Lawful Creativity

Previously in Series: Recognizing Intelligence

Creativity, we’ve all been told, is about Jumping Out Of The System, as Hofstadter calls it (JOOTSing for short). Questioned assumptions, violated expectations.

Fire is dangerous: the rule of fire is to run away from it. What must have gone through the mind of the first hominid to domesticate fire? The rule of milk is that it spoils quickly and then you can’t drink it—who first turned milk into cheese? The rule of computers is that they’re made with vacuum tubes, fill a room and are so expensive that only corporations can own them. Wasn’t the transistor a surprise...

Who, then, could put laws on creativity? Who could bound it, who could circumscribe it, even with a concept boundary that distinguishes “creativity” from “not creativity”? No matter what system you try to lay down, mightn’t a more clever person JOOTS right out of it? If you say “This, this, and this is ‘creative’” aren’t you just making up the sort of rule that creative minds love to violate?

Why, look at all the rules that smart people have violated throughout history, to the enormous profit of humanity. Indeed, the most amazing acts of creativity are those that violate the rules that we would least expect to be violated.

Is there not even creativity on the level of how to think? Wasn’t the invention of Science a creative act that violated old beliefs about rationality? Who, then, can lay down a law of creativity?

But there is one law of creativity which cannot be violated...

Ordinarily, if you took a horse-and-buggy, unstrapped the horses, put a large amount of highly combustible fluid on board, and then set fire to the fluid, you would expect the buggy to burn. You certainly wouldn’t expect the buggy to move forward at a high rate of speed, for the convenience of its passengers.

How unexpected was the internal combustion engine! How surprising! What a creative act, to violate the rule that you shouldn’t start a fire inside your vehicle!

But now suppose that I unstrapped the horses from a buggy, put gasoline in the buggy, and set fire to the gasoline, and it did just explode.

Then there would be no element of “creative surprise” about that. More experienced engineers would just shake their heads wisely and say, “That’s why we use horses, kiddo.”

Creativity is surprising—but not just any kind of surprise counts as a creative surprise. Suppose I set up an experiment involving a quantum event of very low amplitude, such that the macroscopic probability is a million to one. If the event is actually observed to occur, it is a happenstance of extremely low probability, and in that sense surprising. But it is not a creative surprise. Surprisingness is not a sufficient condition for creativity.

So what kind of surprise is it, that creates the unexpected “shock” of creativity?

In information theory, the more unexpected an event is, the longer the message it takes to send it—to conserve bandwidth, you use the shortest messages for the most common events.

So do we reason that the most unexpected events, convey the most information, and hence the most surprising acts are those that give us a pleasant shock of creativity—the feeling of suddenly absorbing new information?

This contains a grain of truth, I think, but not the whole truth: the million-to-one quantum event would also require a 20-bit message to send, but it wouldn’t convey a pleasant shock of creativity, any more than a random sequence of 20 coinflips.

Rather, the creative surprise is the idea that ranks high in your preference ordering but low in your search ordering.

If, before anyone had thought of an internal combustion engine (which predates cars, of course) I had asked some surprisingly probability-literate engineer to write out a vocabulary for describing effective vehicles, it would contain short symbols for horses, long symbols for flammable fluid, and maybe some kind of extra generalization that says “With probability 99.99%, a vehicle should not be on fire” so that you need to use a special 14-bit prefix for vehicles that violate this generalization.

So when I now send this past engineer a description of an automobile, he experiences the shock of getting a large amount of useful information—a design that would have taken a long time for him to find, in the implicit search ordering he set up—a design that occupies a region of low density in his prior distribution for where good designs are to be found in the design space. And even the added “absurdity” shock of seeing a generalization violated—not a generalization about physical laws, but a generalization about which designs are effective or ineffective.

But the vehicle still goes somewhere—that part hasn’t changed.

What if I try to explain about telepresence and virtual offices, so that you don’t even need a car?

But you’re still trying to talk to people, or get work done with people—you’ve just found a more effective means to that end, than travel.

A car is a more effective means of travel, a computer is a more effective means than travel. But there’s still some end. There’s some criterion that makes the solution a “solution”. There’s some criterion that makes the unusual reply, unusually good. Otherwise any part of the design space would be as good as any other.

An amazing creative solution has to obey at least one law, the criterion that makes it a “solution”. It’s the one box you can’t step outside: No optimization without goals.

The pleasant shock of witnessing Art arises from the constraints of Art—from watching a skillful archer send an arrow into an exceedingly narrow target. Static on a television screen is not beautiful, it is noise.

In the strange domain known as Modern Art, people sometimes claim that their goal is to break all the rules, even the rule that Art has to hit some kind of target. They put up a blank square of canvas, and call it a painting. And by now that is considered staid and boring Modern Art, because a blank square of canvas still hangs on the wall and has a frame. What about a heap of garbage? That can also be Modern Art! Surely, this demonstrates that true creativity knows no rules, and even no goals...

But the rules are still there, though unspoken. I could submit a realistic landscape painting as Modern Art, and this would be rejected because it violates the rule that Modern Art cannot delight the untrained senses of a mere novice.

Or better yet, if a heap of garbage can be Modern Art, then I’ll claim that someone else’s heap of garbage is my work of Modern Art—boldly defying the convention that I need to produce something for it to count as my artwork. Or what about the pattern of dust particles on my desk? Isn’t that Art?

Flushed with triumph, I present to you an even bolder, more convention-defying work of Modern Art—a stunning, outrageous piece of performance art that, in fact, I never performed. I am defying the foolish convention that I need to actually perform my performance art for it to count as Art.

Now, up to this point, you probably could still get a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and get sophisticated critics to discuss your shocking, outrageous non-work, which boldly violates the convention that art must be real rather than imaginary.

But now suppose that you go one step further, and refuse to tell anyone that you have performed your work of non-Art. You even refuse to apply for an NEA grant. It is the work of Modern Art that never happened and that no one knows never happened; it exists only as my concept of what I am supposed not to conceptualize. Better yet, I will say that my Modern Art is your non-conception of something that you are not conceptualizing. Here is the ultimate work of Modern Art, that truly defies all rules: It isn’t mine, it isn’t real, and no one knows it exists...

And this ultimate rulebreaker you could not pass off as Modern Art, even if NEA grant committees knew that no one knew it existed. For one thing, they would realize that you were making fun of them—and that is an unspoken rule of Modern Art that no one dares violate. You must take yourself seriously. You must break the surface rules in a way that allows sophisticated critics to praise your boldness and defiance with a straight face. This is the unwritten real goal, and if it is not achieved, all efforts are for naught. Whatever gets sophisticated critics to praise your rule-breaking is good Modern Art, and whatever fails in this end is poor Modern Art. Within that unalterable constraint, you can use whatever creative means you like.

But doesn’t creative engineering sometimes involve altering your goals? First my goal was to try and figure out how to build a vehicle using horses; now my goal is to build a vehicle using fire...

Creativity clearly involves altering my local intentions, my what-I’m-trying-to-do-next. I begin by intending to use horses, to build a vehicle, to drive to the supermarket, to buy food, to eat food, so that I don’t starve to death, because I prefer being alive to starving to death. I may creatively use fire, instead of horses; creatively walk, instead of driving; creatively drive to a nearby restaurant, instead of a supermarket; creatively grow my own vegetables, instead of buying them; or even creatively devise a way to run my body on electricity, instead of chemical energy...

But what does not count as “creativity” is creatively preferring to starve to death, rather than eating. This “solution” does not strike me as very impressive; it involves no effort, no intelligence, and no surprise when it comes to looking at the result. If this is someone’s idea of how to break all the rules, they would become pretty easy to predict.

Are there cases where you genuinely want to change your preferences? You may look back in your life and find that your moral beliefs have changed over decades, and that you count this as “moral progress”. Civilizations also change their morals over time. In the seventeenth century, people used to think it was okay to enslave people with differently colored skin; and now we elect them President.

But you might guess by now, you might somehow intuit, that if these moral changes seem interesting and important and vital and indispensable, then not just any change would suffice. If there’s no criterion, no target, no way of choosing—then your current point in state space is just as good as any other point, no more, no less; and you might as well keep your current state, unchanging, forever.

Every surprisingly creative Jump-Out-Of-The-System needs a criterion that makes it surprisingly good, some fitness metric that it matches. This criterion, itself, supplies the order in our beliefs that lets us recognize an act of “creativity” despite our surprise. Just as recognizing intelligence requires at least some belief about that intelligence’s goals, however abstract.

One might wish to reconsider, in light of this principle, such notions as “free will that is not constrained by anything”; or the necessary conditions for our discussions of what is “right” to have some kind of meaning.

There is an oft-repeated cliche of Deep Wisdom which says something along the lines of “intelligence is balanced between Order and Chaos”, as if cognitive science were a fantasy novel written by Roger Zelazny. Logic as Order, following the rules. Creativity as Chaos, violating the rules. And so you can try to understand logic, but you are blocked when it comes to creativity—and of course you could build a logical computer but not a creative one—and of course ‘rationalists’ can only use the Order side of the equation, and can never become whole people; because Art requires an element of irrationality, just like e.g. emotion.

And I think that despite its poetic appeal, that whole cosmological mythology is just flat wrong. There’s just various forms of regularity, of negentropy, where all the structure and all the beauty live. And on the other side is what’s left over—the static on the television screen, the heat bath, the noise.

I shall be developing this startling thesis further in future posts.