Sunday, March 17, 2019

The Nature of Creativity

There are two kinds of creativity, the impersonal and the personal. Personal creativity arises as a cosmic joke from the impersonal. Indeed, the universe’s impersonal creativity is the source of bathos, a staple of comedy. In any situation, the ever-present potential for anticlimax is fulfilled when we recognize that underlying what we’re proud of is nature’s dumb indifference. Let’s explore, then, the relations between these two forms of creativity.

The Monstrous Creator

In informed circles, nature is infamous for creating all that populates its dimensions and orders with no plan or purpose in view. The universe’s natural, scientifically-explainable order arises from the evolution of particles and forces which are born in turn from the quantum foam of potentiality. The universe complexifies from atoms to elements to molecules and compounds and much larger-scale forms such as nebulas, stars and galaxies. Alternatively, the greatest complexity lies in the minutest of subatomic shenanigans, and the larger forms are so many tempting misapprehensions of the pointlessness found in quantum events. The universe also evolves through time and not just at the macro level, which gives rise to organic phenomena and to personal creativity, but in the entropic decay of systems.

The philosopher Daniel Dennett popularized the concept of impersonal creativity, by drawing from Conway’s Game of Life, which is a computer simulation of how organic patterns can emerge under the pseudo-guidance of very simple rules. I came across a simpler demonstration while using the software AutoCAD, which can produce elaborate mandalas by dumbly following simple rules of repetition, rotation, mirroring, and attraction to center points. Here’s an example of what I mean.


A simple shape
After rotating and merging a copy of the prior stage
Notice the changing newly-created pattern in the
center, between the two copies as they merge
After rotating and merging a copy of the previous stage

And here’s another example.


A largely-random doodle
After partially merging a copy with the original
After mirroring the previous stage
After merging a rotated copy of the previous stage
After merging a rotated copy of the previous stage

Merely by repeating, rotating, mirroring, and combining simple forms or random doodles with precision software, anyone can produce stunning, intricate patterns.  

Here’s another intricate pattern created by simple iterations and transformations.


Made from similar steps

Impersonal creativity, then, is the arising of the complex—dumbly and pointlessly—from the simple. The concept of such creativity derives from the success of the scientific method of reducing otherwise baffling or misleading phenomena to their mechanical causes. The meaning or value of natural forms is eliminated as an extrinsic or accidental byproduct of underlying impersonal processes. To be sure, scientists ignore the horror implicit in their godless conception of nature. After all, impersonal nature is the original monster. The psychopath is considered monstrous, for example, because of his inhumanity and thus because of the resemblance between his antisocial behaviour and nature’s carefree, implacable development towards some unpleasant end. We’ll see in a moment how scientists are able to ignore, in effect, the cosmicist upshot of their worldview because of the nature of personal creativity.

In any case, notice the contrary view of nature found in the philosophy of Two-Face in the movie The Dark Knight, where this fictional supervillain holds a boy hostage at gunpoint, telling Batman, “You thought we could be decent men in an indecent world. You thought we could lead by example. You thought the rules could be bent but not break…you were wrong. The world is cruel. [shows his coin] And the only morality in a cruel world is chance. Unbiased. Unprejudiced. Fair” (my emphasis).

Could nature’s very monstrosity be our saving grace? Could the impersonality and indifference of natural processes mean that the absurd universe is a fair judge so that any natural result is what’s deserved? There’s a fallacy in that line of thinking, since the analogy between nature’s indifference and a fair judge’s impartiality is weak. A judge issues an unbiased verdict for the sake of getting at the truth or determining the best outcome. For example, an empire calls balls and strikes so that the best baseball team can win the game. Fairness in that social context means strict adherence to rules which are at least implicitly prescriptive. By contrast, nature’s “laws” are amoral and have no necessary or even probable ideal outcome. That’s why numerous natural processes happen to give the advantage to evil-doers. For example, the locality principle in causality (the lack of action-at-a-distance), which operates at least in large-scale physics, comes to the fore when the strong overpower the weak and become corrupted by the ensuing power, which enables the bully or the tyrant to continue to oppress those who are only physically weaker. This vicious cycle is familiar from history.

The point, then, is that while there is indeed freedom from bias in the case of natural disasters that aren’t picky about their victims, or more generally in the destiny of death for every living thing regardless of how well they lived, that’s only a necessary, not a sufficient condition of fairness. In such disasters there’s also freedom from mentality. Nature is unbiased because nature can’t possibly care, whereas the umpire cares about the rules of baseball (not to mention about keeping his or her job), and the trial judge cares about the law and about ensuring that wrongdoers are punished. The antagonist Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men embodies this more realistic conception of chance. Chigurh, too, flips a coin to decide the fate of his victims, and his sociopathy reflects nature’s amorality. In that sense, like all sociopathic predators and alpha males, Chigurh is an avatar of an impersonal universe. In flipping the coin, he obeys his crude code of conduct not because he’s honourable but because, like molecular interactions or the incessant flow of time, he can’t help himself. His human form is devoid of an inner life and so he only simulates personhood, much as the natural selection of species is only a sham of intelligent design.

The Godlike Creator

By contrast, personal creativity is biased because it’s a product of self-interest. People aren’t necessarily selfish when they create, but we do care about our ideas and values or at least about the extensions of ourselves, such as our friends and family, heroes and favourite organizations with which we identify. We create from our point of view and that’s obviously what distinguishes our creative power from nature’s, since nature has no viewpoint or self with which to view anything. Having a personal perspective, ideology, or ego sets us in opposition to nature, because natural outcomes can agree with our preferences only by accident, which means life is bound to disappoint us. We’re defined by our character, experience, and set of convictions, and we work to uphold our necessarily-limited, idealized conceptions, to press our stamp into the world, as it were. Even if we’re not particularly creative individuals such as artists, intellectuals, inventors, designers, engineers, manufacturers, or construction workers, we’re largely the author of the situations we found ourselves in throughout our life, as our choices accumulate. Whereas natural creativity doesn’t require a psychological explanation, as in the above creation of intricate patterns with software that simulates how combinations of chance and force give rise to the natural order we perceive, personal creativity makes little sense without some appeal to psychological concepts, such as to values, ideals, artistic vision, perspective, ideology, reason, emotion, and character as well as to social factors.

In short, nature evidently creates its antithesis and so we living things strive to alter our given circumstances, namely those imposed by the wilderness or wasteland of natural order, the “desert of the real.” By some fractal reiteration, the animal kingdom likewise evolved its undoer, that species of life’s executioner which we call “people.” Animals are content when they reach homeostasis with their environment that, serving not just their species but the ecosystem. We people, however, are godlike in our rising above much of our animal life cycle and in zealously recreating our environments so that we end up living solipsistically and narcissistically in self-reinforcing cultures. By being clever enough to understand how natural mechanisms work, we steadily transcend the wilderness, surrounding ourselves with artificiality of all kinds, including our languages, worldviews, technologies and social structures, and so we threaten the animal kingdom that depends on natural rhythms and resources. In their more robotic capacities, animals threaten nature, in turn, by occupying an emergent level of biological activity. Cells and bodies, for example, include membranes that filter stimuli, thus limiting the extent to which physical causality, as such, holds sway. In addition to physical regularities, there emerged the basis for chemistry and then for biology. Biological entities are physical objects, but they’re also creatures that don’t act purely as such objects or as natural creations, because creatures strive to create themselves, such as by systematically protecting their internal structure from external onslaught or by mentally modeling their environment and pursuing goals in their private interest.

One of our telltale personal creations is plastic, a whole galaxy of commercial products formed from organic compounds. We synthesize substances that take advantage of the property of catenation, the linking of atoms into chains. These products—water bottles, plastic bags, compact discs, cellphone shells, and so on—are in some ways stronger than natural substances, or at least they’re not easily biodegradable, their half-life being centuries or millennia. By unleashing our capitalistic self-interest and infantilizing ourselves, we produce and consume mountains of plastic items, and these plastics litter the environment in landfills, poisoning the oceans and ourselves. The flipside of personal, godlike creativity is thus demonic self-destructiveness. By standing outside of nature, we’re not subservient to prosocial imperatives that evolved to maintain smaller social orders such as egalitarian tribes. We built empires and civilizations which we treat as alternatives to the natural order, and our economic, political, and religious norms thereby often conflict with nature. We literally threaten the integrity of the ecosystem that sustains life on this planet, because our form of creativity originates from the selves we’re evolved to establish and protect. That is, whereas natural creativity is ultimately the entire, unknowable universe’s doing, personal creation unfolds from the biases of each self or society. The personal mind is an autonomous source of novelty, but for that very reason we have the capacity to foolishly destroy ourselves.

Hybrid Creativity

Crucially, another of our unnatural creations is the scientific, reductionist form of explanation itself. We analyze wholes into parts, simplifying and idealizing to understand phenomena, because of our animal, personal, and social inclinations. Scientific rationality is an accelerated form of instrumentalism. We learn tricks and develop tools to exploit the environmental patterns we recognize. Science is a systematic way of discovering these patterns, whereby scientists deploy repeated experiments and objective conceptual and mathematical analyses to reveal how the world operates. Science, too, therefore, is an anti-natural reaction to nature, not something that arises with no input from autonomous observers. This isn’t to say that scientific theories are fictions, since the stories scientists tell, as it were, are successful in revealing nature’s input. That’s why the technological applications work. But the scientific picture of nature as consisting of causal patterns and mechanisms, processes and evolutions, dimensions and orders of complexity isn’t entirely objective, meaning that this portrait is signed, as it were, by both nature and us. Both nature and people create science: nature supplies the inspiration for scientific representations, and we supply the interpretations and the exploitations.

The upshot is that the above dichotomy between impersonal and personal creativity must be a simplification. Although we’re autonomous, we’re still natural beings, and while we create ourselves and our artificial habitats based on our choices, nature too is self-creative, although nature’s creating not on the basis of pre-existent consciousness or other mental capacities. Nature shapes and reshapes its living-dead, hollow corpus, its particles and dimensions and galactic clusters that spring into being and develop according to no envisioned ideal (not even one we can conceive of). Still, life evidently has evolved in the universe, so it’s not a stretch to say that nature currently is self-creative in the full sense: we are the stuff of nature’s mind, so our anti-natural creations are nature’s reactions to itself, that is, to the many selves that naturally evolve which we living things embody. The Anthropocene is the age when nature disgusts itself, when the cosmos develops the abilities to perceive and to understand what it’s been doing blindly all those billions of years and what it fundamentally is—a monstrosity. And this is the age when nature takes steps via those incarnations, those hapless creatures including us to unmake the horror or perhaps to improve on the wilderness.

The Christian myth of the Son of God is pertinent here, albeit only in a blasphemous, pantheistic context. According to Christianity, the Creator God is supernatural but wants to show his creatures that he feels bad about their plight, so God incarnates as a higher sort of person, as a god-man who lived and died and was reborn as a higher being still, as part of the supernatural godhead. We can extract what might be an inadvertent insight from that self-serving jumble of monotheism and polytheism. God in the form of unfolding nature may indeed beget not children (since there’s no preexistent divine parent), but a conscious, personally-creative, sometimes rational and honourable perspective on its hitherto hideous, godless (amoral and absurd) body. Nature seems to have created a godlike mind or self to direct or to upgrade its appendages, and we collectively are that mind or self. Impersonal and personal creativities are entwined, then, in a strange, largely horrific but also awe-inspiring co-evolution. The headless horseman is in search of its head indeed, and what will it do when the head is found, when we sentient creatures decide how best to live? Will we destroy ourselves because our existential burden is unbearable or will we perfect nature according to our dreams and ideals in a resurrected, posthuman future?

So what ultimately is creativity? This question reduces to that of how or why something came from nothing. If personal creativity were somehow primary, the answer would be psychological since the question would be why God, the primary mind, decided to expand existence to include something besides that mind. Assuming theism is part of the error arising from the infancy of our species, the error being anthropocentrism or na├»ve, excessive self-regard so that we often can’t see beyond ourselves, the answer belongs to the horror genre since impersonal creativity is bizarre and inhuman. Strangely, whatever impersonal substance is ultimately real has enough disorder to be mindless but enough order to generate new forms in a process akin to the algorithmic production of elaborate patterns using precision software. Of course, AutoCAD was programmed and is used by minds. Nature’s emergence from chaos or from the quantum vacuum would have been unguided. Just as the behavior of those Hollywood monsters that have cosmicist implicationszombies, the blob, Lovecraft’s Old Onesis unfathomable and even blasphemous in violating our treasured expectations, the universe’s basic physical stuff must have some inexplicable, given potential to develop pointlessly into the universe we perceive. At least, that’s bound to be the rational (reductive or analytical) conclusion. By unmasking all intellectual comforts, rationality ends in horror.

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