Asimov on Creativity

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

In a 1969 essay published for the first time only recently, Isaac Asimov wrote about how creative people come up with great ideas. Asimov makes several interesting points while, as always, writing entertaining prose. Since, to his knowledge, "the method of generation is never clear even to the 'generators' themselves", Asimov hit upon the idea of looking for commonalities among the two men who independently conceived of the theory of evolution around the same time. Among other things, he noted:

Undoubtedly in the first half of the 19th century, a great many naturalists had studied the manner in which species were differentiated among themselves. A great many people had read Malthus. Perhaps some both studied species and read Malthus. But what you needed was someone who studied species, read Malthus, and had the ability to make a cross-connection.

That is the crucial point that is the rare characteristic that must be found. Once the cross-connection is made, it becomes obvious. Thomas H. Huxley is supposed to have exclaimed after reading On the Origin of Species, "How stupid of me not to have thought of this."
Asimov notes that an absence of pressure to create is probably also important, which I think is a valid point.

It would have been fascinating to know what Asimov would have thought of one instance I know of in which the "generator" did know how she came up with the idea: the story about how Ayn Rand solved the ancient problem of universals by means of introspection, as she relates in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology.
Prof. B: You said you might discuss how you arrived at your theory of measurement-omission. That might be a fitting way to close.

AR: All right. Historically, it happened this way. Somewhere in the 1940s, so it's over twenty years ago, I was discussing the issue of concepts with a Jesuit, who philosophically was a Thomist. He was holding to the Aristotelian position that concepts refer to an essence in concretes. And he specifically referred to "manness" in man and "roseness" in roses. I was arguing with him that there is no such thing, and that these names refer merely to an organization of concretes, that this is our way of organizing concretes.

We never really finished the argument. But after this conversation, I was dissatisfied with my own answer. Because I felt, "Yes, I have indicated where concepts come from, but I haven't indicated what is the process by which we organize concretes into different groups--because I certainly don't agree with the modern nominalists who claim that it's an arbitrary convention or an arbitrary grouping."

And then I asked myself, "What is it that my mind does when I use concepts? To what do I refer, and how do I learn new concepts?" And within half an hour, I had the answer.

Now it took me longer than that to check it, to apply it to various categories of concepts, and see if there are exceptions. But once I had the answer, by the logic of it, I knew that that's it. And that's it. (p.307)
Asimov might note some agreement on the subject of pressure, such as in the form of "responsibiliy" to a patron in the matter of inhibition of creative thought, too. Rand once turned down an offer by a Texas oilman for a million dollars to spread her philosophy on the condition that she add a religious element to it. This is not exactly the same as the example Asimov cited, but I think there is a commonality, in the form of someone else's preconceptions intruding upon one's mental freedom, or sense thereof.

-- CAV


Steve D said...

‘And then I asked myself, "What is it that my mind does when I use concepts?’

Well that's the crux of the matter, isn’t it? First, ask the right question and then determine the best method of solving it. The question itself is a large part of creativity.

Evolution is a good example because natural selection is so logical that given the parameters of living systems it almost has to occur.

For evolution the creative process must be something like; how did this diversity arise in finches? Then, spend some alone time going over the different ways it could arise. (I bet the theory of Acquired Characteristics came to their minds first. :)

The last step would be; if it’s good enough for the finches, it’s good enough for the geese.

Gus Van Horn said...

There may be no dumb questions, as many like to say, but there can be great questions.

Snedcat said...

Yo, Gus, you write, "There may be no dumb questions, as many like to say, but there can be great questions." has, as usual, a slightly different take on that.

Gus Van Horn said...

Good one!

I have a habit of going straight to any time I get wind of an alleged fact by the Internet.

Perhaps I should go to any time I consider using an idiom.