On Creation

The Creation of Adam

I wrote recently about creative thinking, but my discussions with friends and colleagues often strayed beyond creative thinking to discuss creativity and creation in general. Here are some thoughts on the nature of creation*.

Creation defined

We can say:

An act is an act of creation if something exists after the act that did not exist before it, and would not exist if the act had not occurred.

Destruction defined

We can also define destruction:

An act is an act of destruction if something does not exist after the act that did exist before it, and would continue to exist if the act had not occurred.

Equivalence of creation and destruction

We can notice how creation sometimes involves taking something away:

  • Digging a hole is an act of creation, just as making a pile of earth.
  • Carving a bowl from a block of wood is an act of creation, just as forming a bowl as a coil pot.
  • Resist printing uses wax to prevent dye taking in certain areas. Discharge printing uses bleach to remove colour from previously dyed fabrics. Applying either of these is an act of creation, just as direct printing, where the pattern comes from the application of the dye.

If we define the notion of absence:

There is an absence of something if that thing does not exist. If that thing exists, there is no absence.

Then we can draw an equivalence between the two, as a act of destruction creates an absence, and an act of creation destroys an absence.

Entropic bias

If acts of creation and destruction are logically equivalent, why do we tend to make a distinction? Why do we focus on the creative aspect of bowl carving, rather than its destructive aspect?

We seem have a bias to see acts that decrease entropy as creative, and acts that increase entropy as destructive.

This bias goes back far beyond the formulation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Here, for example, is the beginning of the Judaeo-Christian creation story:

בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ. וְהָאָרֶץ הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ וְחֹשֶׁךְ עַל פְּנֵי תְהוֹם, וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים מְרַחֶפֶת עַל פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם. וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים: “יְהִי אוֹר”, וַיְהִי אוֹר.

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

That phrase ‘תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ’, ‘ṯōhū wāḇōhū’ describes a high entropy system (‘תֹהוּ’ translates as ‘waste, emptiness, vanity’, ‘בֹהוּ’ is an emphatic reduplication) and the next six days’ action is the process of decreasing its entropy.

(It’s interesting to note how the creation of order entails the reduction of entropy. The very notion of entropy inverts our bias towards order.)

Creation and Creativity

We’ve characterised acts of creation and observed their logical, if not psychological equivalence. Are all acts of creation creative acts?

It seems to me that we can place acts of creation on a continuum, from those that we would seldom characterise as ‘creative’ to those we would unhesitatingly characterise that way.

If we revisit our earlier examples, then it’s hard to see how digging a hole could be considered to be a creative act, although it is indeed an act of creation. Carving a bowl and textile printing seem to be further along the scale, though I suspect most of us would choose our words depending on whether we saw this act of creation as something purely mechanistic, or as bringing something additional to the act.

It seems to me that this something additional may be what we look for when we distinguish a creative act from a simple act of creation. I wonder whether this is an act of conceptual creation, a reduction in conceptual entropy, and whether this is what we mean when we speak of creative thinking. This is something for me to explore further.

* I was a hopeless philosophy student, so these thoughts come from a position of wide-eyed ignorance. I’m confident my arguments are both invalid and unsound, and that whatever value I have touched on here has been expressed with more precision and insight elsewhere. If you notice my ignorance, please tell me, so I can be wiser.

Nevertheless, there is a certain pleasure in casting a wide net over my synapses and displaying the catch, whatever worth it may have.

Creativity in Software Development

I shared yesterday’s post with some friends, who were keen to explore what we mean when we talk about creativity in software development.

Alastair made an interesting comment:

…it made me reconsider software dev as a creative endeavour, but I think I came to the conclusion that it is. For me, I think there is a gap between a creative art like writing, especially one which has an expressive mirror like acting, and a purely creative activity like, e.g., whittling a stick or constructing a building.

I think there is value in disentangling our concepts of creativity, and I find Alastair’s distinction between the creative arts and simpler forms of creation very useful.

There’s also an ambiguity in the word ‘create’, as it can refer simply to making things, as well as to the creative endeavours we would like to characterise.

So rather than ask ‘Is software development a creative activity?’, I tend to consider a narrower question: ‘Is there a place for creative thinking in software development?’

As the most basic level, I see creative thinking as making new links between concepts. Once you have made the link, you can engage other thought processes, for example deductive thinking, to explore the consequences and implications of that link.

But because the link isn’t already there, you can’t find it by rational thought; you need a leap of imagination to reach it.

There are some sorts of problem that I can tackle best once I’ve slept. On a few lucky occasions I’ve been able to take an afternoon nap, and woken up with a new idea to investigate, but this usually means taking the idea home with me and letting it brew overnight.

Here are a few examples of problems in software development that can be tackled with creative thinking:

  • How should we name this element?
  • What is the appropriate metaphor for this system?
  • Has a similar problem already been solved? Is there a pattern we can apply here?
  • What test should we write first? What test should we write next?
  • What is the best way to split this system into smaller parts?

And of course, because software development in an organisation is a social activity, the need for creative thinking extends far beyond the design of the software.

Bring your Shadow to Work

Handrail and shadow

There‘s an idea in certain circles that we should be able to bring our whole selves to work.

There are aspects of this notion that I find unproblematically wonderful. For those of us who are invisible members of minority groups, the ability to drop the mask and be open about our identities can help us find a level of safety and inclusion at work.

There are areas that I find problematic, particularly questions about how permeable the work/life barrier should be. These are questions for another day.

The point I’m thinking about today is that there are aspects of all of us that are unpleasant. We think dark thoughts and entertain transgressive fantasies. These are parts of our whole self, but do we really want to bring them to work?

Carl Jung characterises this aspect of us as our Shadow, and sees our encounters with our Shadow as part of the way we Individuate ourselves. Repression and denial of the Shadow can lead to dysfunction: we can become overwhelmed by it and start Acting Out our fantasies, rather than enjoying them in the privacy of our mind.

So I find a tension here: being a psychologically healthy person requires us to have a healthy relationship with the dark areas of our minds, to admit these areas into our whole selves. But if we are to bring our whole selves to work, then we need to bring these dark areas to work as well.

This question becomes more pressing if we accept that there is a close relationship between our Shadow and our creativity. If we hope to do creative work, then we need to be able to dip our bucket into this dark well.

In this context, I read something interesting in an interview with Phoebe Waller-Bridge:

More than anything, she says, as a writer she wants to show women indulging their appetites and venting their grievances. “We sexualise women all the time in drama and TV. They are objectified. But an exploration of one woman’s creative desire is really exciting. She can be a nice person, but the darker corners of her mind are unusual and fucked up, because everyone’s are.” Has she always been able to say the unsayable? “Yes. As long as it feels truthful, as long as it’s pointing at the elephant, it is always exciting.” [Emphasis mine]

And this got me thinking again: Waller-Bridge is making quite a name for herself by bringing the darker corners of the mind, the Shadow, into her work. As a screenwriter this may be rather more straightforward than for a software developer, for example. But is there a way we can openly and honestly bring these aspects of ourselves to work? Is a truly psychologically safe workplace one where we can invite our Shadows?