Monday, 27 April 2020

The Curiosity of Creativity and Imagination

In Chinese mythology, dragon energy is creative. It is a magical energy, the fire of the soul itself. The dragon is the symbol of our power to transmute and create with imagination and purpose.
Posted by Keith Tidman

Most people would agree that ‘creativity’ is the facility to produce ideas, artifacts, and performances that are both original and valuable. ‘Original’ as in novel, where new ground is tilled. While the qualifier ‘valuable’ is considered necessary in order to address German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s point in The Critique of Judgment (1790) that:

‘Since there can also be original nonsense, its products [creativities] must at the same time be models, i.e., be exemplary’.

An example of lacking value or appropriateness in such context might be a meaningless sequence of words, or gibberish.

Kant believed that creativity pertains mostly to the fine arts, or matters of aesthetics — a narrower perspective than today’s inclusive view. He contended, for example, that genius could not be found in science, believing (mistakenly, I would argue) that science only ever adheres to preset methods, and does not allow for the exercise of imagination. He even excluded Isaac Newton from history’s pantheon of geniuses, despite respecting him as a great man of science.

Today, however, creativity’s reach extends along vastly broader lines, encompassing fields like business, economics, history, philosophy, language, physics, biology, mathematics, technology, psychology, and social, political, and organisational endeavours. Fields, that is, that lend themselves to being, at their creative best, illuminative, nontraditional, gestational, and transformational, open to abstract ideas that prompt pondering novel possibilities. The clue as to the greatness of such endeavors is provided by the 16th/17th-century English philosopher Francis Bacon in the Novum Organum (1620), where he says that:

‘By far the greatest obstacle to the progress . . . and undertaking of new tasks and provinces therein is found in this — that men despair and think things impossible’.

Accordingly, such domains of human activity have been shown to involve the same explorative and generative functions associated with the brain’s large-scale neural networks. A paradigm of creative cognition that is flexible and multidimensional, and one that calls upon several features:
  • an unrestricted vision of what’s possible,
  • ideation, 
  • images, 
  • intuitions,
  • thought experiments, 
  • what-if gaming, 
  • analogical reasoning, 
  • metaphors, 
  • counterfactual reasoning, 
  • inventive free play, 
  • hypotheses, 
  • knowledge reconceptualisation, 
  • and theory selection.
Collectively, these are the cognitive wellspring of creative attainment. To those extents, creativity appears fundamental to defining humanity — what shapes us, through which individual and collective expression occurs — and humanity’s seemingly insatiable, untiring quest for progress and attainment.

Societies tend to applaud those who excel at original thought, both for its own sake and for how it advances human interests. That said, these principles are as relevant to the creative processes of everyday people as to those who eventually are recorded in the annals of history as geniuses. However, the creative process does not start out with the precise end (for example, a poem) and the precise means to getting there (for example, the approach to writing that poem) already known. Rather, both the means and the end product are discoverable only as the creative process unfolds.

Above all, imagination sits at the core of creativity. Imagination is representational, of circumstances not yet real but that nevertheless can evoke emotions and behaviours in people. The world of imagination is, of course, boundless in theory and often in practice, depending on the power of one’s mind to stretch. The American philosopher John Dewey spoke to this point, chalking up every major leap in science, as he boldly put it in The Quest for Certainty, to ‘a new audacity of the imagination’. Albert Einstein’s thoughts paralleled these sentiments, declaring in an interview in 1929 that ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge’. Wherein new possibilities take shape. Accordingly and importantly, imagination yields ideas that surpass what’s already supposed.

Imagination is much more, however, than a mere synonym for creativity, otherwise the term would simply be redundant. Imagination, rather, is a tool: freeing up, even catalysing, creativity. To those ends, imagination entails visualisation (including thought experiments, engaged across disciplines) that enables a person to reach out for assorted, and changing, possibilities — of things, times, places, people, and ideas unrestricted by what’s presumed already experienced and known concerning subjective external reality. Additionally, ‘mirroring’ might occur in the imaginative process, where the absence of features of a mental scenario are filled in with analogues plucked from the external world around us. Ultimately, new knowledge and beliefs emerge, in a progressive loop of creation, validation, application, re-imagination.

Imagination might revolve around diverse dominions, like unconstrained creative thought, play, pretense, the arts, allegorical language, predictive possibilities, and imagery, among others. Imagination cannot, however, guarantee creative outcomes — nor can the role of intuition in human cognition — but imagination is essential (if not always sufficient) for creative results to happen. As explained by Kant, imagination has a ‘constitutive’ role in creativity. Something demonstrated by a simple example offered by 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes:

‘as when from the sight of a man at one time, and a horse at another, we conceive in our mind a Centaur’. 

Such imaginative, metaphorical playfulness being the stuff not only of absorbed, undaunted children, of course — though they are notably gifted with it in abundance — but also of freethinking adults. Adults whose minds marvel at alternatives in starting from scratch (tabula rasa), or from picking apart (divergence) and reassembling (convergence) presumed reality.

The complexities of imagination best nourish what one might call ‘purposeful creativity’ — where a person deliberately aims to achieve a broad, even if initially indeterminate outcome. Such imagining might happen either alone or with the involvement of other participants. With purposeful creativity, there’s agency and intentionality and autonomy, as is quintessentially the case of the best of thought experiments. It occasions deep immersion into the creative process. ‘Passive creativity’, on the other hand, is where someone has a spontaneous, unsought solution (a Eureka! moment) regarding a matter at hand.

Purposeful, or directed, creativity draws on both conscious and unconscious mechanisms. Passive creativity — with mind open to the unexpected — largely depends on unconscious mental apparatuses, though with the mind’s executive function not uncommonly collaboratively and additively ‘editing’ afterwards, in order to arrive at the final result. To be sure, either purposeful or passive creativity is capable of summoning remarkable insights.

The 6th-century BC Chinese spiritual philosopher Laozi perhaps most pithily described people’s capacity for creativity, and its sometimes-companion genius, with this figurative depiction in the Teo Te Ching, the context being to define ‘genius’ as the ability to see potential: ‘To see things in the seed’ — long before germination eventually makes those ‘things’ apparent, even obvious, to everyone else and become stitched into the fabric of society and culture.


Thomas Scarborough said...

Creativity, I think, is to see relations between things which were not seen before. But in this area, (post) modern reductionism tends to reduce our creative ability.

Here's an example of creativity, as I define it. I wanted to design a code-lock. With a keypad (0 to 9), the user could punch in a number between 0000 and 9999. This meant that a would-be intruder had one chance in a 10 000 of cracking the code. So I made it necessary to press two keys simultaneously. This increased one chance in 10 000 to one chance in infinity, if one was trying to crack the code on old assumptions (it must be a sequence).

So what was happening here? There was now a new relation between keys, by which (sequential) time had to be removed as a factor. That new relation was creativity.

Keith said...

I was intrigued by your example, Thomas, of designing a lock code. Agreed, a great instance of creativity. The example is a reminder, if a reminder was ever needed, that creativity can be expressed through endless possibilities — contingent only on the creative (imaginative) capacities of an individual or team. Your particular example struck me as resembling cryptanalysts’ code breaking in the intelligence community. And how, taking its turn in these rounds of leapfrogging, the creative ingenuity of AI and computer whizzes is creatively responding to the new challenges of code-breaking through supercomputers (now) and quantum computers (eventually). I hear that the latter — quantum computers, once they’re scaled and commercial — are expected to prove paradigm changing on both fronts: designing and breaking codes, among a lot else of course.

Richard W. Symonds said...

Philosopher Noam Chomsky wrote something about Imagination which I found fascinating [Source: 'What Kind of Creatures Are We?' - Columbia 2016 - pp 51 & 52]

"Hume writes that imagination creates concepts that bind a succession of related objects together, leading us 'to imagine something unknown and mysterious , connecting the parts'.

"Hence ascription of identity is a construction of the imagination, and the factors that enter into constructing these fictions become a topic of cognitive science, though Hume might have demurred if the imagination is indeed, as he thought, 'a kind of magical faculty...[that] inexplicable by the utmost efforts of human understanding', hence yet another mystery for humans.

"In these terms, it should also be possible to reinterpret the rich and illuminating record of thinking about the nature of the soul, though now divorced of the theological conditions, like resurrection, and from the metaphysical framework of earlier years"

Keith said...

Thank you, Richard, for your thoughtful comments. All very intriguing.

I would agree with Chomsky/Hume that, at least to a point, imagination ‘binds a succession of related objects together’. However, for me, that’s only part of the story.

I propose that another part is that imagination, alternatively, might bind a succession of [un]related objects together. Both processes involve what’s called convergence, but the second — involving unrelated objects — is perhaps the more challenging in seeing erstwhile-unrecognised relationships. Relatedly, perhaps yet another part of the story is that imagination might involve the origination of ideas or objects from a blank slate. That’s triply more challenging, perhaps, calling on an even deeper wellspring of imagination and thought.

Where I would partly veer from Hume (channeled by Chomsky) is in his describing imagination as ‘a kind of magical faculty . . . inexplicable by the utmost of human understanding’. Our understanding of human imagination may not yet be fully explicable, but certainly much has been learned about the processes of imagination — and creativity, for that matter — since Hume’s 18th-century (dis)vantage point.

Richard W. Symonds said...

Keith, thank you for your kind words - yes, it is indeed very intriguing. I am venturing into unknown territory, but I throw this into the melting pot of ideas as conjecture:

You say: "...imagination, alternatively, might bind a succession of [un]related objects together. Both processes involve what’s called convergence, but the second — involving unrelated objects — is perhaps the more challenging in seeing erstwhile-unrecognised relationships. Relatedly, perhaps yet another part of the story is that imagination might involve the origination of ideas or objects from a blank slate. That’s triply more challenging, perhaps, calling on an even deeper wellspring of imagination and thought"

At a quantum level, I would have thought this "convergence...involving unrelated objects" etc could be better understood?

I do not profess to understand Quantum, but with such books as "The Pauli-Jung Conjecture and Its Impact Today", "Atom and Archetype - The Pauli/Jung Letters" "Quantum Theology" et al, there seems to be a wealth of material in which rigorous philosophical speculation is more than possible.

Martin Cohen said...

Mmm… I personally find the debate about the nature of "creativity" rather like that about "consciousness", which is to say, better reduced tomore humdrum terms. Both are clearly commonplace things, and the link to 'genius' is perhaps a misdirection. Nor is it enough to say there must be something special in the creative thought, for who judges what is special? As Keith says, Kant thought scientific insights would not qualify… but indeed today we use people like Einstein as our models of imaginative and original "creative" thinking.

Hobbes' comparison is perhaps useful after all, A 'centaur' seems to be a fine thing to conjure up, but the special quality of creative imagination required is no greater than say, combining (less pleasingly) a pig and a bird or perhaps to move away from animals, a car and a boat. Point is, we do not really worship creativity at all, we rather admire particular insights that we find either aesthetically appealing or practically useful.

Keith said...

I’m not sure, Richard, what specifically you had in mind by interestingly referring to ‘convergence’ in the context of the quantum world. That said, I’ve always been convinced that there are distinct ‘convergences’, to borrow your word, between quantum theory and philosophy. I’ve tried to make that case, elsewhere, on a number of occasions. Some theoretical (quantum) physicists have likewise delved into this issue over the decades. I do think, however, that unfortunately the subject is too big to try shoehorning it into a comment block like this one. It’s an essay unto itself! But thank you for alluding to the subject, as the connections between QT and philosophy make for a challenging brainteaser.

Tessa den Uyl said...

Agreeing with Martin, perhaps to add is that the process itself is creativity but in it’s outcome creativity has already gone. To worship creativity is to live by the process and not the outcome, which most societies do exactly in reverse? Perhaps we are less creative than we like to believe?

Keith said...

Personally, Martin, I see things like consciousness, despite their being ‘commonplace’, as complex and not reducible to ‘humdrum terms’. Take, for example, the human brain. It, too, is commonplace — more than 7 billion people have one — yet likewise not reducible in the suggested matter-of-fact manner, either. After all, the brain makes consciousness even possible, as it does contemplation of the universe, awareness of self and others, the range of emotions, spiritually religious experience, the will, regulation of body functions, relationships with others (community), social order, language, instincts, diverse cultures, what-if analysis, memory and projection into the future, invention, philosophy, science, mathematics, the humanities — and, yes, imagination and creativity. I don’t see taking all those remarkable activities and functions into consideration and still regarding the ‘commonplace’ brain as reducible to matter-of-fact (humdrum) terms. In short, I don’t regard something being ‘commonplace’ as necessarily equal to such reducibility.

Keith said...

My take, Tessa, is somewhat different. That is, I propose that creativity is both process and product — inseparably so. They mutually complement and depend — together essential to creativity, threaded through with imagination. Two sides of the same coin. As to the word ‘worship’, which you use in the context of creativity, it’s perhaps overly strong. I didn’t use that word in my essay, so I’m not sure of its origin in our conversation here. Is it that you see people ‘worshipping’ creativity? As to the remark, ‘Perhaps we are less creative than we like to believe’, it’s an interesting proposition, but I suggest that’s unanswerable; I would ask, ‘less creative’ compared with whom or what?

Richard W. Symonds said...

"The great paradox of the brain is that everything you know about the world is provided to you by an organ that has itself never seen that world" [Source: 'The Body - A Guide for Occupants' by Bill Bryson - Ch 4 'The Brain' - page 50]

Keith said...

As long, Richard, as the eyes, ears, nose, and touch mechanisms of the body continue cooperatively to do the brain’s exact bidding, as designed, then I suggest it really doesn’t matter that the brain isn’t itself exposed to the world, instead remaining ensconced in our skulls. This being the case at least insofar as the empirically experienced part of ‘everything [I] know about the world’ is concerned. The genius of our circumstances, I would argue, is in how nature and evolution advanced the brain such that it’s capable of all the remarkably complex cerebral activities apparent to us — and some not yet apparent, but eventually discoverable. The fact those activities sometimes get things wrong — spoiler alert: we’re imperfect — doesn’t diminish our ability to ponder and process and investigate and question and respond to our immediate world and to the cosmos to ever-finely grained levels, importantly doing so in the larger context made necessary by facts’ ‘neural’ connections. Then repeating the cycle, over and over.

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