Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Watt and Edison Contra Determinism

A common criticism levied against innovators is: “if not him, somebody else would have done it.”

Formally described as counterfactual conditional or simply “counterfactual”, such criticism is used in a variety of contexts: to emphasize competitors, to denounce CEO salaries, to oppose patents, etc.; but, essentially, its purpose is to rob an innovator of the moral recognition that he deserves. A recent example [video] is an Occupy Wall Street protester who used the criticism against Steve Jobs, and concluded it with “To Hell with Steve Jobs!

The philosophical doctrine underlying such criticism is determinism—the idea that your thoughts and actions are merely a consequence of external past influences. Its product is social theories such as “critical mass” theory of development, the labor theory of value, and ultimately the complete disregard for the individual under Communism.

But man has free will. The very fact that you can choose to disagree with that statement is evidence for it. Innovation requires knowledge and thought. And neither of those is automatic—they require volitional application of your mind. However, my purpose here is not to convince you that man has free will. (If you aren’t convinced, you’re determined to be doomed, anyways.) Instead, I will quote from some brilliant innovators who were, and still are, routinely charged with the “counterfactual”.
Thomas Edison, emphasizing the importance of effort, said:
None of my inventions came by accident. I see a worthwhile need to be met and I make trial after trial until it comes. What it boils down to is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration.1
James Watt answered the criticism directly:
[I am] not so presumptuous as to think that there were not, and are not, numbers of mechanics in this nation, who, from the same or even fewer hints, would have completed a better engine than [I] did. [...] But [I do] not pretend that any body could have done it without thinking upon it, nor without much previous knowledge and some experience of similar things.2 [Emphasis original.]
Steve Jobs, on the other hand, pointed out that sometimes even the innovators feel that they don’t deserve full recognition:
Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn't really do it, they just saw something.3

Although Jobs deserves enormous moral praise for being an “insanely great” producer (and for many other reasons, perhaps), I disagree with him on the source of “little guilt”. Jobs is right that creativity requires mental integration. But the act of “seeing” a “connection” between things is a uniquely human capacity. It requires conscious effort, and is our sole means of survival. Thus, properly understood, creative activity can only be a source of pride. To the extent that a creative person feels guilt is the extent to which he accepts the premise of determinism.

1 As per Wikiquote, the statement was made in a press conference (1929).
2 A Plain Story (1796)—his account of how he came upon invention, and a response to his critics.
3 Wired (February 1995)

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