I’m not a very creative guy. I had an idea back in the 1970s, but I managed not to do anything about it in time for someone else to do something with an almost identical idea. I think I dodged a bullet: once you come up with one great idea, they’re going to want you do come up with another, and so I would have ended up even more of a disappointment to my mother. It’s best not to raise expectations.
But John Cleese is somewhat creative, and so this video of a talk he gave in Germany recently is interesting. Cleese asserts that he gets his ideas on a postcard each Monday from some guy in Kent; in short that he doesn’t know the origins of ideas. Below the fold, I’m going to suggest one. It’s not original…
A similar problem arises in the context of evolutionary biology: what is the origin of novelty? It is a general problem of all historical processes. History is not just the recurrence of what has happened in the past, although if it doesn’t repeat, as Twain is reputed to have said, it rhymes. History is the rising of new things, and the novel arrangement of old things. At some point in the history of life, the first DNA molecule acting as a hereditable object arose. It was, of course, just what biochemistry, and ultimately physics, permitted (or it wouldn’t have been able to occur), but once it had, the elements of DNA were almost endlessly recombinable and rearrangeable, forming new and modified traits.
The “mother of AI” (a faintly sexist label, but commonly used) is Margaret Boden. Back in the 1990s she published an undeservedly unremarked book The Creative Mind: Myths and Mechanisms, and more recently Dimensions of Creativity. Boden’s analysis is that novelty comes in two “flavors” (my word): deep and combinatorial. Combinatorial novelty is the taking of elements of existing properties or ideas and combining them in novel ways. Einstein’s taking of Mach’s, Riemann’s, Lorenz’ and Duhem’s and others’ prior physical and mathematical speculations to generate special and later general relativity is a case in point. As significant as it was, his work would not have even been possible without conceptions going all the way back to Galileo.
Deep novelty, on the other hand, is where a truly new possibility arises. This is that “origins of ideas” that Cleese can’t account for. The “connectivity” account of historian Stephen Johnson which Maria Popova links to in the Cleese article is not deep novelty. It is combinatorial. Hunches are not explanations of deep novelty. They are just another way of saying we have them. How can we get a truly novel set of possibilities to explaore? Where do they “come” from?
I scare quoted “come” because that suggests they exist somewhere before we access them, in some Platonic realm. Platonism is an ever-present temptation in these matters, one that systematically misleads us. Novelty is not something that ideas have as a physical or metaphysical property as they insert themselves into our mundane world of problem solving, nor is it something objective in the biological world. The entire literature on “major transitions of evolution”, which John Maynard Smith and colleagues contributed to strikes me as fundamentally Platonic in that way. Stuff changes. It being a deep novelty is a fact not about the world, for anything that does happen necessarily could, but a fact about us (yet again: readers may have noted that many of the things we discuss on this blog turn out to be facts about us).
Deep novelty is this: we have a frame of prior contrasts in which we typically (and traditionally, since these are inherited from teachers and other cultural influences) set up our problems and thoughts. We may think of this as a Hilbert manifold; a space of many variables, possibly tens of thousands. It is a semantic space, set up by the contrasts we have previously employed to come to our beliefs. If you think that God may or may not exist, for example, then believing God does exist is to assert a coordinate in a binary space. If you think God’s existence is a matter of confidence or likelihood, then you settle on (if you do) a coordinate on a continuum.
Our semantic world is the sum of all the contrastive axes of that space. Our beliefs at any time are the coordinates we assert. Our total belief set is the set of all coordinates in that space. For simplicity, suppose there are only three such contrasts, and hence that the semantic space is a simple 3D space. If you believe that x = 3, y = 5, and z = 2, then your entire belief set is a triple: <3, 5, 2>.
Okay, having set up the technical machinery needed, what is a deep novelty? It is this: something is deeply novel if an entirely new contrast is added to the space. In our toy case, if the dimensionality moves from 3 to 4. Now you have all the possible coordinates of a quadruple: <x, y, z, a>. To be precise, though, deep novelty also arises when you reduce the semantic space. That there are fewer coordinates available means that the space behaves differently.
Similarly in biological evolution, novel states are simply physically attainable alternatives, made possible by there now being ploymers of nucleotides that pair and can be read and expressed in various ways. Is this a new form of “inheritance” or “information” as Jablonka and Lamb argued?Well, yes, because that is how we represent it in our semantic model of things.
One of John Cleese’s most loved and original sketches is the famous parrot sketch. In it, Cleese recites a number of synonyms for being dead:
‘E’s not pinin’! ‘E’s passed on! This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! ‘E’s expired and gone to meet ‘is maker! ‘E’s a stiff! Bereft of life, ‘e rests in peace! If you hadn’t nailed ‘im to the perch ‘e’d be pushing up the daisies! ‘Is metabolic processes are now ‘istory! ‘E’s off the twig! ‘E’s kicked the bucket, ‘e’s shuffled off ‘is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisibile!! THIS IS AN EX-PARROT!!
The originality here has to have come from Cleese idly leafing through a thesaurus one day. The deep novelty is using a thesaurus to write a comedy sketch. If I did it, it would be merely combinatorial. And really really bad: substandard, poor, inferior, second-rate, second-class, unsatisfactory, inadequate, unacceptable, not up to scratch, not up to par, deficient, imperfect, defective, faulty, shoddy, amateurish, careless, negligent, miserable, sorry; incompetent, inept, inexpert, ineffectual; awful, atrocious, appalling, execrable, deplorable, terrible, abysmal, godawful; informal crummy, rotten, pathetic, useless, woeful, bum, lousy, and not up to snuff. This is an ex-post.