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"Standing on the Shoulders of Giants" by R. Scott Mongrain - part 1 of 3
By Admin (from 15/11/2010 @ 11:00:34, in en - Science and Society, read 1744 times)

“If I have seen further, it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.” – Sir Isaac Newton

Inventions and discoveries today are often treated as property, and in most cases, a single person or team is given credit for, or ownership of, the invention or discovery in question. While this may be an unfortunate necessity in the face of today’s capitalist society, it is in direct opposition to the true nature of science. Sir Isaac Newton knew when preparing to write what would become his defining work, the Principia, that he alone was not responsible for the ideas contained within it. Just as an artist draws from previous works for inspiration, so do scientists draw from the entire body of prior scientific discovery. To the layman, great leaps in scientific discovery may seem to be completely original, especially when considering some of the earliest discoveries such as the Heliocentric Theory. In such cases, the prevailing attitudes of the time period were quite nearly opposite in nature to the discoveries themselves. In the earliest periods, these ideals were so widespread and so dogmatically believed that such discoveries were initially decried as blasphemy (Hewitt 3). However, in each case, the advances were made based upon the use of both methods and knowledge of discoveries past. Such theories, as they lay outside the bounds of common thought, would be considered by all but those privy to knowledge of both their precursors and the relationships used to form them as original thought. While the average person, untrained and unmotivated to think in the same manner as those who made these discoveries, might think them entirely novel, the fact is that each scientific discovery after the inception of the scientific method has been an addition or amendment to, and thus derived from, a pre-existing body of knowledge. Scientific discovery, as it is based in expanding, narrowing, or contradicting prior discovery, cannot be defined as original thought.

What, then, is original thought? The online version of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines thought as “the action or process of thinking”, thinking being defined as “to exercise the powers of judgment, conception, or inference”. It defines original as “not secondary, derivative, or imitative”. Combining these literal definitions, original thought can be defined likewise as “the action or process of exercising the powers of judgment or conception in a manner not secondary, derivative, or imitative”. I will exclude inference from the combined definition, as it directly refers to derivation of a general idea from specifics, and thus requires a predefined set of examples from which to draw a conclusion, being in opposition to the definition of original. Using this definition, the very existence of modern original thought is debatable. It could be argued that unless something external to our accumulated body of knowledge were introduced (for example, by extraterrestrial life forms), it is highly unlikely that anything thought of by any person could be without influence or precedent. However, this is only to say that it is improbable, and not that it is impossible. From another point of view, specifically that of certain monotheistic religions, original thought has never been possible as God is defined in part by his omniscience, and thus all human knowledge is mere duplication. Considering a human-only frame of reference, I believe that original thought can and does exist, but that one must be careful to make a distinction between true originality, and perceived originality.