Information & Opinion

Is original thought possible?

Sam Harris

75px-Sam_Harris_01 Is original thought possible?
English: Sam Harris (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sam Harris, neuroscientist and author describes ‘Free-will’ as an illusion. He uses brilliant analogies to explain that acting of your own free-will 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?’

Is Free-will an illusion?

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?

What is Plagiarism really?

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 is acceptable. However, I do believe that there are grey areas where writers may be accused of plagiarism, even though there is no intent, attempt to disguise where the information came from and accreditation is given.

Most cases of plagiarism can be avoided, however, by citing sources. Simply acknowledging that certain material has been borrowed and providing your audience with the information necessary to find that source is usually enough to prevent plagiarism.” 

Nothing is, in the purest sense, original. Just as this post is not because I originally wrote it a couple of years ago and have just changed it a little in an effort to prove a point.

0 thoughts on “Is original thought possible?

  1. So I’m in the shower, thinking about the analogy of computer software (logic) running on the hardware (brain), and how we go through levels of translation to get to machine language, where binary arithmetic is performed on transistors instead of decimal arithmetic performed on…our fingers…and then I wonder why it is just 10. After all one hand can be used to count to five and the other hand can keep track of up to 5 fives. But when I try it out on my hands I realize that it should be base 6 instead of base 5. The 5 was probably a prejudice from the decimal system where multiplying by fives is so easy. And I wonder what the base of the abacus was.

    Anyways, the neuronal links are strengthened by use, leading to clusters of ideas, which may have been originally stored for totally unrelated problems. So we get kind of an Apple “shuffle” randomization of related ideas that help produce unique, creative viewpoints.

    HOWEVER, these searches usually begin with some problem or issue that is important to the mind performing the search. Harris is wrong to suggest that ideas merely pop into our heads. They appear in response to a specific request, usually one that the conscious mind is aware of. For example, if I’m consciously planning a vacation, then thoughts about locations, hotels, transportation, and other related issues will be given access to conscious awareness, ahead of unrelated memories.

    We call this “concentration on a problem”. And the problem happens to be something that we have some interest in. And we have some interest in it because we expect it to satisfy some desire or need we have.

    The universe, the Big Bang, any prior point in eternity, have no interest in anything we do. They do not “cause” us to plan a vacation. They were certainly prerequisites, but we cannot say that they “caused” us to go to Florida rather than Hawaii. We are the only meaningful causes of that choice.

    And we really do make that choice. There is no illusion here. It happens as an actual event taking place in our brains, and you can watch the areas involved light up on a functional MRI. So it is really happening and we’re really doing it.

    As to plagiarism, I think there is an exception for commonly known facts, where it is repeated in many different sources. For example, if I say that global warming is real, I shouldn’t need to list all of the climate scientists who have repeated that fact. On the other hand, if I want to lend weight to my claim, to make it more convincing, I should provide some research sources.

    Research needn’t be original when there is a benefit from repeating a study to confirm whether the study can be repeated or if there was a flaw in the method. Usually such a follow-up study will mention the original study.

Your comments are welcome