Srinivasa Ramanujan has an interesting life story. As a child in India, Ramanujan was a mathematical prodigy, but lacked access to teachers who could help him exploit that brilliance. Instead, he read math textbooks, and used the knowledge within to invent new mathematical theorems from scratch.
Or at least they were new to Ramanujan. In fact, some of his early work involved rediscovering theorems he didn’t know had already been proven by other mathematicians. For example, he discovered Euler’s identity without having heard about it from Euler. (Of course, Euler got there first, so we can’t call it Ramanujan’s identity).
It isn’t surprising that Ramanujan could make these discoveries. After all, math is a rigorous series of propositions that are equally true for all people. There’s no logical reason you’d have to be a math PhD to get the same results as a math PhD. And a lack of formal training can’t stop you from uncovering truths no one else has found before — as Ramanujan did, thousands of times.
The hard sciences are similar to math in this sense. Specialized equipment is necessary to acquire certain information, but plenty of untrained naturalists have contributed useful results to science – often unintentionally – using nothing but a pen, paper, and their five senses
Can we say the same for philosophy?
Wisdom in Unexpected Places
I’ve heard many humanists tell stories about inventing their own philosophies from scratch — whether that meant rediscovering atheism when everyone they knew believed in God or rediscovering utilitarianism through a desire to “make the world as happy as possible.”
And while it’s clear that these people don’t think of themselves as the intellectual equals of David Hume or J.S. Mill, there’s no particular reason that a teenager couldn’t have ideas just as powerful as the philosophers’, even without being trained to do so. It is entirely possible that the “Ramanujan of philosophy” is alive and thinking somewhere on this planet — even if they haven’t been discovered.
The David Foster Wallace story “Another Pioneer” explores the same idea. The central character is a child, born in a Stone Age village, who is wise enough to answer any question the locals can come up with. We don’t get a clear sense of what the child’s philosophy is, but we do get the impression that he is a kind of Paleolithic Socrates using his wits to solve problems in a fashion that appears supernatural to his peers.
The obvious lesson: You don’t necessarily need formal philosophical training to discover important insights. At its core, philosophy is just a set of abstract ideas, questions, and distinctions that can be inspired by any number of ordinary situations.
I sometimes wonder how often the “Another Pioneer” scenario happens in the real world. Here’s what this might look like:
- A child sitting bored in class, staring at the clock, questions whether causality itself can actually be proven. Then again, that’s not the sort of thing one asks the teacher. And so she forgets the whole thing.
- A grocery-store clerk realizes that we really ought to put more faith in friendship than we do in romance. After all, most friendships don’t end in breakups or divorce; friends don’t commit adultery or stop you from seeing your other friends. Why don’t we just live with our friends? (The clerk may not buy a plot of land outside of Athens and move there with all her friends, but her ideas are still powerful.)
- A worker on an oil rig stops thinking of the job as part of his identity and starts to feel like… an actor. An actor who is playing the role of a worker on an oil rig. Over the course of days or weeks, he makes a thorough and fascinating analysis of the impact of this “bad faith” on his own humanity. Sadly, he isn’t the book-writing type.
And so on.
Most philosophers tend to be the same kinds of people. Rich, male, well-educated – you get the picture. Some of these factors might lead to more insights on average. More money means more free time to sit around and think; more education helps you learn which problems still need to be solved; etc.
But there are many more ordinary people than there are rich, male, well-educated philosophical types. So many more, in fact, that it seems like people in the former group must have a substantial number of brilliant ideas that never get written down or repeated in any context whatsoever.
Our Most Important Resource
This doesn’t just apply to philosophy. It applies to almost any problem that humans encounter in everyday life. If you could somehow collect the good ideas of every clerk in every grocery store in the world, I believe that you could use that knowledge to create the world’s best grocery store. Ditto for… just about everything.
This kills me.
Ideas are different from other useful resources. They don’t sit underground like oil, ready to be extracted whenever we find them. Too often, they appear only once, in the head of one specific person — maybe the only person who ever will or could have this idea— and then, poof! Gone.
And yet, people forget most of their ideas, and they don’t spend much time sharing those they remember. As a species, we are, by and large, squandering our most important resource.
How To Rescue Ideas
This part of the post will be shallow: You could write entire libraries on how to save more of humanity’s good ideas and make better use of the wisdom and experience of seven billion living humans. But there are a few specific strategies I’d like to point out.
1) Prediction Markets
Well-publicized failures aside, markets mostly do a good job of uncovering what people believe. In some ways, the NY Stock Exchange represents an epic experiment in harvesting humanity’s collective wisdom — that is, the collective wisdom of a bunch of rich, well-educated people concerning the financial value of shares in certain companies.
The stock market is quite narrow. Prediction markets, on the other hand, can help us answer nearly any empirical question. In a prediction market, people buy shares in ideas, and we learn to trust the people who do the best job of picking successful ideas. Some people even think we could run the government with prediction markets.
Unfortunately, U.S. legislation on internet gambling recently led to the shutdown of the world’s largest online prediction market. Once again, we’re forced to rely on the predictions of pundits rather than the collective wisdom of the masses. But the idea is out there. It has shown promise. I think it ought to be getting much more attention from the intellectual community.
2) Online Publishing/Forums/Wikis
Ordinary people post over 100,000 unique thoughts per day on Reddit. Most of those thoughts aren’t actually unique, of course – or interesting. But that’s because they aren’t well-directed. Most online forums are built around entertainment, rather than solving the problems that plague us all. The exceptions to this rule are often quite impressive.
Wikipedia is a better-organized attempt to take the knowledge of every human on the planet and synthesize it in a sensible fashion. But that particular site has limits: It doesn’t accept original research, and it is built around collecting information rather than solving problems.
I’ve long wanted to build a site that could combine the best aspects of Reddit and Wikipedia. People would post problems they faced — on the job, in their home lives, etc. — and then upvote answers they found useful. The best answers would be compiled by moderators into an article-like format that future visitors could use as a problem-solving reference.
Quora is the closest thing I’ve seen to my imaginary website. And there’s nothing to stop Quora from becoming that website… as I may detail in a future post. (Cliffhanger!).
3) Writing Things Down
A few years ago I began keeping a journal, and keeping a separate list of ideas I had over the course of my daily life. Because I have both of these places to write things down, I have, and remember, many more good ideas than I otherwise would.
No one ever told me to keep a journal, or to write down random ideas somewhere I wouldn’t forget them. I wish they had; this practice adds much more value to my life than almost anything I ever learned in school.
In my dream world, writing down ideas and stories would come as naturally to people as brushing their teeth. People would become accustomed to sharing their ideas with their friends. Finally, we would encourage one another to turn our best ideas into final products we can release into the world: fiction, poetry, essays, life hacks, how-to manuals, and even books of philosophy.
We can’t all be Srinivasa Ramanujan. But we can all do more to become the best, most creative versions of ourselves that we can be – and help other people do the same.
Aaron Gertler (Yale University) Aaron is a member of the class of 2015 at Yale University. After he graduates, he hopes to live his life in a way that makes the lives of other people significantly better, unless he gets distracted by his dream of becoming a famous DJ/novelist/crime-fighter. His interests include electronic music, applied psychology, instrumental rationality, and effective altruism. If his beliefs are inaccurate, you should tell him so as directly as possible. You can follow him on Twitter @aarongertler, and he also writes for his own blog.