history is something that Jung or Pauli would have attributed to archetypes in the collective unconscious. An alternative would be the finiteness of human imagination, and susceptibility to cultural influence. While scientific theories can become increasingly technical and abstract, the brains that struggle to interpret their meaning haven’t evolved much in the past 50,000 years. If our own brain is a kind of living fossil, it’s hardly surprising that so much of what we do with it is metaphorically fossilised too.
Ed. Notes: So what’s new under the sun? Not much. Some ideas re-occur — as if they were behind their times — just as other ideas first appear, often without being accepted — as if they are ahead of their time. At least the re-occurence of good old ideas gives them another chance of being accepted, just as at last geonomics is gaining ground, over a century after Georgism, which which was over a century after phyiocracy, which was a century after Locke, Spinoza, William Penn, etc, and all of them were millennia after Confucius and Mencius.