Creativity, Philosophy, and Not Acting Your Age

A friend of mine teaches design thinking and hosts creativity programs. His second child was born 90 seconds after his first. He says they’re not twins. Go for it…

The story is true, not just an exercise in thinking out of the box. In our first meeting my friend issued this challenge, adding that only one person in his seminars had ever gotten the answer. I did what most people probably do; I entertained some possible but unlikely scenarios that could lead to that outcome. But no, he didn’t impregnate two different women within a few weeks of each other, who then coincidentally gave birth at the same time. Nor was he a sperm donor. Nor is he using the “father” term loosely in a case where his wife had been implanted with fertilized eggs from two different pairs of parents.

I pondered it for bit, and then felt a tinge of disappointment when it hit me. “Do you have triplets?”, I asked. He smiled and nodded. The incident left me wondering about some other creativity trainers I’ve known. It also got me thinking about the twentieth-century philosophers I praised in my last post. In the early 1900s, young Ludwig Wittgenstein realized that most philosophical problems – certainly those dealing with ideals and universals – simply stem from misunderstandings of the logic of language. Wittgenstein worked in the cold, hard, realm of logic we call analytic philosophy. Coincidentally, those fuzzy-thinking French at the far extremes of philosophy during the same era also concluded, through a radically different method, that language is definitely not a transparent medium of thought. Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, for all their incoherent output, actually do, in my view, defend this position convincingly. Richard Rorty, in his 1967 introductory essay to The Linguistic Turn, brilliantly compares the similar conclusions reached at the same time by these two disjoined schools of thought.

As we talked about using the triplets puzzle in creativity seminars I wondered if those who solved it might be more gifted in linguistics – or perhaps philosophy of language – than in creative thought. Creativity certainly had little to do with my drilling into the language of the puzzle only after plodding through the paternal possibilities. I was channeling Jacques Derrida, not being creative.

It is only a quirk of language that we don’t think that two triplets are also twins. In fact, I seem to recall that they often are – literally. That is, triplets often comprise a pair of monozygotic twins plus a fraternal sibling. So even by use of standard language, two of his triplets might be twins.

The idea of confusing creative problem solving with creative use of – or analysis of – language reminds me of another scenario that often puzzled me. Tony Buzan, the mind-mapping creativity guru, starts one of his courses off by challenging students to, in a fixed time period, record as many uses of a paper clip as possible. Presumably, creative folk find more than the rest of us. He then issues a 2nd challenge: how many things can you not do with a paper clip? Most people find more non-uses than uses. Tony jokingly suggests that we’re negative thinkers because we produce longer lists for the latter.

He then collects examples of non-uses for paper clips from the class, including that you can’t eat them or use them for transportation. Challenging that group to assert whether they’re sure there’s no possible way to eat a paper clip, someone eventually offers that if the paper clip is ferrous, you could grind it up and eat it as a supplement. Inevitably, a more creative student then realizes that Tony didn’t specify the material from which the paper clip was made. It could be made of dried wheat, and then, of course, you could eat it.

Once again, for me at least, the challenge now focuses on language more than creativity. Is it creative to call a paper-clip-shaped piece of spaghetti a paper clip? Or is it just undisciplined? Or both? I doubt that most audiences would have trouble coming up with culinary solutions when quizzed about what sort of things they could do with a paper-clip-shaped piece of pasta. So I suspect the difference between those who went down the route of non-metal (or non-plastic) paper clips and those who did not may stem from experience and situation more than from innate or learned creative abilities. And, by the way, I can easily drive a paper clip if it has wheels, an engine, and comes from Bugatti, not Buitoni. Cream-colored, or bolognese-red?

Once you become attuned to paradoxes that dissolve under a linguistic lens, you find them everywhere. Even in modern philosophy, a place you might expect practitioners to be vigilant. Experimental philosopher Joshua Knobe comes to mind. He’s famous for the Knobe Effect, as seen in the following story.

The CEO of a company is sitting in his office when his Vice President of R&D comes in and says, “We are thinking of starting a new program. It will help us increase profits, but it will also harm the environment.” The CEO responds that he doesn’t care about harming the environment and just wants to make as much profit as possible. The program is carried out, profits are made and the environment is harmed.

Knobe asks those presented with this story whether the CEO intentionally harmed the environment.  82 percent say he did. Knobe then repeats the story, changing only a single word. “Harm” becomes “help”: “… it will also help the environment.”

Knobe then asks whether, in the second story, the CEO intentionally helped the environment. Only 23% of people think so. Some see the asymmetry in responses as a direct challenge to the notion of a one-way flow of judgment from the factual (non-moral) domain to the moral. Spooky and fascinating as that prospect is, I don’t think the Knobe Effect is evidence of it. It’s a language game, Josh – as Wittgenstein would say.

The asymmetry stems not from different bridges (for “harm” and “help”) from fact to moral judgment, but from the semantic asymmetry between “intentionally harm” and “intentionally help.”  In context, “intentionally harm” is not simply the negation of “intentionally help.”  “Intentional” means different things when applied to help and harm. In popular usage “intentionally harm” is understood by most people to mean awareness that your action will cause harm, as its primary purpose or as a secondary consequence. However, “intentional help” is understood by most people to mean your primary purpose was to help, and not that helpfulness could be a mere byproduct.

As WVO Quine made clear, meaning does not stem from words – it stems from sentences, at minimum. No word’s meaning is independent of its context. Quine discusses such concepts at length in Pursuit of Truth (1990) and “Ontological Relativity” (1967).

I get a real kick out of Tony Buzan. I’m well aware that most of his claims about the brain are pure quackery. What percentage of your brain do you use…? His mind-map claims (ultimate revolutionary mind power tool) are a bit out to lunch too. But he’s charming; and I know many people who thrive on mind maps and do great things with them (“if that works for you, great…”). Kudos to him for putting the ancient Greek and Roman mnemonists on a pedestal, and for stressing the link between memory training and creativity. More importantly, anyone who champions games, daydreaming, not acting your age, while pushing rigorous memory training gets my highest praise. Oh, and he designs his own clothes.

I thought hard; and I finally I envisaged one thing a paper clip can never be. A paper clip can absolutely never be a non-paper-clip. But can it be a set of non-paper-clips? Or a set of all sets not containing non-paper-clips? Can you picture it?

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  1. #1 by jeffconklin on May 11, 2015 - 11:04 am

    I appreciate your writings about the trap of equating language and communication, Bill. So much of what passes for logic and paradox busting is based on an implicit, and unfounded, faith in a tight connection between words and meaning.

    In my work as a facilitator and mediator I see this ontological confusion enacted all the time. Disputes over “facts” dissolve into a “failure to communicate” … a mere communication breakdown. But the real failure is not the breakdown, but the refusal to recognize the breakdown. The grim determination to win the point instead of to ‘go meta’ long enough to acknowledge that the parties have tricked themselves into disagreement when in fact it’s impossible to say whether they agree or disagree … because they are addressing different questions!

    This commonplace makes me curious if people (professionals, in particular) can learn to do a better job at recognizing, diagnosing, and repairing communication breakdowns. Without having to do the equivalent of getting a doctorate in linguistics or philosophy. Some exercises that, through practice, might make a practical difference in one’s skill at teasing apart language from communication. To help us deal with George Bernard Shaw’s observation that, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

  2. #2 by Bill Storage on May 11, 2015 - 12:08 pm

    I often wonder the same thing – how to foster alertness to indicators of parties having tricked themselves into agreement (or disagreement) when they’re unconsciously talking past each other. In my neighborhood, I see the case of erroneous agreement often. Some form of moral relativism seems to be a factor.

  3. #3 by Mellissa on July 14, 2016 - 2:28 am

    Hi! Would you mind if I share your blog with my facebook group?
    There’s a lot of people that I think would really appreciate your
    content. Please let me know. Many thanks

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