Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Irrelevance of Evidence

Speaking as an ex-church-goer (actually I consider myself post-Christian), Easter no longer has much relevance to me as a holiday.  I still value the celebration of rebirth and new life in its manifold expressions, but now I honor those concepts differently than I once did.  Musically speaking, the Passion story is tough to ignore.  In Western art music, there have been an astounding number of compositions written on the theme of the Passion.  Although I haven't done the research, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that it is second only to romantic relationships in terms of the number of musical works the story has inspired, many of them profoundly beautiful. 

 What has amazed me in recent years, and this week in particular, are the number of churches and religious programs focused on the historical evidence for Biblical events, as if the factual accuracy of a story has a direct relationship to its value. When one needs to solve a mystery or defend a case in court, certainly factual accuracy and verifiable evidence are necessities. But spiritual mysteries are not intended to be solved, and spiritual truths do not need factual defense.  Reducing one's faith to a belief in provable data removes a large part of the potential for spiritual growth through self-examination.  Why would one be inspired to grow or develop as a human being in response to mere historical fact?

Perhaps my view of the value of spirituality is off-kilter in that regard.  It is highly possible that only a small percentage of people now view religion or spiritual practice as a vessel for growth.  Factual, historical data does not necessarily compel one to treat other people differently, or to focus one's life in a specifically meaningful way, and that may be what some people prefer about the approach.  To me, it always seems that someone is trying to convince me of something when the issue of historical validity enters into a conversation about spirituality.  And the evidence they may present to convince me of facts has no bearing on the spiritual value of the story.

Like most other streams of thought, I've been considering how this relates to creative practice as well.  I believe that every creative person at some point, even if only for a moment, wrestles with the question of whether what s/he creates has value.  There are certainly ways to answer that question based on awards won, commission fees paid, tickets sold, or reviews written.  All of that pales in comparison to whether the creative act has value to the creator, and ultimately I believe that is the most important (and least data-driven) answer.

Milton Babbitt, a sly smile from the Princeton professor
In 1958, the composer Milton Babbitt had an essay published in High Fidelity magazine entitled "Who Cares if You Listen?" (not his original title), in which he advocates the continued support for the development of music as an art form without regard for how large an audience it may attract.  While this may present some practical complications, the underlying principle is really that the creative must ideally be free to create what is personally inspiring, rather than what is deemed popular.  It is through that deep sense of creative freedom that a culture progresses, in art as well as science.  Doing what has received the popular stamp of approval is treading water creatively.  Trusting a personally inspiring means of expression, whether one is painting, composing, programming, or constructing, builds momentum for the individual creative and ultimately everyone in an outward ripple.

It all depends on trusting the personal meaning that one finds in what one is doing, however.  So, on a day when some would convince me of their beliefs with historical data and impersonal facts, however legitimate or skewed they may be to prove a particular point of view, I am turning instead to what is personally meaningful, seeking that inner trust for what I am creating that will best serve what I can contribute in the world without falling back to the illusion that I have something to prove.


  1. If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Of course it does! Sound waves are created, even if no ear receives them. Same with creative endeavors. They make a ripple even without an audience because they impact the creator. As you said, personally meaningful. And that's the inherent value of them.

  2. A further comment:
    The power of faith lies in its personal meaning to the believer, not its "provability." But for some, the provability must precede any divining of personal meaning.

  3. Faith is certainly a very personal matter. I think the unfortunate part of the provability issue is that one must either (a) accept that there is no comprehensive body of proof that can legitimize one religion or belief system as superior to another, or (b) ignore conflicting evidence and make some leaps that defy logic to get to the belief in which you want to have confidence. Either way, it comes down to a matter of faith.

    For the creative, it is similar. One can look at historical conventions or artists who are commercially successful and try to develop a foolproof approach to popularity, but I think that to be personally inspired by what one is doing requires having enough faith in oneself to close the compass and the rulebook once in a while.

  4. I disagree with the absolutelness of the statement "Doing what has received the popular stamp of approval is treading water creatively."

    I think it is perfectly possible to innovate within the popular. Indeed, people may be much more willing to accept something new and different if it is wrapped in a familiar wrapper. Great innovations have come from those going against dogma. But other times great innovations have come clad in clothes that were well known at the time. Like the natural evolution of rock and roll from southern gospel music. And there are numerous examples I can cite in science.

    My point is that we shouldn't stop what we are doing if it becomes popular or strive to do something BECAUSE it's popular. Innovation will come to the innovative and that will happen reardless of whether the medium is popular or not.

    Sorry, I didn't mean to grab onto a single sentence and write a diatribe on it...

    But I did :)


  5. I absolutely agree that what is popular can be a springboard for innovation. One doesn't have to go too far afield to engage in creativity. Following too precise a formula doesn't really involve innovation, though. I can enjoy a great milkshake made by an expert milkshake-maker, and it can have value to me as a partaker of a dependable milkshake made according to a reliable recipe. But the innovator is the one who decided to crush up a cookie and throw it in the blender with the milk and ice cream. Not a huge difference, but it did involve some creative thought.

    That being said, you make a great point about innovation not really belonging on the same graph as popularity. The two qualities measure entirely different characteristics. I like your phrase that "innovation will come to the innovative."