Radical Conceptual Innovation

In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre points out an argument made by Karl Popper–that new technology cannot be predicted with any specificity:

Some time in the Stone Age you and I are discussing the future and I predict that within the next ten years someone will invent the wheel. “Wheel?” you ask. “What is that?” I then describe the wheel to you, finding words, doubtless with some difficulty, for the very first time to say what a rim, spokes, a hub and perhaps an axle will be. Then I pause, aghast. “But no one can be going to invent the wheel, for I have just invented it.”

MacIntyre sums up: “The notion of the prediction of radical  conceptual innovation is itself conceptually incoherent” (93).

We might desire “innovation” and even “transformational innovation,” but actually imagining that innovation is as much as inventing it. It’s one thing to predict that computing devices will get smaller and faster, and quite another thing to predict some hitherto unthought of way of accomplishing that goal. To specify it is to invent it.

Here we reach not just the limits of language, but of the imagination. We simply cannot anticipate a whole class of inventions without also making them. We live blind to such inventions–blind not only in fact but in imagination, in language. It is as if there is a great Oort cloud of imaginative debris that circles our messing around with things, so distant its contents are not discernible until some random gravitational tug spins something hurtling toward the inner solar system of thought, and someone happens to look up and realize something, for the first time, what none of us could have possibly anticipated.

No one writes grant proposals for this sort of thing. Heck, even the Oort cloud itself is radical conceptual innovation. People have to try things, and have prepared minds, and still have to get wildly lucky. “Wildly lucky” is just a patch phrase for “we don’t have a friggin’ clue, really.” Such things are the stuff of hope, and humility.

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