To be creative, our thoughts must stop following the well worn neural paths they are accustomed to travelling. Thus, we start the creative process when we (mentally) say “no.” By saying “no” to any particular thought, we force our minds to conceive alternatives, to search for different neural routes among our existing store of memories, to look for new links. Let me provide a couple of examples.
Consider an artist who paints a picture that is appealing and sells well. He or she might churn out several paintings of like vein without thinking and live well. But, other than the first painting, this is being productive, not creative. To be creative, the artist must first say “no” to some aspect of his or her work. Some large or small part of it must not be produced by rote; it has to be produced as the result of a conscious effort to discover and present something new. A novel way of using titanium white, an insight into the nature of anything, a new way of presenting an emotional experience, a rational discovery, anything at all, as long as it produces an informing entity that is unique. The refusal to repeat what has been done before, because there must be a better way, is the act that initiates creativity.
Alternatively, consider a manager, heading a division within a factory producing widgets. There are opportunities galore to be creative; all such a person need do is think, “No, there must be a better way of doing this,” then work out what that might be. On the other hand, the manager may not be faulted for thinking little and creating nothing, being paid for his efforts, and going home knowing that he has done his job, content. (But, somehow, perhaps, feeling a little incomplete, for he has simply managed an operation, not led. To lead others one must first be creative.)
Everyone can be creative. And we all are, some of the time. We have all created many things, suggested a different approach, changed a routine, come up with a new thought, improved upon the past. Each time, in a moment prior to each occasion, we would have, in effect, said “no,” and this would have stopped us from repeating what we may have done many times before.
Routine living, simply repeating with minor, externally induced, variations what has been done before, is not being creative. No improvements—no increases in life’s quality—are produced, and life stagnates. It is the creative acts of millions who have lived before that has given us everything we have that animals do not.
When we refuse to allow our thoughts to follow their usual pathways, the search for new neural associations begins. Finding them completes the act of creativity; new links are made, new memories laid down, our mind’s store of constructs enlarges, and our future abilities increase. Creativity adds to oneself as well as gives to others.
Thinking And The Universe noted that we discover how the universe and its contents operate by examining the cause-and-effect relationships that tie events together. It was emphasized that nothing happens in isolation; every object and every event is linked through a chain of causality to everything that existed before and to everything that exists currently. Not one iota can change without being brought about by some prior event happening.
But, if no change can occur without being caused by some prior event, which itself must have had a prior cause, and so on and so on, backwards in time to the universe’s beginning, then how can free will exist? How can any individual have any thought that hasn’t been pre-programmed into the cause-and-effect network that exists throughout the universe?
Moreover, if free will does not exist, how can anyone be responsible for their actions? And if no one can be held accountable, then no one should be disciplined for anything they do.
This problem has agitated theologians and philosophers for centuries, and has never been satisfactorily resolved.
Intuitively we feel that we do have free will. We all think that we are free to make any decision we like, and most of us expect to be held accountable for the decisions we make and the actions we carry out as a result of those decisions. So there is some explaining to be done—where does causality give way to allow free will?
Possibly the answer is simple. It may be that causality does not apply to single particle events. What follows is an elaboration of what is meant by this statement, and some evidence supporting the premise.
We think of particles as discrete objects, having mass and able to move from place to place (factors that we can easily measure) because this is our direct experience of the (large and small) objects that we encounter everyday. However, if particles are small enough (about the size of an atom) scientists find that their true nature is not that simple.
One of the peculiarities we find, is that we can never know simultaneously the position and momentum of single particles such as an atom or an electron. This is because any time we try to measure either of these properties, the act of measuring one changes the other. For example, light photons reflecting from a particle that, once detected, should tell us the information we seek, actually give the particle a backward kick as they bounce off. This shifts the particle’s position in an unknown way. It’s a bit like trying to find out what a falling feather is doing by poking at it with a stick. Heisenberg developed the Uncertainty Principle as a description of this problem in 1927. (It precipitated much free-will discussion among scientists and philosophers at the time.)
Another unexpected feature of particle behaviour is that, if we send a beam of them (or even shoot them, one at a time) through two thin parallel slits to make an image on a screen, rather than the expected two lines appearing on the screen, we see several parallel lines of varying density (called an interference pattern). Moreover, these lines are being drawn by a succession of many single hits. Now, on our everyday scale, objects like bullets can’t produce interference patterns. But waves can, so our explanation of such occurrences is that particles show “duality”; they move as if they were waves, but hit targets as if they were bullets.
Quantum mechanics helps physicists solve conundrums like these. This discipline has determined that energy exists as waves of interacting energy fields and that matter is actually bunched-up packets of waves (or photons). (You will remember that Einstein showed that matter and energy were different forms of the same thing, so quantum mechanics and the Theory of Relativity support each other’s explanations.) Since waves are spread-out entities, the position of the particle they represent can only be calculated as a probability of being at any particular place. (For instance, a scientist might say, “If a photon were to hit this screen, it is 60% likely to hit at this spot.”) This may be the first clue in resolving our free will enigma.
The existence and behaviour of “virtual particles” might be another clue that causality does not apply to particles. Myriads of virtual particles constantly flicker into and out of existence everywhere (obtaining the energy to do so from the “vacuum energy” of space, see The Expanding Universe). They are called “virtual” because they cannot be directly detected. Their occurrence was predicted by Heisenberg, and they are found by looking for the real particles and antiparticles they create. (These created particles and antiparticles immediately destroy one another; it is the leftovers from this destruction that scientists observe.) The comings and goings of the unseen originating virtual particles are completely unpredictable from our point of view within the universe. Since the behaviour of these particles is unpredictable, the results they produce are also unpredictable. Causality seems not to come into play on very small events in our universe.
Observations such as these suggest that tiny particles, virtual or real, possess properties that are somewhat different from those exhibited when the same particles form large conglomerations. The observations suggest that, at the grassroots level, only probabilities exist. These probabilities build to become statistical certainties as the particle groupings becomes bigger. Once large enough, their behaviours exhibit the causality upon which the laws of physics depend, and that allows scientists to explain so much. In short, predictable causality is not possible (and absolute certainty does not exist) for events involving objects of small dimensions.
So much for causality. Now, for free will.
Thinking, as we have noted, can actually be observed occurring in the brain. Imaging scans reveal that electrically charged ions travel along neural axons and prompt chemical transmissions across synapses to neighbouring neurons. But ions, we remember from our school science class, are atoms or tiny groups of atoms that have lost or gained electrons. That is, they are very small particles.
Now we have all we need to allow free will to exist. We exercise free will when we first say “no.” (As stated in the above postscript “Creativity,” this is exactly what we do to start the creative process.) Subsequent, conscious, third-level thought, capped by a decision, completes the act. This process consciously overrules, or at least re-thinks, any decision that may have been made by prior thinking, including that done at the second-level subconscious in our mind. We are able to do this, because causality does not force small particles (particularly chemical neurotransmitters travelling between synaptic gaps) to trace previously determined paths.
There we have it! We possess free will because small particles are not causally constrained; they obey probability laws which only become certainties when large numbers are involved. We can say “no,” and be responsible for creating an original decision.
(For what it’s worth, we might note that we exhibit no free will at all when we just “go with the flow.” All flexibility and freedom disappears when multiple entities merge, be they particles, photons, ions travelling along existing neural pathways, or mobs of people.)
A “revelation” can be experienced that takes a person from from simply thinking that an idea could be true, to believing that it is true. Its sudden, totally unexpected arrival; its mental fireworks and fascinating light trails; its prolonged accompanying feelings of certainty, exultation and joy; and its ability to direct my actions even now, are all a matter of natural biochemistry. With the loss of its original wonder, and the expectation of never again experiencing its magic, comes a degree of sadness. But, it also brings the knowledge that something similar, something fully explainable and rational, must have happened to many people, many times in the past. Each one of history’s prophets and mystics who claimed to have received divine intervention, with its accompanying brightness and light, surely experienced a similar phenomenon. Scientists, perceiving a sudden solution to a problem that had long occupied their thoughts, have reported similar happenings, sometimes adding that it was as though the universe had spoken to them. These feelings, as noted in The Source Of Revelations, do not emanate from some external consciousness, some universal spirit; they come from the individual’s own second-level subconscious mental activities.
Is it sad to say goodbye to the notion that these exotic experiences are proof that a higher Being exists, that some divine force is slowly but certainly bringing enlightenment to us? I don’t hold so, for this imposes a dependency and subordination that harks back to the days when superstition and fear ruled the human mind. The idea of being manipulated by a god apportioning ideas in this manner is quite distasteful to me. I do not like to think that any god worthy of its title would do this to any of its creations.
Is it distressing to know that our thinking is not being supported or even directed by stimuli received from a god—to know that we are acting all alone? No; not at all. To the contrary, to know that life, starting from scratch and with absolutely no outside help, is actually on a journey towards comprehending the entire universe is far from troubling—it is magnificent. It is inspiring to think that any single one of us might add another piece to the elucidation of the puzzle. It is exhilarating to know that, as infinitesimal as humans may be on the grand scale of things, they are nevertheless slowly unravelling the nature of the universe, and, through the understanding this brings, gaining some measure of power over fragments of the cosmos itself.
To think that some distant descendant of ours might someday control all! None of the religions I have read about give life and living such an overwhelming sense of purpose and destiny to me. They may have done so, to some people at one time, and they may still do so, to other people today. But not to me. What makes my life meaningful to me is the thought that some of my actions might, through the later efforts of others, contribute morsels toward the eventual evolution of oB.
- One thing it must have, in my opinion, is something to say. Meaningless daubs do not constitute art, no matter how original. The daubs should represent the artist’s best attempt to convey a new understanding that he or she has discovered. This what distinguishes art from the inane.
- Of course, it takes a great deal more than this for the piece to have merit: here I’m just talking about the act of being creative.
- This solution has occurred to others, see White and Gribbin, Stephen Hawking: A Life in Science, (London: Penguin Books, 1992), 82.
- Momentum = mass x velocity, and velocity is a term that includes both speed and direction of movement.
- Remember, single particles travel as waves, but interact with matter—on hitting a screen, for instance—at only one point, thus appearing again as though it were a particle.
- Surprisingly, relatively large particles (e.g., atoms and even small molecules—including "buckyballs", geodesically configured, 60-atom, molecules of carbon) can exhibit wave behaviour.
- Because energy "waves" define a particle's position as a probability, any particle exists in innumerable possible (quantum) states. This property is being further explored in order to design “quantum computers,” because possessing multiple states allows multiple computations to occur simultaneously. Calculations requiring hundreds of thousands of years to compute on today’s computers could be carried out in less than a second using a quantum computer. See Michael A. Neilsen, “Rules for a Complex Quantum World,” Scientific American, November 2002, 66-75.
- Although we may subsequently change our mind and say "yes". It is the act of not automatically following our routine (i.e., construct determined) behaviour without first thinking (be it physical or mental behaviour) that marks an act of free will. Free will activity requires a conscious assessment of the pros and cons of alternative behaviours before a decision or an action is taken.
- It is important to remember that subconscious second-level thinking always races ahead of conscious second-level realization. At any time, subconscious “summaries” may nudge into the conscious second-level of thought whereupon third-level thinking (where words are used) may take over. (At any point along this sequence of events, the body might be directed to act upon what is occurring within the brain/mind.)
A free will choice is a consciously made decision. It is the conscious acceptance or rejection of what the subconscious offers, made explicit when acted upon, spoken or written. The fortuitous occurrence of any stress-relieving, subconscious-thinking that hits upon a new answer, does not constitute an act of free will. Only if this new answer is subsequently recognized for what it is, and consciously analyzed, then accepted (or rejected), displacing existing answers (or lack of answers), does the act of free will occur.