The Origin of Ideas and Cohabitation Within Us

This is an excerpt from a newsletters written in August 2020.

You may be familiar with the concept of memes (not the internet image macros) from previous letters I've written citing Dr. Rene Girard. From my view: memes are a study of "social genetics"  and the tracing of horizontal transfer of ideas between groups. In this, I assume that individuals in groups may express different ideas that eventually compress into a collective cannon (memes) allowing them to coordinate functionally and organize under new social units. Regardless of whether such collective ideas are "true" (hint: they usually are not),  groups continue to merge and form larger-scale tribes (towns, cities,  races, countries). Throughout this merging and scaling process groups reconcile the differences between ideas and enter into new collective views of "reality" that suit the structure of fitness and the biological reality they find themselves in.

Several enticing questions demand attention and analysis from this hypothesis, two of them being:

  1. What is the origin of such ideas and memes?; and
  2. What drives the consolidation and construction of new social units through these memes? (unfortunately, this question will not be answered at this time to conserve length and time)

Taking the front of the first question, we must prepare for the weariness of its exceedingly sophisticated nature. Not only because such a question demands the highest exertions of our mental facilities  but that in itself, it is a question about the the source code of the analyst. That is: what is the origin of the generative mechanism for ideas, thought, and reasoning consciousness?  In "On The Genealogy of Morals", Nietzsche begins an expedition not far off the coast of this question by venturing through the catacombs of primitive psychological existence and ego formation. He prepares his venture backward in prehistoric times through what we may now think of as "an evolutionary psychology" hypothesis about the origin of morality.

As modernity is well aware, the brain is a high-rise built up from legacy components of the reptilian complex through to the limbic system and onwards to our highest economic and cultural possession: the neocortex. Where Nietzsche's question of morality, and for that matter ours' of ideas, takes him is into the first budding of thought consciousness from the mid and instinctual cortical layers. He conjectures in his second essay Guilt, Bad Conscience, and Related Matters:

"All instincts that cannot be given external expression turn inwards  this is what I mean by the internalization of man, and with this we have the first appearance in man of what subsequently was called his 'soul'. The whole 'inner world'...  (pp 168, Guilt, Bad Conscience, and Related Matters)

What is truly breath-taking here is to witness the emergence of psychological consciousness in what Nietzsche describes as the internationalization process. At this instance, one becomes absorbed in the imagery of that first higher neocortical neuron budding forth from instinctual soil of the limbic system. For it is this brave new neuron who's new connections will birth forth the author of our story of civilization. However, before becoming too swept up into the imagery, we must acknowledge that Nietzsche contends that the precedent for this internationalization only emerged from the process of "punishment". That is: the primitive psychological man's orifice of ideas is in itself a derivative from a form outside of himself  the environment, his tribe. This derivation perhaps suggests that many ideas from this generative appendage are derivative in their origin. Said differently, if the greatest artists that history has known "steal", then they have always "stolen" first from nature and then from each other. This may be why so many intricate and important innovations are naturophillic in design (they are inspired by and posses an analog to natural designs). Girard seems to have intuitively understood this point concerning human behaviour in his model of desire and the dilemma of imitation.

Moreover, this idea, about ideas originating from imitation (derivative), gives weight to the purpose of mythological stories and ancient wisdom of the past. The point being: the new appendage of generating thought is, like any other physical attribute, subject to the pressures of selection  and therefore time is the dictator of utility. What is even more pressing is that not only is the appendage ("the generator") subject to selection but also its progeny ("ideas") cannot escape the grip of environmental selection. This is because such ideas are new sources of behavioural adaptation for humans. Like the three trillion microbes in our gut that we require to sustain immune systems, augment metabolic functionality and who exert their will and conscious desire on our minds through manipulation of neurotransmitters , ideas cohabitate within us too.  Will Durant's Story of Civilization catalogs in-depth how these myths have evolved and derived from one another from our early oriental heritage to modern-day. All throughout we see beneficial ideas survive to propagate during their time while deleterious ideas are selected out. Ideas ("memes") have and always are competing with other ideas, just like genes have and always will compete with other genes. Thus the oldest known myths we produce and continue to propagate today have the most to say about humanity's fundamental understanding of its relationship to natural selection (what we may call "truth").

Dostoevsky's "Demons" (sometimes called "The Possessed") presents the most terrifying reality of the consequence of these idea organisms that live inside us. For in the title lies the foreshadowing of a capacity of ideas to turn pathogenic. This pathogenicity is illustrated through Dostoevsky's suicidal character Kirillov. Kirillov throughout the plot slowly begins a descension into himself about the question of the nature of God. Eventually it is a tale spin of his obsession that results in his suicide at the climax of the plot:

“God is the pain of the fear of death. Whoever conquers pain and fear will himself become God... What is there to live for? Answer, if you are a man.” (Demons, F. Dostoevsky)

This ability to anxiously venture into the subjective space of one's own being as "truth seeker", without a guiding lantern of the ancients or a friend is perhaps Dostoevsky, fiction, and history's most pivotal warning to us about ideas. Herein we may heed warning from Nietzsche too:

“Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster... for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”  (Beyond Good and Evil, F. Nietzsche)

So at this ventured depth, we must pause and reflect a moment before pressing forward. In the cool air of this contemplative underground cellar of humanity's greatest secrets, we listen intensely for guidance. Hearing  the reverberating echos of shuffling pebbles and dripping water  we seek wisdom from nature of how to deal with this cohabitating relationship of ideas.  For organisms are neither "good" nor "bad" in natural systems but rather symbiotic or parasitic. As history reels the film again and again of the fall of great nations, empires, and civilizations  ideas too have cyclic deaths and rebirths in their domination of populations. Each revived form having a new face but the same core.

So in this dark catacomb, we may call out to our ancestral ancients, "what can we do about this?" If, without an N95 filter to avoid the airborne infection of ideas, must we succumb in ignorance to the ideas that seek to find a home in our minds without strict analysis and permission? If we may define 'true' as what exists and persists unchanged over time, then the biological-evolved wisdom of our ancestors can be my only hold on the ultimate judge of utility, reality and personal truth I can grasp.

Thus, when I call out into the darkness as my lantern light flickers near to completion it is those wise ones of the past echo back to me. As Nietzsche has told me, as Rumi has said, as Krishnamurti exclaimed, as Lao Tzu muses and as the little man inside my head whispers in that cold cellar of humanity's secrets:

“Be yourself! Think for yourself! No Gurus, no Books, no Texts, no Method, no Technique, no Demons, no Angels  - No! No! No one can or will show you the way..."

Because to become aware of the nature of ideas, and their capacity to possess is to become fundamentally aware of the personal responsibility of one's life. That responsibility being: if one fails to reflect on his premises with discipline, he is forever enslaved to peddle the goods of another's mind. Thinking to himself all the while that what he sells is of his own making where the opposite comes to light as true in his own awakening.

Thus, perhaps, the panacea to the dangerous ideas of history, and our world may only be our scrutiny and acknowledgment that we may not fully understand much of what we think. Humility to the idea that there exists lurking within, around, and behind the neocortical columns of consciousness, demons, devas, monsters, and saints that the analyst does not yet understand. And with that humility, the realization that he possesses the whole descent of truth, reason, good and evil in his genetic code, and because of this has a pivotal role in its balance in the world.

This is something I am trying harder to understand every day.