Logic and creativity

Håkon Robbestad Gylterud

Recently I filled in a survey about the shape I see the the year as when imagining it. This is a topic I find interesting since my own experience when asking people this question is that it never fails to give interesting answers and usually an interesting discussion afterwards. I therefore took care to give detailed answers, and filled out the various other questions of the survey as well as I could. The final question, “Do you consider yourself more logically or creatively thinking?”, made me sigh, however.

The question was answerable with a five point scale reaching from “Logical” to ”Creative”, as if these two properties were somehow mutually exclusive, or at least that excellling in one of them would hamper the other. I believe this oft repeated dichotomy is false, and I would like to elaborate a bit on why I think it is so.

First of all, the two concepts “being logical” and “being creative” do not immediately contradict each other by any definition of terms. For instance, we could define “being creative“ loosely as “being able to come up with novel, and interesting or useful, things” — be they physical objects or ideas. And then let “being logical” mean “being able to understand a system and follow its rules”. A toy example would be that a creative person can craft a table, while a logical one would be able to follow IKEA’s instructions for assembling a table. There is ofcourse no reason a person cannot do both. But can anything more meaningful be said about the connection between these two properties?

One thing one could say, with reasonable certainty, is that these two properties are fundamental characterstics of human beings. Our whole society is steaming with new ideas, new craftings, and as far as we can tell, it has been like this for our entire history. At the same time, we find that people quickly understand the rules of their environment and adapt to these. In fact, it seems hard to imagine our species would have reached its dominance, for better or worse, without it.

Another thing, on which I am sure most would agree, is that most humans thrive both when they can creative and when they can be logical. Remark that I am not claiming that any person would enjoy any creative endeavour, or to follow any system. Just that there for any person are creative endeavours they would enjoy undertaking, and that there are systems they would enjoy following. Creativity seem for instance to be essential to humour, as jokes easily get old. While following rules is key to most peoples wellbeing, as it gives them some measure of predictability of their existence.

This brings us the the interaction between the two notions. Because, one of the ultimate creative endeavours is the construction of new systems of rules to follow. This is a creative undertaking which has being logical is a prerequisite, but which is the exact oposite of stereo types of both properties.

One the one hand, constructing the rules is the oposite of the idea that creativity is about not following rules. Not only do you have to follow the rules to understand the system you are constructing, but you also, implicitly follow the laws of logic when constructing your rules. On the other hand, this defies the idea that “being logical” implies following any rules blindly, since by creating new rules you have to take back and reason about consequences of the rules.

Mathematics is good example of an activity which essentially uses both our creativity and ability to be logical. It is easy to see how the latter plays a part, since mathematicians all play by the rules of mathematical reasoning. But built in to that system is the ability to define new concepts1, and finding new mathematical objects2 fitting into those concepts — a process which is extremely creative. Mathematical creativiy is an extreme example of an effect that is noticed also in art, namely that limitations, that is rules, induce creativity.

The final claim I want to make, which I find the most likely to be controversial, is that when given the freedom humans will tend to maximise both their creativity and ability to act logically, and that reductions in either is indicative of a lack of freedom. For instance, in a totalitarian society a person might simultaneously believe that he lives in a great society, while at the same time being aware of the suffering of the people in it, including him own — a clear logical fallacy. In contrast, a person who has secured his basic needs, and still has time to spare, will often take up a creative activity in this time.

In conclusion, we see that to put up a dichotomy between logical and creative ability, like this survey did, does little service to either, and that they are best seen as complementary, and fundamental, abilties of human beings.

  1. Say, structures or theorems.

  2. Say, instances of structures or proofs of theorems.

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