The Glorious Freedom of Creative Mistakes


We are limited beings who do attempt to make sense of our world and we have the gifts of perception and communication which help us to do that. Our perception allows us to see and experience the world and communication allows us to learn from the experiences and intuitions of others and our minds are not machines. We cannot, like Descartes wanted to do many years ago, separate our mind from our bodies and senses-they are real, the mind and body are integrated and even if a sense doesn’t work, for example in the case of a person who is unable to see or hear, we find other ways of perceiving and communicating about the world around us. We make a lot of assumptions and inferences about the world around us and we try to set up closed systems to make everything fit, but combined with this comfort that comes from certainty is the joy that comes with discovery. As we encounter the world and interact with others there will be times where we discover new connections and have to expand our system to make sense of the new ideas or images we encounter. Sometimes these new paradigms come from outside us, when we through communication or observation come into contact with another person’s or group’s way of explaining something. So for example a person who encounters Newton’s physics in high school which would explain gravity in terms of the attraction between two objects may later in their life encounter relativity theory where gravity is explained very differently and in a way that makes more sense given what we know about the universe and perhaps sometime later would encounter a completely new explanation. Yet, we don’t magically jump from one explanation to another on our own, the road to discovery is paved with numerous failed attempts and creative mistakes.

Jacob Bronowski uses the example of a chess player when he says:

“Why does one chess player play better than another?”The answer is not that the one who plays better makes fewer mistakes, because in a fundamental way the one who plays better makes more mistakes, by which I mean more imaginative mistakes. He sees more ridiculous alternatives. (Bronowski, 1978, p. 110f)

Yet, as a person who knows the rules of chess but has never studied the strategy of chess, I would not play a challenging game to a chess master because I don’t have enough information to make new imaginative mistakes. There is something to understanding the systems that are already existent and then being able to manipulate them, experiment with them and see where there may be new places to discover. In the process of manipulation and experimentation we come up with possible explanations or visualizations which most of the time are not true. This is not just in the realm of science, but also in the realm of art where it is true that there are more bad works of art than good ones. It takes a lot of attempts to become good at any art, and in the midst of the attempts we learn. Every great imaginative construct, whether it be in science or art, begins as an exploration of past errors. One of our greatest freedoms is the ability to learn from our mistakes rather than being defined by them.

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