Thursday, July 3, 2008

A Post of Combinatorial Creativity...

“Some of the principal extensions, together with some of their psychic and social consequences, are studied in this book. Just how little consideration has been given to such matters in the past can be gathered from the consternation of one of the editors of this book. He noted in dismay that ‘seventy-five per cent of your material is new. A successful book cannot venture to be more than ten per cent new.’”

– Marshal McLuhan, Understanding Media (1994)

It's interesting to note the different ways in which one (a philosopher, scientist, etc.) can be original. In some cases, for example, the problems/questions are clearly defined, lacking answers not because of some abstruseness or obscurity that obstructs the curious mind’s "epistemic" access to them, but for a wholly bland and purely practical reason, namely that no one has yet taken the time to solve them. This is to say, puzzle X remains a mystery not because X is particularly difficult to understand (one might say “intrinsically mysterious”), but simply because no one has gotten around to figuring it out.

A great deal of Kuhnian “normal science” work, it seems to me, is just taking the time to do the experiments; I realized this, again, in a bacterial genetics/genomics laboratory course I took several semesters ago. My group was assigned to research a specific mutation in the dnaE486 allele (the dnaE gene codes for the α subunit in the DNA polymerase III, which catalyzes DNA replication), the only one of several alleles that had not yet been researched. In this case, my group embarked on a research journey through uncharted territory—but we already knew something about this territory prior to our work, namely that it existed, that it was uncharted, etc. All we had to do was chart it. This marks a difference between us (and most scientists engaged in such “busy-work”) and, say, Albert Einstein, who had to discover that such-and-such a territory existed in the first place—a prerequisite, of course, for charting that territory.

I am reminded of a passage from Jacques Ellul’s magnum opus The Technological SocietyBell or Gray in 1876, or someone else in 1877 or 1878 or perhaps as early as 1875?” (Quoted in Winner 1977, 66-67). Indeed, I recall reading once that Heisenberg thought that if Einstein hadn’t devised his theory of relativity (first in 1905), then Hendrik Lorentz would have stumbled upon it eventually. And from this stems the “autonomous technology” thesis. (1964) in which Ellul notes that, as disciplines become increasingly specialized, genius becomes increasingly unnecessary for one to make an important contribution. Similarly, the anthropologist A.L. Kroeber argued that “inventions may be inevitable,” focusing on the increasingly frequent occurrence of simultaneity, with respect to discoveries or inventions, in science and other domains. As Kroeber states: “It is only a question of who will work the idea out feasibly. Will it be

On a tangential note: Nietzsche once said (I believe in Ecce Homo) that the truly original thinker is not he/she who sees something new altogether, but rather he/she who sees something new in what everyone is already looking at. This seems to map onto, roughly, Margaret Boden’s distinction between what she calls deep and combinatorial creativity: The former involves creating something completely new, unique or sui generis, while the latter involves reconfiguring “components” already present in novel ways. Like Nietzsche, Boden identifies true genius with the latter, with re-combining known elements into new configurations. The question then is: What is the precise relation between this distinction and the discussion above?

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