Can an idea be “real” like a light bulb or a torch? Does the text of a book contain something more than just symbols on a page? Do ideas have a causal effect measurable by empirical science?
I was pondering these questions whilst watching the world pour opprobrium on Donald Trump’s comments about Muslims. Few dispute the fact that ideas can be dangerous but just how dangerous can an idea be? Is it measurable?
Of course, an idea is not in any traditional scientific sense of the word measurable there are too many variables; however, many ideas do seem to be predictable in their outcomes. It’s quite predictable that the world would react, as it has done when the president of the United States happens to suggest that a billion Muslims should be banned from entering the country.
Bloggers, like Old Andrew, spring to mind when they argue that the main purpose of education is to make individuals cleverer. The question is, what does that mean? Can we place some kind of quantifiable value on it?
A critical realist scholar, Margaret Archer, suggests that ideas are “real”. In Archer’s view, “Intelligibilia”, or something equating to Popper’s third world knowledge, such as scientific theories, stories, myths, tools, social institutions, and works of art have a causal effect. We interact with the written and material culture of the past and something new emerges.
Just as a light bulb has the potential for light; ideas that have been written down have the potential to be understood. Both are dependent upon human interaction, humans have to switch the light on or read the book.
Another critical realist, Dave Elder Vass suggests that the causal moment of an idea is when it is normed by a social group; the idea becomes a social fact. An idea has to be shared by more than one individual to be something more than the subjective knowing of one individual.
Whatever the answer to the question, “what is the value of an idea?”, it seems to me that the future of education will reside around a journey towards the empirical value of ideas whether for good or ill.