2002 : WHAT IS YOUR QUESTION? ... WHY?

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Science Writer; Consultant; Lecturer, Copenhagen; Author, The Generous Man
Why bother? Or: Why do we go further and explore new stuff?

 

Many human skills enable an individual to do something with less physiological effort. If you are good at skiing (and I am not) it takes less energy to climb that mountain. One can even argue forcefully that a mental "understanding" of a phenomenon allows one to perceive it with less increase in brain metabolism.
But not all skills are directed at a reduction of the expenditure. Many creative activities involve a huge effort to explore new issues or phenomena. The better skier goes beyond the first mountain. New worlds and ideas are explored. Why do we bother — or why do some of us bother?

One could argue that we explore new phenomena to produce skilful insights that will in the future allow us to visit the same phenomena again with less effort. But is that really enough? Can such a functional explanation of creativity as an initial effort devoted to enable a future reduction of the effort really capture the reasons for people to involve themselves in lifelong efforts to understand the world of ants or the intricacy of ski dope?

It seems that president John F. Kennedy captured an essential element in creative efforts when he, in his famous speech at Rice University in 1962, argued for the decision to create the Apollo program: "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills..."

Indeed, the most important outcome of Apollo — offering earthlings an outside view of their planet, visualizing the vulnerability of the Earth and its biosphere — was an unintended result of doing a major effort. It did pay off to do something hard. Somehow we know that doing something hard, rather than something easy, is fruitful. But we also know that doing it the hardest way possible (like when I ski) is not a very efficient way of getting anywhere.

We want to be efficient, but also to do difficult things. Why? In a sense this is a rephrasing of Brian Eno's question in Edge 11: "Why Culture"? Many different approaches can be taken involving different disciplines such as economy, anthropology, psychology, evolutionary biology etc.

An idea currently explored in both economy and evolutionary biology could be relevant: Costly signals. They provide the answer to the question: How does one advertise one's own hidden qualities (in the genes or in the bank) in a trustworthy way? By giving a signal that is very costly to produce. One has to have a strong bank account, a very good physiology (and hence good genes) or a strong national R&D programme to do costly things. The more difficult, the better the advertising.

Perhaps we bother because we want to show that we are strong and worthy of mating? Culture is all about doing something that is so difficult that only a healthy individual or society could do it.

If so, it's not at all about reducing the effort, it's all about expanding the effort.