Fostering creativity by relinquishing the obvious

“It’s obvious”

A recent thread on haskell-cafe included claims and counter-claims of what is “obvious”.


O[b]viously, bottom [⊥] is not ()

Then a second writer,

Why is this obvious – I would argue that it’s “obvious” that bottom is () – the data type definition says there’s only one value in the type. [...]

And a third,

It’s obvious because () is a defined value, while bottom is not – per definitionem.

Personally, I have long suffered unaware under the affliction of “obviousness” that ⊥ is not (), and I suspect many others have as well. My thanks to Bob for jostling me out of my preconceptions. After weighing some alternatives, I might make one choice or another. Still, I like being reminded that other possibilities are available.

I don’t mean to pick on these writers. They just happened to provide at-hand examples of a communication (anti-)pattern I often hear. Also, if you want to address the issue of whether necessarily () /= ⊥, I refer you to the haskell-cafe thread “Re: Laws and partial values”.

A fallacy

I understand discussions of what is “obvious” as being founded on a fallacy, namely believing that obviousness is a property of a thing itself, rather than of an individual’s or community’s mental habits (ruts). (See 2-Place and 1-Place Words.)


Still, I wondered why I get so annoyed about the uses of “obvious” in this discussion and in others. (It’s never merely because “Someone is wrong on the Internet”.) Whenever I get bugged and I take the time to look under the surface of my emotional reaction, I find there’s something important & beautiful to me.

My reaction to “obvious” comes from my seeing it as injurious to creativity, which is something I treasure in myself and others. I understand “it’s obvious” to mean “I’m not curious”. Worse yet, in a debate, I hear it as a tactic for discouraging curiosity in others.

For me, creativity begins with and is sustained by curiosity. Creativity is what’s important & beautiful to me here. It’s a value instilled thoroughly & joyfully in me from a very young age by my mother, as curiosity was by my father.

I wonder if “It’s obvious that” is one of those verbal devices that are most appealing when untrue. For instance, “I’m sure that”, as in “I’m sure that your [sick] cat will be okay”. Perhaps “It’s obvious that” most often means “I don’t want to imagine alternatives” or, when used in argument, “I don’t want you to imagine alternatives”. Perhaps “I’m sure that” means “I’d like to be sure that”, or “I’d like you to be sure that”.

In praise of curiosity

Here is a quote from Albert Einstein:

The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity.

And another:

I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.

Today I stumbled across a document that speaks to curiosity and more in a way that I resonate with: Twelve Virtues of Rationality. I warmly recommend it.


  1. Paul:


  2. Peter Verswyvelen:

    LOL. This reminds me of some of our math professors at the university. Whenever they said “this is trivial” they most likely didn’t mean, but they meant “this is obvious”. But when trying to crack these obvious proofs at home, the devil was always in the details. Nothing is obvious to me…And the bottom line is: obviously obvious is not obvious ;-)

  3. Reid:

    On the flip side, when grading proofs on math exams, I reliably find that “It is obvious that X” really means “I don’t know how to prove X, but I hope it’s true.” :)

  4. Edward Kmett:

    “Obvious” to a mathematician is any problem that they have previously solved. ;)

  5. conal:

    “Obvious” to a mathematician is any problem that they have previously solved. ;)

    Yes — even when their (our) solution is fallacious.

    Moreover, and returning to the post topic (fostering or stifling creativity), our ways of thinking about a “solved” problem can become so obvious as to leave no room for valuable new perspectives.

  6. Conal Elliott » Blog Archive » Communication, curiosity, and personal style:

    [...] hence some peevishness in some remarks in my previous post, Why program with continuous time?. See Fostering creativity by relinquishing the obvious for related [...]

  7. Conal Elliott » Blog Archive » Can functional programming be liberated from the von Neumann paradigm?:

    [...] is a person actively resisting their opportunity to discover of new possibilities — too stuck in the obvious to discover new [...]

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