Monday, October 6, 2014

Damn Descartes; he was no innovator

I had a thought about innovation and, after a quick Google search, think it’s fertile ground for a fascinating PhD thesis. I think research would show a compelling correlation between a person’s “innovativeness” and his/her propensity for belief or faith.

I’m not just talking about spirituality, although that is certainly one expression of faith. The faith that I’m referring to is the kind not necessarily involving God: the firm belief in something for which there is no proof.

There is no argument that faith is insufficient for innovation. Having faith that we can fly is no substitute for knowledge of aerodynamics and wings. The real question is whether faith is necessary for innovation. Logical, secular rationalism and reasoning are insufficient to create the future. While there should be no doubt about the implicit and essential necessity and value of reason to the conceiving, assessing, developing, and commercializing of innovations, just like with faith, reason is necessary but not sufficient for innovation. I believe these corresponding deficiencies are complementary and together are sufficient.

It is in the need for proof that traditional reason and logic fall down in the service of innovation. From the viability of an idea to quantifying untapped markets, innovation is very much an exploration: a journey into the unknown. Every bit the same as the voyages of Columbus and Magellan, commercial innovation starts with an idea based on what’s known or observable. The idea must be then made real. Sometimes, as for Columbus, the outcome is (serendipitous) proof of the proposition. Other times—more often than not—the immediate outcome only proves that there is one less degree of freedom. In any case, reason takes explorers and other discoverers and innovators a long way. It doesn’t get them all the way.

Explorers and scientists take what they know and their reasoning about what they do not know, and they put it to the test. There are relatively few other alternatives beyond experimenting. Innovation could be conducted that way too. But in the commercial world there is—today, anyway—a tendency to avoid experimental failure in favour of intellectual success. Where the pressure is to succeed, profit, and win apparently without the trouble of experimenting and proving the unknown, it’s important to secure false certainty in advance (i.e., market research).

This false god is proof before proving.

What is absolutely certain for (practical) scientists, explorers, and innovators: at some point what is known ends and we are in terra incognita. For explorers, the landmarks can no longer be recognized.

For scientists, action outcomes become evermore unpredictable from past experience. For commercial innovators, it is not so clear because there is always some loose historical precedent, experience, or knowledge framework to cling to—rightly or wrongly. Moreover, as the environment becomes more ambiguous, every inconsistency with theoretical “proofs” is magnified into an error of imprudence or commercial negligence, not mere experimental failure. And the weak-kneed balk.

Where knowledge ends, interim results aligning to prediction (or not) often determine choices to continue (or not). If the stakes are right (i.e., not the farm), these results ought to only inform the choice of path to pursue; not to stop. Thomas Edison, arguably a role model of innovation, said, “Nearly every man who develops an idea works it up to the point where it looks impossible, and then he gets discouraged. That’s not the place to become discouraged.” This perfectly captures how and why knowledge expands on a foundation of faith.

The argument is simple: where no proof is available, faith is essential. For some, it’s astrology. For others faith may be in Magic 8-balls™, democracy, the justice system, algebra, or “the market.” Optimism is, by its very nature, positive faith. An innovator must have undying optimism that (s)he will get to a meaningful and valuable new place. Because optimism is a fundamental form of faith, point made, full stop. QED.

Optimism, however, covers a ridiculously broad swath of life. One can be optimistic about everything, in which case it makes the point but may really mean not much. Irrespective, it shows that we need to return to the notion of a propensity to believe and have faith in something—even if it’s just that “the sun’ll come out tomorrow…”— as being the element that completes and satisfies the fundamental requirement for innovativeness.

The biographies of Steve Jobs, patron saint of innovation, make much of his having been influenced by early trips to an ashram, Buddhism in general, and peculiar dietary choices. These are vestiges of a personality imbued of faith, as is the so-called “reality distortion field” that he put up to make his worldview real. Wilfulness is in effect a projection of faith in his own vision—a faith so strong that it blotted out all other views of ordinary reality. He is not alone in this personality trait, only the most notorious, successful, and lionized. Again, none of this is at all to diminish the intellectual brilliance and power of reason Jobs had to have if only to ground his visions in practical reality.

Among others, historically, that have shown an abiding faith in things spiritual and not—even those that one would consider decidedly secular—are a pantheon of world changing innovators of one sort or another. Consider:

Galileo Gallilei, famous for being excommunicated by the Pope and subsequently recanting, obviously had some faith in God and the Church. But more important, in maintaining e pur si muove (“And yet it moves.”), he displayed an abiding faith in his own observations and scientific inferences.

Adam Smith, Rene Descartes, Isaac Newton, and other Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment philosophers successfully proposed and propagated secular theories and advances to science as devout Christians.

Most of the Robber Barons of the glory days of 19th-century US capitalism were devout church goers.

The Wright brothers believed in flight and kept trying, failure after failure.

The Founding Fathers of the Republic, not least among whom were Jefferson and Franklin, had faith in science and in God—and they innovated a society.

Einstein was an atheist, but he had such a strong faith in his theories and what would be quantum theory that he changed physics.

In all of these examples we see clear evidence that the science and method—the logic and reason—were critical BUT the characteristic of faithfulness was essential. It may not even matter what one has faith in. What we don’t know is how many others had the reason but not the faith, and so came up short.

About the Author

Timothy Grayson, is the Author of "The Spaces In Between" and Director of Digital Product Development at the Canada Post Corp Management. He blogs at and can be reached at @graysonicles.

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