Natural and human creativity

A brief entry on a big subject. The physical sciences presuppose the regularity of nature, and this received its anticipatory crystallisation in Leibniz’s Principle of Sufficient Reason: Nihil sine rationem – nothing is without reason. Reasons become causes (pace Aristotle) and causes are regarded as necessitating. Quantum Theory has added an important exception. Sub-atomic particles, which because of their simplicity, that is their lack of any known or imaginable internal structure, have few degrees of freedom in how they can behave. Nevertheless, considered individually, they are radically unpredictable, although treated as a crowd, they behave in statistically predictable ways. The laws of physics do seem to be a straitjacket which do not provide room for creativity.
Can the arising of new living organisms and their evolution be described by the laws of physics, without remainder? Dawkins in his book, Climbing Mount Improbable, appears to countenance this possibility. The argument depends on occasional small and random mutations of DNA, resulting in happy changes in protein stereochemistry which in turn opens new metabolic pathways. Ultimately there is greater complexity in future generations of organisms. The plausibility of the argument depends on the passing of an enormous amount of time and so of countless generations of organisms. This in turn implies innumerable mutations of which only a small proportion will be needed to be life enhancing, which is to say life complicating. It should probably give us pause that in the inanimate world, the passage of time leads only to an increase of randomness or entropy. Hence the ‘Improbable’ of the ascent in the title. I am unconvinced despite the numerous interesting illustrations from the biological world provided by Dawkins. There is in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale Act4 scene4 the phrase ‘great creating Nature’, spoken by Perdita, and then a good deal of banter about whether human interference might also be regarded as natural or only mar matters. The court versus country debate renewed from As You Like It, which must have been poignant for Shakespeare, given how far he had travelled from his rural youth. But underneath there is something more serious implied. (See the use of the word Nature in King Lear.)
What about human history, artistic endeavour and morality? The problem with the deterministic mental set is that retrospectively we seem able to explain almost everything. But who in medieval Europe could have foreseen the internal combustion engine, manned flight, the invention of plastics, sky scrapers, the internet? Obviously the list is endless. (As a working psychiatrist I used to be struck by how well we were able to understand how people had come to have the difficulties they had. Our predictive powers on how they would progress were puny by comparison). Could Rembrandt have foreseen Cezanne, or Tolstoy James Joyce? Could the ancient Greeks have foreseen our contemporary repugnance for all forms of slavery? Perhaps it took a Jew, his country occupied by the Romans, to feel that there should be some sort of solidarity between all mankind. A solidarity which undercut self-interest. Isn’t there something extraordinarily subversive and imaginative in the parable of the good samaritan? The world is older now, we know feelingly that wealth and power often fail to predict good conduct, and people who have suffered much surprise in their moral decency.
A word on causation. Aristotle recognised the primacy of the formal/final causes over the material/efficient causes in satisfying our wish for the answer ‘Why?’. His explication of causation, developed through consideration of natural causes, reaches beyond to both artistic production and ethical behaviour.
To conclude, three mottoes which invite us to be creative. ‘Sapere aude’ – dare to know (more loosely, dare to think for yourself), adopted by Kant in his essay What is enlightenment? ‘Make it new’ – Ezra Pound’s slogan urging the artists of the early twentieth century to break with the past. And a remark which makes me smile, Miles Davis to the pianist Herbie Hancock in his new quintet, ‘Don’t play the butter notes’.

Published by davidcookpoet

I am a husband, father and grandfather. I retired from a busy working life as an adult psychiatrist in 2014. My interests are in literature, philosophy, modern jazz and horse racing. I might represent those four fields by Shakespeare, Kant, Charlie Parker and Lester Piggott. Like nearly all of us, I can identify a number of formative experiences, one of which was a psychotic episode in my first year as a psychiatrist. This reinforced an already established interest in mystical experience, and a sense of how little human beings know. My intellectual bugbear is reductive materialism, and I am surprised at the lack of moral imagination of those who promulgate such views. It seems to me they need to consider ,perhaps by exposure, just why totalitarianism is so horrific.

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