Novelty all over again

What is novelty? Is there really such a thing as 'novelty' in reality, or does it all depend on your perspective and existing knowledge? Is novelty a problem now for modern philosophers as much as it was for the Ancients?

The problem of novelty was a question that really exercised the minds of the early philosophers. The Ancient Greeks simply wondered where new things could come from and if genuine novelty really could occur at all. Nowadays what novelty is, is again a philosophical question but for very different reasons.

To the Ancient Greeks, the idea of novelty itself seemed awful, as it seemed to prove that they didn’t actually understand or know enough about the world as it already was. The idea of taking novelty as real implied one simply failed to understand something important about the world. Real novelty would indeed prove there was more in heaven and earth than the ancient Ancient Greeks could dream of in their philosophy so they rejected the idea of as merely an illusion. For some, novelty was best explained away as just the superficial appearance of things, like frivolous fashion, whilst, in fact, the meaningful, underlying universe was surely eternal and unchanging. After all, they thought: nothing could come from nothing!

Nowadays, novelty is a problem again, but for very different reasons. The new dream of many modern scientists and innovators such as complexity scientists is to find the algorithm which provides meaningful novelty and creativity ‘on tap’. This is the quest the mathematician Polya called the new ‘Philosopher’s Stone’, the new alchemy. Such an algorithm would somehow make genuinely meaningful and interesting novelty reduced to the working of a program. Algorithms would automatically produce new mathematical theorems, and great art would be produced by machines.

For some complexity scientists, one way to discover the 'magic formula' of really surprising novelty is by searching and searching through a huge barren 'desert' of boring programs that are non-events. These programs are part of the digital 'universe' of programs that the scientists explore, most of which, as it turns out don't do anything interesting. Part of the problem with finding interesting programs efficiently is that scientists only know that some behaviour is complex and novel in an interesting way when they actually see it with a human eye. Even complexity scientists and mathematicians are unable to predict what will turn out to be novel and interesting before they actually see it. If they could just get around that problem, perhaps meaningful novelty could be on tap in an algorithm! You could program a computer to search the digital universe for interesting novelty and to only report back when it was found. As yet then, this isn't possible and the idea of being able to produce meaningful novelty on tap is out of reach. Only human artists and creators can produce the goods. If scientists do discover how to produce it, maybe nothing will ever be as new again.

I was reminded of this modern notion of alchemy by both Andy Lomas' and James White's rather different work. One can see real surprises and novelty in Andy's work, a digital artist who uses simulations to create a kind of 'artificial life'. He works very like a complexity scientist using maths to design and run hundreds of programs. These programs mimic the growth of cells and Andy just looked for the ones that did something interesting. The very few interesting examples are the ones he shows in his exhibitions.

James White's work on this website, in contrast, is an example of an artist using inspired intuition and a well-trained eye to produce beautiful examples of the science of complexity in action in the physical world. James' work is therefore in some sense closer to both the modern and ancient alchemy since it is complexity produced outside the digital universe occupied by artists like Andy, instead occupying the real, tangible, world of things rather than ideas.

References

Boden, Margaret. "Creativity: How does it work?." The idea of creativity. Brill, 2009. 235-250. Lomas, Andy. "Cellular forms: an artistic exploration of morphogenesis." SIGGRAPH Studio. 2014.: Andy Lomas, Morphogenetic Creations, http://andylomas.com North, Michael. Novelty: A history of the new. University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Polya, George. How to solve it: A new aspect of mathematical method. Princeton university press, 2014. Wolfram, Stephen. A new kind of science. Vol. 5. Champaign: Wolfram media, 2002.

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