Are we capable of original thought?

English: Sam Harris
English: Sam Harris (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sam Harris, the neuroscientist and author describes ‘Freewill’ as an illusion. He uses brilliant analogies to explain that acting of your own freewill implies that you could have done otherwise. He poses the question, ‘What are you going to think next? Your next thought comes out of nowhere. Whatever you are doing you have a voice in your head which just says things. Thoughts just emerge in consciousness. We can’t choose them before we think them. So if you can’t control your next thought where is your freedom of will?’

Could we conclude therefore that if free will is an illusion, then so is our capability of original thought? Are our thoughts, our speech, our writing and other actions no more than a medley or collection of information we have gathered, consciously and subliminally over time. Have the sources of that information themselves not done the same? And as this process evolves so the information develops and grows in value or is proven to be of lesser or no value. Our ability to work with the information at our disposal allows us to blend it into a concoction that may re-invent it, improve on it and make it appear unique. But can we ever consider that it has arisen or proceeded independently of anything else?

There is often a lot of confusion regarding what constitutes plagiarism and what constitutes research. It certainly is a grey area and it can be argued that it is open to interpretation. I firmly believe that the key is intent and that many writers are fearful of dealing with subject matter they would like to tackle but don’t because they may be accused of plagiarism. Take, for example, a writer who is passionate about environmental issues as they relate to the Amazon rain forest and has carried out extensive research over many years. He would like to write on the subject but has never visited South America and never will. The question is could he write authoritatively on the subject, would his work be accepted or would he be accused of plagiarising the work of others from where all his information must come?

My inclination would be to say, this man may possibly have gained more collective knowledge from the writings of others than the individual writers themselves have. That alone could make him the leading authority on the subject. But what about the writings he has to draw on? Back to ‘original thought’, the benchmark for determining plagiarism which is ostensibly the theft of another’s original work or thoughts being passed off as your own. Unless you are convinced that we are capable of original thought then all writing is open to the question of whether it is truly original or not and if not then it surely must be a form of plagiarism in itself as it cannot be truly original.

I am not for one minute suggesting that plagiarism (as it is understood) is acceptable. However, I do believe that there are grey areas where, without intent, many writers could be accused. And I also believe that nothing is, in the purest sense, original.

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