Science in Christian Perspective

Letter to the Editor

Man in the Creative Universe
Paul H. Kopper
Department of Biology
Washburn University of Topeka
Topeka, Kansas 66621

From: JASA 29 (December 1977): 190-192.


Creativity is an arbitrary synthetic process. On the human scale it is responsible for the establishment of modes of communication, modification of the physical environment, and social institutions; on the cosmic scale it is responsible for the countless forms of the material universe. To see man in a creative universe makes possible the change in human consciousness needed for a fresh approach to the problems of our time.

The great progress made by scientists in analytical studies of the material universe cannot conceal from them their inability to comprehend it. How can elemental order arise from subatomic disorder, or living organisms from varying arrays of nucleic acid and protein molecules? The term "creation" is used loosely to describe, but it does not solve the puzzle of organization. There appears to be a need to clarify the concept, and this can best be accomplished by reference to the human experience.

Human Creativity

In order for man to create he must be able to reason. Reasoning involves sensing, perceiving and conceiving. Formation of a concept depends on repeated perception of like events; it may be said to be the ability to simplify the multiple. The growing infant learns to discern a ball regardless of size and color, table and chairs irrespective of texture and appearance. The recognition of qualities, shape, size, and color is apparently not unique to man. Anthropoid apes can be trained to recognize symbols. They can learn to look for food behind doors which are, say, painted blue or marked with a square. There is no further progress. Man's mental development proceeds to another stage when he acquires the ability to utilize the qualities he has learned to recognize. This may be described as multiplication of the simple, active mentality, creativity. Thus, the normal child is not only expected to recognize a house or a tree or a man but also to name, describe, draw, and make models of them, expressing something personal, something creative in so doing.

Rationality at the highest level thus becomes creativity, making something of one's own, but something that can also be recognized and appreciated by others. Others are important, for if they cannot grasp what the individual has created, like nonsense words or misrepresented objects, they cannot communicate with him, hence would be bound to consider him non-rational. A man living by himself, separated from all human contacts since infancy, would have such a limited range of understanding as to appear merely a clever animal.

Man's achievements are indeed the results of group living. They are of three kinds: modes of communication, modification of the physical environment, social institutions. Language and mathematics are our modes of communication, for which we are indebted to remote ancestors. To create a system of sounds in order to express ideas, to translate it into written ' symbols, and to conceive of numbers and their relationships must all have been extremely difficult undertakings. As there were no models, men had to make it all out of nothing, synthesize it according to arbitrary rules. The modification of man's physical environment began with the invention of tools, cultivation of the land, and domestication of animals, but has undoubtedly reached its peak only in recent times. Indeed, it has now proceeded so far as to arouse serious concern about the exhaustion of our energy and mineral resources, the pollution of our environment, the reproduction of our own numbers beyond what this planet can sustain. The establishment of social institutions remains the major problem today. Rules of group living, for young and old, parents and children, men and women, those of greater and lesser ability, form the basis of morality and culture of societies. They show a wide range of variation, dependent on the physical environment and the historical experiences of the group. In most parts of the world there has always been conflict between groups. Wars have been fought by some to acquire the wealth and labor of their neighbors and by others to defend the integrity of their own group. The threat of mutual annihilation through thermonuclear weapons has made wars obsolete and demands, instead, steps toward establishing a peaceful world community.

Whatever our present problems may be, we have undoubtedly created here on earth a system of order in accordance with our endowments and purposes. Now creating is a process like seeing, hearing, and feeling. And just as what is seen, heard, and felt depends on who does the sensing; what is created depends on who creates. From the analysis of animal sense organs we have learned a great deal about what animals can sense and how, consequently, the world appears to them. Some animals react only to direct physical stimuli, others rely primarily on their sense of smell, others have very acute vision or hearing. We are aware of the limitation of our senses. The light and sound waves we are able to perceive form only a small portion of the entire spectrum of waves.

The world would appear different to us if we had X-ray eyes or if our ears were attuned to supersonic waves. The structure of our bodies determines our experience of the outside world; it must also determine what we create. If we had no vocal chords, we could not speak; if our eyes could not be accommodated to near vision, we could not write or read. All this seems obvious, yet it cannot be over-emphasized that what we have learned and what we have created is the result of the application of the reasoning process to a specific situation: man and his environment. Our knowledge is derived from the human way of understanding; our language, mathematics, and art from the human way of communicating; our morality, laws, and institutions from the human way of behaving. It is possible that there may be other beings endowed with the reasoning faculty which would look at the world - or their corner of the universe - quite differently from ourselves, They might not even look at all but apprehend their environment with the aid of other senses. But one condition would have to be fulfilled: intelligent beings, to deserve this rating, must have created a system of order. Or, to put it conversely: a system of order perceivable by us would be evidence of the work of intelligent beings.

Cosmic Creativity

We live in a system of order, the cosmos, made up of a vast variety of material forms, from tiniest energy quanta to large living organisms, but essentially of only two basic constituents: material energy and its ordering element. It extends from maximum entropy, the speed of light, to minimum entropy, approaching absolute zero. At the one extreme of the scale, only quanta, the smallest bits of matter, can exist, whereas at the other extreme there is a frozen state of matter with ever increasing order. What is beyond those limits, material energy without imposed order or perfect order without material energy, is no more perceivable. It would seem reasonable then to view material evolution from quanta through subatomic particles, atoms, molecules, cells, all the way up to man as the result of increasing organization of the underlying material energy.

To attribute this evolutionary process to the workings of chance completely misses the point. It is the same kind of fallacious reasoning illustrated by the often quoted example of Huxley's typing monkeys. By furiously pounding their typewriters for years on end they might, by an exceedingly remote chance, succeed in reproducing Shakespeare's sonnets, but these would just be jumbles of lines to any being but a man. Only he could recognize the symbols and the qualities they were meant to express, because he had been taught by his ancestors, who created them. Just as
random juxtapositions of letters or sounds resulting in words such as table, chair, love, and hate would be completely meaningless if not endowed with definite conceptual qualities by human minds, no arrangement of elementary particles, atoms, molecules, or cells could ever be more than that unless a creative mind superimposed
upon it a new material quality, submerging thereby individual components into a larger whole. This arbitrary synthetic process must remain beyond the grasp of man's reason because it operates on a plane inaccessible to his experience. Human creativity is unable to cope with material energy, the stuff of the physical world. It requires a mental activity other than ours to mold it into forms endowed with qualities which we are able to perceive, directly or by means of ingenious instruments, hence constitute what we call existing or real.

To conceive of a mentally directed universe presents of course great psychological difficulties. We are persons, yet the universe is impersonal. It is passive, unemotional and indifferent to man. Now the literal meaning of person is mask. We are all wearing masks imposed upon us by the needs of our bodies. The universe obviously does not wear a human mask, hence must appear impersonal to us. To carry the analogy a bit further, let us assume for a moment the human race had been wiped out in some kind of natural catastrophe but its creations were left undisturbed. Let us assume further that a new form of intelligent being, say an insect, were to inherit the earth. How would such reasoning insects look at the products of human creativity, houses, automobiles, tools, anything made by us? It seems rather obvious that they would regard them in much the same way as we regard the creations of the cosmos, something to be analyzed and possibly utilized, but certainly not the result of mental activity because, from their point of view, mental activity would produce only things of personal usefulness to insects. Actually, the analogy is not quite correct since our universe, in both its inorganic and organic aspects, is still evolving, but it illustrates, I believe, the overriding importance of a proper perspective. Insects would embrace entromocentrism as naturally as we do anthropocentrism.

Man's history is to a large extent the record of the conquest of a passive or hostile environment by human ingenuity. Such experience has made virtually inevitable man's belief in the uniqueness of his intelligence and with it in his natural right to dominance, as so well expressed in the Darwinian idea of the preservation of favored races (or survival of the fittest) in the struggle for life.

We know now that the life-and death struggle of evolutionary theory does not take place in nature. In fact, nature offers no parallel for the concept of fitness as superiority. The fittest in nature survive through adaptation, that is, through fitting their requirements to available resources. Atoms, molecules, and bacteria are not inferior to elephants and redwood trees because they are smaller and can do less than the latter. By the same token, it may be said that if an individual is endowed with certain mental capabilities, which, under the circumstances prevailing in his society, secure him a directing influence, this is no proof of his superiority but merely places on him an obligation to serve others in accordance with his ability and opportunity. This seems an obvious proposition since nobody is given a choice in selecting his parents, i.e., his physical and mental inheritance, his environment, his family, the neighborhood in which to grow up, or the country of his birth.

Superiority over the rest of nature is an incredibly arrogant notion, as it implies power which it would be absurd for man to claim. The exploration of nature can give us only knowledge comparable to that we acquire in learning a language, native or foreign. The more intensive our study, the more we become aware of grammatical and idiomatic intricacies. Our command of the language steadily improves; it will never reach perfection. Obviously, a more intricate knowledge of the laws of nature could be only beneficial to man and should be sought by all means. What we face today is that knowing nature can give us power in the meaning of arbitrary decision, not over nature, but over other men. Our understanding and subsequent application of thermonuclear reactions has certainly not had the slightest effect on the laws governing them, but the power it has given us over other men is truly terrifying.

In the Middle Ages, men naively believed that the central position of a static earth in the created universe was a reflection of their superiority in the eyes of God. We have just as naively proclaimed our superiority through the uniqueness of our reason, dismissing the countless structures of the material universe as chance products of evolution, conceiving all creative beings to be essentially like humans, even though science fiction artists usually make the concession of depicting them with pointed heads and protruding antennae. By freeing ourselves from anthropocentrism we shall be able to gain new insights into the workings of the rational universe of which we are a part. Moreover, it will make possible the change in human consciousness needed for a fresh approach to the problems of our time.