Creativity, Innovation, and Syntax

Humans and chimps both have tools and both can learn languages. Even birds can learn language, but all animals besides humans seem to be incapable of learning to master a language’s syntax. It seems even the ability to use tools and manipulate the environment seems to depend on the ability to use syntax.

If one looks at the word, syntax, one sees it derives from Greek for together(σύν) and an ordering/structuring(τάξις). It an ordering together of parts. In linguistics, it is simply how words are put together to form a sentence. One can be more abstract and just analyze formal grammars, too. These have a set of symbols (the vocabulary), and a set of rules for combining each combination of symbols. Mathematicians and physicists have recently tapped into the resource of formal grammars (more specifically generative grammars, but that’s another blog entry) to describe physical processes and system behavior.

It would make sense that a brain capable of developing the ability to understand and generate the patterns of syntax would be required to develop complicated tools. Both constructions require the ability to see the consequences of ordering or structuring things one way over another. In sentences, it dictates the nuance and directivity of meaning. In machines, it dictates the precise path of motion and allowable configurations of a specific machine.

It seems that every creative designer would use a process akin to constructing sentences, but based instead upon the specific grammar and syntax of the design paradigm they work within. Programmers embody this, since each language they learn has a specific grammar and syntax comprising a formal grammar.  Musicians too have their unique domain specific language whose syntax limits what material they are able to express in musical notation. These limitations are always being extended by additions to the language. Mathematicians have proven that proven that a formal language cannot express or prove everything, only an infinitely extensible one (Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorem). I’m sure this is why language has been constantly fluid and evolving, escaping any canonicalization.

Language itself is inflexible, but the mind is infinitely more nimble and able to extend and comprehend things that are beyond it. Yet it is this capability that allows us to construct our limited language, modest machines, and determinate designs. Each revision gains more refinement and more nuance as we explore what is possible and what delineates the boundaries of reality. With each revision our mind becomes more nuanced and precise. With each revision our reality grows like a fractal and the possibilities for expression and creativity become infinite and nearly continuous, but harder to differentiate for those less experienced. The space of possible combinations and juxtapositions grows as large as the unknown universe.

Innovation and creativity prosper, all because of the brain’s capability for nuanced syntax.


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