Bioethics and Human Mental Mapping: Are Ideas Finite or Infinite

- Irina Pollard, Ph.D.
Dept Biological Sciences, Macquarie University,
Sydney, NSW 2109, Australia

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 13 (2003), 135-136.

The following are thoughts which I noted in advance of the TRT8 meeting detailing my initial reactions to Darryl's behaviourome or mental mapping project (EJAIB 12 (2002), 203-6). On further reflection they still pretty much reflect my thoughts now; that is, the most likely consensus will be that we cannot reach consensus but that great value is to be gained by the journey - especially so as the project is based on 'love'. Therefore, I decided to share my initial thinking with you now that the project is on its way. We find complexity on all scales of size from the living cell to the living universe; and so it is with human ideas. Ideas appear so complex and diverse as to be beyond counting. Yet it is possible that the complexity of the mind flows from a unity implicit in the unity traceable back to Nature's essential particles. In this scenario, ideas - being based on the lowest level of description - are finite because all the added complexity serves as embellishment. On the other hand, if the complex quality of 'thinking' is an evolving phenomenon, then the 'finite ideas' argument becomes too na•ve, not least because the possibility of the emergence of new ideas being different and not divisible into preexisting parts. The power of this form of evolution could, over time, forge new levels of thoughts ad infinitum. In the latter case, owing to its mind stimulating abilities, the behaviorome could act as a catalyst for adaptive social evolution by means of generating new ideas which may not otherwise have come into existence - or may only spring to life at a later time. Therefore, whether our mind is finite or infinite seems trivial compared to the importance in terms of the increased understanding and cooperation it generates.

Original Text

As far as this discussion is concerned 'infinite' is defined as incalculably large or unquantifiable. Taking this definition then I believe that human ideas are infinite if assessed as a species throughout time. An idea is a thought, plan, notion formed in the mind. Ideas also fall into the category of concepts and include color, physical objects, movement and emotion. The human mind generates ideas based on numerous factors including education, experience, culture, perception, memory, creativity, genetics, gender and increasingly media influences.

The same way as one species gradually evolves and a new species is formed, so too can an idea evolve; thus, for both biological evolution and the evolution of ideas, or memes, the possibilities are infinite. It seems to me rather premature to suggest that at this point in our evolution we are able to predict the limit of all ideas that humans have had and ever will have. This would not only suggest that human evolution is a finite concept (which cannot be proved or disproved) but also that we can predict from our present knowledge the limits of human idea creation. In our hunter-gatherer past it was no doubt impossible to believe, let alone predict, that humans could one day have the idea of living in a technological environment as experienced today. There is so much that we don't know - consider the possibilities of alternative realities, parallel universes and changing space/time dimensions. As knowledge and understanding progresses so will ideas. As technology progresses so will the complexity of the ethical controversies. Our moral fabric will continue to diversify. Ideas that oppose our own are important - they challenge, teach and strengthen us. The ability to think freely should be accompanied by the obligation to think responsibly, compassionately and globally.

Physiologically curiosity is adaptive because it increases neurological connections creating new pathways in the brain thus increasing intelligence quotient and learning capacity. However, if a person believes that their ideas - ethical code - are a direction from God or equivalent higher power, they will be especially unwilling to depart from them. The philosopher George Berkely believed that ideas do not possess an existence of their own, always needing the presence of a being to perceive them. Such an idea contradicts that of the great philosopher Plato for whom ideas existed regardless of the existence of the human mind to notice them. He explained that this was because ideas do not start within us, but are already out there in the universe, conceived by a superior being. Then again Albert Einstein said "However improbable, nothing is impossible in a creative mind".


A. From the perspective of one single individual there is a finite number of ideas as this number is constrained by biology; i.e., number of neuronal cells in which to process and store information, number of neuronal connections to generate new ideas, life-line in years, development and experiences. On the individual basis time is needed for biological reactions to take place, to mature which depends on the finite number of brain cells that the individual possesses. Thus ideas possess limits but each individual's ideas are uniquely processed from a genetically unique mind - the product of brain chemistry. A mind, given time can evolve and change, e.g., it is easy to see how mind-altering drugs allow the mind to change markedly - so do other influences. From the scientific perspective, to calculate the potential information transmissible via synapses to numerous neuronal contacts; such as thousand billion neurons each connected to as many as ten thousand others or possibly up to 100,000 inputs per neuron*, does seem to create an infinite number of possible variations but for the present discussion we can assess the overall potential of one brain as being finite.

The scope of the individual mind can also be limited by perspective and perspective helps to explain the nature of interdependency and diversity within one system. But in effect our ideas are only limited by our knowledge which is finite and incorporates what we can actually understand now - but given time who knows what's in store.

B. From the perspective of the whole of humanity - mental potential creating ideas becomes unlimited, incalculable or infinite because:

1. Mind thoughts are constantly evolving as they give rise to new innovations and inventions and vice versa - if this were not so technology would cease to exist but new scientific and medical breakthroughs continue at an increasing rate; that is, the totality of the human mind is infinite if not limited by artificial time constraints. The selection process begins after the initial onset of the rapid production of ideas in which the mind is stimulated with an attitude of imagination utilizing various paths and possibilities. Hence the biodiversity of human ideas incorporates the various levels or hierarchy starting with the biological level; i.e., the genetic (molecular), the biological (organizational) and the habitat (ecological). Then ideas are further generated and diversified and reflected at the social level; i.e., diversity of cultures, languages, interpretations of religion, superstitions, ethics, aesthetics, art and music, different ideologies, political and legal systems. Our emotions are key components to the way we develop ideas but to what degree is not well understood.

2. Each of us is genetically unique because there are an infinite number of possible combinations that Nature uses to build individual genetic imprints. From just four DNA building blocks - adenine, thymine, guanine and cytosine - the number of different combinations becomes potentially infinite in its possibilities. There are 3 billion base pairs in the human genome and 6 billion people (with the exception of identical twins and clones) from which to build an ideas imprint in like manner to the building of unique individual genetic blueprints. By using all the raw material available we calculate an infinite combination of possible ideas.

3. Nature's currency works on infinity so infinity is not foreign to the human mind - mathematics is built on infinity, numbers are infinite as are compounds. For example, pharmaceutical drugs are made up of the 109 elements that exist in nature but there is an infinite number of ways to combine two or more elements together in order to make a drug. As each combination comes up the human mind comes up with alternative ideas in response; e.g., the use of particular technologies as they are invented leads to new technological ideas and ways to use the old for construction or destruction. The example of thalidomide is a typical one. Thalidomide was originally thought to be a harmless tranquillizer that you couldn't over-dose on. It was later discovered that it deformed fetuses if taken during early pregnancy by virtue of being a very harmful drug, so the drug was taken out of production. If it were not for one chance doctor who used it to alleviate specific pain, we would never have known that thalidomide can cure particular ulcerations and lesions as found in leprosy sufferers. Thus this new unexpected revelation caused scientists to create ideas of how it may also be used in the treatment of cancer which is presently being trialed. Thus, a chance occurrence sparked hundreds of new ideas across the world. Our personal ideas come about by our experience, knowledge etc, etc. but are also the result of someone else's ideas and given time the collective human mind's potential is infinite.

4. On the individual basis autistic savants have freakish brilliance in a specific skill like art, music, mathematical calculation but are severely handicapped overall - these brains contribute to unconventional original ideas which spawn new combinations in others.

5. Renewed perspectives can induce paradigm shifts in outlook which drive more ideas making further change possible. While science still has so much more exploring to do, our minds remain infinite but ideas can be limited by self-installed perceptions. We are in the information age where human imagination, not brute strength, is the driving force and it's the ideas created inside billions of neural connections inside people's heads which provide knowledge, information and wisdom and it's that which counts. Ideas can, however, also be easily abused through human freedom, choice and false information.

6. If knowledge is infinite then ideas must also be - a reasonable proposition given that as a species we've co-evolved with our memes (ideas) and our genes.

Summary Diagram

Brain uses reasoning and imagination

Ideas are either:

Inferential or Epistemic

(facts and reasoning) (beliefs, perceptual experience and
knowledge and related to culture and

* Strickberger, M.W. Evolution. Jones & Bartlett, Sudbury, 2000.

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