On the other hand, anyone with even a minimum of education is aware of those grand “mistakes” that lead to great creations, artists who break the rules and remake art in the process. Pablo Picasso is an example that leaps to mind. Picasso was a master of the traditional styles of painting and sculpture, a fact many people don’t recall or never knew. Because Picasso is famous for his deviations from those rules, his artistic “mistakes” that redefined what qualified as a masterpiece. Or consider what James Joyce and Virginia Woolf did for the possibilities of narrative structure, bringing stream of consciousness to life on the page. One might argue that these and other examples cannot fairly be singled out as “mistakes” because the artists were engaging in the acts with purposeful intent, and not merely stumbling into them. There is a little justice in this critique, but only a little, for it fails to take into account the amount of experimentation and genuine stumbling around the various artists did prior to hitting upon a composition that was worth developing and ultimately presenting to the world.
My use of the word “experimentation” above is very much on purpose. In science failed experiments often lead to the most creative insights. Flemming’s “failure” gave us the first antibiotic, penicillin. Copernicus’ and later Kepler’s failures gave us the insight into the elliptical nature of orbits, and opened the door for Newton.iii Evolutionary biologist has argued – in the peer-reviewed literature – that natural selection, while certainly real, is by its nature inherently conservative, and not creative. The creative processes in evolution are, he argues, more a matter of exaptation and epigenetic factors. He describes this as “evolution by natural experiment.” Note – and it is grit in my gears that I even have to say this – that Reid nowhere says, suggests, hints, implies, or allows any shred of room for the infantile creationist claims that evolution is not real, or manipulated by the conveniently miraculous interventions of some ham-fisted “God” who evidently knows less about engineering and biology than we do.iv I should add that, even within orthodox neo-Darwinism, mutations (biological mistakes) are natural experiments that create something new. Sometimes that new thing thrives.
Once again, one might argue that experiments are never “mistakes,” even when (in the context of our expectations) they are catastrophic failures. But such an argument is straining at the bit to make its point, since the experiment is only a “failure” if it is predicated upon some error in theory or action on the part of the experimenter. When nothing goes wrong, when no mistake is made, then the outcome is exactly as expected, nothing new is encountered, expectations are met, and creative advance is left at a standstill. Our experiments only teach us something when they create something new, when instead of just repeating the old and expected, an “error” comes to light and brings novelty along with it.
Along these lines, a group of physicists recently proudly announced a “new” theory that mostly demonstrated an observation of Cornell physicist David Mermin:
You have to realize that most physicists don’t read. Reading is not part of our culture. … This technique fails as an approach to reading Derrida (for example.) It can also lead to serious trouble in attempts to assess less byzantine texts whose authors are, however, laboring under the illusion that they are addressing a reader who is following everything that is being said.Quoted from: Harry Collins, Trevor Pinch, The Golem, What You Should Know About Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993) 153. The full quote is worth looking up, but is longer than I want to shoe horn into this blog post.
The physicists in this instance include Lee Smolin, whom I would ordinarily count as one of “the Good Guys” for his careful and pointed critiques of the model centrism of contemporary physics. But in this instance he and his fellow authors proudly announce the “discovery” of the “new” idea of “The Autodidactic Universe.” I’ll not rehearse their argument here, since their paper is free for the download at the preceding link. It is sufficient to just cast an eye upon the title: “autodidactic,” meaning “self-teaching,” a universe, that is, that learns from its mistakes.
Well, of course Whitehead was already talking about this in Process and Reality, and Charles Sanders Peirce some decades before Whitehead. But physicists seldom trouble to learn the history of an idea, going back no further in their studies than the most recent issue of The Journal of My Area of Research. Stephen Hawking, for example, was especially guilty of this; the reason his Brief History of Time was so brief was because there was no real history in it.vi And Hawking’s boundlessly sophomoric petulance toward philosophers in his later books stands out as irrefutable evidence that he was not one to learn from his mistakes.
But as any process philosopher will tell you, the universe as a whole does learn from its “mistakes.” And that learning becomes its own process of creative advance into the future, an advance made possible because the pulsesvii of reality do not comprise mere blind repetitions of what has come before. There are deviations from what has come before that emerge into some new, something that builds upon those deviations, those mistakes.
Which brings as back to the “biggest mistake.” However much you may have screwed up in your past, I can largely guarantee you never made a “mistake” this big, because it is literally the BIGGEST mistake in the universe: of course, I’m talking about the “Big Bang.”viii Hand your beer to whomever you like, you’ll never top that one.
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i These days I’m less likely to bemoan my misspent youth as I am my unspent youth.
ii I’ve heard two versions. The most popular seems to be, “Hold my beer,” however “Hey fellas! Watch this!” is also used as the punchline.
iii I’ll only mention the Michaelson-Morley failure to detect the ether here in an endnote, because as Gerald Holton has shown, if Einstein was even aware of the experiment he was completely indifferent to it. It was only 20 years later, after everyone kept telling him how “crucial” the failed experiment was that he began adopting the story everyone else was telling. Also, my copy of Holton’s Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought: Kepler to Einstein is buried in one among 55 boxes of books, stacked up in a pole barn, and I have no access to it. So, um … do your own research?
iv Any honest examination of biology cannot but come away with the conviction that living organisms give “kluge” a bad name. The complete absence of any real intelligence, confronted with wonky, inefficient, and easily broken pieces that somehow only barely came together to “work” is one of the most stand out facts of evolution. Creationists liked (maybe they still do) to point to the eye as an example of naturally impossible “perfection.” Perfection?!?! I’m squinting through bifocals as I type this, and the odds are that most people reading this also wear corrective lenses.
vii And, metaphysically at least, reality does “pulse.” I started to explain this notion, but realized it will require at leas one entire post to itself. So this is my IOU to approach this topic at some point in the not too distant future.
viii There are significant challenges to the Big Bang model, what I call the Standard Model of Gravitational Cosmology. But it makes for a more amusing end to this essay to treat the Big Bang as though it were a fact.