Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Chuanqi Shen: A Discussion

During our conversation with Tina Seelig about creativity, she made a statement that I thought was highly interesting:

"Rules are created for the rule makers."

 Now, Tina said this with a specific idea in mind. She was trying to say that rules are generally created not for the benefit of the people, but for the convenience of those who make them. For example, a typical classroom setting, with the systematic rows of tables and chairs, may not be the most conducive learning environment, but it allows the teacher to easily keep an eye on everyone. However, I think that this statement is also a profound comment about the way we construct knowledge.

It has often been remarked that the hallmark of human intelligence is our ability to recognize patterns. We pride ourselves in our ability to connect ideas, even if they are totally disparate. In fact, Tina Seelig thinks that the defining characteristic of creativity is the linking of different concepts. That is, of course, a compelling argument. Yet, in some sense, the patterns we find are pretty similar to the rules the rule makers create. For patterns are simplifying in nature, and are thus generalizations. We find some form of order out of the chaotic mess, and then we impose this form of order as an idea for us to focus on. Like rules then, these patterns are found to help us, the pattern makers, understand what is going on. Like rules too, these patterns may not be the best way to describe things, for they do not represent the entire truth, just a small part of it. But patterns are tempting and comforting, for like rules, they make things simple. However, if we are to blindly follow the patterns we find, we will not be able to capture reality in its entirety, because it will be as if we have placed a blanket over the little mounds and crevice on the face of reality to create the facade of a homogenous surface. For example, the Newtonian Laws of physics seem to work perfectly in our everyday life. A ball rolling on a moving train will seem to move faster than one rolling on the ground. Yet, light does not obey these rules; it moves at the same speed in all inertial frame. We would not have discovered Special Relativity had we stuck to our old concepts of relative motion, a pattern that is fulfilled by almost all other daily objects we see.

Yet, this does not mean that pattern recognition is unimportant, or even bad. It is our ability to simplify our world, to focus on the common thread that runs through things and discard the inessentials that allowed us to progress to where we are today. For example, Galileo made the key insight that he did not need to consider the shape, texture, or orientation of objects to determine how things move; he could treat them as point particles. This huge simplification allowed Galileo to create the kinematics laws, equations that we still use today. It would be bad, however, if we stick to the patterns we find. What I suggest, therefore, is that finding exceptions is as much a creative process as finding patterns. It prevents us from getting stifled by the patterns we have found so far, and it allows us to find better, more nuanced patterns that will further our understanding. The creation of human knowledge is therefore an incremental process, of creating a cage of patterns around ourselves so that we can get our bearings, and then destroying it to create a larger cage. And acts of creativity occur during the events of creation and destruction.

In some way, this seems paradoxical, for creativity seems to be destroying itself. In other ways, this makes perfect sense, for in the eyes of evolution, creation and destruction are synonymous.