How Civilization Innovates When It Encourages Wild Thinking

When, How and Why Does a Civilization Innovate?

The crucial innovation is technological innovation. The rest, even science, follows. What brings technological innovation? New findings in science (oops). New findings in science, in turn, depend upon advances in philosophy. Advances in philosophy, in turn depends upon a friendly and encouraging mood of inquiry set-up by the State… And advances in philosophy depends upon new science, and new technology. Quite  a bit of a vicious, or virtuous, spiral is at work, because nonlinear effects are at work: the product reinforces the cause. This high nonlinearity explains why civilizational progress was always highly concentrated: Sumerian cities, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, Crete, Greece, Rome, Western Europe… China…

All of this, history shows. And logic supports. (Some day, as university professor Asimov foresaw in “Foundation“, all of this will be part of mathematical, fully computable psychohistory!)

The converse also works: a state keen to destroy advances in philosophy, or thinking in general, becomes dysfunctional: this is what happened with the Roman empire, and it happened quickly. After Theodosius I established Christianism as the state religion (complete with the state having the choice of executing heretics, that is, those who made a choice), the Roman state lost control of its north-west borders within less than two decades (the Franks were given [“Roman”] military control of three provinces in 400 CE: the two Germania and Gaul; as the Franks were, then, non-Christian, this changed history, for the better; meanwhile, civilization collapsed.) 

Same Picture All Over The West. But China Goes The Other Way. Notice the JFK-LBJ Effect, Coming Off Strong Support For Basic Research In the 1950s-1940s

Same Picture All Over The West. But China Goes The Other Way. Notice the JFK-LBJ Effect, Coming Off Strong Support For Basic Research In the 1950s-1940s

An earlier, and famous example with China: The first emperor who unified China, Qin Shi Huang, following his Prime Minister’s advice, ordered most previous books and records burned to avoid comparisons of his dictatorship with an innovative past. After the emperor’s death, from ingesting immortality conferring mercury pills (210 BCE),  the wise PM had the emperor’s eldest son and top general connived into killing themselves, and the Qin dynasty and its unification work crumbled.

Some will sneer: that was long ago, this is now. Not, not at all: mental patterns recur.  On being compared to Qin, the First Emperor, Mao, the “communist” dictator, responded:

“He [Qin] buried 460 scholars alive; we have buried forty-six thousand scholars alive… You [intellectuals] revile us for being Qin Shi Huangs. You are wrong. We have surpassed Qin Shi Huang a hundredfold. When you berate us for imitating his despotism, we are happy to agree! Your mistake was that you did not say so enough.”

Modern China is still profiting from the breakthroughs the West did. That made the Chinese very satisfied, they are the most satisfied people in the world, as living standards quickly improved.

But what when it runs out of breakthroughs? However, can the West go on with breakthroughs? I suggested to call the University of California the “Breakthrough Univerity”, because it was long the world’s best financed state university (however Ronald Reagan endeavored to destroy this, by introducing tuition, that is, a decrease of state financial support).

Mental breakthroughs depend upon massive support for thinking beyond the edge of official thinking. That means, state support.

Just to look at a small portion of (world) history and its greatest innovators: Rabelais, Montaigne, Copernicus, Bruno, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Leibniz, Huygens, Bullialdus, Isaac Newton, all enjoyed state support (that does not mean that the state, their own state, or other states, did not try to terrify and, or kill them; for example, Rabelais, was a top doctor, and Sorbonne professor, and some of his friends and collaborators were burned alive, after the Sorbonne decided so). Even Blaise Pascal profited from the state, and tax collection is why he invented the first general purpose computing machine (the Greeks had some for astronomy).

Bill Gates went to see Trump today, and they talked about “innovation”. It is not clear to me what Gates understand of the subject. For the primitives, Gates is science itself. For the thinker, Gates is someone without a college degree. That does not mean he cannot think. But can he think in a way which understands how breakthroughs are produced? That’s unlikely, because his success was from exploiting others’ ideas (Microsoft arose from an IBM program which used MS-DOS, a university programming language; Gates mother was an IBM director, and he got a dream contract from IBM).

Tomorrow the great geniuses of “Silicon Valley” are going to see Trump. They are geniuses in gathering money for themselves. Not in finding ideas for us all to enjoy. And their connection with the state has nothing to do with fundamental breakthrough in thinking (but more like breakthroughs in spying and corruption). Sheryl Sandberg, a sort of girlfriend from Lawrence Summers, was parachuted at Treasury under Clinton, then Google, then Facebook. Now she is a billionaire. Armed with her relationships, she is now viewed as a brain. Does greed have a brain? Yes! But not of the most superior sort.

Billionaires, at Facebook alone, have a wealth worth more than ten times what the budget for research on various disease signed by Obama, December 13, 2016, has.

Civilization innovates when the state has decided to support deep innovation. This is why Sparta failed, and Athens succeeded.

Athens succeeded because we are following, however imperfectly Athenian ideas, not Spartan ones. And Athens was a choice, but also the natural choice. The human choice. Humnity innovates, that is what it does best. The corporate fascist state, be it encouraged by Louis XIV of France, Mussolini, or Obama, is an innovation killer, if carried just a bit too far. (Louis XIV financed Huyghens, and even Molière, and many a writer; thus it is not as if Louis was unwares of the danger of fascism; still he fully indulged in it.i

If one wants productivity and progress to perk up, the state has to become as smart as it was, when John F Kennedy was president: fully supporting deep research as much as possible.

Where else are people going to get jobs, anyway?

Patrice Ayme’


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18 Responses to “How Civilization Innovates When It Encourages Wild Thinking”

  1. SDM Says:

    If only it would happen. Trump does not give the impression of one who seeks innovation or one who would spend for the research to would foster it. Is there something else at work? The trend is against it. Does he really want America to be “great” again?

  2. Tree Says:

    Send the idea to Trump, please! He needs all the help. Really. Maybe that’s what he is doing? Wild thinking? Thinking all over the place? Do you think the guy makes any philosophical sense?

  3. John Rogers Says:

    “They are geniuses in gathering money for themselves. Not in finding ideas for us all to enjoy.”

    Nailed it.
    And an excuse to post my favorite quote:

    “As one digs deeper into the national character of the Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in the answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?”
    Alexis de Tocqueville
    Letter to Ernest de Chabrol, June 9, 1831

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Well, a nice quote, but there have been intellectual Americans. I think an American actually invented anesthesia. Als o Ben Franklin was an authentic scientist, with balls of steel, as he did his silly trick mixing a wire, a kile and a thunderstorm…
      Right now, Trump, a typical American, is having a huge mental impact (!) At least in Europe… Feels like he is already president…

  4. ianmillerblog Says:

    I agree with most of what you wrote. Unfortunately, for the state to support advanced science, you need politicians who appreciate what it can do. Only too many politicians are rather shallow thinkers.

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Yes, indeed: politicians are shallow, because, as it is they thrive on lies. And so does the entire machinery they depend on. The Muslim prima donna who had claimed to be assaulted by men screaming “TrumP”, who, she said, stripped her “Hijab” (a vain attempt to hide the apparently awful body of the Muslim woman), was obviously lying. However all the pseudo-left ran with it. Finally she fled from home, but has been arrested for false testimony.

      The massive lying in politics and economics set a monkey ambiance adverse to proper inquiries, including of the scientific type.

      Wild scientific progress ALWAYS depends upon a wild thinking mood: Aristophanes was outrageous because non-Euclidean geometry was invented at the same time, and reciprocally. The mood of thinking outrageously has to be overall, bathing all minds. This is why innovation is always concentrated in space and time, but then, when it happens, it happens all over the mental world.

  5. Gloucon X Says:

    The 60s bubble on chart of US civilian R&D looks like the moon program. Tiny increase before 1980 probably Carter’s energy research before gutted by Christian lunatic Reagan.

    • Gmax Says:

      Moon program pushed computers, fuel cells, not just teflon and velcro. Clear Reagan pushed research down. Including defense

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Basic research funding dropped under “Communist” witch hunter Nixon and the unelected Gerald Ford, but it was not re-established by Carter (of course: Carter was a bad man, an attacker of Afghanistan… A support of the Shah, and Islamist Pakistan…).

      Notice that, under Obama, fundamental research spending in basic energy research was cut, BIG time (in basic fuel cell research, although fuel cells are crucial for a sustainable economy; and in thermonuclear basic research, not just ITER, but also internal US H research…).Obama just funded cancer research big time, but it’s all too little, too late: basic research funding under Obama is the lowest ever, period.

      And you know what? It should be the highest. The bottom line is that my good friend Obama is ignorant, of all too many important things. And now an ignorant part of history…

  6. oatmealactivist Says:

    History and logic support your position – so it comes as no surprise that this truth is lost upon so many so-called intellectuals and academics.

    Culture is the key to understand the life and death of civilizations. Prevailing wisdom (in some circles) doesn’t acknowledge that some cultures are better than other cultures, which is really arguing that no idea is better than any other idea. We can’t risk hurting anyone’s feelings with hierarchy.

    For decades, the values and institutions that allowed for the openness, creativity, freedom and tolerance of the west (and I really mean the Anglosphere + France) have been attacked by leading elites within our own societies.

    You see the destruction at every level of society: interpersonal relationships, families, communities and the nation state. There’s a delicate balance of trust that lubricates our social machinery and allows not sophisticated and complicated activity, but also necessary transgressions that embrace the best of our values and push them further. There is a role for radicals. Stasis is death.

    Now, the prevailing ethos is only destruction fueled by ignorance and self-loathing. The open radical has been replaced by the conformist radical.

    The innovation that we hope for – regardless of who is president – will be difficult with schools that do not produce creative thinkers. Worse, the very concept of science has been attacked by some: A few months ago a female-hating feminist professor claimed that STEM programs were sexist as they reflected the approach of the male mind.

    Ask the teach leaders who met with Trump (or even the cowards who refused to attend) where and how America achieved technological supremacy in the last century. I suspect the answers will be mostly incoherent.

    I’m babbling about the cultural foundations of innovation, but I think they matter just as much as explicit state support. Both have been endangered. Trump certainly has the ability and appetite to make STEM a priority. No organization can fund pure research like the government. If we don’t, China will gladly take the torch from us.

    I am most optimistic about the inclusion of Peter Thiel. He’s correct when he says that most innovation has been happening in software because the world of bits has become easier to work in than the world of atoms because of state mismanagement of that sector of the economy. We will not soon be rid of the world of atoms. Many of Trump’s core voters (Trump Democrats) are men and women who work (or worked) in the world of atoms. Let’s make the world of atoms work for them again.

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      After (in California) 50 years of the Reagan Zeitgeist, then implemented by Nixon, starting 46 years ago or so at the US level, academia has been deeply corrupted. I saw the old radicals who had already turned into baby Reagans because they had become big time professors… Even before Reagan was elected US president… It was hallucinating how people who had protested the vietnam war 10 years earlier had embraced opunsihing tuition in “PUBLIC” universities…

      The leading “intellectual” elite was paid to support the plutocratic “esprit du temps” (Zeitgeist, spirit, mood of the times). That was their number one mission. So they destroyed. It’s not that they just supported greed (“Free markets”, global trade). In countries such as France, they could be “Marxist” (Althusser, or the now second famous Slovenian, Zizek is an example)… Even nihilists such as Foucault were part of the demolition… Him and other senseless French philosophers (example Derida).

      We will see what Trump does.

      One thing is clear: Obama was all huff and puff. His own EPA administrator admitted this week that all the environmental policies of the Obama administration amounted to less than one tenth of one percent

      • oatmealactivist Says:

        The radicalism of Reagan-Thatcher is that they saw almost no natural role for the state. They had a transformative vision, wishing to move us from a market economy to a market society, where very relationship is transactional.

        Perhaps this an unavoidable. That every great civilization will ultimately attack both the foundation of its value and the engine of its creativity, ultimately losing both forever. The values of the golden ages of Greece and Rome can and will never be magically restored to those nations, which is why we look to neither today for greatness by any measure.

        I agree that Obama’s environmental policies have been nothing but sound and fury. There’s a lot of anti-science religious thinking in some environmentalist circles, including those Obama has supported. Virtue signaling (driving a Tesla, etc) and atoning for environmental (buying carbon offset, etc) matter most. Real environmental progress will come from the same place it always come from: Technological progress that renders fossil fuels expensive, inefficient and obsolete.

        • gmax Says:

          Patrice made a big deal that different economic activities correspond to different neuro hormones. So not everything can be market. Other activities proceed of care, etc. Those are not marketable, not transactional

          • oatmealactivist Says:

            Jane Jacobs makes a clear distinction on these in Systems of Survival: Guardian vs Commerce.

            Shun trading
            Exert prowess
            Be obedient and disciplined
            Adhere to tradition
            Respect hierarchy
            Be loyal
            Take vengeance
            Deceive for the sake of the task
            Make rich use of leisure
            Be ostentatious
            Dispense largesse
            Be exclusive
            Show fortitude
            Be fatalistic
            Treasure honor

            Shun force
            Be efficient
            Be open to inventiveness and novelty
            Use initiative and enterprise
            Come to voluntary agreements
            Respect contracts
            Dissent for the sake of the task
            Be industrious
            Be thrifty
            Invest for productive purposes
            Collaborate easily with strangers and aliens
            Promote comfort and convenience
            Be optimistic
            Be honest

            A society needs both.

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