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Can humanity run out of ideas?

A woman at a clear white board writes down ideas.
(Image credit: nd3000 via Getty Images)

People are constantly generating ideas — from thoughts as mundane as how to better organize your closet to concepts as complex as the theory of relativity. Given this wide breadth of lightbulb moments, from trifling to significant, can humanity ever run out of ideas? 

To some extent, no, those who study ideas from a philosophical and biological basis said. By the simplest definition, an idea is a fully formed thought or opinion, meaning that even mundane ideas, like how to best arrange a floral bouquet, count as new ideas. 

And by that definition, "the answer is no," David O'Hara, a professor of philosophy and chair of the Department of Religion, Philosophy and Classics at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, told Live Science.

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Even if we consider "useful ideas, big, intriguing ideas, or new discoveries, I think the answer is still 'no,' but for a different reason," O'Hara said. "It might be a 'maybe.'" That "maybe" depends on how creative people will be in the future, he said.

When considering relatively simple ideas — like a better way to do your morning routine — O'Hara compared the number of atoms in the universe, calculated to be about 10^82, with the number of possible ways a game of Go (a Chinese game played on a 19X19 grid) could be played.

A Go game has a possible 2X10^172 combinations, much more vast than all the atoms in the universe, he said.

"So, if we talk about ideas as arrangements of things that can be understood, I don't think we have time to run out of them," O'Hara said.

​​In the same way, even though our brains have a finite number of brain cells and connections between them, there are a near infinite number of ways of activating them to generate fleeting thoughts that could constitute ideas.

And, while a game of Go does have a finite (if mind-bogglingly large) number of possible ways it can play out, the possible types of human endeavor are much less constrained. This means that theoretically, "there is a practical[ly] infinite number of arrangements," O'Hara said. 

Language is another example of this phenomenon, Robert Reinhart, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at Boston University and the director of the university's Cognitive and Clinical Neuroscience Laboratory, told Live Science in an email.

"There's a finite array of elements (e.g., letters in the alphabet) and from this finite set of elements we can generate a class of objects so astronomically large in size that it is 'infinite' for all intents and purposes," he said.

However, that's not to say that human ideas will, in reality, be infinite, Reinhart said. 

"It's less a question of running out of ideas and more of an acknowledgement that humans, like all biological creatures, have scope and limits, including cognitive scope and limits," he said. This means that the very way our brains are structured could result in some ideas being "beyond our cognitive reach." 

For instance, we may never come up with ideas that rely on sensory organs we don't have, or that rely on some type of math or visualization that our brains simply can't process. For example, cephalopods, a group that includes cuttlefish, squid and octopuses, can change into a variety of colors in a split second to help camouflage themselves — a feat that humans can't achieve, O’Hara said. "They can blush in many colors. They may detect color — or use color or light differently than we do." Who knows what kinds of ideas humans could produce by having abilities such as this?

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Limitations aside, what about momentous thoughts that affect humanity on a societal level? Is there a limit on the number of big ideas that humans can dream up? Will humans continue to decipher the universe, start innovative businesses and write books filled with critical insights about our lives and world? 

As for the question of whether humanity might run out of ideas that are useful, important,  beautiful, or truly novel — like a Mozart symphony or an affordable and efficient type of renewable energy — O'Hara gave a qualified "maybe."

"When I say there was a 'maybe' on this one – I don't think there's a limit on the good, useful and interesting ideas — except there is a limit if we stop being artistic and curious," he said. "When we stop wondering, stop engaging in acts of awe, then we lose the capacity to perceive new ideas."

Research shows that educational systems that prioritize rewards in the form of grades, "tend to strongly impair creativity, undermine interest, are counterproductive to learning, facilitate shallow thinking, lead people to avoid challenging tasks and tend to reduce intellectual risk-taking and exploration," Reinhart said.

Doing away with rewards and competition, and setting up working and learning environments that "encourage curiosity, cooperation, and critical, independent thinking," will be the way to "facilitate big, new ideas," he said.

Originally published on Live Science.

Paula Schaap

Paula Schaap writes about science, business and religion. Her articles have appeared in Salon, Bloomberg, The Deal and Episcopal News Service. Before turning to journalism, she was a commercial litigator in New York. She has an M.A. in journalism from American University, an M.F.A. in film from Columbia University, and a J.D. from Brooklyn Law School.