Egoism and the Myth of Originality and Creativity
It should be obvious by now that there’s a lot of noise impacting our prefrontal cortex (PFC), which is substantially responsible for our behavior. It should also be apparent that the brain primarily runs on perceptions and memory. There is no mysterious black-box generating original ideas and giving them to our PFC wholly formed. The black-box, to the extent that one exists, is the PFC itself.
The PFC has no other sources of input, no sixth sense, no primordial essence. Perceptions, supplemented by memory, arrive constantly and are compiled into qualia of varying complexity and accuracy (relative to the objective world). The PFC examines these, compares them against new perceptions and relevant memories, and chooses a course of action from a short list. Remember, we can’t keep qualia (which includes ideas and decisions) in active memory for very long, and thus decisions must necessarily be based on limited knowledge.
The result of this process is the creation of the BIG delusion, the sensation of being alive, of being a person. In a sense we are, of course; but we are not a person who exists independently of this constant merging of qualia, many anomalous, into more complex perceptions, ending in the EGO. I propose that the ego is nothing more than the cumulative result of an ongoing process of merging qualia during childhood, and storing them in long-term memory. Voila…we exist!
A paucity of information doesn’t prevent us from creating new qualia, however, once we’ve formed an ego. In fact, there’s no reason to assume this isn’t a continuous process; for example, I would propose that one reason children are so imaginative is that their PFCs are receiving more anomalous qualia than adult brains. Some of these random signals become enshrined in personality and ego. If this is so, it certainly is strong support for the existence of free will; i.e., we are not deterministic since there is a strong random influence on our perceptions throughout our lives (i.e., all those misfiring neurons).
To some extent therefore, I am refuting the hypothesis proposed in the title of this post. I stand by it, however, because it isn’t the existence of original ideas that I deny, it’s the myth of generating them through some kind of spark. Everything I’ve discussed in this blog suggests that it’s nothing more than memories, sometimes intentionally recalled, being joined with new ones–sometimes accurate, sometimes false and everything in between–that is responsible for insight. And especially creative genius. For fun, I’ll propose further that truly original ideas are created by PFCs being subjected to an unusual variety of anomalous qualia. Going even further out on a limb, I might add that creative art in general is the product of such anomalous qualia–the more anomalous, the more creative, avant garde, etc.
Every philosopher who has ever penned a monograph has felt required to explain a simple fact. As Nietzsche puts it, man “will rather will nothingness than not will.” By the act of creating their models from previous philosophers’ models ad infinitum, they are proving my point. The idea of needing something to do is based on this process of constantly churning up memories, getting them jumbled up, misremembered, combined into what is euphemistically called “Creativity.” The only difference between cutting the grass and writing a poem is the kind of qualia being processed and how they are recombined.
Taken a step further, Nietzsche discusses the origin of ideas like good/evil, punishment, god, etc in On the Genealogy of Morality. Obviously, when qualia are communicated to others they can be changed more, and become moral and socially acceptable rules. Once we can speak to others, however, we have passed the focus of this part of the blog.
Another interesting idea is expressed by Max Stirner in The Ego and its Own. He refers to a tripartite development sequence from childhood, to youth, and finally adulthood. Like so many philosophers, he imagines behavior coming from some human “essence” that is within all people. The modified definition of qualia I’m using makes the existence of an unknown spirit unnecessary.
This process of taking others’ ideas, adding to them, subtracting, mixing them up, spitting out a new and improved philosophy falls within what the ancient authors of the Dao De Jing calls Designing Action.
Verse 10 of the Dao De Jing suggests that such a process is unavoidable but should be recognized as less than ideal and thus minimized.
“…Can you clearly understand and make known the four [principles] without taking action? To produce and nourish but not for the sake of possession; to act but not depend [on design]; to further without domination. This is profound attainment.”
The objective is enlightenment, or profound attainment. The interpretation I’m using here suggests that we should strive to control the qualia that assault our PFCs. For example, from DDJ 2:
“…This is why people of Wisdom dwell on matters of non-designing action and go about teaching without words.”
However, it is acknowledged in DDJ 3 that action is necessary: “…Unite action with non-designed activity. Then there is no disorder.”
This wording suggests that activity can be non-designed. This could be a reference to acts based on subconscious feelings and intuition. Obviously, this is not meant as a suggestion to act impulsively, but rather to attain a sense of unity that would allow us to trust our instincts. Thus, this is probably advice intended for someone who has progressed in achieving a unity of the body and mind.
In fact, DDJ 38 explicitly lists a hierarchy of stages of behavior:
“…Higher attainment is non-designing and without intent. Lesser attainment acts with both design and intent. High benevolence acts with design but has no [further] aim. Higher righteousness acts with design and has an [ulterior] aim… When righteousness is lost there remains ritual.”
When philosophers describe behavior they are doing a service to the community, but when they impose their own designs, motivated by base desires like fame and such, they are doing what the Ancient Sages warned about. They have become self-righteous and are one step removed from ritual. To me this means that all those treatises on the reasons for human behavior are nonsense. Ego trips for learned men over the centuries.
Positivism is an approach to understanding that assumes that the only legitimate knowledge is gained through observation combined with logical reasoning (e.g., we can’t see electrons but we’re pretty sure they are real). Naturally, positivists apply their methods to social sciences as well, proposing general laws for human behavior. This is an example of my point in this post. There is no justification for proposing the existence of such laws. Isaac Newton observed objects falling and eventually proposed gravity. The positivists are assuming laws with no evidence.
An even better example of the arrogance of humans is given by one argument against Positivism. This argument says that scientific explorations do not reach the inner nature of phenomena; it is humanistic knowledge that supplies insight into thoughts, feelings, and desires. This is circular reasoning which proves the thesis of this post: What we call original thoughts and creativity is nothing more than “Humanistic Knowledge,” i.e., memory.
It is just as likely that the authors of the DDJ were espousing Quietism in their calm description of problems and solutions, and not wrapping their ideas with metaphysical verbiage that would only confuse the reader.
P.J. Laska, The Original Wisdom of the Dao De Jing: A New Translation and Commentary, ECCS Books, Green Valley, Arizona, 2012.