Creative Leaps

In science, as in art, inspiration is the milestone that marks the beginning of another journey of hard work and exhaustive study. The famous anecdote of Isaac Newton’s (1643-1727) apple is the perfect symbol of inspiration or creative leap, be it artistic or scientific — if it is possible to distinguish them. The hidden part that suddenly enlightens the whole; the cement that gives consistency to disperse thoughts; the decisive step that puts an end to a trembling walk. These are the meanings of Newton’s apple or Archimedes’s (c. 287 BC-c. 212 BC) bath (eureka!). Albert Einstein’s (1879-1955) dream of the solution to the general theory of relativity or François Jacob’s (b.1920) glimpse of how genes work together to make life possible (while enjoying a play in a Paris theatre) are some of the 20th century’s expressions of this old “tradition”. Art, although it is less dependent on rules and verification, is also punctuated by creative leaps.

Take for instance Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), when he said that his Painting With a Circle (1911) was the first abstract painting. He was categorizing the result of an ongoing (personal) process of denaturalizing motifs, but in that particular work, unlike the preceding and some of the following, a radical change occurred: we no longer recognize any figure besides the circles, a shape that remained constant throughout the abstract period of his work. Apparently, Painting with a Circle was not one of Kandinsky’s favorite works at the time, and only later he acknowledged the real implications of his breakthrough. And Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) didn’t start his career by dripping paint over a canvas on the floor. On the movie Pollock (2001), Lee Krasner (his wife, played by Marcia Gay Hardner), when seeing the painter’s first work with that newly found technique, said you’ve done it, Pollock. You’ve cracked it wide open. That (dramatized) scene portrays the well-established notion of the artist cracking it wide open after a foretaste of inspiration.

But the leap is not the only link between art and science. In both we recognize that the preparation and meditation, on a problem or a feeling, precedes the creative burst; and, after the enlightenment, comes the confirmation or development of the concept. Many “beautiful” theories are thrown away without even being published, that is true, but the same happens in the artistic realm with its exasperating dead ends. When succeed in the first steps, the scientist gains insight into the subject matter through testing the theory and submitting it to methodological falsification. An artist goes deep into the subject, enhances his ideas, and sharpens his view. Chance, or randomness, also plays a crucial rule in this whole process. Many ideas are dealt with, and then discarded. Artists and scientists know what is facing an inglorious ending for a promising thought. That cognitive spark — the leap — that allows us to solve a problem, jump into the next stage, or broaden our artistic horizons is probably a matching part of two very similar methods, if not identical.

On the other hand, it is the notion of creative leap that leads many philosophers and scientists to doubt the algorithmic essence of mind, as if the evolutionary process could not create a system capable of that sudden enlightenment, or intuition. Some support their objections on quantum physics; others will stick to the vague concept of holism. But unless we believe in “skyhooks” (an expression coined by Daniel Dennett to describe a source of complexity which has not been driven by evolution), there seems to be no way around a computational representation of the mind, at least if we regard connectionism and self-organization as an extension of that line of thought and not as opposing theories. In fact, the sciences of complexity — the discipline that studies complex adaptive system and the emergence of complex behaviour — have provided not only a new breath to the old artificial intelligence and robotics fields of research, too much dependent on the manipulation of symbols associated with the GOFAI (Good-Old-Fashioned-Artificial-Intelligence), but they also contributed to an alternative view of the human mind. Nowadays, complexity and (new) connectionism are shedding some light on this problem and are gradually erasing the mysticism around emergent and complex behaviour. We will address these issues later. First, let us look at a few dialogues between art and science throughout History.

Carlos M. Fernandes, in ROBOT ARTe (catalogue of Leonel Moura’s exhibition with the same name)


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