Shattered Dichotomies

A couple years ago, I was browsing Facebook, and I stumbled across this quote from Marvin Minsky:

Could Computers Be Creative? I plan to answer “no” by showing that there’s no such thing as “creativity” in the first place. I don’t believe there’s a substantial difference between ordinary thought and creative thought.

I found this very interesting, because at the time, I was reading The Way We Think by Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner, and they also claimed that we use the same cognitive mechanisms for ordinary thought as we do for creative thought. Except instead of concluding that creativity doesn’t exist, they used this to argue that all thought is creative.

So which is it?

I think the answer is: the question is meaningless.

As a society, we rely on this conceptual distinction between ordinary and creative thought. Ordinary thought is the kind we do all the time, when we’re thinking about our shopping lists or putting gas in our cars. Creative thought is rarer; it appears in moments of inspiration, and results, perhaps, in art or poetry.

Or at least, that’s what our folk models lead us to believe. Our culture has an almost mystical view of creativity, where only a few gifted souls are able to produce art. And we look on them with a sort of reverence, thinking of them as different, lost in their own rarefied realm of shape and color and rhyme. Artists are sensitive, our folk models tell us. They think in a different way than other people.

And we use this model when we’re making inferences. When an artist forgets to pay the rent, we assume she’s so lost in creative thought that she can’t be bothered with earthly concerns. We view her disorganized nature as intimately tied to her artistic abilities, and we forgive her accordingly. But when a dental hygienist forgets to pay the rent, we just assume she’s lazy, and we wonder why she can’t keep track of what day it is.

I could go on for pages talking about the difference between “ordinary people” and “creative people” in our culture’s folk model of the world. But the important thing is, we view them as two separate groups of people. We view ordinary and creative thought as two separate phenomena. And we use this distinction when we’re reasoning about the world.

So when someone comes in and says “ordinary thought is the same as creative thought”, what do we do? How does this affect our reasoning process?

Well, if we really believe that these two things are the same, then we should throw out the dichotomy altogether, since it means our whole framework is wrong. It means there’s no such thing as “ordinary thought” or “creative thought”, there’s just “thought”, and so we can’t trust either of the original categories for inference.

But in practice, that’s not what happens. In practice, we keep the dichotomy, but resolve everything to one side of it or the other. We either decide that “all thought is creative”, in which case all thought is special and all people are artists in some sense, or we decide that “no thought is creative”, in which case all thought is ordinary and artists aren’t any different from the rest of us after all.

And this happens all the time, with all sorts of shattered dichotomies.

For instance, back in high school philosophy class, I used to argue that “all people are selfish”. If you’re hurt, and I go to help you, it’s not because I’m altruistic. It’s because the sight of you in pain causes me to feel pain, and I, selfishly, want to relieve my own pain (or I want to avoid the guilt I’d feel for not helping). Similarly, if I give you a gift, it’s not because I’m altruistic; it’s because I selfishly want the pleasure and satisfaction that comes from gift-giving.

In high school, I thought this was a great argument. As an adult, I roll my eyes. It’s not that the argument is wrong, per se; based on the definition of “selfish”, it really is possible to classify all actions as selfish. I just don’t think it’s useful. Our folk concepts of “selfless” and “selfish” might be fuzzy and imprecise (as all concepts are), but they help us navigate a complicated world. When you realize that your friend Mike is selfish, you might decide to hang out with him less, or to avoid doing him favors because you know they won’t be reciprocated. And when you’re deciding whether to give your friend Steve a ride to the airport, you might agree to do it, because you don’t want him to think you’re selfish.

(Though maybe the shattering of this dichotomy can be useful for some people! If someone suffers from scrupulosity, and is wracked with unnecessary guilt that they’ve chosen the selfish option too often, then completely removing the distinction between “selfish” and “selfless” could be exactly what they need.)

Another shattered dichotomy I’ve encountered is the people who argue “A city is just as natural as a pristine forest, because cities were made by humans, and humans are part of nature. A city is just as much a natural structure as a bird’s nest or an anthill.” I neither agree nor disagree with this argument; it’s really just a matter of what you want the concepts to mean. And that, in turn, will depend on what you’re using them for. A lot of people (myself included) find natural landscapes beautiful, but also find industrial complexes ugly. And, while I’ll always probably find refineries ugly on a visceral level, this argument helps me appreciate them as part of the ecosystem of human activity, which I do in fact find beautiful. So in that particular instance, I appreciate the shattering of the dichotomy. But when someone says “pollution in the Shenandoah river isn’t a big deal, because industrial waste is just as natural as fish poop”, then I’m going to object, because they’re relying on the standard inference “natural => harmless”, and they’re trying to get you to classify pollution as natural so you’ll think of it as harmless as well.

Anyway, there’s no bigger point to this post. I just find this to be a really interesting cognitive phenomenon, both in terms of how human concepts work, and how we use them in framing and rhetoric.

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1 Response to Shattered Dichotomies

  1. DiscordChild says:

    I really want to hold on to “creative” as a meaningful cognitive descriptor. Creativity is a skill that people seek out and value in others. Maybe the problem is the discreet categories “creative” and “ordinary”.

    I think that one of issues is that “creative” and “ordinary” aren’t opposites in their plain usages. If someone says “he’s not creative” that’s not the same thing as saying “he’s ordinary”. While the speaker would probably agree if asked whether he’s ordinary, more likely the speaker was trying to convey a specific deficit. The person being referred to might have trouble with abstract thought. They might have a difficult time generalizing skills from one domain to another. They might have difficulty forming complex analogies or seeing the applicability of metaphors that are obvious to other people.

    I think that the best way to resolve the dichotomy is, rather than shattering it, to view those descriptors as end points on one or more spectra regarding the complexity and novelty of thought. Someone with absolutely no creativity would have to memorize everything by rote and couldn’t use analogies. Of course, that level of creativity would be smaller than that possessed by the least creative person.

    It would be interesting to map out the dimensions of creativity though.

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