Thursday, August 04, 2011

More from Hamming: ambiguity and commitment

Two paragraphs I neglected to quote in the previous post. See also Intellectual honesty.

A recent meme that's been circulating is that of the ideological Turing test. Until you can faithfully and convincingly emulate the severest opponents of your ideas, you have not yet thought about those ideas in a balanced and complete way.

You and Your Research: ... There's another trait on the side which I want to talk about; that trait is ambiguity. It took me a while to discover its importance. Most people like to believe something is or is not true. Great scientists tolerate ambiguity very well. They believe the theory enough to go ahead; they doubt it enough to notice the errors and faults so they can step forward and create the new replacement theory. If you believe too much you'll never notice the flaws; if you doubt too much you won't get started. It requires a lovely balance. But most great scientists are well aware of why their theories are true and they are also well aware of some slight misfits which don't quite fit and they don't forget it. Darwin writes in his autobiography that he found it necessary to write down every piece of evidence which appeared to contradict his beliefs because otherwise they would disappear from his mind. When you find apparent flaws you've got to be sensitive and keep track of those things, and keep an eye out for how they can be explained or how the theory can be changed to fit them. Those are often the great contributions. Great contributions are rarely done by adding another decimal place. It comes down to an emotional commitment. Most great scientists are completely committed to their problem. Those who don't become committed seldom produce outstanding, first-class work.

Now again, emotional commitment is not enough. It is a necessary condition apparently. And I think I can tell you the reason why. Everybody who has studied creativity is driven finally to saying, ``creativity comes out of your subconscious.'' Somehow, suddenly, there it is. It just appears. Well, we know very little about the subconscious; but one thing you are pretty well aware of is that your dreams also come out of your subconscious. And you're aware your dreams are, to a fair extent, a reworking of the experiences of the day. If you are deeply immersed and committed to a topic, day after day after day, your subconscious has nothing to do but work on your problem. And so you wake up one morning, or on some afternoon, and there's the answer. For those who don't get committed to their current problem, the subconscious goofs off on other things and doesn't produce the big result. So the way to manage yourself is that when you have a real important problem you don't let anything else get the center of your attention - you keep your thoughts on the problem. Keep your subconscious starved so it has to work on your problem, so you can sleep peacefully and get the answer in the morning, free.


Fawcett Mortenson said...

Everybody who has studied creativity is driven finally to saying, ``creativity comes out of your subconscious.'' Somehow, suddenly, there it is.
Thats why Ive always thought that people were on the wrong path thinking creativity is in some way a function of personality plus intelligence (perhaps boldness, risk-taking, etc). Ive read quite a few reports of highly original people describing how their ideas came to them and it reads like nothing so much as an *ability*. Creative people simply cant HELP seeing new things. They just *see* it in the same manner any intelligent person grasps an idea. 

Thus Ive always been highly skeptical of the idea that creative people are just smart people who are bold and risk-taking. Maybe going public with your idea and fighting tooth and nail for it takes boldness, but not generating the original idea. And in todays world (the past few hundred years really) creativity is so highly lauded and sought after - widely considered the highest intellectual prize - that I dont even think it takes that much boldness to present original findings publicly and fight for them, provided youre not violating one of your generations moral taboos.

steve hsu said...

I agree with you about where ideas come from, but not about how easy they are to implement.

If it's a really new idea other people often won't believe you or support you. Sometimes the new idea is immediately shown to be correct or advantageous, but this is rare. Usually significant effort involved and this is where people falter.

The personality characteristics of entrepreneurs who are willing to take risks and endure rejection (often for years) to make their idea a reality do show some regularity.

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