What is an idea? Ideas cannot be touched, seen, or felt, but they are as real as any object perceivable by the five senses. In fact they are so real that we have an entire system dedicated to securing ideas as personal or cooperate property. That is exactly what patents are for. In this chapter we will be looking at the nature of ideas and the implications presented by what we discover. To put it simply, an idea can be defined as the product of thinking. This product exists in the dimension of the mind as thoughts and can be transferred from one person to another even if elements are lost in translation. The beauty of ideas compared to tangible objects is that by its nature it can exist in many places at the same time, or should I say in many minds at the same time. We are all familiar with the saying that if two people exchanged a dollar, they would both have a dollar each and be none the richer. However, if two people exchange ideas, they both now have two ideas and are one idea the richer than they were before. Once conceived, an idea cannot not be deleted. We can know, but we cannot unknow. The best we can do is to forget, ignore, or modify our perspective.
To trace the journey of ideas and how it relates to our mind and reality we have to start at the point of origin, which is always in a mind. Taking into account that man is the only conscious being we are aware of on the planet, every idea we know of today is the product of someone’s mind. We can debate on the source of inspiration but the origin of first transmission on earth still remains a human mind. With this in mind we must then ask if an idea can be possessed, owned. Imagine someone in China thought about a new way to generate electricity from thin air and they had this patented immediately. Half way around the world somewhere in Africa, someone else comes up with exactly the same idea but with no knowledge of the Chinese man’s invention. Can we really call that an infringement of the patent? Just because someone thought of something first doesn’t mean someone else couldn’t think of it later. So what grounds can really be founded for the ownership of ideas? The debate on who invented the wheel is still on as it was spotted in three different civilizations. There is every possibility that the wheel was independently invented in all three civilizations. Today someone would be suing the other for a lot of money over an idea that wasn’t even stolen in the first place. It is almost as if thinking and ideas have been turned into a business with profit for who thinks first. But let us look further than the individual and consider the culture ideas originate from.
It is not unheard of for people to brand certain ideas Western and others African. In my opinion there are very few assumptions as dangerous as identifying thought with a culture. I will give some examples. When addressing issues regarding women’s right I have heard people say things like ‘the place of the African woman is to make the home. This feminism idea is an unwelcomed Western idea’. Saying that feminism, which I believe in its purest form as advocated by its founding philosophers stands for the recognition of an existential equality between men and women. In simpler terms a woman should be as free as a man to decide what life she wants to live and what person she want to be. There should be no social, legal, or cultural barrier to limit the possibilities of female existence as there should be none to limit that of men. Branding this idea Western implies that it is not African to advocate for equality. From the previous chapter we already discussed how cultural labels are only constructs of the mind limiting us to possibilities of growth, progress, and development by boxing in our thinking in the name of culture. Another place the notion that an idea is Western can be found in theology. Ironically, the two most popularly practiced faiths in Nigeria today were adopted from foreign cultures. The same Nigerians that see ideas like atheism, agnosticism, or deism as foreign are quick to forget that if their great grand parents felt the same way about Christianity when the English reached our shores, we would still be practicing our traditional religions which are now viewed today as idol worship or the worshiping of false gods. Islam, which is widely practiced in the northern part of Nigeria, is of Arabic origin and by definition unafrican. To summarize this paragraph, ideas by their nature cannot be attributed to any culture. Ideas are just ideas and there should be absolute freedom in their adoption regardless of where they have come from. The perception of an idea being foreign is only a defence mechanism from a mind opposed to change because we have learned to cling to the safety of familiarity.
Now that we have established the definition and ownership of ideas, we can contemplate on how ideas interact with our mind. The sudden nature of existence forces us to contemplate it making something of an existentialist out of every one of us, but all too often we are met with ready made answers to most of the questions that plague us. Where did we come from? Where are we going? Why are we here? Most cultures have developed some sort of religious explanation to answer these questions. Where religion and theology is not acceptable science has an answer called the Big Bang. Some religious thinkers have gone as far as merging the two to claim God made the world through the Big Bang. In the past I have been involved in many such debates regarding the absurdity of existence and the struggle to give it purpose and meaning. These days I never get dragged into these debates because I realized not only can there never be a definitive answer, but also the subjective nature of human perception puts any real logically objective argument out of reach. These questions can only be answered to the self based on personal beliefs. I don’t need to remind you that just because we believe in something doesn’t mean it is true. This can easily be illustrated by surveying some of the world’s popular beliefs in the past and present.
Many religions have come and gone through the ages, some completely lost to history in the sands of time. One can only imagine the treatment people opposed to these religions got at the time when they were popular with the culture. Today paganism is popularly seen as outdated and the likes of Zeus and Oden are more relevant for entertainment purposes than for worship. However once upon a time in the relatively not so distant past these religions were practiced as honestly as we practice whatever we choose today and Oden was as real as the Abrahamic God to the believers. Imagine someone them telling them that their notions of God was false. That characters like Thor and Loki were just figments of their imaginations, popularized myth. How would that sound any less absurd than telling a Christian or Muslim today that there was never a place like the Garden of Eden or that Jesus Christ and Prophet Mohammed were at best just ordinary men. Just before we address the dominating theological ideas of today imagine if one of these extinct religion was the one true religion with all the eternal truths the world is constantly seeking.
Today the world is home to a sizeable population of Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and many other religions of less popularity. It is also home to atheists, agnostics, deists, and other theological ideologies. Fundamentally speaking all these ideas cannot be true because they are fundamentally different. Hindus practice polytheism, Christians and Muslims have ideological differences regarding the role of Jesus in God’s grand plan for the world, and Buddhists are non-theistic. The question is who is wrong and how can we ascertain this as a fact? Christians boast of miracles still occurring today and Christian scholars can put together a pretty impressive argument (even if this argument is based on necessary presumptions), Muslims claim the Koran is a living miracle and in itself is a testimony to the ultimate truth they hold. Their scholars can also put together a good argument with some basic presumptions too. I will stare clear of Hinduism as I am not well versed with the religion. Buddhists boast of practicing the only religion in line with science. The Dali Lama has been known to say that if science changes to contradict Buddhism, then Buddhism must change. As for atheism (which is not a religion), just try getting into a theological debate with one online and see how strong they are in their convictions.
The point I am trying to make here is not that only one group of people have the truth or that nobody has it. The point is that this ‘truth’ is not knowable as a fact. At least with the information we have currently at our disposal. It can only be held as a belief or experienced by the individual. This experience being subjective cannot be passed on as empirical data or evidence. Even the strongest atheist will tell you the existence of God cannot be disproved because the evidence for it will lie outside of what we can measure in our physical dimension. What we are left with is a choice of what idea to choose from that would keep us free of cognitive dissonance. In other words, what idea can we live with to eliminate confusion in our mind and quench the thirst for answers to existential questions. Getting answers to satisfy the thirst for a fool-proof logical explanation verifiable by experiment is still beyond our reach.
To understand why ideological tolerance is important we must understand that regardless of how convinced we are of our beliefs to be true, we may very well be wrong. To assert any belief that cannot be backed by empirical evidence as truth and enforce it on others is probably the highest level of violation of freedom there is. It is the same as attacking a person for their own personal belief. Taking away the right of a human being to hold an idea in their mind because you see it as untrue should not be tolerated in any society that stands for freedom. In Nigeria today religious tension is so deep that even our politicians deploy it as a political tool to secure votes. There is hardly any political post on Facebook where Christians and Muslims have not descended to bickering and outright abuse over ideological differences. As if the illusion of separatism is not enough on tribal grounds, we have also adopted the idea that what we hold as truth must be true and hence it gives us the right to attack others simply for holding a different truth.
The concept of faith requires that there is no room for doubt. This makes having faith in an idea and creating room for the possibility of being wrong impossible. Doing this will leave a believer in cognitive dissonance. It is similar to holding ideas that are incompatible with your faith to be true. An example is believing in reincarnation and believing that after death comes judgement. I am aware that certain sects of Muslims and Christians believe in the concept of reincarnation but it is far from the mainstream. The impasse posed by having faith and leaving room for doubt is where tolerance comes in. We can hold our faith to be as true as the fact that 1 + 1 = 2 but we must be prepared to be tolerant of others that disagree with us.
I have used religion to illustrate the illusive nature of ideas and how they can present themselves to us as objective truths, but this applies to so many other ideas that permeate our culture. We must always be on our guard against our mind’s capacity to manipulate ideas to maintain what I would term mental-homeostasis. This awareness will enable us understand better why others hold ideas different to ours as strongly as we hold our own ideas, and why it is important to give them the freedom to do this. In a country with more subcultures than I can count the need for tolerance of differing ideas cannot be over-emphasized. In one sentence, we must learn to live and let live; a notion that seems simple enough until we are faced with harsh realities like moral relativity permitting traditions like the marriage of girls below the legislated age of consent under religious ground. In such cases, a bridge of understanding would have to be built to protect civil liberty from religious encroachment.
It is one thing to the open minded about the freedom of other’s to hold ideas and beliefs that conflict with ours, but what about our own self? What attitude towards new ideas is best suited for our development? It is obvious that humans as a specie actually have no nature. In fact one can even argue that other animals too have no inherent nature. Pigeons in Onitsha won’t stand even fifty meters close to you but in London they would probably ask you to step aside if they could speak. In Arab countries wild cats are popular pets for the rich and can be found co-existing with humans in the home. And let us not forget the story of the lion that even after years of being released into the wild still went on to remember the two men it grew up with in London. If animals that have lower levels of consciousness can demonstrate that what we often call their nature is simply an adaptation to their surroundings, then why would we insist that man has some sort of inherent nature encoded in our DNA?
Over the course of history and civilizations the possibilities of the human potential has been expressed in different forms to show that there is no default setting. There have been cultures where the women are dominant and aggressive, there have been cultures where bisexuality is considered normal in the course of sexual exploration and discovery. In ancient Rome it was considered the manly thing to penetrate another man (for married men too). Even paedophilia which represents the vilest of sexual crimes today was once a cultural norm in Rome where men would have sex with little boys as part of their training to teach them how to be men. Some go as far as blaming this old Roman culture for the frequent child abuse scandals the Vatican finds itself in. A more recent example of how time can change our perception on ideas and what is moral can be seen in slavery. Today the most morally bankrupt of humans are aware that slavery is an evil of the highest order. Only two hundred years ago this fact wasn’t so obvious. And before we pull out our moral high hats let us remember that these black slaves were captured and sold mostly by fellow blacks and the concept of slavery was no stranger in Africa. Some say the great pyramids were built with slave labour. I cannot confirm that but it is doubtful that the ancient Egyptians paid a fair wage to every human involved in erecting such structures. Some years from today we would probably have machine to replace underpaid Chinese workers in sweat shops and the people alive then will think us savages for making Apple Inc one of the world’s most valuable company knowing what kind of labour went into building our beloved iDevices. In modern America racists are seen as the scum of the earth but once upon a time lynching and hanging blacks in America was a public affair met with the kind of reception the Romans gave to watching gladiators. These are just some examples of how our sense of morality has evolved over time.
Today we find ourselves in awe as we marvel at the advancements we have made as a race of beings assuming human progress is a linear phenomenon directly related only to time. We hold the ideas and values of our age to be the best ever in human history and we laugh at what we consider blunders of the past committed out of ignorance. Little do we know that all we are experiencing is just one of many possibilities of civilization compatible with the human potential. We mistake advancement for progress forgetting as Jared Diamond eloquently put it ‘Perhaps our greatest distinction as a species is our capacity unique amongst animals to make counter-evolutionary choices’. Of what use is developing means to live longer and populate faster only to end up in an over populated planet without enough resources to sustain us?
Ideas must be recognized to have a potential for evolution and retardation but we must never let the fear of retardation dominate the chance of evolution. We must be open to change because the fear of change is the fear of progress, but we must also be watchful with wisdom to identify what changes are favourable and unfavourable to our development. To free ourselves of the fear of change we must first understand that ideas by themselves have zero potential for good or evil. It is our interpretations of these ideas and our use of them that can be good or evil. Nuclear energy can be used to generate electricity, and it can also be used to make bombs. Should we have discarded the idea of nuclear energy for the fear of bombs being made with it?
With a non-judgemental attitude towards ideas we can begin to better examine them to see how they may be used for the betterment of the society or if they slow us down. This applies as much to old ideas as it does to new ones. We must never be afraid to scrutinize what is already in practice even if the tradition pre-dates our own existence, as we should never be afraid of analyzing new ideas even if they are alien to our current way of life.