How to find the most resilient ideas
A journey down the river to time, in search of enduring truths.
Welcome to the River of Time.
It starts, well, at the beginning, when there was nothing. When there was no politics, or people, or plants, or planets. The River of Time started before there were even protons.
It flows from the distant past, through the chaotic present, and far far down, into the uncertain future. The River of Time may look peaceful to the naked eye, but it’s anything but.
It’s flanked on all sides with ripping hurricanes, razor sharp rocks, and hungry predators.
Survival on the River of Time, requires nothing short of a miracle.
So, us humans stay safely on the riverbanks. Since we can’t travel down the River of Time ourselves, we crafted other ways to make use of it. We devised a way to send secret messages, advice, and even warnings down to our children, and their children, using the currents of time. That’s right, we use the river to communicate with the future.
Instead of sending our physical bodies down the tumultuous waters, we send something far more resilient. Our ideas.
For centuries, the bravest among us have been articulating, bottling, and shipping their ideas down the River of Time. They submit them, and then pray they’ll be able to weather the chaos.
In the form of lectures, letters, and poems, Aristotle sent us many messages from the distant past. Same with Fredrick Douglas, Anne Frank, and Adele. Each one bottling an important idea for future generations. Each a contribution to the River of Time.
But there’s trouble on the river.
It doesn’t look quite the same as it used to. And this change is disrupting our very ability to determine which ideas are true, and which are imposters.
How an idea can become something more
The River of Time has an elegance beyond human construction. Not only does it give us the ability to communicate with future generations, but it also serves another invaluable function. It sorts the simple, useless ideas from the important truths.
These useful truths have allowed us to orient ourselves for millions of years. They’ve shown us how to play fair, how to build cities, and how to raise children. They’ve allowed us to explore the depths of space, and uncover the underlying atomic structure of the universe.
Enduring truths like: agriculture, morality, hygiene, monogamy, gravity, fermentation, reciprocity, free will, and taxes.
But all these truths started out as nothing more than ideas.
So how do you determine which ideas are truths, and which are not? The answer is probably less satisfying than you’d like. The reality is, we don’t. The river does.
Discerning fact from fiction, truth from idea, is beyond us. At least in the individual sense. It’s not for you or me to determine. But rather, it’s for all of us, throughout all time, and all cultures, and all faiths, and all social standings, to decide.
More concretely, the reason the River of Time is so tumultuous, is because it is designed to kill bad ideas. The weaker the idea, the quicker the river eliminates it.
An idea that survives, is a bit like a gladiator that’s survived round after round in the arena. They might not be the strongest warrior in the world, but they’re undeniably tough, and the best we have right now.
With enough time, an idea surpasses the opinions and perceptions of its era. Its validity is confirmed by the collective human experience. It transcends a time, a place, a culture, a civilization, and becomes a truth.
Truths, therefore, are just our most resilient ideas.
The truth is not absolute
The truth is something that serves us.
It’s nothing more than an idea with a proven historic utility.
Which suggests something a bit unsettling. It suggests that there are no finite truths, and no certainties. Which, given our understanding of the River of Time, makes sense. Both new ideas and old truths are constantly being tested. Only someone standing at the very end of the river, could witness the final truth. Thankfully, we are not there, so we’ll have to work with what we’ve got.
But truths don’t need to be final and absolute to be useful to us. They simply need to act as a coat rack. A place for us to hang our beliefs, our morality, and our decision-making processes on.
In 1915, Einstein developed the General Theory of Relativity. Using this as a coat rack, society has been able to launch rockets into space, power precision lasers, and create the GPS that tells your DoorDash driver exactly where to drop off the nachos.
But even this truth is incomplete. Quantum Mechanics, or the study of how subatomic particles interact with each other, is at odds with Einstein’s theories on gravity. Both are true in the sense that they are useful. Both have acted as the backbone for real scientific progress. And yet, they are incompatible.
When asked about this paradox in 1924, Einstein himself said that “There are therefore now two theories… both indispensable, and — as one must admit today despite twenty years of tremendous effort on the part of theoretical physicists — without any logical connection.“
This paradox still remains a problem for physicists today. But the fact that both can be true, and both can be irreconcilable, is simply a testament to the nature of truth itself.
We don’t need an idea to be infallible to be useful to us.
But there’s something changing on the river. Something that’s made it harder than ever to find these resilient truths.
Congestion on the River of Time
For me, it started with a feeling in my gut. A feeling that there was always more that I could be doing. That despite my best efforts, I was always falling behind.
There was always another podcast, always another book. My Netflix queue was like a hydra, each time I watched a show, two more would spring up in its place. It was like I was always just a little bit behind on the latest scientific research, and local politics.
That was until I realized that we’re living through a great congestion.
A period where more ideas, more literature, more films, more videos, more news, and more articles are published each day, than ever before.
1.8 million academic articles are published each year, of which “50%…are never read by anyone other than their authors…and journal editors.”
100,000 books are published every month. If you include self-published authors, that number jumps to 330,000 books.
350,000 tweets are published each minute.
720,000 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every day. Meaning it would take you 123 years to watch just the videos that were uploaded in the past 24 hours.
Contributing an idea to the River of Time used to be a difficult and costly endeavor. You’d first have to dream up a wild idea, then find the perfect way to articulate it, bottle it, and finally send it down the river for humanity to find.
The problem is—as we’ve discovered above—not all ideas are equal. Some ideas are half-formed, and die within moments of hitting the River of Time. Killed by the natural societal element that make the river so powerful.
By opening up the flood gates and allowing anyone, at any time, to contribute any idea to our collective pool of intelligence, we’ve effectively buried the truth.
As a result, we’re suffocated by flimsy ideas. Ideas that get turned over, reversed, and revised each and every week.
So the act of scanning the river, in an attempt to search for these hidden truths, feels a bit futile. As a consequence, we overlook robust and ancient truths in exchange for the millions of new ideas congesting the river today.
Finding enduring truths
But it only feels this way if we disregard the central utility of the River of Time.
It’s the ultimate arbiter of truth. The River of Time is the collective efforts of both humanity and nature. It is, most concretely, the natural selection of ideas. The most advantageous ideas consistently rise to the top. Albeit, rather slowly.
So behind all the noise and all the congestion, the river keeps doing it’s job. It’s only when we believe that we—the citizens of today—are capable of teasing out the truth, do we get in trouble.
Maybe, instead of expending our mental efforts judging fact from fiction, we should simply use the age of any idea as a proxy for it’s usefulness. After all, the older the idea—and the harsher the circumstances it has withstood—the more robust it is.
The idea Einstein proposed on General Relativity is over 100 years old, and still stands today. That idea was built off of Newton’s ideas from 270 years prior. His ideas were largely influenced by Galileo’s on inertia from 50 years before that. It keeps going back I promise you, but I think you get the picture.
Inertia was a time-tested truth to Newton, and the laws of gravity were time-tested to Einstein. They were not breaking news. They were not fashionable. They were simply ideas that despite the best efforts of their detractors and society at large, did not die.
Using this filter, we should be skeptical of any new scientific discovery, any breaking news, and anything on this month’s bestsellers list. Unless it’s detailing a previously articulated idea, it is simply needs more time. Let it float on the river for a while before you treat it with any credence.
Oh, and I almost forgot to mention, here is my contribution to the River of Time. This article that you’re reading right now is just another idea, thrown into the endless stream of ideas. In a time that’s more noisy than ever, I submit this reflection to you.
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