Thursday, June 1, 2017

Mechanisms of discovery

Discovery is the creation of new knowledge. Both art and science are ways of combining previously unrelated elements to create this new knowledge.
"In designing this project, I have been looking for the right proportions and contrasts that set associations in motion, that invite the sort of very human experience of engaging through curiosity and being rewarded with discoveries...I think it’s an important skill to be able to read things in multiple and often contradictory ways." -- Artist Todd Gilens
But what are the mechanisms involved in this discovery process? The philosopher David Hume argued convincingly that the human mind does not invent: it combines previously unrelated elements to create something new:
"What never was seen, nor heard of, may yet be conceived; nor is anything beyond the power of thought, except what implies an absolute contradiction...But though our thought seems to possess this unbounded liberty, we shall find upon a nearer examination, that it is really confined within very narrow limits, and that all this creative power of the mind amounts to no more than the faculty of compounding, transposing, augmenting or diminishing the materials afforded us by the senses and experience. When we think of a golden mountain, we only join two consistent ideas, gold, and mountain, with which we were formerly acquainted." 
"If all we had to go on were impressions and ideas, we could not do much more than have perceptions and notice past experiences. Hume, however, develops a powerful account of the mind by identifying the ways in which ideas may be related to one another. We can mentally link ideas together in three ways:
  1. Resemblance: A and B share similar features;
  2. Contiguity: A and B occur together in space and/or time;
  3. Cause and Effect: A brings B about.
...Hume argues that all human beliefs [and mental processes] result from applications of these simple associations. From our simple ideas and associations we build very complex systems of thought and belief. Yet, no matter how complex an idea or belief system, it is always possible in principle to analyze it into its simpler component parts: ideas and relations between them.

This theory of mind and method of analysis provided the tools that Hume used to arrive at remarkable conclusions about knowledge, understanding, metaphysics, the self, morality, justice, religious belief, and a host of other key philosophical topics." Much of Hume's work has been confirmed by later science. Read more here.
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So, how does someone actually effect this productive recombination? Artists and inventors have a particular need for novelty; here are a few of the tools they have used to explore new hybrid ideas:


Surrealism is an art movement creating artworks that feature the element of surprise, unexpected juxtapositions and non sequitur. The result was achieved by by combining conscious and unconscious awareness, with the goal of effecting social change.
  • Inventor Thomas Edison also famously accessed the power of his unconscious mind by power-napping at his desk with a handful of ball bearings. When he drifted off to sleep his hand would relax, dropping the heavy metal balls to the floor. The noise woke him to record his unconscious answer to whatever question his conscious mind had been pondering.
  • Artist Salvador Dali used the same technique with a spoon and metal plate. Dali was intrigued with the images which "occur at the boundary between sleeping and waking that occur when people are falling asleep, or when they are starting to wake up. These images tend to be extremely vivid, colorful and bizarre".
  • Though it slightly predated the Surrealists, Freud's work with free association, dream analysis, and the unconscious mirrored and inspired their goals. Despite significant errors, Freudian analysis led to a revolution in psychology, ultimately transforming it from essentially voodoo into a more scientific discipline.

Humor uses startling juxtaposition of apparently unrelated elements to convey new concepts, and to build new coping mechanisms and emotional connection to the ideas and the people expressing them:
"Humor also bestows social, psychological, and physical benefits. It attracts attention and admiration, softens criticism, delineates social boundaries, and alleviates conflict between people with different worldviews (Gervais & Wilson, 2005; Keltner, Capps, Kring, Young, & Heerey, 2001; Martin, 2007). Humor even helps people cope with anxiety, embarrassment, grief, and physical pain (Gervais & Wilson, 2005; Keltner & Bonanno, 1997; Martin, 2007)."
The roots of humor include:
  • Being reflective of, or imitative of reality 
  • Surprise/misdirection
  • Contradiction/paradox
  • Ambiguity
The comedian Roland Atkinson goes so far as to state that a person or object can become funny in one of only three ways: by being in an unusual place, by behaving in an unusual way, or by being the wrong size. 




Perhaps because of its transformative power, humor itself has often been seen as subversive: in Confucian China, in the medieval Islamic world (where comedy was dissociated from Greek drama and re-associated with Arabic poetic forms), and in more modern culture, where jokes can unite, or at the expense of national, religious or social identities can work to enforce tribalism, misogyny and racism.

However, for its transformative capacity humor is often seen as the enemy of fanaticism. In fact, "the topic of whether Christ ever laughed was hotly debated by theologians over many centuries. So, if Christ never laughed, and priests should be models of Christ, then humor and laughter were counter to true religion" (which is conservative and rejects re-interpretation).


Magic upends expectation, exploiting object behavior that obviously must be following the laws of physics, yet appears to break them. Artist and inventor John Edmark says,



Explanation of the strobe effect seen in Edmark's dynamic sculptures:



Source: Removable Thumb Magic Trick by ViralHog on Rumble

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