How only an optimistic application of critical rationalism can create environments of innovation.
There appears to be general agreement that while creativity is a good thing, criticism is not. One is about building up something new, while the other is tearing down and destroying. One is positive. The other - altogether negative. But this is profoundly misguided. Without understanding the centrality of criticism to the creative process, innovation will stagnate. Criticism without creativity is cruel. Creativity without criticism is absurd.
Creativity and criticism are two sides of the same coin. They are not opposed to each other, but go hand in hand. Far from being independent - they are interdependent. Creativity amounts to progress only when it encounters criticism. And criticisms are generated through creative acts. The creative arts are not simply an “anything goes” domain. That would be a mess; not art. The very act of distinguishing a mere mess from quality art is a critical act. This is a positive thing! Only the inability to have some criterion of “quality” is a negative thing. The absence of judgement, and not its presence, is what is antithetical to great art. And music. And knowledge. We must be judgmental to implement a better, more positive world.
We must divorce criticism or “the critical” from the negative emotions so many associate with it. Critical acuity is altogether a positive trait. And this is due in no small part to the simple truth that the critical is married to the creative. They are one in the same when it comes to knowledge generation. And when we speak of knowledge generation we mean across all domains: scientific, philosophical, mathematical, artistic, ethical. To speak of being creative in these areas is to admit that critical methods must come to bare in filtering the false, ugly wrong turns from the gradual climb towards what is better. Avoiding the ugly, and the wrong is a positive.
And it typically is gradual indeed. While great leaps of imagination can and do occur: they are famous in our world for their rarity. Einstein’s relativity, Darwin’s Evolution, The Beatles Rock and Roll, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, the iPhone. But most innovation is of the incremental type. Indeed those “great leaps” on more careful analysis involve both small and big steps in standing on shoulders of giants.
Innovation is not merely about science or technology, despite what recent political corrections might have us believe. For some time, conservative political discourse in some western nations seemed skeptical at all that science (let alone rational enlightenment philosophy) was what built great societies. The correction was a little long in coming. But now, in Australia at least, even conservative ideology in the person of our new Prime Minister has been at pains to spread the positive message of innovation. New ministries and whole departments have been rebranded and reinvigorated some might say - explicitly focussed as they now are upon “innovation”. Knowledge creation industries we might hope are once more on the ascendancy. This has been welcome news to those of us who regretted the very cultural pessimism that seemed to infuse Australian (and more generally Western) politics with respect to science specifically and by association innovation at large. There is a different mood about the place: knowing that those with power value your work can be motivating. If political leaders can do anything at all - they can initiate conversations and help bring communities on board. Not all of our neighbours are having conversations about science and knowledge and innovation so it is worth observing that reminders about how the knowledge industries really do solve real world problems must sometimes be lead from the top down. Knowing your neighbours value your work: that can help with inspiration.
Inspiration often makes all the difference. One can be inspired from within as well as without. A problem presents itself through private investigation, or perhaps someone comes to ask for help. Popper taught that one needed to “fall in love” with a problem. That’s what it means to be inspired: to fall in love with problems.
“I think there is only one way to do science” Popper wrote, “– or to do philosophy for that matter; to meet a problem, to see its beauty and fall in love with it; to get married to it, and to live with it happily, till death do ye part - unless you should meet another and even more fascinating problem, or unless indeed you should obtain a solution. But even if you do obtain a solution you may then discover to your delight, the existence of a whole family of enchanting though perhaps difficult problem children for whose welfare you may work, with a purpose to the end of your days.”
That is what drives the innovators. Treating problems as wonderful things. That is how inspiration works: finding a problem or problems so motivating that they cannot be let go so easily. To be frustrated at not working upon them. To feel at a loss in the supposed comfort of having “no problems”.
Inspiration in the form of leaders willing to merely make positive noises about the **real world** effects of knowledge creation can lay the ground for innovative thinking. We all knew, didn’t we, that science, mathematics, the arts, philosophy - knowledge creation broadly - is what makes societies, and our own lives, better? Sometimes some of us need reminding. Progress is hard won and sometimes people are slow to notice. Problems that cause us harm may seem to have been with us forever and we can forget what used to aile us.
Progress is a special case of innovation. Innovation - the **new** - can sometimes lead to progress. Innovation is a more neutral term - for innovation **can** fail (think of the many internet start-ups that never really took off think Betamaxing (link) more generally). Think Google Glasses. Sometimes people use the word “innovation” to mean “progress” and I think that is fine and that is now how larger organisations all the way up to governments are treating the word “innovation”. Perhaps because “progress” sounds too close to “progressive” and there is much political baggage now associated with that word in some circles. So highlighting this new meaning of the word “innovation” has been itself an innovation. But we cannot do away with the word “progress” - it really does capture the idea of improvement in a more pure sense. Progress is simply an admission that one state of affairs has lead to an objectively *better* state of affairs. And optimism is simply the principle that progress is possible: the idea that things can get better. That problems are soluble, as David Deutsch has taught us. And problems are soluble because knowledge is possible.
Only pessimistic philosophies which are at core a denial of this truth stand in the way of innovation. There are two kinds (1) those that enforce dogmas and (2) those that deny the possibility of knowledge. The former kind includes authoritarian practises and cultures that permit no criticism. The latter includes relativism, postmodernism and what goes under the banner of “constructivism”. Sadly that latter kind is taught too frequently to students of education and in some of the humanities. I must immediately say: the humanities are just as much a domain of truth and knowledge creation as science and mathematics is. It is just that some of the philosophies of the humanities are not. Both type (1) and (2) anti-innnovation philosophies have the ear of government and some organisations. They are sometimes synonymous with in the case of (1) the far right of politics and in the case of (2) the far left. The opposition between “we already have the ultimate final truth” and “there exists no final ultimate truth”. Both are mistaken. While there is indeed a final ultimate truth, it is impossible to know if you have obtained it. Instead knowledge creation is about ever better approximations to ultimate, ontological truth and beauty. This lays the ground for the possibility of perpetual progress - unending innovation. “The Beginning of Infinity” as David Deutsch’s book is titled.
Modern critical rationalism is an epistemology that links inspiration and motivation to creativity. What more positive language could we begin to conjure? It is the positivity inherent in critical rationalist that explains the conditions under which creativity can flourish and progress is stable. It is critical rationalism: the idea that ideas are generated through bold conjectures (guesses) coupled with refutations (criticisms) that fuels innovation. What a wonderfully positive vision! It is only this philosophy - and no other - that can produce individuals, organisations and societies that not only love learning but are desperate to learn. To learn about how to improve their personal situation and the lives of others and the world around them. For a learner who learns critical rationalism learns the means by which knowledge is created and the new can improve upon the old. This optimistic view of what is a critical method is what I call “Positive Philosophy”.
So taking innovation as being synonymous with progress, denuded of the political overtones - how is innovation possible?
Firstly - we need to know what we know. We need our best existing knowledge. Only knowledge already created can be improved. Despite what some think, great leaps in innovation - what have been called “paradigm shifts” in some academic circles - are the rare exception. Reflecting here for a moment: consider what is now known as the Copernican “Revolution”. How revolutionary was the original idea? Consider what went before: the ancients had (mainly!) taught that the Earth was at the centre of the universe. And around the Earth orbited all of the planets, stars, Sun and Moon. This “geocentric” theory was not universally subscribed to, but it seemed to have the greatest support among the experts. The great authority “Ptolomy” used mathematics to predict the movement of celestial bodies to high precision.
Then in 1543 the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus suggested a “radical” idea: a “revolution” - a total “paradigm shift”. He suggested that the centre of everything be replaced. Instead of the Earth - the Sun should be moved to the focus of the universe. And around this the Earth became just another orbiting body.
But was that so momentous? Well yes. And no. Yes: it had the social effect of regarding people as not at the astronomical centre of things. Yes: it eventually lead others like Galileo and Newton to develop more refined scientific theories that enabled careful predictions to be made. And no: it is not such a huge change. It is swapping one body (the Earth) for another (the Sun). But in terms of astronomy - this is no huge advance. It eliminated details like Ptolomy’s superfluous epicycles and the theory was therefore simpler in a crucial respect. But the planets were still in (circular) orbits. There was something at the focus. Most of the “terrain” of the solar system remained unchanged as did the paths the planets followed. In terms of the science: the innovation was an incremental one. As for a “paradigm shift” - well we could argue either way about that. How big must a change be to be an entire “paradigm” shift?
Let us consider a closely related even in physics that might deserve the title more: that of Einstein’s theory of General Relativity (GR). GR replaced Newton’s theory of gravity in many ways. And it is: what was once a force (gravity), became no longer a force. What was once an unalterable background (space and time) became a dynamic, twisting fabric. And yet not everything was lost: planets still orbited stars, masses still moved towards each other seemingly attracted together. So although many things were rejected in the new physics - not **everything** was lost. Here the change was not incremental. So too we might say with Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection. But even there: it was not creation ex-nihlio. People knew about evolution. And they knew about artificial selection. It did indeed take the genius of Darwin to fill in the gaps - but the gaps were not as huge or numerous as some might imagine. And today neo-Darwinism - the idea that genes are the unit of selection - looks rather different to Darwin’s original idea and yet few speak of a “paradigm shift” that has occurred in biology since Darwin in the field of evolution. Because to understand the progress that has happened in that field it is better to view the gradual accumulation of knowledge as an incremental process of improvement through refinement, discovery and criticism through experiment and other means.
Paradigm shifts are the rare exception in science and knowledge more broadly. Scientific revolutions, if they happen at all, happen with the frequency of political revolutions. Rare punctuations in the equilibrium of rich, diverse and stable societies. Most of the work of building societies that continue to flourish over decades and centuries happens between the violent confrontations and sudden wholesale changes. The sudden upheavals can bring with them negative consequences - often violence. But critical rationalism tempers this. It cautions that incremental progress is best for improvements to occur. Positive things happen when error correction is fast - but this can only happen if it is slow enough for the errors to actually be **corrected** not compounded.
So revolutions are rare. If we look to the history of chemistry, for example, the current state of affairs is a result of gradual, incremental change, year on year, to existing knowledge. If we look at the current iteration of iPhones from Apple - each generation is an incremental increase on the first. And the very first iPhone? It was an innovation: but it was not a wholesale invention ex nihlio. It too was an incremental increase over many pre-existing technologies. From the UNIX based software embedded deep in its operating system, through to the wireless technology in the hardware and the silicon chips common to many phones. Some of those increases were more or less larger than others and many new changes were incorporated into one device. But we should not be mislead into thinking innovation always requires something completely new from the ground up. Such a state of affairs is almost never the case.
More typically innovation is the gradual delving into what we do not know from what we do know. It is the taking of a single idea and changing it. Hopefully for that better. And if it is better: that’s progress. Precisely how this step from existing knowledge to better knowledge happens in a single human mind: we do not know. But we do know it is very much a defining human capacity. Indeed in nature we see evolution **attempting** innovations. But these happen unconsciously and haphazardly. And take much much longer. And nature, though it can respond to changes, cannot adapt to change like creative people can.
Knowledge innovation among humans is orders of magnitude faster that anything we see in nature. And this, by the way is why hoping artificial intelligence will spontaneously arise from some evolutionary algorithm is so profoundly misguided. We may wait millions or billions of years or forever (such as happens in nature) or we will understand intelligence first and then program it. And although it is the undirected alteration of existing ideas: the creative mind of a person is able to criticise a bad idea and sift the successful thoughts from those that are not so good. Success is frequently, but not always, the measure of positivity among ideas.
So what is required for innovation? Firstly a robust understanding of the field you intend to innovate within. So you want to be an innovative computer programmer designing new games? You will need to know about the existing computer games...and the programming language(s) used to code those games. You will need to know something about computer hardware, and physics. You will need to know something about the preferences of people who play computer games. And you need to know a bit about critical thinking: how to decide if your new idea is a good idea. This can be hard - but to pretend we know nothing at all about how to sift the better ideas from the worse ideas is a recipe for failure. This is positive philosophy: how to decide among your choices as to what is better or worse.
Next: innovation is about new ideas. Ideas that are creatively generated in the mind of a human. A human mind is creative when it can explore new terrain. The more “newness” the better. And like explorers of the past - new lands were found when the unexpected happened. When the explorer was not **directed**. Direction - as in someone providing the “way” is not a “way” to something new. If someone has metaphorically paved the way - well that paved way is discovered territory. The road most travelled. That will make no difference. So to avoid the well trodden road, the innovator needs to be free to explore. And this only happens when they can pursue their own interests in ways they desire. They may want companions for the road. A trusted, wise friend who can help should stumbles happen or blocks in the road arise. And they will. Two heads can be better than one sometimes.
But what should not happen is for the wise friend to become a dictatorial instructor who makes choices for the innovator. Now sometimes it is true, the innovator can make demands themselves - and use people as tools. But this is not the best way for new ideas to flourish. Innovation happens in larger grouping of people - organizations and nations - when there is more freedom, not less. Such organisation will have much knowledge instantiated in their culture and traditions about how to facilitate innovation in a stable way. This can be a challenge. Tradition and culture has, historically been about avoiding changes, not facing up to criticisms - and worse - punishing them. It can be about not looking for ways to improve but rather assuming that the best is already being done.
This would be a negative philosophy. Now negativity of a certain particular kind is only a good thing: the “negativity” of criticism. But this is a term I wish to avoid - or at least wish to separate from the
But traditions and customs that preserve the freedom to explore: they are the very means by which creativity can be fostered. A tradition of allowing everyone to contribute ideas. A tradition of allowing people to criticise those ideas. A tradition where people feel comfortable about receiving criticism - and not feeling insulted if their idea is revealed as not quite so good. It is about being positive about criticism. A tradition of valuing people as sacred and deserving of respect (even when their ideas may not be) is a positive philosophy of people. And these are the hallmarks of innovative environments. Environments imbued with positive philosophy. Few places aspire to such lofty principles, let alone meet them. But as the enlightenment spreads, there will be no choice. We will innovate through knowledge creation and criticism or we will stagnate and decline. This is true of the individual. Of organisations, of nations. And of the world.