Do you have weird ideas? Are you inhibited about sharing them because you’re afraid you’ll be called crazy? You’re not alone. I would like to invite you to overcome this fear and please do share those crazy ideas!
After all, what society denounces as crazy today may turn out to be a revolutionary discovery in the future. People in 100 years may herald you as a genius, write shelves of books about your idea, and build statues in your likeness and name museums and cities after you. But today, they call you crazy. They may be so afraid about your idea that they may send you to an institution to be »treated«, to rid you of this idea that deviates too much from what is deemed acceptable, to get you »back on track«. They will conspire against you to subdue your idea, to stop it from propagating, to make sure that it cannot establish itself. If an idea is too challenging, even if it’s true, it will be suppressed. At first.
Sure, your idea may actually be crazy. It may be irrational, a false belief, a fantasy that will never be aligned with reality or found actual proof for. Such ideas abound and are pushed just as vehemently by their proponents as the ideas that turn out to be right. How can you – how can we – tell the difference? Can we?
History shows us that any idea, right or wrong, can find general acceptance, until it is falsified, at which point it is likely to »die out«; or (repeatedly) verified, which causes it to be more firmly established. It appears that at any time, our world-view was, and is, assembled of ideas of which some are right and some are wrong. Today, as we did in the past, we live in a world where we hold a number of apparent truths that are actually true, and a number that are false. Our fallacy is to be convinced that, at any time, in past and present, all our established truths are (were) actually true, and that what is not established must be false.
Science has provided us with tools to test ideas for truth. If an idea seems to describe reality well, we can perform experiments to confirm the idea. In this way, we can sort out ideas that do not seem to correspond with what we observe about the world. We can construct models that describe reality sufficiently well that they allow us to predict its behaviour. This is the basis of all technology. Without those models, everything would be guesswork. Instead, we can keep checking our assumptions for how well they match actual reality, and if the match is sufficiently good, we keep the assumption, elevating it to a law. If we observe deviations, we may have to discard the model and find a better one.
Because our scientific models work so well, we are led to believe that they are objective fact that cannot be challenged. Moreover, we are led to believe that they are sufficiently encompassing to explain all of reality. At any time in history, people believed that they held the truth and they understood everything. This is as true today as it was 100 or 300 years ago, but as we are looking back at our ancestors and are amused by their ignorance, we fail to realise that we are just as ignorant today, and that future generations will look back upon us and be just as amused about how little we knew and understood.
It is hubris, a form of arrogance, that can be understood as our natural tendency or want to have a »grip on reality«, of something that we may hold on to that allows us to make sense about everything that is happening around us. This desire is so strong that we are prone to accept our present world-view, no matter how true or false it may be, as a fixed truth, and to fight any ideas that appear to challenge this truth. When we look back at history, we realise how often previous truths have been challenged and replaced by new truths, but in our hubris, we cannot accept that our truths of today will be challenged and replaced in the very same way. At any point in time, we were convinced we knew, but looking back, it becomes clear that we did not. It is easy to see this when looking back, but very hard for us to accept for the present moment.
My personal conviction is that there are, in fact, no absolute truths, just models that we can work with. If a model works well, we use it. If a better model is found, the old model is replaced. This pertains to scientific theories as well as all of human culture, including religious or other spiritual beliefs, philosophy, and any part of our image of the world.
If you’re scientifically inclined, you will probably contradict this with the notion that our scientific models are well established and proven. We know that they work, so they must be objectively and absolutely true. I think that this is an illusion, and (scientific) history provides an abundance of evidence for this. At any point in time, all we had were models that could explain the world better than other, older models (which had been replaced). We think today that our current models are the truth, but we fail to see that this truth is relative: it is true only so far as it corresponds sufficiently to how the world really behaves.
Future models will explain the world even better than today’s models do. As our models are interlinked in that they do not exist on their own, but can be tested against other models to see if they still hold up, I don’t think it’s likely that the future will bring new models that deviate so radically from today’s models as to replace our entire scientific foundations completely.
It’s more likely that we will find our current models to be »edge cases« of something more general and universal that is yet to be discovered. We have found this to happen repeatedly in the history of science; a straightforward example being Newtonian (Classical) Mechanics [formally established from about the early 17th century on] as an edge case of General Relativity [established from the beginning of the 20th century], where Classical Mechanics only predicts reality sufficiently well at macroscopic distances (far larger than 10-9 m) and speeds far below the speed of light.
Our reality-models are subject to consensus. If a sufficient number of people accept a model, it is generally accepted as »fact«. A new model that challenges the established model (because it provides a better explanation of the world) is not likely to find acceptance easily. Even if there is sufficient proof, the proponents of the dominant model will argue that the new model must be false, particularly if it’s very at odds with what we currently believe to be true. It’s naive to assume that science will automatically propagate the best model. Science is performed by humans, and humans are prone to human fallacies. One of these fallacies is to hold on to what we have known to work well for us even in the light of something new that works better.
Everybody has learned about the trouble that ensued when the geocentric model was challenged by the heliocentric model. It’s a trivial case that we look back upon today with some amusement, but at the time, the geocentric model was regarded as scientifically proven fact – only that science at the time was still in its infancy and very primitive. It’s easy to look back and say that we should have known better. Better experiments, observations and measurements, combined with better reasoning and are more sound foundation to work on, would have proven that the geocentric model cannot be true, and this is just what happened when it was eventually replaced by the heliocentric model – after such developments became available.
Transposed into today’s world, if we had more advanced measurements and a more extended understanding, we would see that this or that model of today cannot be true (or does not apply under all circumstances). We are at present, as we were at any time in the past, convinced that we already have the best possible experiments, measurements and understanding, so we find it hard to accept that some of our models of today may be regarded as just as crude and misguided by future generations.
What applies to science applies to any and all of our convictions, to all of culture. The truth of today may be the amusing misunderstanding of tomorrow. So let us be flexible in our minds and open to new ideas that at first sound radical and too at odds with our model of the world. We have no idea what we may be missing if we don’t. If you have new ideas, don’t be afraid to share them. If they are radical, they will be opposed. All ideas will need to be tested, and some will turn out to be just interesting ideas, but not new truths. But if we don’t dare to have new and challenging ideas, we won’t find new truths.
As there is so much pressure on new ideas to find consensus, many new ideas, especially the very radical ones, are pushed towards the fringes of culture, where they persist until they may eventually find sufficient traction to be taken seriously, examined, and possibly found out to be new truths. We deride those who have vastly challenging thoughts, calling them crackpots. We don’t tolerate an idea that is so radical to appear ridiculous or scary, so we ban it by labeling it as esoteric, »new-age« or other such denigrations. The »crackpots« are allowed to have their crazy thoughts within these fringe realms to which we confine them, so we can ridicule them, lest an idea become too much of a challenge to our established models, which would be disturbing.
Sure, many of the ideas that come up at the edges of culture are probably just wild ideas. Some at least make for fascinating stories. But one of the crackpots is going to develop an idea that will challenge our current truths, eventually forcing us to replace some of these truths. Today, we laugh at that crackpot. In the future, we will celebrate the crackpot and his or her followers as great visionaries and geniuses, and denounce the ignorant masses who could not see the light in all the darkness.
What role do you want to play? Will you be a proponent of new ideas? Will you be an unaffected bystander? Will you be one of the laughing ones, the future ignoramuses, because you would not let someone touch your world-view?
I have decided to allow new ideas into my mind, even very radical and challenging ones. I can still reject them when I’m convinced that they cannot be made to align with what I deem to be real. But I will not reject an idea outright just because it is too challenging, just because the thought that it may be true is too scary for me. I will remain open to the fullest degree that I can manage. I can still be wrong, but then at least I tried. Let future generations be amused about what strange ideas I entertained. But of all possibilities, I don’t want to be the one who laughed about that crazy idea that, a hundred years later, turned out to be a great new discovery.