Flammarion engraving, Paris 1888

Ask An Atheist: When is there a creative force at work?

By Jim Downard

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When you contemplate nature and the vastness of the universe do you see a creative force at work or just happen stance?

The vastness of the universe is arguably the worst place to be looking for anything other than natural forces utterly indifferent to the plight of little sparrows about to be crushed by a boulder sheering off a cliff side under the action of erosion and gravity. And even on our own little rock clod, where sparrows are known, the history of life has not shown the sort of directness that is typical of design.

Car builders do not typically stick with antiquated designs after better things are invented (for instance, abandoned tillers when steering wheels proved a better control mechanism), but nature shows a total dependence on sticking with ancestral components no matter what (our vertebrate anatomy has many an odd feature because of the contingency of morphing ancestral fish arrangements over the course of millions of years).

People who want to see a (and only just the one, not a committee or gang of rivals?) “creative force” at work can do so provided they squint enough to not notice too many of the fiddly details.

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  1. Hm. When someone goes looking in earnest for evidence of an existence,
    the challenge is not to allow one’s desire for such existence to override lack
    or findings of evidence. Your juxtaposition of ‘natural forces utterly
    indifferent’ and ‘creative force’ precludes ‘natural forces’ exhibiting qualities
    of ‘creativity.’ To address creativity, one must question the notions of its
    many ingredients, such as ‘awareness,’ ‘consciousness,’ ‘intelligence.’ These
    fiddly details left unmentioned by a narrowly squinting viewpoint might give the
    novice investigator a feeling of reassurance toward her or his desire. If one
    is only ‘looking’ for ‘natural forces utterly indifferent,’ then such disposition
    ensures this to be all one will find. Investigating foundations of awareness,
    consciousness, intelligence, creativity is the future of science.

    • By all means show the creative force idea is not uselessly irrelevant, apply it to something, explaining how it makes a difference, not just as a philosophical veneer but actually illuminating why something is the way it is rather than not. I have sought at all times in my “rant” to ground my thoughts in specific examples.

      • It is not my intention here to argue for or against existence of a creative force beyond the human mind. Though I have thoroughly convinced myself that there is indeed such force at work, I have no qualms with your having convinced yourself to the contrary. Your arguments (as stated in your initial response) state that because you do not recognize activities in nature or the universe that resemble examples of human creativity, there must not be creative force(s) at work outside the human experience. If this convinces you, fine by me. However, I do take exception when you overstep and unreasonably state that because I do not limit my perception to your own frame of reference, I am in error. Much less becoming is the name calling of beliefs different from your own. If you had said my suggestions serve YOU no purpose, I would have no problem. I find your words dangerous. Am I correct to think you find my words dangerous?

        In response to your request, my practice is to attune my own creative will with my experience of this greater force (useful, relevant, practical, efficient, and constantly inspiring). ‘Nature’ happens to be another word I do not mind using in place of ‘God.’ The second listed definition in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary for the word, “nature,” after all, is: “2a: a creative and controlling force in the universe.” Learning to align my personal choices and actions with the intelligence of Nature is formidable practice.

        On a lighter note, have you seen ‘Interstellar?’

        I would be most interested to hear your thoughts on its themes sometime outside this forum?

        Thank you, for your consideration.

        • The ruflled feathers here seem to be exclusively your own. I thought I was clear enough. I don’t feel your words are “dangerous”. Irrelevant, vague, useless, that’s another matter. Your words: “It is not my intention here to argue for or against existence of a creative force beyond the human mind.” Then don’t try and weigh on on an issue which frankly requires you to do exactly that, work out what you think happened, on what basis, and then take a stand n it. Fence straddling is not my predilection. I get asked a question, I answer it to the best of my ability, honestly and without equivocation. An idea worth having is one worth defending, and poorly thought out ones are just as worthy of comment (feather ruffling often involved).

          • So you see your position as a columnist on Faves to pick fights with those who hold beliefs different from your own? I consider this highly inappropriate.

          • Scholarship, whether scientific or philosophical, is a contact sport. Views are put forward, evidence is either presented or not, and you takes your chances in the open marketplace of ideas. As Truman rightly said of presidential politics, “If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.”

          • I have got to weigh in here. It seems to me that the use of the concept of “creative force” is a substitute for “God”, a rational, planning force that causes things to happen according not to chance or contingency but according to some plan, or at least a teleological, value laden outcome. Jim, you uses the concept of evolution, and that is as close to “Creative force” I can get. however, I see it as neither creative or a separate force (one outside the physical entities involved). If , in the examples of Darwin’s finches, discussed in the marvelous work “The Beak of the Finch”, we have a series of dry seasons which make the plants produce fewer and harder seeds, the finches with the more powerful beaks will have a reproductive advantage. One might loosely call that a creative force, but here I think we must be careful or risk making unintelligible statements. The event is not teleological or value laden; it just is. We make illogical attributions if we anthropomorphize. Those attributions will be absurd, with no real rational meaning, only emotional ones, which easily mislead. Therefore me, “creative force” has no rational meaning and therefore no real explanation value. It may be emotionally satisfying and inspiring, but no more than a sound full of fury.

          • I’d agree that evolution is not creative in any intentional sense, though there is legitimate interest in what extent the process leads to repeated outcomes (such as multicellularity) or inevitability in climbing adaptive landscapes (will some land vertebrates eventually end up colonizing the sea, if enough time is available for the random walk of mutation to generate contingent biology). But even those would be no more planned for as an avalanche.

            It is the case that our human brains are really attracted to telelogical explanations, starting as children and certainly reinforceed by culture, so hardly surprising as adults the notions hover like Banquo’s Ghost, nudging our perceptions in the direction of intention & purpose.

          • Hi Tom, Curious, have you ever considered that to negate ‘design’ or ‘purpose’ in nature is just as ‘anthropomorphic’ in context as affirming ‘design’ or ‘purpose?’ These are mere HUMAN ideas regardless of their existence beyond our perception. I agree wishing for reflections of distinctly human characteristics being in charge of the universe is highly suspect. However, countering this inclination does not logically equate to conclude that the universe is devoid of traits that MIGHT resemble human awareness, consciousness, intelligence, creativity. (Curious.)

  2. I tried to avoid squinting when addressing the question, which was about the whole universe, which last time I looked (not squiting) involved hundreds of billions of galaxies comprised of hundreds of billions of stars, each one of which appears to go avout its activity in ways wholly governed by natural processes. Stars come into being from accretions of gas, not evidently by any sculpting hand.

    Supernovas likewise go about their business unattended, blasting radiation into space sufficient to fry any intelligent beings that happens to get in its way. The universe (the point of the question) does indeed appear to be vastly indifferent to whatever parochial concerns concern the conscious beings that may inhabit sections of it. Now if one wants to ask a different question, on the “foundations of awareness, consciousness, intelligence” I would agree totally that these are eminently worthy of investigation by science. I might also note that the cutting edge work in this field tends to be done by those who proceed from a naturalistic evolutionary framework, and it remains to be seen whether any aspect of our consciousness or creativity lies outside the domain of natural processes.

    I suppose its perfectly possible for an excessively shy Creative Intelligence to contrive or nudge natural processes in such a way that they are indistinguishable from the purely natural, in the same way that an artist can do a trompe l’oeil simulation of the natural. But the question then arises to what extent there is any artistry at all involved, and the claim of trompe l’oeil represents an ad hoc attempt to keep the Creative Intelligence hand in the game in lieu of obvious artifice on a par with Mount Rushmore (a common example Intelligent Design advicates like using).

    • Actually, the question (I am not the author) asks about pondering not only the whole universe, but NATURE, itself. I believe your answer is that you indeed see only natural forces, not creative force. (And, hence, the confined view of nature and ‘natural’ as independent of relationship to humanity.)
      Unfortunately (leaving connotations of chance and happenstance aside), you went beyond this answer and posited shallow suppositions regarding what you BELIEVE to be likely mistakes of those who do ‘see’ a ‘creative force’ in nature and the vastness of the universe.

      I am not attacking you, Jim. I am simply amazed that a mind such as yours, one I know firsthand, most capable of delineating labyrinth examination into accurate and precise summation, yet succumbs to trappings of predisposed supposition in areas of simple experiential wisdom.
      As I have pointed out in past encounters, your generalizations regarding man’s logical fallacies only hold water when limited to notions of stereotypical anthropomorphic, supernatural, and/or preternatural god concepts in relation to supporting empirical evidence.
      IF our consciousness and creativity lie completely within the domain of natural processes (my personal hypothesis is, in fact, they do), THEN all ‘creative forces’ of humanity are also ‘natural’ forces.
      Similarly, ‘natural creative forces’ beyond humanity’s local domain might then also exist.
      It is my experience one can ‘see’ this reality via experiential analysis lacking classical empirical evidence.

      • It is certainly possible to view anything as part of anything if you wish to define things that way. Elephants are a form of asparagus if you are fluid enough in defining elephants and asparagus, but I would not recommend putting an elephant’s leg on your dinner salad. Humans as intelligent beings act creatively. Duh. But the questions was about the universe, of which our creative slice is very tiny.

        It is one thing to say as a painfully obvious observation that Schubert acted as a creative force when writing the 9th Symphony, and quite another to invoke “natural creative forces” without specificity. Is there a “natural creative force” in play in an avalanche, in the sense of Schubert’s creativity? Schubert could decide to put a note in a particular spot, or not, define the tempo faster or slower, as creative acts, but is there any option whatsoever in an avalanche (ir by extension, any other natural phenomenon)? Is someone or something “deciding” as a volitional act for the rocks to fall when they do, or have any option whatsoever in how those rocks “behave”–or are they just rocks, being rocks, no intentions involved. No “creative force” acting on the process in a way that is either observable or matters.

        I contend no, that no force is acting intentionally, that it is simply happening as a natural phenomenon, and believe (yes, a philosophical position) that laminating such vaguely defined notions as “natural creative forces” without specifcity constitutes a useless wheel-spinning exercise that changes nothing about anything, except perhaps to make the believer (yes, a philosophical position oin your part as well) feel more comfortable about living in a universe that appears so utterly indifferent to our vaunted self-aware existence & whether Schubert did a 9th Symphony or not.

        I’ll let you take up the issue of transcending those “stereotypical anthromorphic, supernatural, and/or preternaturak god concepts” with others (the vast majority of religious people now and all through history) who argue for exactly those things, not some vague, squishy, and ultimately uselessly irrelevant generalization of “creative forces” that will not be of much help if an avalanche happens on top of you.

        • Have I offended you in some way? I never meant to suggest your transcending anything. It was my intention to suggest (once again) you might consider acknowledging what your peers in this forum have shared regarding very different concepts than those you rant against. Instead, you summarily dismiss these ideas as ‘uselessly irrelevant’ because your station in life sees no empirically defensible argumment?

  3. Aside from all that, is that right now we know there is a creative force in the universe for sure, and that would be us humans. We may right now be on only one planet. But here we are, in the universe. And we’re working to develop and find other intelligent, creative forces in the universe everyday.

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