Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Concept of Genius

I have written before (in "Revival of an Old Romantic Folly") that there is one idea, still current despite being centuries old, that troubles me more than many others, that being the fallacy -- popularized by the Romantics, though it predates them by many many centuries -- that genius is in some, uncertain way connected to madness. That is, that there is some sense in which genius is but another form of madness, or that one touched by genius is especially prone to insanity. We see this concept repeated constantly, from the "mad scientists" of the 50s who "tampered in God's domain", to the recent films showing troubled geniuses and their descent into madness. Even the stereotype of the socially inept, awkward and uncommunicative geek owes something to this concept, the idea being that genius, in whatever form, be it artistic or scientific, somehow separates one from other men, and leads to eventual collapse.

I was reminded of this concept recently while watching a YouTube video demonstrating a turbine developed by Nikola Tesla*.

Before moving on, I suppose I should comment on Tesla, as such a massive body of nonsense has accumulated about the man. I imagine the average Tesla web site has slightly less nonsense than your average truther site, but just barely. And what nonsense it does have is much more varied and far fetched. From tales of death rays confiscated by the FBI to absurd theories about his misbegotten Wycliffe monstrosity, it seems people want to believe just about anything about Tesla, when in truth, he was not a brilliant theoretician, rather a clever, but somewhat inconsistent, engineer.

I guess a statement like that needs qualification. And, since it will lead into my discussion of genius, it is a good place to start. Thus, allow me to start by explaining my, likely controversial, position that Tesla was neither a scientist nor a genius.

The first is probably the less controversial. "Scientist" is a term used pretty loosely, describing everything from theoretical physicists to amateur inventors, and now with "social sciences" entering the fray, it can even be loosely used to describe the doing quit smoking sessions in the local mall. However, I tend to use "scientist" in a relatively narrow sense, keeping it for those who either extend or clarify our understanding of the laws governing the natural world**. Thus, I do not include engineers in the category of scientists, unless they do some theoretical work outside of their engineering discipline. The reason is simple. Engineers, though they can quite brilliant in devising solutions, do not extend our knowledge of the universe, nor do they apply the scientific method. They do not develop and test hypotheses, they do not establish or refute general laws, they simply apply those laws to problems, and thus, though working in a scientific field, they are not scientists.

And this is why I do not consider Tesla a scientist. I grant, he did do some theoretical work, but, not much, and most of what he did do was later proved wrong. (Eg His belief radio wave transmission had to move in a straight line and could not go beyond the horizon. Or the theory of transmission underlying his Wardenclyffe fiasco.) On the other hand, he was quite a clever inventor and engineer, and developed a number of ingenious devices utilizing known principles***. He was undoubtedly a very intelligent man, and quite an innovator, and he was also willing to take chances -- which is why he was so often wrong -- an attribute many do not have, which limits their ability to innovate. But whatever he was, it is hard to say his work did anything to advance our understanding of natural laws.

Now, on to the second term, and one even more broadly defined than "scientist", that being "genius". Genius is used to describe everything from someone with an IQ of 101 or greater to people who truly change the scientific or artistic paradigms. That last also points out another problem, since genius is used in so many diverse areas, from science to arts to everyday life, it is often used in different ways in different contexts, leading to even more confusion.

For my purposes, I tend to view genius in a very narrow sense, but I believe it is probably the closest we can come to a universally acceptable definition, since it  is part of every other definition I have seen, and, for the most part, I know of few who would truly object to narrowing the definition, but many who would hesitate to make it broader. Thus, for our purposes, let us say a genius is one who introduces a true innovation, a new discovery, a new paradigm, a new approach totally different from those that were in use before, which proves to provide valuable new means of working within his discipline. Einstein, for example, created new theoretical approaches with his work.

On the other hand, many men who are both famous, and credited as geniuses, probably do not fit this definition, even if they were extremely intelligent and produced incredible work. Shakespeare, for example, though producing beautiful works, was not truly a break with past approaches, the work he produced was not that different from Jonson and Marlowe and other contemporaries.

Of course, there are also some cases where it is hard to decide. For example, Leibniz and Newton both developed their theories of physics and systems of calculus nearly simultaneously, which suggests they were ideas "in the air" at the time. But those two seem to actually be the only ones working in precisely those areas. Which makes it arguable whether they were both simply creatures of their time, or two geniuses who happened through chance to work on similar fields at the same time.

Obviously, any decision whether or not one is a genius will be somewhat subjective, as no one builds a truly independent theory, every idea builds upon existing knowledge, so even the most innovative discovery is still rooted in the ideas of its time to some degree****. Thus, in every case, we are asked to make a judgment call, is the innovation enough of a break from contemporary thought that it qualifies as a true stroke of genius? Or is ti simply a very clever development of existing concepts? However, with those limitations in mind, I still think it is safest if we limit the term "genius" to describe those who truly developed a new way to approach their discipline, whatever it might be.

And in that respect, Tesla was not a genius. As I said above, he was an engineer rather than a theoretician, for the most part, and even if we look at engineering, what he created was brilliant at times, but was not a tremendous deviation from the work of his most intelligent contemporaries. It is easiest to see in the case of his mistakes. For example, his belief radio waves were limited to line of sight, was a common belief among engineers of the time, and thus led many to seek solutions akin to those Tesla worked on. Likewise, his ideas about wireless transmission were clearly not innovative, as Marconi and others did much work on exactly the same problems, even producing many similar solutions. No, Tesla was very intelligent, a brilliant engineer in some cases, but he was neither a scientist nor a genius.

Which brings me to the point I wanted to make, and that is a slight correction to my earlier essay.

In "Revival of an Old Romantic Folly", and even the introduction to this essay, I argued I thought the Romantic association of madness and genius was entirely wrong, without foundation and led to misleading ideas. I still believe that last point, that associating the two often leads to wrong-headed beliefs, but I must slightly modify the other two, as I have had a slight change of heart.

Having spent a lot of time thinking about genius, especially about the working definition above, it struck me that a true genius has one very specific attribute. When considering problems, a genius tends to make connections other cannot see, at least not until someone points them out. That is what makes a genius a true genius, the capacity to find novel connections total unrelated to the previous ways of thinking about a topic. The genius finds truly novel approaches through associating concepts not previously seen a related, at leas tin a given context.

And, in that, I suppose one could argue, though it is a bit misleading, that genius and madness are related.

You see, one of the attributes of many types of madness, perhaps of most, is the tendency to make incorrect connections, to read extra meaning into events, or the statements of others, to imagine a given action implies motives it does not and so on. In a very distorted way, this mirrors the thought process of a genius, in that both make connections other are not prone to making.

However, that realization, while true, also tends to lead one to incorrect conclusions. Just because both have some superficial commonality, it does not mean they are in any way related. Where a lunatic makes unusual connections in a random, unfounded fashion, a genius builds upon an existing understanding and make novel, but true, connections. The two are not related in any substantive way, there is still no real relationship between genius and madness, nor does possessing one attribute imply one is more prone to the other. Both auto races and arsonists by petroleum, but that does not imply any other similarities. Likewise, professional swimmers and shark both enjoy the water and eat fish, but that does not mean you should fear swimmers or cheer on sharks. No, this sort of superficial similarity, though likely part of the reason the Romantics believed their idea correct*****, still tells us nothing. But, as it did occur to me that, while it is truly a trivial resemblance, that such a connection exists, I felt I had to point it out, if only to dismiss it.


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* I actually started the day by looking up essays on the daVinci "tank", as I had noticed the design had a number of potential flaws (lack of view ports, the cranks seemed terribly inadequate to move the great mass, the cannon placement seemed prone to flip the relatively top heavy structure, and so on). I found a number of critics who pointed out even more flaws I missed (the impossibility of mass production, the narrow wheels tendency to bog down, and one I am shocked I missed, that as drawn the gears would rotate one of each wheel pair the wrong way!). But, in the course of searching for commentary, I happened upon a number of Tesla fan sites, and happened to be drawn in by the turbine, as I was curious how it was supposed to be an improvement on other designs. (It really was not much of one, as it was efficient only in a relatively small range of rpms, below that it was relatively unstable and wasteful, which makes it seem less useful than more flexible designs.)

** I allow that some social sciences may fall under this rubric, but only a more loose sense, as human behavior will never be as fully quantifiable or mechanistic as the laws of the inanimate elements of the universe.

*** Much of the belief in his scientific genius rests upon theories that his fans attribute to him, without much evidence, such as the supposed superscience behind his death ray and various supposed perpetual motion machines some attribute to him.

**** Stanislaw Lem made light of this realization by writing of a character who sought out truly innovative geniuses by looking for those who were considered madmen and cranks, since an idea truly ahead of its time would appear insane to contemporaries. In a way, he may be right, but then again, if an idea were truly divorced from all contemporary ideas, it would be impossible to tell it from simple insanity, at least until new ideas were developed which provided the foundation it is missing. (I suppose, if it had a practical application, it MIGHT be possible to distinguish true genius from madness, but if the idea is that far divorced from all current knowledge, implementing it using current technology might prove difficult or impossible as well.)

***** Of course the original concept did not come from this similarity of approach, but rather from the Romantic notions of inspiration, and their ideas about the primacy of emotions and passions. If they did notice the similarity in working habits (for lack of a better term) between the madman and the genius, the doubtless saw it as little more than confirmation of a preexisting idea. (See "Catastrophic Thinking, The Political, Economic and Social Impact of Seeing History in the Superlative", "All Life in a Day, or, How Our Mistaken View of History Distorts Our Understanding of Events" , "Chasing a Receding Goal", "Juvenile Intellectuals", "Pushing the Envelope", "Hoist By Your Own Petard", "Faux "Realism"", "Faux "Maturity"", "Disturbing Entertainment, Ethnic Quotas and Distorted Views of Pop Culture - A Potpourri of Post Topics", "Reflexive Medium Goes Mainstream", "Cranky Old Man?", "Self-Serving Cynicism and Our Cultural Immaturity", "Chasing a Receding Goal", "Mapping the Changes in Hollywood", and "Inversion of Traditional Values".)

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