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What is an Idea made of?

  1. Nov 17, 2004 #1
    I was just wondering...

    It sounds like a silly question but I ask it with all seriousness. Given the nature of all the particles, waves, sparks, quarks, wimps and what-nots that exist in the quantum realm I am curious as to what type of material an idea consists of.

    If I share a thought or mental image with you, do I add to your total mass? If I go in to a library and learn something new that I didn't know before I went in I have added to my knowledge but am I heavier, physically, when I leave?

    Picture a pig bouncing a glass ball while standing upside down on the bottom of a cloud. I have given you a picture that you didn't have. Where did I get the image? Where is the image stored and what is it made of? What color is the pig in your mind? Is the image a "real" thing? Like a beam of light or a gravity wave? Can it be measured or detected with an instrument?

    I was just wondering...
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 18, 2004 #2
    I think the process of learning alters chemical bonds in the brain. I dunno perhaps you break an H off one of those crazily long hydrocarbon chains. I guess that'd be breaking an S to SP bond (doesn't each carbon atom connect to the carbons on the side of it via SPx hybridization and to the hydrogens by Spy hybridization...yeah that makes sense energetically). I know that enzymes play a huge role in the body so you have to consider activation energies, so you can't just base all your analysis on what will lower the energy the most. So I don't think learning anything makes you heavier. It takes energy to break the bond, but so long as that H atom stays within your body, and you consider everything in your body to be your system, then you conserve mass.
  4. Nov 18, 2004 #3


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    You have raised one of the central issues of modern neuroscience, which include what is consciousness, what's an idea, that is how does the mind/brain work?

    As RedX suggests, we do know that learning, forgetting, hanging out, and doing are generated by neural pulses. thus the brain is constantly physically changing. The molecular patterns in neural transmitters change substantially with receipt or generation of a pulse; the pulse is generated and sustained by non-linear currents -- sodium, potassium, and, (I think) calciumT-- that flow thorough the surface wall of the axon-- the neural conducting wire.The energies are so small that any mass change is virtually impossible to detect, but, technically there are mass changes constantly going on in the brain -- in the entire body for that matter. That these changes occur is of no great consequence.

    If you go to GOOGLE with neuroscience, or thinking, or .... you will be overwhelmed by the number of references, a testament to scientists grinding out understanding through constant application. There's a lot known, but more isn't
    Reilly Atkinson
  5. Nov 18, 2004 #4
    usefully structured shorted circuits of elecrocemical interactivity which at any given moment are triggered by specific signals that trigger parallel IF-THEN chemical processes which trigger more activity shaped by stored-pathways constructed by previous electrochemical activity stimulating hard-wared glial protein chains to form patched connections that can recall the state/circuit that the previous activity produced [memory]
  6. Nov 18, 2004 #5

    Les Sleeth

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    The structure and material of an idea might be as the other posters have said. But is an idea only its structure and material?

    An analogy I often use is that of a painting, say the Mona Lisa. If you describe the structure and materials of the paints, canvas, etc., have you described all that made that painting occur? Doesn't it seem to overlook da Vinci's creative contribution?

    Similarly, there is an idea along with its structural and material make up, and then there is the thinker of the thought and the meaning of the thought, which are not fully accounted for with physical characteristics.
  7. Nov 18, 2004 #6


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    Your example of the painting - the disconnect between its subject and the materials it is made of - seems to be the same as Aristotle's example of the coin - the disconnect between the image on it and the metal of which it was made. In Aristotle's case this leads to dualism; the world of matter is distinct from the world of Forms. Doesn't your example also lead to that? Aren't ideas, for you, a completely separate order of reality from neurochemistry?
  8. Nov 18, 2004 #7
    This is how one can go about proving metaphysics to a skeptic. An idea is not tangible; it has no empirical, physical properties. You can not assign numbers or values to an idea. An idea is therefore the workings of the mind (metaphysical) put into tangible form with our speech or writing or w/e it is you're doing. This argument is extremely strong if it is expanded, since the Scientific Method tries to assign everything in the world values.
  9. Nov 18, 2004 #8


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    What I thought was fascinating was the proposal (don't know who started it, or how seriously it's taken, but I got it from a Robert J. Sawyer novel) that there is a quantum mechincal process that happens at the very root level of our thought processes.

    Since God Does play dice with the universe, and those QM events cannot be predicted or controlled, it means that our lives and behaviour are not completely deterministic, as a purely classical theory of life would lead us to conclude.

    It means quantum mechanics has gifted us with free will.
  10. Nov 18, 2004 #9
    Mind-body problem

    Your question of what an idea is made of is the main theme of the mind-body problem in philosophy.

    How can something material (the brain) create something immaterial (thought)?

    Many theories have been proposed from idealism to B.F. Skinner sweeping the issue under the rug.

    As far as I know, obtaining knowledge does not add mass to a body, just the same, storing information in a computer's hard drive does not add weight to the system.
  11. Nov 18, 2004 #10
    There is no evidence that brains create thoughts, if they did, they could do it when they were dead. So then if this is so, it might be more logical to think that something immaterial uses the brain to express its thoughts, when it’s alive.
  12. Nov 18, 2004 #11


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    energy that is called will perhaps? i think ultimately and at it's most basic form, ideas, thoughts etc are a form of energy originating in the brain...
  13. Nov 18, 2004 #12


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    I think there is compelling evidence that the (living) brain is responsible for thoughts. I would say you are in an extremely small majority if you think the brain and our thoughts are unrelated. Why does a stroke affect someones ability to think? How come the electrical activity of the brain as seen in a cat scan can be put in a direct correspondence with different types of thoughts?

    Also, quantum mechanics says our actions can't be predicted, but it says nothing about will. These are random processes, what does it mean to say they give us free will?
  14. Nov 18, 2004 #13
    If everything is the result of a band of energy vibrating in 11 dimensions then an idea would have to be a number of strings that is dependant on it's vibrational rate and the dimensions it vibrates in just like a field/wave or an object/particle.

    The commonality of ideas would then be a vibrational and dimensional constant that we as evolved entities project onto spacetime fabric in much the same way as a flashlight projects light

    so how fast is the speed of thought if we can project an idea to the edge of existence and back in the blink of an eye ???
  15. Nov 19, 2004 #14


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    What is an Idea made of?

    Probably the same stuff that dreams are made of.
  16. Nov 19, 2004 #15
    What is this evidence? You left out the fact that dead brains do not produce the same effect, maybe something is missing. When you say responsible, you say that brains produce them? You are claiming then that thoughts are physical. The mechanical explanations of how the brain works and all the other components of the body that work with it, are understood better as we build on each new discovery but to say that physical creates the non-physical is contradictory to what we know about reality.

    I agree with you I do not think that. I think the relationship is similar to a light bulb. Have you ever seen a light bulb, light up, if no electricity went through it? You need a light bulb, current and then you have light.

    Because the mechanism has been damaged. That says nothing to why the mechanism does not work or why thoughts are produced when it is not broken.

    Now that has always been my argument. I agree with you, the only way to test it would be for you to die during the experiment. But now listen, that still does not give us an explanation why brains create thoughts, it only says that brains are necessary and something more also.

    Quantum mechanics states that actions are in a state of all probabilities until observation occurs. The fact that observation changes random process into a collapsed engine state means there was a choice. What is interesting and that which we are discussing, is what made the observation? When an observation is made a choice is taken, nothing can change its result. Where the observer looks indicates its free will.
  17. Nov 19, 2004 #16


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    Referring to the correlation between electrical activity of the brain and conscious thoughts, in modern experiments:

    No, it shows that brains are necessary, period. The "something more also" is your addition, solely deriving from your predjudice, and not in any way from experiment.
  18. Nov 19, 2004 #17

    Les Sleeth

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    There is only one way I have been able to get around dualism. It takes a bit to explain. I apologize in advance for the long-winded and speculative nature of my answer. :redface:

    I’ve been pondering why many thinkers resist duality, as though it seems counterintuitive to them. Even those scientists looking for a GUT I suspect are afflicted by a desire for unity, as I am myself.

    I wonder if the reason why “oneness” seems natural to some of us is because we really are intuiting some sort of unity that’s at the base of creation. You probably know that Bertrand Russell talked about neutral monism, a theory which postulates there is some most essential existential “stuff” of which everything is a form. If such an absolute foundation is present no one seems able to observe it, so one is limited to inductively modeling its nature, which I have done in other threads.

    While not accessible by the senses, people who become skilled at meditation often report achieving “union” with something that is bright and vibrant (some people who’ve taken psychotropic drugs have also described this). From such experiences I’ve modeled the absolute stuff as an uncreated, indestructible, infinitely extended continuum of vibrant illumination. If everything is a form of that illumination, then it means in its “neutral” state it must have the ability to become all that we are and see.

    I’ve speculated the continuum must be dynamic because without movement, nothing could happen. Maybe, for example, it incessantly compresses and decompresses in spots; maybe a rare occurrence is that a series of compressional events happen at a single spot and create some sort of polar, oscillating counterbalanced entity (it’s an “entity” in the sense that it acquires defining and lasting characteristics). In this way that an orderly dynamic can accidentally come about within, and be distinct from, the normally chaotic dynamics of the continuum. From that I see two possibilities (we are at last getting to our universe).

    One is, that “entity” which resulted from the compressional series becomes the Big Bang. That would mean right now what we call matter is compressed illumination, whose vibrancy is accentuated by compression to oscillate and polarize (say as proton and electron), and entropy and universal expansion are aspects of the process of decompression. In this theory, everything that has occurred (including life and consciousness) is pure accident resulting from the order and structure the original compressional series set up.

    The second theory makes more sense to me, which is that the original compressional series created a means for consciousness to evolve. Evolution becomes its nature, and unlimited by time or size restrictions it evolves until it develops the ability to compress an area of itself and cause the Big Bang. Everything would still be as it is in the first scenario, except now well-ripened evolutiveness is part of the fabric of the universe. Evolution is life forms is a manifestation of this quality, and the emergence of consciousness is actually the emergence of that evolutiveness, materializing through avenes univeral evolutiveness itself evolved (i.e., the nervous system).

    Okay, so to finally answer your question! :yuck: I am not saying I know that’s how creation is/works. What I am saying is that if one adopts a variety of neutral monism, then it is possible to model creation without dualism. One can recognize there is structure and function, and there is some kind of organizing force present too (or not, if one prefers the physicalist approach). In either case, because all of it is a “form” of the same absolute existential stuff there is no dualism. So what’s an idea made of? The same thing as everything else.
    Last edited: Nov 19, 2004
  19. Nov 19, 2004 #18
    so we are in concurrence then Les ???

    ...background dependence on an underlying reality not yet visible. We are the manifestations of the unified theory
  20. Nov 19, 2004 #19

    Les Sleeth

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    One thing I would emphasize about my own view is that the explanation I have is largely theory, and I am still open to any other theory that makes more sense. The only thing I am sure of is that I do experience that "illumination" during meditation (and when I was younger, with peyote as well). All the rest is my attempt to fit observable facts with my limited experience of "something more."
  21. Nov 19, 2004 #20
    No experiment has ever shown that brains work, when there is no life in them. So do not tell me, that when they do have life, that they work on there own.
  22. Nov 19, 2004 #21
    Thank you all for your thoughtful and considered responses. This being my very first posting of a discussion thread, I am more than pleased by the tone of the replies... no one even hinted that I might be just a little more than looney than learned. It means that either I am not crazy or we're all as mad as hatters. Fun for the brain tho... so thanks again.

    I originally posted this thread in the quantum physics section but for some reason it was moved to this one (philosophy). Anyone know why? I am not looking for a philosophical or religious reflection on the topic. I was hoping to focus on a practical, scientific and physical explanation or definition as to the physical or material properties of what we refer to as life... or consciousness.

    Reading through the replies I find bits and pieces of my overall theory of life, consciousness and the universe contained in each of them. I will respond shortly with comments and quotes (if I can figure out how to include them)that I hope will pull your answers together into a new train of thought dealing with this issue.

    Thanks again for your input.
  23. Nov 19, 2004 #22
    You want the opinion of someone who has an abundance of them?

    Basically it's mostly metaphysical - imaginary. Not to be measured by instruments. Dead brains BTW is the same as a computer without power for good.

    Want to have good ideas?
    nr1 Study, study and study and study everything. Know how things work but doubt how things work at the same time. It all matters. Don't specialize, you're bound to be specialized in the wrong area where ideas don't matter.
    nr 2 Toy, play, make funny associations about everything. Never say this is impossible because..
    nr 3 get your feet back on the ground and do the dishes
    nr 4 assume the opposite. if A then B ? really ? how about if NOT A then B or if A then NOT B. (A.K.A. thinking out of the box)
    Nr 5 Avoid fallacies, especially Post Hoc ergo propter hoc. On the contrary, toy with Post Hoc? ergo NOT propter hoc.

    Ingenuity is 1 percent of inspiration and 99 percent of work and I guess that I know what I'm talking about. I know I'm not a genius but I can be tedious and apparent miracles to others only are merely hard worked out concepts. It took me a year to construct a Bridge puzzle which was quoted as "ïngenious and very difficult". No, not really ingenious. One single spark, as a result of thinking the unthinkable, A one million volt idea in a split second and a year of hard work.

    But the substance of an idea is zero, like the weight of a document on a diskette.
    Last edited: Nov 19, 2004
  24. Nov 19, 2004 #23
    You were moved here because this is a philosophical question, physics can not answer your questions but maybe someday, your questions will be part of physics and then they will try to. There is plenty of threads to read in Metaphysics & Epistemology, just search the database.
  25. Nov 19, 2004 #24
    I guess I can understand the logic but for me this is NOT a philosophical question. Trying to understand WHAT the universe is made of before first knowing HOW it was made is futile. Its like thinking that you know all there is to building a car because you can go into a parts store, buy every thing you need and build a car from scratch. But take aways the parts store and you realize that, without knowing how the parts are made, you can't build squat.

    If your quote is here twice it means I think I know how to include multiple quotes in a reply.

    Thanks again for your input Rader
  26. Nov 19, 2004 #25
    Best of the answers!
    Absolutely correct!!! And they come from the same place, too!
    This is the answer I liked best.

    I used up so much energy thinking about your response that I forgot the question, got light in the head and then went to lie down to conserve energy in my considerable mass. When I got up I was still as heavy tho...

    Assuming you are correct, the fact that the brain or any other part of our body is changing is understandable and is detectable. As we grow we add mass. we gain and lose weight constantly. As we age our bodies lose mass.

    Your body and brain can only get so big, physically. And its mass can be detected (weighed). How big can your mind get? How many thoughts, facts or memories can you retain before you mind is full?

    I loved this answer, particularly the reference to the IF-THEN process. As a computer programmer and very deep thinker (well as deep as a shallow guy such as myself can be anyways) I understand the use, function and purpose of IF-THEN. I believe you are fundamentally correct in your description of how the chemical triggers result in the interactivity between various proteins and chains... the hard-wired components of the brain can patch in/recall/reconnect to previous activities... the memories.

    Put simply, once a memory is created, or an idea is conceived, we can at a later time, either by choice or by stimulation, recall or reconnect to it. Remember the pig in my question? First it was an image... now its a memory (hopefully). When you think about it... when you reconnect.... where does your mind go to retrieve it?

    Are your memories stored within you or without you?

    Les Sleeth
    Another excellent answer! I too often use a painter and his painting as an analogy to illustrate the process of creation. A painter can have all the brushes, oils and canvases the world holds... but until he can see the picture in his mind it can not become a painting we can see. If I may restate your second line, Les, Only an idea can give structure to the material. Even if the artist decides to fling the paints at the canvas and see what happens... the result is not random it is still the product of his vision.

    Self AdJoint
    Might it be possible that an Idea is the source of reality?

    I agree that an Idea has no physical properties or values outside of the entity that conceives it. But what about an answer? An answer would have a value. Could that value then be translated in to a property?
    Assume for the moment the Big Bang theory is correct in explaining how the physical universe began. We know we exist in a physical universe now. The question becomes what existed before the bang? Specifics aside there are only two possible answers... there was something or there was nothing. Using the IF-THEN process to determine the answer based on what we know, that there is something now, we would give a value to the two possible states. Nothing would have a value of 0. Something would have the value of 1.
    What would the result be to the the question? If there was Nothing then...? else there was something then...?

    While I respect your beliefs I can't entertain any answer that includes GOD in its reasoning. I vehemently reject any concept of a GOD or Gods and the notion that we are subject to their plans or whims. Even if there is a GOD (I could be wrong!) the question remains the same. Where did GOD come from? What existed before GOD?

    The problem with your suggestion is assuming that the brain creates thoughts. Consider instead that a brain simply allows us to access the thought process. A radio doesn't create the music that it receives it accesses the radio waves in the air that it can tune in to. An AM radio receives AM frequencies, FM radios FM stations. The better the radio's technology, the more bands it can tune in. Even better would be a radio that both receives and broadcasts.

    Isn't it possible that consciousness is simply a force or an energy spectrum that lifeforms can access. Depending of the complexity of the lifeform the wider the range of conscious frequencies it can tune in to. The most complex beings perhaps having the ability to both receive and broadcast its knowledge and experiences.

    Maybe we are all just biological radios. From the simplest form that, once birthed, accesses only the energy that it needs to consume and reproduce before it expires; to the higher, more complex (intelligent) species that can access a much wider band. Tuning into the frequencies that make us able to entertain abstract concepts, ask questions and conceive ideas. Allowing us in essence to reach beyond our physical needs and environments.

    We are stimulated by a power that we, as a physical species, have no need of, but as conscious beings we can both sense and interact with. While limited as physical creatures to a narrow physical environment as conscious being we can tune-in to that band where dreams, memory and magic exist.

    Information on a hard drive doesn't add weight, but it does consume space. When the drive is full the old info has to be deleted before new info can be added. How much space is on the hard drive of our mind? How much info can we store before we are full. Do we need to forget in order to continue to learn?

    A radio needs power to work. If our brain is our battery we can only hear the song as long as the battery is charged. But alive or dead the song is always playing.

    Originating in or accessed by our brains? Continuing with the musical analogy... ideas, thoughts, dreams, wishes are simply the individual notes in the scales of consciousness that we use to compose our individual symphonies. Our memories and moments are individual melodies and harmonies that we share with others and broadcast so that they may be heard by all.

    If we are just biological transceivers perhaps strokes or physical injuries can damage some of our components. If our antenna is bent or broken some stations can't be heard or don't come in as clear as before. The different thoughts and emotions they produce perhaps make us more or less active or allow or prevent us from reacting correctly?
    Does QM say anything about predicting the results of our actions? Since we are born I can state with certainty that we will die. Regardless of our will to live. And who are THEY? I hate THEM!

    An excellent question! According to Einstein, to reach the speed of light you must obtain infinite mass (I think thats what he said generally). I interpret infinite mass as basically becoming one with the universe. Of course that was when we thought there was nothing faster than light.

    Ringokid has touched on the only thing that I think is faster than any force or beam. We are all sending out our thoughts all the times. Sharing a common physical location, earth, our thoughts do vibrate and interact with those of others. And the beams that we send out, more than those of the flashlight, spread to the point where one idea can illuminate the universe for all to see.

    And there was no universe until the first Idea.
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