The New Metaphysics and the Deep Structure of Creativity and Cognition

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Can we consider art as a discipline for the exploring the deep structure of experience? The sculptor Constantin Brancusi certainly saw his work in that way, and it is perhaps no coincidence that his favourite reading was The Life of Milarepa, another Tibetan Buddhist. Art expresses more directly the third of Longchenpa's qualities: the spontaneous, and Brancusi was very much concerned for a freedom in which to explore his art — a freedom from the obligations of previous centuries to represent the 'religious'. Brancusi wanted 'an art of our own', a modern contemporary art that belonged to artists, and not to the church. Roger Lipsey [21], in a survey of the spiritual in 20th century art, concluded that the birth of modernism and abstract art was in fact an expression of the spiritual, rather than the rational that some modernists proposed (he took Brancusi's theme of an art of our own as part of the title to his book). He also believed that there was a relationship between modern art and the new physics.

Brancusi and other modern artists can be seen to have explored the deep structure of their experience in many ways, geometry being one (a continuation of the Renaissance interest in 'divine proportion'), the structure of light and composition being others. Recent work by Leonard Schlain has suggested a more radical role: that artists unerringly anticipated the major developments of science through history, and in particular anticipated all the elements of the 'new' physics [22].

More recently artists have turned to the computer as a tool and even partner in the creative process. The role of the computer in creativity has been explored at the philosophical level by Margaret Boden [23], while perhaps Harold Cohen has made the most significant commitment of artistic intention and practice to an artificial intelligence (AI) system yet [24]. I have explored the idea of algorithmic art as a way of exploring part of the deep structure of the visual experience [25].

What does the anthropic metaphysics imply for the deep structure of creativity and cognition? Whether quantum indeterminacy is related to creativity in a causal sense will probably depend on the outcome of the ongoing investigation into quantum effects in the brain. Schroedinger was certain that quantum indeterminacy was not a window in a determinist universe for free will, and others have also argued the point that randomness is a far cry from purposive will. Writers like Dana Zohar are more certain that decision-making and creativity involve the collapse of the wave function in the brain. I believe that the real value of the anthropic metaphysics lies in what Capra and Zukav spotted in the seventies: a resonance with Eastern thought, a relatively untapped store of approaches to creativity and cognition.

In the index to Guenther's translations of Longchenpa the word 'cognition' has one of the largest number of entries, ranking with 'being', and way ahead of 'Buddha'. Although we don't generally recognise Buddhist writings as a science, even Einstein was sympathetic to it (as far as he knew it from Schopenhauer). Creativity is also a vital part of Tibetan Buddhism, in the form of a structured imagination used as a tool in meditation. It is not however the uncritical adoption of Eastern philosophy and techniques that the anthropic metaphysics suggests, but a synthesis of East and West. The East has denied the material world, resulting in poor technologies and democracies, while the West has denied the subjective — at least until the new physics forced an about turn.


The computer itself has however brought about its own metaphysics, including speculations on the possibility of an artificial creativity and artificial cognition or consciousness. In fact the work is being done to create the artificial human, even though I don't believe that any one laboratory would admit to it. It is more that all the pieces are being researched and developed around the world: the computational side including AI, artificial creativity, artificial autonomy, even artificial consciousness; and the engineering side including cybernetics, audio and vision systems, and robotics. One could call this a Frankenstein syndrome, the desire to create an artificial human, but some are playing at God in a grander way still: the creation of virtual worlds. The metaphysics of Frank Tipler in his Physics of Immortality [26] depend on the ability of a computer to simulate the real world to the tiniest detail, a vision shared by David Deutsch.

Tipler and Deutsch's visions of the future are predicated on exponential growth in computing power, and Tipler also requires the ability to upload consciousness to computers. These are two separate issues, and both are central to the new metaphysics and to the discussion here. I have explored Tipler's proposals in previous papers [27], but suffice to say here that as a computer artist working with virtual spaces I am unconvinced that computer power will ever be able to generate a copy of the universe, let alone the multiple universes of Deutsch. It is only a hunch at this point, but I suspect that to model a universe well enough to live in it you need a computer the size of the universe.

The new physics suggests the end of Laplace's calculating demon, certainly in any circumstance where quantum phenomena scale up to the macro universe of people. If it turns out that the brain is a quantum device then we have another nail in the demon's coffin. But, it seems that chaos theory may also challenge the clockwork universe. If it can be proved that there are theoretical limits to computing power, then systems above a certain complexity are always intractable, and the little devil has to slink back into his box. It is perhaps the contribution of the artist to demonstrate that the visual richness of our experience will also be beyond any computer to generate in real-time.


We have seen that the metaphysics of classical science is inevitably pessimistic, and while leading to the material triumphs of the modern era it also brings an inner sense of futility, 'iron in the soul'. The new metaphysics, perhaps the new rock'n'roll of the Western intellectual, is a rich multidimensional set of implications for us as human beings, and is rightly associated with the post-modern mind, and an optimistic sense of the human experience.

The challenge for the new metaphysics in the new millennium is to establish a first-person science, one that explores the deep structure of creativity and cognition, and one which throws into sharp relief the proper boundaries of third-person science. It should prevent the past mistakes of eugenics and nuclear warfare from being repeated, and also prevent known future dangers in the fields of genetic engineering and the as yet all unknown dangers of a deterministic utilitarian science which places the human experience as 'subjective', 'unquantifiable', and ultimately irrelevant.

It is only right to finish on a note of caution: spiritism and phrenology were two meta-sciences at the end of the 19th century which captured the imagination of Western intellectuals, but have since been relegated to the catalogues of crankiness. The far shores of contemporary metaphysics will almost certainly suffer the same fate, but what cannot be clear at this point is how significant the broad thrust of the new metaphysics will be into the new millennium. Will a first person science flourish? Only history can decide.

1 Longchenpa, Kindly Bent to Ease Us, Part One: Mind, Berkely, California: Dharma Publishing, 1975, p.xvii

2 Einstein, Albert, The World as I See it, Citadel Press, 1998, p. 91

3 King, Michael,  'Artificial Consciousness - Artificial Art', in Mealing, Stuart (Ed.) Computers and Art, Exeter: Intellect, 1997, p.33-53

4 Dawkins, Richard, The Selfish Gene, Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1989

5 Dennett, Daniel, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, London: Penguin, 1995

6 Gould, Stephen Jay, Life's Grandeur, The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin, London: Vintage, 1992.

7 Capra, Fritjof, The Tao of Physics, London: Flamingo, 1992 (3rd edition)

8 Zukav, Gary, The Dancing Wu Li Masters, London: Fontana, 1979

9 Zohar, Danah, The Quantum Self, London: Flamingo, 1991

10 Barrow, John D. and Tipler, Frank J., The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, Oxford: Clarendon Press 1986

11 Bohm, D. Wholeness and the Implicate Order, London: Ark Paperbacks (Routledge), 1980

12 Deutsch, David, The Fabric of Reality, London: Penguin, 1997

13 Wilber, Ken, Quantum Questions - Mystical Writings of the World's Great Physicists, Boston and London: Shambhala, 1985, p. ix

14 ibid p.79

15 King, Mike, 'Concerning the Spiritual in 20th C Art and Science' Leonardo, Vol. 31, No.1, pp21-31, 1998

16 Journal of Consciousness Studies - controversies in the sciences and humanities, Thorverton UK: Imprint Academic

17 See for example Penrose, Roger, Shadows of the Mind - A Search for the Missing Science of Consciousness, Oxford University Press, 1994, and more recent articles in the Journal of Consciousness Studies, and Tucson conference proceedings.

18 Harding, Douglas, On Having No Head, London: Penguin Arkana, 1986

19 Hofstadter, Douglas, and Dennett, Daniel (Eds.) The Mind's I, Penguin Books, Middlesex, England, 1981, pp. 23 - 24

20 Harding, D.E. The Near End - The Science of Liberation and the Liberation of Science, Shollond, Nacton, Ipswitch IP10 OEW

21 Lipsey, Roger, An Art of Our Own - The Spiritual in Twentieth-Century Art, Boston and Shaftesbury: Shambhala, 1988

22 Schlain, Leonard, Art and Physics, Parallel Visions in Space, Time and Light, New York, Quill William Morrow, 1991.

23 Boden, Margaret, Dimensions of Creativity, Cambridge, Mass., London: MIT Press, 1994.

24 P. McCorduck, Aarons Code - Meta-Art, Artificial Intelligence, and the work of Harold Cohen, Freeman, New York 1991.

25 King, Mike, 'Programmed Graphics in Computer Art and Design', Leonardo Vol 28, No.2, pp. 113-121

26 Tipler, Frank J. The Physics of Immortality - Modern Cosmology, God and the Resurrection of the Dead, London: Macmillan, 1994

27 King, Mike, 'Concerning the Spiritual in Cyberspace', in Roetto, Michael (Ed.), Seventh International Symposium on Electronic Art, Rotterdam: ISEA96 Foundation, 1997. p. 31-36
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