Monday, December 19, 2011

Invention of the Day: Systematic Doubt.

Descartes (1596-1650), the founder of modern philosophy, invented a method which may still be used with profit—the method of systematic doubt. He determined that he would believe nothing which he did not see quite clearly and distinctly to be true.
Whatever he could bring himself to doubt, he would doubt, until he saw reason for not doubting it. By applying this method he gradually became convinced that the only existence of which he could be quite certain was his own.
He imagined a deceitful demon, who presented unreal things to his senses in a perpetual phantasmagoria; it might be very improbable that such a demon existed, but still it was possible, and therefore doubt concerning things perceived by the senses was possible. (Bertrand Russell. Problems of Philosophy.)

There seems to be a natural tension between systematic doubt, or reductionism, invented by Rene Descartes and "reality distortion field" perfected by Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs. Both approaches require different kinds of creativity.

doubt <--------------------------------o------------------------------>faith

As a side note, I can see how Descartes personalizes an abstract problem, presenting it as a deceitful demon. Similarly, Maxwell personalized his theory of thermodynamics with another demon. Einstein came up with his theory of relativity by imagining somebody sitting on a particle moving with the speed of light. Schrodinger had his cat, Altshuller - tiny mighty men, Kahneman - Systems 1 and 2.

Among all of them, Kahneman, the psychologist, used this approach consciously and deliberately. In the talk I posted in this journal last month he explained that people intuitively understand agents and spaces, but have trouble relating to abstract distributed processes. Therefore, it is useful to invent a personalized agent to explain and understand a difficult concept.
Do you see his point? Paradoxically, we have to distort the reality in order to better understand it. But after that we need somebody like Descartes to apply systematic doubt and destroy this useful, but false understanding.

tags: creativity, invention, philosophy, tools, method

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