Planet Ulrich

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Consciousness, the irrational and creativity

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Another Cool Hand Luke moment (“what we’ve got here, is failure, to communicate.”), from my talks with the Singularitarians.

@David and others:

I think we need to clarify what Mr. Tyson meant by “irrational.”

I believe “irrational,” in the context he was using the word, means:

1.     Not the product of rigid/linear/billiard ball type causation

2.     Not articulable/cognizable through the mechanism of rules (whether strict or fuzzy)

3.     Not fully understood or arguably understandable

I think it’s an unfortunate word choice, because the obvious connotations are that the “irrational” is “bad,” or “suboptimal,” or whatever.

I think it would be better to talk about the undefined/undefinable, which is to say, humans (and, I think, all sentient, living creatures capable of complex thought) do not just do as they are told,

Which is what machines do

They think up things for themselves, and those things are not necessarily determined by prior requirements, confined within existing rule sets, predictable, or capable of being mimicked through the introduction of “randomness” or “probabilistic” mimicry of improvisation: the universe of possible options may be finite but is large enough, in practice.  It won’t do to have machine just pick from within some predefined subset, or I suppose, explore, define a subset and pick, randomly or through application of a probabilistic algorithm.

That’s not creativity because there is no purpose/intention behind it; it’s just chance.


What you’re describing may work well enough for some soulless drek like a Katy Perry song, but again, it’s not creativity, it’s aping creativity.  An “algorithm” that introduces randomness into a composition simulation, is just a machine following instructions; it isn’t creating anything itself, because

1.     It is just executing instructions programmed into it by somebody else,

2.     It has no concept of what the instructions are for

3.     It has thus not decided to do this and not that, for any reasons other than those programmed into it by its controller

The end result may look like a musical composition (to the extent a Katy Perry song can be described that way), but it’s really just a copy of other compositions (either a direct copy/mashup/distortion of music composed by humans before, for their own reasons, or a derived copy, produced by executing rules that are themselves defined by abstracting away various structural aspects of previous compositions [again, compositions created by people for their own reasons, which were effective to the degree that people responded to them (as individuals and collectively, subjectively, but as people)]

You say a set of such “compositions” can be made then run through a filtering algorithm, which will determine their “quality” and rank them.

But how would such an algorithm judge and rank quality?  To the extent it is possible to do that programatically, the machine would just be applying, again, rules defined by people in an attempt to articulate what it is about music that makes it effective (I suppose you would say “elicit the desired response”).

The machine doesn’t know what is better or worse, subjectively, it just applies the rules it’s been told to apply and produces a list.

This is all just aping, and bad aping at that.

Of course, by definition, there is no room for anything new here at all, just more or less successful applications of the existing rule sets (anything new introduced randomly or as the product of some probabilistic algorithm would be very hard to judge through such a mechanism, and, in any case

Would be missing the point

Because there would be nothing real behind it, which is to say, it would not express anything, because its creator would have no expressive intention or even awareness of what is being created; thus, the product might be pleasant in some way, but it would be meaningless.

It’s like taking a digital picture of a yellow flower and running it through the Van Gogh filter in Photoshop; the product might look like a Van Gogh, but it’s not, it’s a mechanical forgery.

@Evan Dawson

We both reject the use of the word “irrational” here, as commonly understood, to describe creativity, but I think your essential statements

1.  I think of creativity as the creation of knowledge in the absence of conscious reasoning.

2.  while the unpredictability of creativity comes from fact that the sub-conscious part of the mind plays an essential role in it.

Beg questions.:

1.     Is everything created a form of “knowledge,” and if so, how?

I think this is a reductionist denial of the aesthetic aspects of experience.  I mean, in what way is Mozart’s Escape from the Seraglio “knowledge”?  The beautiful exists as well as the good and the true, right?

2.     Wouldn’t it be more precise to say that the creative process is hybridized between the application of conscious reasoning techniques (following, for example, various rules of composition established over time by people because they have been proven, like the structure of a symphony), and inspiration (which is not “rational” in that it does not follow necessarily from any cognizable rules or principles)

3.     If so, aren’t you just defining away the problem by saying that inspiration (the non/extra/ir-rational) part of the creative process comes from the “sub-conscious”; I mean, do we really know where it comes from?  Or is the “sub-conscious” a kind of grab bag for whatever we don’t understand about the workings of the mind?  It doesn’t explain anything here (inspiration is irrational in the sense that it is not the product of conscious reasoning, thus it must be the product of some sub or un-conscious reasoning)

The ancients thought of creativity as the gift of the muses (divine entities who spoke through them); people in creative flow states often describe themselves as being possessed (anybody who has ever experienced this will tell you that ideas, words, images, take form or thrust themselves on you, as though something with its own life were giving rise to them; call this irrational, sub-un-conscious, whatever, nobody has explained it, except to explain it away by assigning it various labels).

You are certainly right to say that the results cannot be meaningfully replicated through randomness.

@Robert Mason

I agree with your idea of sentient, intelligent creatures having goal orientation, which is what I mean by volitional intelligence.

They want various things, decide among their wants and then act to fulfill them.   Their genetic makeup (however it was formed), I think, largely defines those wants and provides the structure that tends to regulate their intensity (in a probabilistic, not strictly deterministic way; which is to say, I may want to drink water, because my genetic code is structured to signal me the body needs water, but I can choose to forego acting to satisfy that want, for whatever reasons).

Machines don’t know anything or want anything, they just do as they’re told.

(it’s true, the genetic code informs what we want, why we want it, defines our basic capacities to fulfill wants, and the limitations of those capacities, guides our choices, probabilistically, but it doesn’t determine them.

We take the form described by our genes, with the abilities and restrictions, rough preferences and responses, inherent in that form, but our actions are still chosen, we are not puppets of our genetic programming. [You cannot help what you want or how you feel, you are only responsible for what you do])

@Bill Sams

I am always addressing your argument, but briefly:

Describing the constituent parts of a thing does not define away its existence as a whole; being able to identify various physical structures of a brain does not, in itself, reduce the brain to those physical structures or the mind that (I argue) operates through the brain (the whole can be more than the parts, or some essential thing about the whole can be completely elusive when investigating the physical parts).

If you really believe that life is just a complex set of chemical and electrical reactions that, over time, have been spontaneously organized such that they now have the appearance of what we call conscious intelligence, reducing people and animals to organic equivalents of advanced computing machines,


Do you talk to you wife like that?  I wonder.  I asked a colleague of mine, who thinks just like you, that once, and he didn’t really have an answer.  My point is, why would you care about people or animals any more than you do about machines or rocks if you think there is no fundamental difference between them, and if you don’t,

Why not just say that?

Written by ulrichthered

February 22, 2013 at 6:19 pm

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