On the creation of Great Men as a necessity for Scientific Progress

Science progresses via great men and plebeian men

Science progresses in two main ways. The first is via the plebeian activity of puzzle-solving during normal science. The second is via the impressive activity of conceptual creation during revolutionary science.

There is an extant theory of multiple discovery which claims that “most scientific discoveries and inventions are made independently and more or less simultaneously by multiple scientists and inventors”. Wikipedia provides a list of examples. My neoreactionary friends would explain this away via its liberal bias. (Wikipedia even writes “The concept of multiple discovery opposes a traditional view—the “heroic theory” of invention and discovery” and notably has no page on solo discoveries)

Let us not explain Wikipedia away. There is no need. Let us instead analyse history. Historically, it seems to be the case that radical conceptual innovation – what Kuhn called paradigm shifts – happen via the action of individual actors, like Freud or Marx. Anyone claiming the contrary is challenged to show how the multiple discovery hypothesis of scientific progress applies to Freud’s or Marx’s innovations.

Paradigm shifts are caused by great men. Yet, asserting this empirical fact does no more than opening the question of why that is the case. To answer that question, we need to understand and distinguish normative ideals for science and what actually happens.

How the practice of science causes progress via great men

Until one has a way of assigning priors to theories other than with a purely subjective assignment, one must necessarily be a Bayesian about ascertaining the probability of theories – that is, one can only make claims about  principles for *altering*  probabilities, but not for setting prior probabilities.

The fact that there is no way of setting prior probabilities for theories, other than subjective assessment, makes it so that competing schools or people start with different subjective probability assignments.

This does not matter – in theory – because the principles of rational probability change entail that different prior probabilities will converge to the same value as they are altered to accommodate new evidence.

This is the case unless any theory is assigned a prior of 0. Every theorist ought to assign every theory a probability between 0 and 1. And here is where reality bites back. There are infinitely many theories. Because of this, scientists do assign probabilities of 0 to not only theories but whole arenas of logically possible theories. They cannot not do it. This is the only way for a person to do science –  in practice. This violation has extraordinary consequences. It means that two scientists or groups of scientists might never be able to reach agreement, even if they both accept the same data and acknowledge the same rules of theory evaluation.

And herein lies why paradigm shifts are caused by great men. So that they may carry on working, individual scientists have closed their minds off to different hypotheses. It just so happens that some individuals will have happened to have closed their minds to all areas of hypotheses *except the area where the conceptual innovation that solves the current crisis lies on*.

These individuals then find the conceptual innovation and start promoting it as the solution to the current crisis. Since scientific crises are a situation where you have no payoff unless you generate the solution, what we get is a new paradigm and a great men attached to it, as its creator.

(Note how this buys an explanation Wikipedia’s multiple discoveries for free: During normal science the priors are fixed by the reigning paradigm and thus shared. This makes it so that all science during that time is puzzle solving. Get many people working on the same puzzles at the same time and a few will get to the puzzle solution simultaneously giving you “simultaneous discovery”)

How great man generate their conceptual innovations

What then influences which logically possible theories are dismissed and which are taken to be possible by great innovators? Does it matter? Is there a way of closing in on the area where the necessary conceptual innovation sits without surveying the whole landscape? (Which, as shown above, is not possible.)

I don’t know. Maybe it is just the case that “great men” are merely idiosyncratic individuals who because of their areplicable idiosyncrasies have closed their minds to the right things, and that are then at the right place at the same time; and in virtue of that are able to generate a tradition, part of which is them as great men.

If this were the case you would not se much being shared between great innovators. But this does not seem to be my experience with the people I know that are the closests to these paradigm-founder archetypes. The people I know closest to that archetype are beset by one or many crushing flaws in their area of expertise. These crushing flaws led them to an adaptive valley situation such that they had to engage with their area in a way no one else does – because the other options weren’t available to them – and they spent a long time in a very poor situation, before coming out the other side.

Prescriptions for scientific progress

If the account in this essay is right, then to do more and better science faster (Look at psychology for a science in radical need of a paradigm shift),  we must create as many great men as possible. This means either generating as many and as much idiosyncratic individuals as we can, or causing as many poor adaptive valleys as possible. (Should that option be right. Also, moral issues may apply)

The test of the poor adaptive valley hypothesis would benefit from proper historiography. The creation of idiosyncratic individuals would benefit from the study of the biographies of relevant individuals. I leave these as open research problems.



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