Does Certainty Discourage Innovation?

By Ben Howler

First of all, to respond and discuss such a claim, we must assume that certainty does indeed discourage innovation, and know what it asserts we must define it so.  Within the context of this article, “Certainty” will be defined as ‘the subjective, personal, unshakeable conviction that an action, belief, idea, or otherwise ‘thing’ is so’, while “discourage” will be defined, as according to the Cambridge English Dictionary, as “to cause someone to lose confidence or enthusiasm for a certain thing” excluding interpretations of prevention in this case, and lastly “Innovation”, despite how broad, will be defined as ‘a new idea that intends to be implemented and applied, whether a process or an object or otherwise, often as a solution to a preexisting problem.’ It should be without discussion that this outlandish claim immediately harkens to an entirely different discussion about other epistemological topics such as empiricism and innatism and the notion “can an idea truly be original or not?”, but I digress, and for the sake of keeping the discussion short, let us establish that regardless of whether one has or has not been influenced by external sources, the innovator indeed ‘innovates’ when it is they that the idea originates from and is disseminated by.

To follow on the main topic of such a question, innovation itself, I believe that we must understand the nature of innovation itself, and attempt to understand questions such as “what causes innovation? Is it inherently human to continually innovate? Can innovation be expedited?” and then eventually, “Does innovation play a part within innovation, with reference to the philosophy of originality as a concept.” Is anything truly original? Moreover, the question itself also harkens to similar ideas of whether adversity is essential for, good for, or detrimental to growth as a whole, and other subjects such as post traumatic growth. Is ease and contentedness malign for development and advancement? To perhaps put answering such fundamental questions to the side for the time being, and for the sake of simplicity let us assume “certainty” applies contextually and subjectively to each situation that I will be examining, let us look at certain examples where “certainty” fails or benefits innovation.

For an example, let us look to a favourite example of ours, the control of fire by early humans. Although how humans came to fully control and utilise fire is still under debate, we know that the change of use likely came about with the change of the environment into a habitat where it was more flammable, thereby increasing human contact with fire, and the process likely gradually continued with the foraging of a burned area, a process observed in multiple species today. Eventually advancement would come to resemble a scale of opportunistic use from naturally occurring fires to humans starting fires themselves, the earliest evidence of which can be seen in Wonderwerk Cave, which micromorphologically is dated roughly to one million years ago.

Johannes Gutenberg | Printing Press, Facts, & Biography | Britannica

To bring the claim back on a more theoretical level, it is open to discussion whether the use and eventual control of fire can be defined as “innovation”, as early humans and their use of fire can be seen as more of an opportunistic exploitation of natural phenomena, but as according to our definition of innovation stated above, it can be argued that the act of utilisation of fire itself is inherently innovation, even if the pre-existing situation already exists and has existed. Their idea to forage, and eventually harness a natural occurrence for use in whatever process is intrinsically innovation as judged by our standards. Now to examine the aspect of certainty – again, we are faced with the question of the certainty of what. In an argument of broader strokes, it would not be unreasonable to say if the people of the time were “certain” of their successful survival and that their requirements for sustenance have been met, there would have been little to no need for them to attempt to seek something better. 

Such a definition undoubtedly calls into question even more links that must be answered, including whether or not to progress is inherently human and additional ideas of what humans truly desire-we are not cats. Humans, even after obtaining food and a roof and a warm place to rest, desire more. Humans desire meaning, understanding, purpose, and drive. A reason to exist. But alas, such a question must be left for further analysis some other time. Another note that I wish to harken to attention is the problem of investigating a claim such as “Certainty discourages Innovation”, and it pertains to the fact that we are employing inductive reasoning-it is simply much simpler to find and prove examples where uncertainty does not discourage, and perhaps even encourages innovation over examples where certainty does discourage innovation; for the latter is merely a nonexistent bump and little record will be paid to the non-alteration of the status quo, over the former, which if successful likely has revolutionised the world as we know it.

To continue on with the examples listed, I perhaps can suggest the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press as an examination to prove or disprove such a claim. Although we do not know the exact motivations for Johannes Gutenberg and his business partners’ decision to create the printing press, it was a for-profit endeavour and financial enterprise. Gutenberg’s printing press was introduced in the mid 14th century, where the black death had just destroyed previous european social hierarchies leading to the decline of the powers of the clergy and the nobility, the rise of the capitalistic economy and the planting of the seeds of the renaissance to come in a century or two’s worth of time, the most important of which was the increase of the educated middle class and the growing market for literature. However, gutenberg’s printing press was not an unforeseeable invention – the chinese use of printing had spread to the islamic world and was in use already in the 14th century, and the press itself was based off pre-existing technologies such as the wine press and the paper press, and without integral developments such as the refinement of inks and papermaking it would have been unlikely that the press would have been created at all. Now pertaining to the claim, it could be argued that this is a case where certainty encouraged innovation. Were it not for their belief of the need for a better and more efficient method of book creation, the market’s need for more literature, and the technological advances already existing for the press to be created, perhaps the revolution of printing would have never occurred at all, and the world would have changed forever. 

Now I must criticise the claim further. Certainty is not a concept that is ‘compatible’, so to speak, with innovation itself. Certainty is not something in of itself, “certainty” must be applied. To give an example, within the example of fire I have given earlier, my main argument is that it supports the claim by reasoning of the lack of certainty by early humans of their survival, therefore they had a need to seek out additional sources of survival by exploitation of natural wildfires. In spite of that, a completely different argument on the other side of the coin that does not support the claim by reasoning that early humans were certain that their use of fire would assist them in their survival, therefore they made the decision to utilise fire. The same can be done with the Gutenberg example that I have raised. My argument of how certainty encourages innovation by reasoning of their certainty in their success can be flipped to argue that their lack of certainty in the change of the market at that time. Ultimately, the problem with the claim is certainty of what exactly. Certainty that your innovation will fail? Certainty that your innovation will succeed? Our daily existence is permeated with certainties and uncertainties, risk evaluation and analysis, split second judgements and well thought out plans. 

Now with the claim I am attempting to argue for or against rendered moot, I can perhaps attempt to explore additional facets of the claim which do not hang solely upon the use of the word “certainty”.

A possibility of examining such may be through religion-the term ‘innovation’ originally contained negative connotations, especially within the power religion held in the 16th-17th century. To innovate, to turn against doctrine was bad. As quoted by Henry Burton, “My Sonne, feare thou the Lord, and the King, and meddle not with them that are given to change”-perhaps a case that certainty, as defined by the totalitarian control of knowledge and information, does indeed, literally discourage innovation, so to speak.

Ultimately, amusing trifles aside, I conclude that have come to failure of imparting judgement upon the claim to be discussed, for lack of specificity and precision (as explained above) fails to provide a concrete base of which to evaluate the truthfulness and clarity of the claim. Any example given, considering the vast amount of information the human mind processes, can be twisted logically to support either side of the argument at hand.Unsurprisingly, as harkened previously, there is definitely further exploration of similar themes and ideas such as the requirement of hardship within intellectual and emotional growth and maturity, or assertions that there is no joy without suffering, or that there is no meaning to life without misery. To impart final thoughts on the matter, I fervently reject such foolish notions. To quote someone wiser than me, “Suffering does not give happiness meaning, happiness is meaning itself. If you tortured people to make them better appreciate the pleasures of life, you would be a monster.” But alas, such greater questions lie beyond the time constraints and the word-limit of this discussion, and I digress. 

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