By: Arindam Ghosh, LMB
Ideas are all we rely on whenever we hit the dead end. Sometimes these ideas come to us in the most spontaneous way, and sometimes they are pretty hard to come by, even though we need them badly. Sometimes ideas save lives, save time and to the utter delight of the consumerist way of life, they save money in more ways than one. And in the darker scheme of things, there are plenty of ideas abound which ‐ if executed, have the ability to stop the earth in its orbit, or shoot a ripple in the space‐time warp. Idea, good or bad, which is just a mere human coinage to define an idea with respect to its context and intended effect, it helps us in surviving as the fittest, or in perishing in oblivion.
On sheer level of influence, Ideas, those sudden flashes of insight that come almost as revelations, have the potential to stay alive in human psyche forever.
There are numerous ground‐breaking ideas since the beginning of our evolutionary phase as bipeds, and that will surely run into millions if counted. It would be stupid enough to even try to select a page full of them out of the myriad. On the other hand, selecting a few ideas, which stay on the fringes of the darker side, or somehow got buried under the burden of oblivion ‐ but nonetheless sparkle as epoch‐making, is daunting and distressing. And that’s exactly what is proposed here ‐ an effort to mention a select set of bizarre ideas. That’s the disclaimer to the following paragraphs, paragraphs which contain some rather out‐of‐the‐ordinary and some creepy, albeit ground‐breaking, ideas ‐ that changed our viewpoints and altered our ways of lives.
Cannibalism: The earliest evidence of cannibalism was found in the Grand Dolina cave of Spain, where remnants of butchered human bones found date back to 800,000 BCE. It is believed to be due to scarcity of food, or even might be used as predator control by eating the flesh off bones of dead bodies. There have been found various evidences of cannibalism in later civilization of humankind ‐ like the Aztecs in the Central America or the Maoris in modern day New Zealand, who used to eat the flesh of their slain enemies. Some tribes of Africa were known to eat cooked body organs of their dead enemies, as part of rituals of sorcery with the belief that strength of the victim would pass on to the eater.
Slavery: The slavery originated perhaps with the advent of agriculture around 10,000 BCE. Agriculture required labour force and prisoners of battle served the purpose as cheap or almost free slaves. It is noteworthy that without slavery, most of the ancient civilizations would not have been able to sustain and flourish. Ancient civilizations like Egyptian, Mesopotamian or in the later period, Greek or Roman civilization used slaves extensively almost in every construction work, household chores and even in writing manuscripts from dictations, or copying literature and scientific hypothesis into publishable items. Not all slaves were devoid of human rights, and they flourished like normal human beings back then. Although, in the mediaeval period, with the discovery of Africa, black people were enslaved forcibly and transported back to West Indies, America and parts of Europe, where they were forced to live in extreme violation of human rights.
Things started changing in late 18th century Europe, when Denmark showed the way by abolishing slavery in 1792. Other European nations and America followed suit in the coming fifty years or so. But unfortunately, slavery still exists in many forms in many countries ‐ either through social, economic or socio‐economical bondage. But that’s another story altogether.
Abacus: The oldest ancestor of modern calculator and computer, is said to be originated in Sumerian civilization in ancient Mesopotamia, around 2000 ~ 2500 BCE. Ancient abacuses, as opposed to modern ones, were improvised flat boards with sand spread on top ‐ where numbers could be written and erased effortlessly. The concept spread rapidly in the ancient world, and started being used in ancient Greece and Rome. It later spread to China and then to Japan, where a modern version of abacus is used in modern days in the shape of compact toy with horizontal sticks and beads. Some of the crafty people in China and Japan, have the ability to outpace modern calculators in simple arithmetic by using abacuses. One of the most dazzling of ideas, abacus built the foundation of modern mathematics as an enabling tool.
Atheism: To simply put, it is the belief in the non‐existence of god. Startlingly, disbelief in god as creator, was propounded by ancient Hindu or Sanatan religion or more appropriately Sanatan philosophy. The idea of contradiction is deeply embedded in the ancient scripts of Vedas, and the source of disbelief in deity or god as creator, stemmed from particular heterodoxic streams of Hindu philosophy ‐ one of them being the oft‐quoted Yoga. They embraced the Vedas and the Brahman, but rejected the concept of personal god or deity. Charvaka or Lokayata is also an ancient Indian materialism stemming from the Vedic scriptures, which rejects Vedic ritualism and termed truth as conditional, based on observations. Knowledge, as per Lokayata, is not eternal, and is verifiable with scepticism. It is almost hidden to the common Indian milieu that Hinduism as a philosophy, raises whole lot of questions about god and existence, than answering in a definitive way about the way to so‐called heaven. This is in utter contradiction to the modern ritualistic practices propounded so vociferously these days.
Anti‐Semitism: Manetho, the Egyptian priest and historian in 3rd century BCE, is believed to have started the spread of hatred toward Jews. Its influence snowballed and the anti-Semitic hatred spread slowly all across Greek and Roman empire. Roman emperor Tiberius expelled Jews from Rome and banned Judaism. Constantine I ‐ the Roman emperor imposed prohibitions and regulation on Jewish religious practices. During the early mediaeval period around 11th and 12th century AD, Jews were slaughtered along with Muslims by the Christian Knights during Crusade. The worst recorded case of anti-Semitism occurred in the 20th century beginning in Europe, which resulted in Jewish holocaust during WW‐II. Before & after WW‐II, Jewish persecution and repression have been evidenced in communist Russia. In modern days, the equation is made inexplicably complicated by the long‐drawn tussle between Israel and Palestine uprising, and anti-Semitism is here to stay for sure in near future.
Bloodletting: The idea of bloodletting as cure for many illnesses, were first started in a structured fashion by the Greek physician Galen in 2nd century AD, although ancient Egyptians and Greeks used the process of releasing blood from body as a means to cure. Galen believed that human health was sustained by the balance of bodily fluids ‐ including blood, and he practised bloodletting to maintain balance to cure illnesses. He was so powerful in expounding the theory that almost whole of Europe was influenced by his methods for the coming 1500 years, till the onset of European renaissance ‐ when the theory was challenged and finally stopped. Although, the sucking of blood by leeches continued as medical practice in Europe and Asia till late 19th century.
Linear perspective in painting and drawing: This brilliant idea stood the test of time effortlessly, and we are indebted infinitely to the pioneer, but for whom, we would still not know how to draw and paint 3 dimensional objects on a flat 2 dimensional surface. It was Leon Battista Alberti ‐ the Italian artist and architect, who first demonstrated the technique to depict perspective in his 2 dimensional artwork. back in 1435, he demonstrated how 2 parallel lines meeting in infinity, can be shown to converge in a single point at a distance on paper, and how distant object could be made to appear smaller in perspective and so on. This technique enabled the Renaissance painters to start depicting landscape and streetscape in their paintings, instead of resorting to painting divine figures and portraits. This seminal work was so epochal that we still use his technique in modern engineering drawing and computer graphics.
Mathematical function: German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, was the first to put forward the concept of function to describe the relationship between multiple variables. From 1692 to 1694, he presented articles describing the relationship of variables as function. Later on, Swiss mathematician Jacob Bernoulli started using the word “function”, although the notation f(x) was introduced about 4 decades later by another Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler.
Sign Language for the deaf: Charles Michel de IEpee of France around 1770, is credited with the use of sign language in a structured manner for the benefit of those short of hearing. Although he did not develop a completely original sign language, but he assimilated old ideas and gave them formal shape and started his school for the deaf. Although sign language evolved over the years and exists in a much different form these days, but his ingenuity and initiative paved the way for the hard of hearing to come out of their shells and start communicating with outside world in general.
Turing machine: This was the theoretical construct, conceived by the British mathematician and code‐breaker Alan Turing around WW‐II. This hypothetical machine provided the basis for modern computers. Turing machine was able to read a paper tape and store information based on what was written on the tape. The machine could be altered by the particular paper slot it was reading, although the other slots of the paper could not alter the behaviour of the machine. Turing’s idea was the first step in the determination of whether a task is computable or not. This baby step evolved into 1st digital computer developed in late 1950s. The brilliance of Turing was of such high order that if he had not died at the age of 42 allegedly of cyanide self‐poisoning, the world of computer science, artificial intelligence and cryptography arguably could have progressed further than what they are now.
Wicca or white witchcraft: Although witchcraft was widely persecuted in Europe for centuries, Wicca ‐ being not linked to the mediaeval sorcery and black magic associated with traditional witchcraft, retained its existence in the underbelly of society for centuries. It originated from pre-Christian paganism and had maintained its separation from black witchcraft. Wicca became popular in Europe after English author Gerald Gardner published Witchcraft Today in 1954. He was an amateur anthropologist and archaeologist, and brought to public attention, or rather revived, the Wiccan paganism. Traditionally Wiccans revere nature like earth, sky, river, ocean, mountain much like the oldest form of raw belief system, the paganism. Although Wicca has evolved into many forms since then, its core belief system remains intact. Wicca is growing rapidly all over the world, and there are practising Wiccans in India as well, one famous Wiccan being Ipsita Roy Chakraborty ‐ living in Kolkata at present and promoting her Wiccan Brigade.
Chinese Room Argument: This famous argument hypothesized by the American philosopher John Searle in 1980, spoke against the notion of AI or artificial intelligence. In short, it states that human intelligence or consciousness executes tasks with proper understanding or meaning, whereas AI simply carries out the task without any semblance of knowledge. If a man ignorant of Chinese language is captivated in a window‐less room only with a pen and a Chinese dictionary of response notations versus queries in Chinese, and is passed on queries in paper slip in Chinese through the bottom of the door, he would easily write the corresponding response notation on the piece of paper and pass it back through the bottom of the door. To the outsider, it would seem that he understands Chinese, but actually, he is simply following instruction without understanding the meaning of query or response. Searle proposed that AI or computer simulation of consciousness is akin to the same, as opposed to the famous Turing Test. This argument caused quite a flutter in the world of AI and computer science, although it’s widely debated and argued against by the strong proponents of AI.
Incompleteness Theorem: This famous theory was put forward in 1931 by the famous Austrian Logician Kurt Gödel. It simply proves that mathematics has its limitations in ascertaining or proving our physical world. According to this theory, anything one draws a circle around, cannot explain itself without referring to something outside the circle, and that something has to be assumed, as opposed to understood. With the great stride taken in the early 20th century in the field of mathematics, mathematicians were beginning to think themselves as literally invincible, ready to dominate and solve every puzzle universe has to offer. This postulate, which was eventually proven by Godel, put a spanner in their wheel of pride. The paradox is akin to “I am a liar” paradox, whereby a liar stating that he is a liar, is to be considered a false statement. Gödel extended the same into his incompleteness theorem. If an equation is incapable to prove itself without external assumptions, then those assumptions are unprovable. Gödel’s theorem opened up the can of worm quite easily on theological side too. Whether the unsolvable part is the incomprehensible creator or God, or in opposite sense ‐ if god is not on the other side, who is?
- The Renaissance: Illustrated Encyclopaedia. Octopus(’79)
- The Battle for God – by Karen Armstrong
- The Emperor’s New Mind, & The Shadows of the Mind – both by Roger Penrose
- Evolution – The Whole Story – General Editor – Steve Parker
- Hollywood movie “The Travelling Salesman”
- Incompleteness – The proof & paradox of Kurt Gödel – by Rebecca Goldstein
- Various articles and books on psychic healing by Wiccan