Where theory meets reality
An idea from David Deutsch, Leonardo da Vinci, and Napoleon
It’s a beautiful day in New York – or at least, that’s what I’m told. I’m staring down a wall of Zoom meetings for the rest of the day. Sweet baby Jesus, why do I do this to myself?
Judging by the positive response I got to last week’s email (Why working hard matters), I’m going to assume I’m not the only one with a stacked workday.
If you, like me, find yourself deep in your practice, today’s email is a reminder of the essential balance that defines most work.
Let’s get to it…
I once “met” the physicist David Deutsch at a conference in Vancouver.
Deutsch wasn’t able to make it in person, so the organizers of TED had attached an iPad to an electric scooter and let him call in from his office in Oxford. The disembodied, digital Deutsch zipped around the hallway, greeting everyone over FaceTime.
This was a perfect way to meet the guy who wrote the book on scientific progress. In The Beginning of Infinity, Deutsch breaks down how humans discover ever-better explanations for the natural world.
One of the ideas that’s always stuck with me is this:
“…scientific theories are not ‘derived’ from anything. We do not read them in nature, nor does nature write them into us. They are guesses – bold conjectures.”
In other words, you can’t “read” a star and understand how it works. You have to invent a theory – a guess! – and then observe how well your explanation maps onto reality.
“[Experience] is not the source from which theories are derived. Its main use is to choose between theories that have already been guessed.”
How do we learn about the world? We observe it, make guesses, and repeat.
Leonardo da Vinci
In his notebooks, da Vinci made it clear that crappy artists just copied what was in front of them.
“Those who are in love with practice without knowledge are like the sailor who gets into a ship without rudder or compass and who never can be certain whither he is going.”
Great artists had a deeper, theoretical understanding of how the natural world worked.
How do all the muscles in the hand interact? Without knowing that, how could you accurately draw a hand you’ve never seen?
“Practice must always be founded on sound theory, and to this, perspective is the guide and the gateway.”
In physics or painting, a crappy theory might waste your time. In war, it will straight up get you and everyone around you killed.
That might be why Napoleon Bonaparte had zero patience for inaccurate or overly-complicated theories. He once wrote:
“The art of war is a simple art and all in the execution; there is nothing vague in it. Everything in it is common sense, nothing in it is ideology.”
“In war, simple and precise ideas are needed.”
Napoleon had a sort of maniacal focus on results. If the facts on the ground contradicted a theory, they shouldn’t be re-arranged to fit the theory. Instead, the theory should be immediately scrapped.
“When one begins to acquire the habit of action, one holds in contempt all theories and one makes use of them as do geometers, not in order to march in a straight line, but in order to continue in the same direction.”
Tying it all together
If we consistently do stuff without an underlying theory behind it, we’re rudderless.
If our cherished theories fail to produce results, we’re alchemists.
Craft is the art of aligning the two.
Sources: The Beginning of Infinity, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, and Napoleon on the Art of War.
See you next week,
P.s. I’m going to keep sharing newsletters I’ve been digging lately. Here’s one:
Idea Economy. This is a weekly roundup email with resources for creators and indie makers. I enjoyed this interview with Mark Manson on how he went from a niche blogger to one of the world’s best-selling non-fiction authors.
On Napoléon: I think we underestimate what’s involved in “scrapping” a theory. Easier to say than to do. It’s genuinely hard to act without any theory at all, and often there isn’t a replacement lying around.
> “Practice must always be founded on sound theory, and to this, perspective is the guide and the gateway.”
Is this in essence tacit knowledge, or expectation of how "by the book" thinking is not as good as the learned texture of practice? https://commoncog.com/the-tacit-knowledge-series/