A receptacle for discovery
"Chance favours the prepared mind" said Louis Pasteur in 1854. As way of illustration, he experimented with wine growers in France to try and improve the fermentation process and devised the first "pasteurisation" (that's where the word comes from) in 1862 which effectively extended the life of both wine and milk. One might wonder however what makes for a "prepared mind". The following quote by Christensen struck me as enlightening:
“Questions are places in your mind where answers fit. If you haven’t asked the question, the answer has nowhere to go. It hits your mind and bounces right off. You have to ask the question – you have to want to know – in order to open up the space for the answer to fit.”
What an insight! Questions are precursors to comprehension! Pasteur's "chance" is life suggesting an answer. But if there isn’t a question in the first place, answers are useless. One might even assimilate it to Paulo Coelho's "signs of God” : The Alchemist's apprentice sees two birds fighting in the desert and foretells an upcoming attack on the oasis and the tribe with whom he's staying. Regardless of the religious connotations, if there wasn't a question either in Pasteur's or the young Alchemist's mind, they wouldn't have ever read an answer in the seemingly random events they encountered.
Christensen, during the interview goes on to talk about the power of questions:
“Questions are your mind’s receptors for answers. If you aren’t curious enough to want to know why, to want to ask questions, then you’re not making the room in your mind for answers. If you stop asking questions, your mind can’t grow.”
Rilke, the poet, echoes that same intuition and confirms the importance of questions in creating about a "prepared mind":
“Your preparation for the real world is not in the answers you've learned, but in the questions you've learned how to ask yourself.”
A trailblazer of possibilities
Elon Musk, entrepreneur extraordinaire, in an interview, explains how important “The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy” by Douglas Adams in evolving his understanding (courtesy of Quora):
I guess when I was around 12 or 15…I had an existential crisis, and I was reading various books on trying to figure out the meaning of life and what does it all mean? It all seemed quite meaningless and then we happened to have some books by Nietzsche and Schopenhauer in the house, which you should not read at age 14 (laughter). It is bad, it’s really negative. So then I read Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy which is quite positive I think and it highlighted an important point which is that a lot of times the question is harder than the answer. And if you can properly phrase the question, then the answer is the easy part. So, to the degree that we can better understand the universe, then we can better know what questions to ask. Then whatever the question is that most approximates: what’s the meaning of life? That’s the question we can ultimately get closer to understanding. And so I thought to the degree that we can expand the scope and scale of consciousness and knowledge, then that would be a good thing.
This is reminiscent of Steve Johnson’s “adjacent possible”. Evolution, research, discoveries are the fruit of a constant remix at the fringe of the known and into the unknown. The hard part is not the discovery but rather the meeting, mingling and mating of ideas. What expands the realm of knowledge into the adjacent possible is a risk-taking attitude which favours precisely that primal soup where entities collide freely. On an intellectual level this equates to cheer curiosity: The pressing feeling that a leap of faith is necessary.
And this might not come naturally. Questions are a kind of problem. And problems are a dispensable element in any individual's life. So questions might be the appanage of some of us, for instance, the first Americans who went looking for the new frontier west of the continent. As such, they're the trailblazer of possibilities for those among us who realised it'd be interesting to see what's on the other side:
“Far more interesting than problem solving is problem creation.”
The upshot of internal emergence
This blog is about practical takeaways for everyday life. An interesting thought and process amount to little if not enacted into one’s routine and turned into habits. Beveridge’s input goes on to create a great thought framework and a solid foundation for a potential process (courtesy of brain-pickings):
Claude Bernard distinguished two types of observation: (a) spontaneous or passive observations which are unexpected; and (b) induced or active observations which are deliberately sought, usually on account of an hypothesis. … Effective spontaneous observation involves firstly noticing some object or event. The thing noticed will only become significant if the mind of the observer either consciously or unconsciously relates it to some relevant knowledge or past experience, or if in pondering on it subsequently he arrives at some hypothesis.
In trying to create a process consistent with the MED (Minimal Effective Does) it so happens Tolstoy has this incredible take on where the right questions come from, (courtesy of brain-pickings … again):
A thought can advance your life in the right direction only when it answers questions which were asked by your soul. A thought which was first borrowed from someone else and then accepted by your mind and memory does not really much influence your life, and sometimes leads you in the wrong direction. Read less, study less, but think more. Learn, both from your teachers and from the books which you read, only those things which you really need and which you really want to know. (January 9 … I have no idea what year)
One might argue the importance of serendipity here as only learning what you want to know seems to counteract the premises of a prosperous “adjacent possible”. But that’s misreading Tolstoy as passion is the stepping stone of curiosity and a fuel for purpose. Think more, learn what you like and an internal universe will spur: A large chaotic mix, conducive to emergence. Learn what you like, think more and the questions will come.