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David Porter » Articles at Suite 101 » Thought Experiments, Mind Games and Creativity

Thought Experiments, Mind Games and Creativity

World Mind Sports Games, Beijing 2008 - Klaus Kopplinger
As thinking computers and self-propagating machines are virtually imminent, there is more than ever need for creative philosophical debate and questioning.

Between 1996-2003, director of the nonprofit group, Mind Justice, Cheryl Welsh received over 1,800 claims of mind control. She found “a strong case that the US, Russia, and major countries are developing and conducting classified mind control non-consensual experiments.” This issue is addressed by major legislatures, some human rights groups and the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR).

Her thesis considered cold war electromagnetic radiation and mind control weapons in the former USSR; previous experiments for weaponization; lack of legal protection for human subjects of state-secret experiments; and looked at various developments of ‘weapons to neutralize the enemy without killing’.

All governments like to contain/control people, inside its borders and out, and such matters have long since passed the realms of fiction, as in Nineteen-Eighty-Four (1948) and Brave New World (1932). Regular reports of torture, deprivation of basic human needs, abuse, neglect and terror fill the news media as much today as ever. That some people draw artistic inspiration from such matters is controversial but an economic and artistic fact.

Nazi experiments on Jews, gypsies, the handicapped, twins, are now well known. Did they experiment on left handedness or other ‘aberrations’? The full truth may emerge eventually, but in the meantime such horror, such experimentation on body, mind and soul is creatively rich material.

Philosophers’ Dilemmas

According to Julian Baggini in his book The Pig That Wants to be Eaten (2005): ‘Imagination without reason is mere fancy, but reason without imagination is sterile. That is partly why scientists and philosophers alike have always used imaginary scenarios to help sharpen their ideas and push them to their limits’.

Artists have freely drawn on the work of scientists, technologists and mathematicians, to produce paintings, photography, music, drama and movies. Baggini’s point is that where philosophy comes in, and in effect contributes to artistic endeavour, is in the use of ‘thought experiments’, to strip away things that complicate real life to focus on ‘the essence of a problem’.

The Pig That Wants to be Eaten itself was taken from Douglas Adams’ novel, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980), in which a pig had been genetically engineered to speak and to want to be eaten. The idea allowed Baggini to open a debate about the morality involved in eating meat at all, and to offer the thought that it’s better than eating an animal that doesn’t want to be eaten. No answers; plenty to ponder and discuss.

The book looked at other dilemmas: ‘is anything so self-evident that it cannot be doubted?’ (from Descartes); ‘God is good; accepting uncritically received wisdom’ (from Plato); ‘are there unchangeable facts about anything?’ (from Hobbes); ‘thoughts do not cause anything in the physical world‘ (from TH Huxley); ‘all language use is a kind of game‘ (from Wittgenstein); the ancient paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise and a host of other enigmas, riddles and unanswerable questions of life’s meaning.

Thinking is a Skill

According to ‘thinking is a skill and therefore it can be improved’. They urge people to practice activities that sharpen ability to perceive patterns and recognize problems, a key element in solving puzzles. Often people don’t know the solution to a puzzle because they can’t see the problem. By playing, practicing, and making mistakes, people learn and improve creativity. ‘Avoiding conceptual blocks can lead not only to successful problem solving but might result in great inventions’.

Nowadays it might be called ‘thinking outside the box’, but 1967 when he pioneered the concept, Edward de Bono’s ‘lateral thinking’ was revolutionary. He published the theory in The Use of Lateral Thinking in the UK, (it was New Think in the USA), and defined it in several ways, from the technical to the illustrative.

For instance, ‘You cannot dig a hole in a different place by digging the same hole deeper, means that more effort in the same direction or approach will not necessarily succeed’. The concept is concerned with the perception part of thinking: ‘We assume certain perceptions, certain concepts and certain boundaries. The brain as a self-organising information system forms asymmetric patterns. The tools and processes of lateral thinking are designed to achieve ‘lateral’ movement, such as provocation, are designed to help that change. It defines the mathematical need for creativity’.

His Parallel Thinking concept: ‘is best understood in contrast to traditional argument or adversarial thinking’. Here, each side takes a different side and seeks to prove the other wrong (Socrates, Plato and Aristotle started it). ‘Adversarial thinking completely lacks a constructive, creative or design element. It was intended only to discover the ‘truth’ not to build anything’.

De Bono got all sides to start thinking in parallel in co-operative and co-ordinated thinking. There doesn’t have to be agreement. Contradictory thoughts are laid down in parallel, and a way forward is ‘designed from the parallel thought’. He further designed the Six Hats of Thinking to help speed up thinking and because ‘it is so much more constructive then traditional argument-thinking’.

Mind Games and The Artistic Dimension

The movie Mind Games (2003) is about a woman suffering retrograde amnesia, forgetting the last seven months of her life. When a mysterious man tells her they’re married, her world unravels. Mind Game (2004) followed a young loser on a journey to heaven and back and being trapped in an unlikely place. The movie was described as ‘mind-bending’.

Inception (2010) was a ‘contemporary sci-fi action set within the architecture of the mind’. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009) was about a travelling theatre company that crossed into the surreal, darker fringes of the human mind/imagination. Films like Momento (2000), Deception (2008), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and most psychological thrillers are highlights of clever imagining of others’ traumas.

Plays like Sleuth, many of JB Priestley’s time plays, TV series like The Prisoner (1967 and 2009) and the mathematical, mind-twisting artwork of MC Escher, all use the benefits of distorting ‘reality’, bending the mind’s certainties, questioning the norm and experimenting with people’s emotions and values, just as movements like surrealism and modernism/postmodernism play with values and perceptions. All in the name of creativity.

First published on Suite 101, 6 October 2010.

Photo: World Mind Sports Games, Beijing 2008 – Klaus Kopplinger

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