The ‘dappled world’ and a more diverse perspective

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At the moment I am writing my next book, Creativity. Sometimes I write a bit that I am pleased about and want to share with you straight away. This is one of those bits.

At this point in the book, from somewhere near the beginning, I’m explaining that we mostly won’t be talking about creativity by describing hokey experiments done by researchers in the academic discipline of psychology, but instead will be seeking to understand creativity by listening to creative people and creative experiences, including our own. I note that this seems both bold and sensible – I’ve already discussed some of the problems with the psychology studies by this point – but it can also feel risky.

But then we turn to a book from back in 1999 by Nancy Cartwright, a philosopher of science with a background in advanced mathematics, called The Dappled World: A Study of the Boundaries of Science. Cartwright notes that when thinking in terms of ‘science’ we expect explanatory laws to be rigid, but in everyday life we know that things can be fuzzy.

I go on to say:

Cartwright argues that the scientific ‘fundamentalism’ which expects to find a grand ‘theory of everything’ is unrealistic. She says that the best we can hope for is a ‘patchwork’ of laws, connecting our most effective understandings of different spheres.

There is a comforting traditional view which represents humanity’s unified knowledge as a pyramid, with the social sciences at its base, biology and chemistry above that, and physics at the peak. It’s neat, even though it’s obviously a bit arrogant. But Cartwright begins The Dappled World by saying:

This book supposes that, as appearances suggest, we live in a dappled world, a world rich in different things, with different natures, behaving in different ways. The laws that describe this world are a patchwork, not a pyramid. (Cartwright, 1999: 1).

There is warmth and beauty to this account – ‘as appearances suggest’ indicating that we can lean into what we already know that we know, rather than deferring to counter-intuitive explanations from external authorities, and ‘a world rich in different things, with different natures’ pointing to a celebration of diversity rather than wanting to have everything the same.

The ‘dappled world’ suggests that we will have different ways of looking at different spheres of nature and social experience, and different ways of trying to explain them. In terms of approaches to creativity, it means we will take close interest in people saying ‘this is what works for me,’ without feeling the need to work out whether this can be a universal law. An obvious dimension of this perspective is that it enables us to embrace diversity and difference. The white male scholar looking to prove their truth with faux-scientific methods, or indeed any privileged person assuming that the experiences of their immediate circle will be the same for everyone else, are challenged to remember that they occupy just one spot in the dappled world, and that endless variety lies beyond.

And it is important to recognize that my grouchy remarks about ‘pseudoscientific methods’ don’t mean that we reject rigour or a wish to speak about the world correctly – in fact, the opposite is the case. It is because we embrace rigour and a wish to speak correctly about the world that we want to capture it fully, through rich accounts from many places and diverse voices.

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