Monday, November 17, 2014

I am not a machine


Click for an animated version of this diagram
I spent days trying to compose a sequel to my last post about Maggie Boden’s book, The Creative Mind. She had outlined a science of creativity, leaning on her expertise in Computational Psychology, which she more or less invented. A learned paper says ‘Computational psychologists are “theorists who draw on the concepts of computer science in formulating theories about what the mind is and how it works” (Boden, 1988, p. 225)’. I got carried away with the idea of taking it a step further & sketching out a science of subjectivity, despite the fact that this genre of human experience (which Boden calls “idiosyncratic representations of the world”) is specifically excluded from Western science.

I thought that religion, for example, could be explained sympathetically in neutral terms as opposed to its own self-referential doctrines, which can often be distilled into “The Bible (Koran, etc) is the Word of God because it declares itself as such.” And then we would turn our swords into plowshares, & live happily ever after. I thought that a science of subjectivity could discover that the feeling of being blessed by a heavenly presence is traceable to such-and-such stimulation of the brain visible on a neurologist’s monitor screen, identical to a stimulation which occurs equally in people with no religious beliefs at all. . . . So then everyone would join hands and sing Kumbaya together, realizing there is nothing left to fight about.

I rather liked the illustration I dug up, though. It’s one I’ve used before, but it’s even better when you click on it and watch the animated version. See also this document. The original poster was designed by Fritz Kahn, who illustrated a book I owned as a child: The Secret of Life: the human machine and how it works. Human machine, yes; secret of life, no.

Anyhow, the post I laboured on destroyed itself through excessive editing. Instead of grieving its loss I felt instantly liberated, and glad of the timely lesson it bequeathed.

I enjoyed the brilliance of Maggie Boden’s book, The Creative Mind to the point of envy,

The Secret of Life: the human machine
and how it works (front cover)
especially and illogically since I’d met her face to face, near the beginning of her illustrious career. I wrote, in that unlamented draft, how much it had taught me about creativity. Well, perhaps. Writing down your spontaneous thoughts lets you question them later, especially when you’ve let yourself get carried away. Until the counter-thought blows down the fragile house of cards, you’ve taken time out to live another life in harmless imagination, explore it all the way to reductio ad absurdum. Then you wake up in the middle of the night as if it had all been a dream.

Actually I prefer Henri Bergson’s Creative Evolution (1907), though I’m only 3% through and feel no obligation to persevere to the end. Enough with idol-worship! He proposes “an alternative explanation for Darwin’s mechanism of evolution”, one which is generally considered to have been superseded by the “neodarwinian synthesis”. I’m no scientist. I have no grounds to argue with their verdict on Bergson, nor on any aspect of their work. They don’t impinge on my home territory, so to speak.

What I embrace is that which speaks to me and finds an answering response within, beyond fact and reason. Bergson, regardless of how he is seen today, speaks a language I understand better than Boden’s. “Bergson convinced many thinkers that the processes of immediate experience and intuition are more significant than abstract rationalism and science for understanding reality.” (When lacking other attribution, my quotes usually come from Wikipedia.) And here’s a tiny excerpt from his book (he uses many words where I would prefer to use few). It makes sense to me, though a scientist may say it explains nothing, means nothing:

The universe endures. The more we study the nature of time, the more we shall comprehend that duration means invention, the creation of forms, the continual elaboration of the absolutely new.

This chimes with things I’ve tried to say since this blog began. I’d like to finish with the first paragraph retrieved from the unlamented draft which destroyed itself some hours ago:

This blog has always been dedicated to fleeting impressions that defy description or analysis. An early example was a brief moment of what I called knowing, on a rough-and-ready street near my home, when I saw something special in all the people I encountered there, which I hoped they would feel themselves, though suspecting they didn’t. I didn’t know how to express it, unless by using the word “immortality”. (See this post.) It was a powerful experience and I did my clumsy best to convey it at that time. Another kind of fleeting experience comes with a phrase that sums it up, seeming to arrive in my head newly-minted like a whisper from the Muse, but needing reflection and expansion to tease out its meaning. An example which springs to mind is in a post titled “Infinite are the depths” for that was the phrase which accompanied the moment of insight, that went beyond ordinary consciousness.