Superstition and Innovation – Part 2

Yesterday I delved a bit into how Steve Jobs carried, or at least seemed to carry supernatural beliefs.

And he was not the only innovator doing so.

We like to think of innovators in technology and science as analytical, rational, albeit enthusiastic and driven people. After all, computers do not understand emotion, just the cold languages of logic. And even beyond computers, the voice of science, the age of reason, is all about freedom from superstitious beliefs. From Albert Einstein’s ‘God Letter‘,

The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weakness, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still purely primitive, legends which are nevertheless pretty childish…

And yet, the legendary scientist before him, Isaac Newton, notes that,

.. search the scriptures thy self & that by frequent reading & constant meditation upon what thou readest, & earnest prayer to God to enlighten thine understanding if thou desirest to find the truth…

… the benefit which may accrew by understanding the sacred Prophesies & the danger by neglecting them is very great…

Newton had a large body of work where he talks about the Bible, and importance of finding ‘truth’ via Scripture.

And not only the superstition of the religious kind, he also spent quite some time on the  ‘science’ of alchemy. According to this source:

Isaac Newton had become an alchemist.

Alchemy is an ancient and secret practice with roots in the Middle East. By carrying out lengthy and complex chemical procedures, alchemists tried to produce a magical substance called the Philosopher’s Stone. The Philosopher’s Stone was so potent that even a small quantity was said to perform miracles: curing ailments, conferring immortality, and transforming ordinary metals like lead into pure gold.

Yes, this was the man who wrote the Principia – one of the most important works in the history of science. But even his work on physics and mathematics was rooted in phenomena which can’t be explained. A speech on Newton by the economist John Maynard Keynes is especially interesting:

There is the story of how he informed Halley of one of his most fundamental discoveries of planetary motion. ‘Yes,’ replied Halley, ‘but how do you know that? Have you proved it?’ Newton was taken aback – ‘Why, I’ve known it for years‘, he replied. ‘If you’ll give me a few days, I’ll certainly find you a proof of it’ – as in due course he did.

Again, there is some evidence that Newton in preparing the Principia was held up almost to the last moment by lack of proof that you could treat a solid sphere as though all its mass was concentrated at the centre, and only hit on the proof a year before publication. But this was a truth which he had known for certain and had always assumed for many years.

He just knew the stuff beforehand, and then proved it, for publication. Come to think of it, we know him as a scientist, but if instead of his works on alchemy being lost or hidden from most public view due to bad marketing, if his physics had been lost, we might have known him as a theologian, had we known him at all.

But the concern is not about Steve Jobs, or Isaac Newton (or Nikola Tesla), it’s about people carrying strange beliefs, beliefs which seem foolish, and these people, going on to create great things. Maybe because at the edge of innovation, you don’t really know if something is foolish, or a possibility with great potential. After all, today’s technology is nothing short of Godlike as compared to just even a few hundred years ago.

Paul Graham distilled this thought in a short essay ‘The Risk of Discovery‘:

Physics seems to us a promising thing to work on, and alchemy and theology obvious wastes of time. But that’s because we know how things turned out. In Newton’s day the three problems seemed roughly equally promising. No one knew yet what the payoff would be for inventing what we now call physics; if they had, more people would have been working on it. And alchemy and theology were still then in the category Marc Andreessen would describe as “huge, if true.”

Newton made three bets. One of them worked. But they were all risky.

I don’t think Newton’s theology was a ‘bet’, but the core point remains. If you believe things for no apparent reason than you believe them, you are likelier to be someone who risks investing energy in novel ideas and thus, reach an innovative breakthrough.

This thought has implications for our culture. In a place where people are free to carry such beliefs, we will see more innovation. At least a few of the superstitious people will hit on some important ideas. On the other hand, if people are shamed for their ideas, or punished in other ways, they are likely to hide and maybe kill their ideas – leading to a net loss for humanity.

Hence ‘Freedom of Speech’ essentially becomes the freedom to say seemingly foolish things. Before they play out completely, it is impossible to separate an incredibly smart idea from an outright foolish one. They look the same ! Thus it makes profound sense to foster a culture (in companies and in societies) where ‘Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish’ is the mantra.

If we think further on this, it turns out that privacy is also extremely important for a culture of innovation. People with ‘heretical’ ideas know that they won’t be accepted easily and quickly. And Newton knew this too:

His deepest instincts were occult, esoteric, semantic-with profound shrinking from the world, a paralyzing fear of exposing his thoughts, his beliefs, his discoveries in all nakedness to the inspection and criticism of the world.

And if they don’t get their privacy, they might not share these ideas – because of criticism and ridicule, and we would lose them. (An even more frightening possibility – people may not get innovative ideas, if they fear they will be punished for them).

So maybe we can reformulate the case. Mythology and superstition help in going towards innovation, but only in those cultures which permit us freedom to express such views and provide the privacy we need to nurture such ideas.

One thought on “Superstition and Innovation – Part 2

  1. Pingback: Fragility of ideas – Curated Intelligence

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