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What innovation owes to an obscure pre-Socratic philosopher

According to Thomas Edison, innovation follows a 1%-inspiration-to-99%-perspiration ratio. Work, tinkering, and attitude can help deliver some breakthroughs. But Edison’s rule doesn’t explain it all.

It’s more than hard work and a grain of luck, though: Edison managed different endeavors in an apparently chaotic way, but it was his willingness to observe reality with a flexible perspective that allowed him to come up with little changes that transformed industries —or created new ones.

Edison’s intuition made him understand that finding associations in apparent chaos can accelerate discovery. This approach favors trial-and-error over a systematic theoretical approach, bringing figures like Edison to the ethos of one of the lately popular science memes: the more you f*ck around, the more chances of finding out.

But this approach is more ancient than we think. We can go back to one of Aesop’s fables, The Crow and the Pitcher, to argue about the role of necessity in progress and invention. To drink from a pitcher, the crow from the fable will throw stones in it so the water level will go up, making the water eventually reachable (and bringing Archimedes’ principle to life).

The nature of science

If film director James Cameron has tried to explain Gaia (the theory of one interconnected biosphere) to the masses with the Avatar saga, Aesop brought to 6th Century BCE Greece the means to explore what we now call the theory of critical rationalism: progress became exponential by simple trial-and-error, or by refuting old rational beliefs if proven wrong, then replacing them with better conjectures.

And, of course, the new conjectures are also partial and subject to refutation, and so will their improved replacement when they are refuted. As imperfect as scientific knowledge’s growth is, error correction is all it takes to propel science and innovation.

This simple, no-BS explanation of human knowledge avoids grandiose theories that complexify the Scientific Method. Austrian-British philosopher Karl Popper dedicated his career to explaining why we must understand the fundamental dynamics of Conjectures and Refutations. Tinkering is all we need to keep building our partial, refutable, always quirky body of “knowledge.” Popper used the metaphor of the building to explain the trial-and-error process that propels any scientific process:

“The empirical basis of objective science has thus nothing ‘absolute’ about it. Science does not rest upon solid bedrock. The bold structure of its theories rises, as it were, above a swamp. It is like a building erected on piles. The piles are driven down from above into the swamp but not down to any natural or ‘given’ base; and if we stop driving the piles deeper, it is not because we have reached firm ground. We simply stop when we are satisfied that the piles are firm enough to carry the structure, at least for the time being.”

Karl R. Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery

Our ingrained curiosity: children are born scientists

A structure of theories rising above a swamp: a metaphor for our times. It’s a precarious building erected on piles. And all we try to do is reinforce the temporary structure for the time being. Curiously, the harder we try to overthrow conjectures instead of defending them dogmatically, the better the building holds, as the new premises are more solid and get the pillars deeper into the swamp. But that’s just a metaphor.

Cross-industry innovations are rare, but when they happen, they seem to crystalize one improbable intuition in a way often so obvious when you see it that they make obvious sense after the fact. Cross-industry innovation relies on making connections that don’t come to us naturally; like art that endures, such inventions link seemingly unrelated observations, uncovering unique insights.

Artists and inventors may share with philosophers and children the gift of not assuming anything rigidly and understanding the role of experience, perspective, or observation, just like the old Taoist fable attributed to Zhuangzi, who fell asleep one day and dreamed that he was a butterfly, but waking up he did not have the certainty of being the man who had dreamed he was a butterfly: could have he been a butterfly dreaming it was a man?

An article by Jamie Jirout and David Klahr states that children share the curiosity of inventors: we seem to share an innate, untamed curiosity at the beginning, which seems to fade away as the socialization process turns us into adults within a given society. What we perceive as extravagance in some thinkers could be perhaps attributed to their naïve curiosity, one that could be associated with that of children:

“Children are born scientists. From the first ball they send flying to the ant they watch carry a crumb, children use science’s tools—enthusiasm, hypotheses, tests, conclusions—to uncover the world’s mysteries. But somehow students seem to lose what once came naturally.”

(Parvanno, 1990)

The question is: can we keep our innate curiosity fertile as we age and cynicism undermines our Quixotic cravings?

The “magic” of invention: unopinionated, quirky trial-and-error

We praise great inventions always after the fact, feeling they were “in the air” during one particular period of history. The story behind some of these clustered intuitions and discoveries, as well as their execution, is one as controversial as the competing theories of innovation.

Such innovations are a radical crystallization of the practical process of trial-and-error put to work: even when the orthodoxy of the times, common sense, or respected theories that can be traced back to great thinkers state that something is improbable, that shouldn’t deter us from testing associations or potentialities perceived as odd.

Guglielmo Marconi knew that the Muses wouldn’t help with no tinkering. Nor did another electrical engineering pioneer, Thomas Edison. They both came with impressive inventions derived from apparently counter-intuitive realities and could do so by using trial-and-error rather than by using a systematic theoretical approach. Observation, tinkering, and often a fair amount of fortuitous luck have propelled some scientific theories and inventions that have driven modernity.

Podcaster Trung Phan recently made a small list of some practical inventions that benefited from improbable associations:

James Dyson made a bagless vacuum based on the way sawmills use cyclone force to eject sawdust; a grape press inspired Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press; Bill Bowerman (Phil Knight’s running coach and partner at Nike) put rubber on a waffle iron and invented a way to improve soles for running shoes; Henry Ford took some lessons from watch craftsmanship, canning, and meatpacking; and what about the Maclaren foldable baby stroller? Owen Maclaren borrowed the way they fold from airplanes’ landing gear.

Like anybody experimenting at home, at school, or work, we assume things through observation and intuition thanks to our mastery as a species for finding patterns out of reality, we mary-kondo-ize reality by spotting order out of chaos, or, in other words, by finding information in between noise, “melodies” or things that “make sense.” Inventors assume things critically by putting them to the test. When proven wrong, new conjectures substitute the refuted ones.

Genealogy of tinkering

We can’t measure something as ethereal as “intuition,” but that doesn’t mean it won’t affect human outcomes: John Rawls, one of the most influential philosophers after World War II, believed that humans explore concepts (such as “justice” or “fairness”) by following what they think is right according to reasoning. Some things that may not seem possible or don’t exist yet are nonetheless somewhere in a plausible future that thinkers (and inventors) want to “build.” Hence Rawls’ insistence on the importance of “intuitionism.”    

There are so many myths about invention as there are about how we acquire new knowledge and improve upon old knowledge. We all agree that old knowledge gets an update when a better understanding or a breakthrough allows us to have a better picture of a particular field, but Western thought has explained this phenomenon in a formal way that is only partially salvageable: things don’t come to us as “revelation” but testing things through trial-and-error.

Those ready to experiment and ready to improve any field have a bigger chance to spot interesting patterns of potential new uses of things they have observed and understood than those who believe in the so-called Eureka myth (when we think that rare creative ideas arrive in a “eureka” moment).

Roman mosaic representing Ionian philosopher Anaximander (pre-Socratic, 610-546 BC) holding a sundial; 3rd. Century AD, Landesmuseum, Trier, Germany

We could argue that the moment of triumphant discovery that gives the name to this apparent knowledge “epiphany,” when Greek polymath Archimedes explains the volume of a body by the water it displaces, isn’t so much a “eureka moment” coming “from the Gods” (a teleology of sorts, or design coming from a supernatural being or intelligence) as it is one of direct observation and description of a phenomenon.

Rather than teleologically (from a superior, preexisting ideal), Science does not create new knowledge because of the apparition of the nine Muses or any other pre-conception (deducing new things or inducing old things), but by good ol’ trial-and-error.

That is, by tinkering, we can refute bad ideas and quickly substitute them with improved ones, which are also subject to the same process and ready to be proved wrong. Ancient mathematicians called this trial-and-error method of discovery of reliable knowledge the method of refutability, or “modus tollens” or finding out things by refuting bad theories since there’s an asymmetry between falsifiability and verifiability. Given the proposition “all swans are white,” it only takes finding one swan that isn’t to refute the theory, but it would take observing all swans that have ever lived to be sure the theory holds.

Preserving the means of error correction

Karl Popper insisted that scientific knowledge doesn’t belong to the ivory tower but to the straightforward, humble act of tinkering: through trial and error, we observe if something holds or fails. Our imagination becomes “constructive” this way because the more we engage in disproving false theories, the more we know and the better our conjectures become in the shortest amount of time. Our analytical observation will document and improve any knowledge that is always corrigible.

This pragmatic approach propelled the scientific revolution since Renaissance and, especially, from the Enlightenment period onwards. But this acceleration could have happened faster, according to Popper, if the “natural philosophers” of Ancient Greece (several of the pre-Socratics, in particular, those belonging to Thales of Miletus’ Ionian school) had maintained their influence. But Plato’s idealism transformed scientific assumptions forever, relegating pragmatism in critical thinking (the trial-and-error approach) to the margins of everyday needs since it clashed with rigid theories of knowledge that explained phenomena dogmatically and not through quantifiable conjectures and refutations.

According to Popper, there was no coincidence when Anaximander, a disciple of Thales, explicitly developed a theory that departed from his mentor’s teachings. And it wasn’t a coincidence either that Anaximander’s disciple, Anaximenes, departed equally consciously from his teacher’s doctrine.

The only plausible explanation, according to Popper, is that the founder of the Ionian school challenged his disciples to criticize his theory rationally. This method of refutation would have been so useful that the Ionian school disciples turned Anaximander’s attitude into a “tradition” of thought based on conjectures and their constant refutation and substitution for more refined conjectures.

In Greek mythology, the Titan Prometheus steals fire from the gods to reveal its secret (a symbol of knowledge and invention) to humans, yet the first enlightenment of civilization will carry a cruel sentence. Tied to a rock by Zeus, Prometheus will pay for his transgression by suffering the eternal torment of having his liver eaten by an eagle by day, which would grow overnight.

Ancient Master of the Universe

Humans had seemed unprotected from nature as opposed to other animals, so the Titans had tried to send the fire of creative power to them. Like the eagle coming by day to eat Prometheus’ liver, the nature of science itself seems to depend on another eternal recurrence: our own critical attitude to try to disprove old theories, so we improve upon old ideas in a trial-and-error rumination.

Popper’s attribution of “the tradition of critical discussion” to the Ionian school of philosophers, from Thales and Anaximander onwards, would culminate with techniques such as Socrates’ persistent questioning, though Socrates would turn philosophy’s interest from the world to the human being. A change that became radical with Socrates’ disciple, Plato, and Plato’s disciple, Aristotle.

The idea of having Anaximander as the spark of the flame leading to the construction of the precarious building of science is so compelling that Italian physicist and popular divulgator Carlo Rovelli has dedicated his last essay, Anaximander and the Nature of Science, to it, recognizing Thales’ disciple as the ancient “master of the universe.”

All Rovelli does is revisit Karl Popper’s musings on the Ionian school and Anaximander in particular: the idea that knowledge is something not derived from dogmas coming from gods or custom, but something provisional and ever-evolving, something to be interrogated. Tim Adams reviews Rovelli’s book in The Guardian:

“In evolving the thinking of Thales, we’re told, Anaximander was not only the first human to argue that rain was caused by the observable movements of air and the heat of the sun rather than the intervention of gods – the kind of “natural wisdom” that was heretical enough to lead to the trial and death of Socrates 200 years later – he was, crucially, also the first thinker to make the case that the Earth was a body suspended in a void of space, within which the sun and stars did not form a canopy or ceiling but revolved. This literal groundbreaking idea – inventing at a stroke the idea of the cosmos – was, as the historian of science Karl Popper suggested, ‘one of the boldest, most revolutionary and most portentous ideas in the whole history of human thinking’.”

Try to improve upon my teaching

Anaximander was the first philosopher to critically address the question: “What is the world made of?” Something that Rovelli, a theoretical physicist, has surely appreciated. Perhaps, by reading Rovelli, some will explore the topic and will end up reaching for Karl Popper’s essays. A cross-pollination worth experiencing.

Popper said he liked to imagine Thales as the first teacher to tell his pupils:

“This is how I see things – how I believe that things are. Try to improve upon my teaching.”

On the other side of the world, around the same time, as Indian researcher Grangan Prathap explains in a compelling article on the origins of science, Buddha was to tell his disciples the same thing:

“Don’t accept anything as truth, even from your teacher, till you have verified it for yourself.”