Creative ideas

Thoughts from Steven: What is Disposable?

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Suppose you were presented with the following four notable, historical works: Newton’s Principia, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and Eiffel’s Tower. Now suppose that one of these things had to be removed from history. That is, the thing is completely erased, it was never created, history progressed as if the object never existed. Which one would be the most disposable? To put it another way, which one would leave the least impact if it were absent?

Surprisingly, some people would choose to eliminate Newton’s Principia, despite the fact that, at a glance, it seems to be the most significant. After all, our modern world relies heavily on our modern understanding of science and mathematics, subjects that Newton greatly enhanced with his work. Remove his work and all of our modern technologies and advances disappear, right?

Not so, some would argue. Unlike Canterbury Tales, Don Giovanni, and the Eiffel Tower, Principia described the natural world. The other works are all creative efforts. If those creative efforts were removed, they would be gone forever. However, if Principia were lost to history, someone else would have reached the same conclusions that Newton did. Why? Because he was studying the natural world. Newton was not creating something, he was discovering something. As such, someone else would have been able to make those very same discoveries. In Newton’s absence, the three laws of motion would have been discovered, and attributed, to someone else, but if Chaucer never wrote Canterbury Tales, they would never be replicated because no one else is, or was, Chaucer.

The preceding discussion is a paraphrase of something in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel C. Dennett.i I had read this example years ago but was reminded of it recently while reading The Clockwork Universe by Edward Dolnick because he makes a very similar argument.ii Dolnick used Einstein and Shakespeare, but the example was the same: if absent, the scientist’s work could be rather quickly replicated by someone else exploring the same topic.

While I can follow the logic of these arguments easily enough, they still do not sit right with me. A large part of it may simply be that as a scientist myself, I appreciate the work of scientists must more than I do the work of artists. Putting my bias aside, however, I think that there are good reasons to dispute the idea that Principia is more easily replicated than Canterbury Tales.

Firstly, I think that it needs to be pointed out that science is as much creativity as it is discovery. Sure, scientists set about to describe the natural world, so they are working towards a goal set by other, namely, God who created the world. However, scientific progress often occurs when someone comes up with a new way of looking at the world, that is when someone creates a new paradigm. Dolnick alludes to this in his book when he points out that new abstract ideas often accompany new advances in science.iii Where do these abstract ideas come from? The mind of a man. After all, they are abstract. While they can be used to model the real world, the idea itself is not a part of the real world. It is just a concept in a person’s mind. In other words, something that a person creates.

Moreover, creative ideas are needed elsewhere in science. Scientists address questions. Where do these questions come from? The minds of men. When they discover a principle, scientists have to describe it. Often, the need to name some quantifiable thing, such as a force, momentum, electrons, quarks, and so forth. Where do these names come from? Again, from the minds of men. Science is fraught with creativity.

However, no matter how creative science is, it is still true that if a particular scientist were absent, his work would be replicated by another or a group of people. Many times, the discovery of the same principle is made by two independent researchers. Why? Both scientists are addressing the same questions and building on the same base of knowledge. For example, Newton and Leibniz both came up with calculus at the same time. They both happened to live in a time that was ripe to formulate a type of mathematics that we now call calculus.

However, lest the artists think that they have the upper hand, let us not forget that art exists within cultures. There are schools of thought within art, so much so that different artists in the same school of art will produce similar works. How unique is Shakespeare? Without him, the names Romeo and Juliet would just be two names and not associated with a classic story. However, the story of lovers on opposite sides of a feud is not a uniquely Shakespearian idea. I recall from a literature class back in college that the professor specifically pointed out that Shakespeare’s stories were a product of his time. Other playwrights were writing similar stories. Shakespeare just wrote the best versions of familiar stories, so much so that the other authors are largely forgotten. If Shakespeare were absent, would we have Romeo and Juliet? No, but we would still have the story of Romeo and Juliet with different names by a different author. I would argue that famous works of art are also replaceable, not because artists are striving towards a common goal, but because they are influencing each other. Take one away and schools of art still remain.

On the whole, I would agree that without Principia, we would still have modern physics. However, I would argue that with Canterbury Tales, Romeo and Juliet, and Don Giovanni, we would still have great art to inspire and entertain people. In short, everyone is replaceable.

What does all of this have to do with creation and evolution? There is a tangential connection, as you may have guessed from the title of Dennett’s book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. However, I will get to that connection at a later time.

iDennett, Daniel C. (1995) Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meaning of Life, Simon & Schuster, New York, New York, pg. 139 – 140

iiDolnick, Edward (2011) The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society & the Birth of the Modern World, HarperCollins, New York, New York, pg. 169

iiiIbid. pg. 195

One Response to “Creative ideas

  • Steven and Micaela,
    Thanks for your ministry. I loved reading this on your about page: “we proudly claim to be young-earth creationists, for that is how the Bible describes it.”

    We need more Christians holding to this biblical view.

    I’m looking forward to hearing how God uses your blog and resources to serve Him and bless others.

    I appreciate what you’re both doing!

    In Christ,

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