By Basil Gala, Ph.D.
In Search of Meaning
When we look around the world in which live every day, we see things that we constantly use more, things invented by men and women, and fewer stuff created by Nature; we enjoy and rely on a huge array of artifacts that did not exist before humans appeared on the earth. One of the first inventions must have been fire; it gave us warmth and safety from wild animals; fire was the means for shaping wood and metals, and cooking tough meats and vegetables so we had enough to eat and time to invent more stuff. Then, somebody one day invented the wheel, that device under our cars and in so many of our machines, from the watch to the roulette. After the wheel, humans invented innumerable devices we could not do without today: the firearm, the computer, the electric light and appliances, the airplane, and the safety pin; scotch tape and atomic reactors; balloons and the space shuttle; the telephone and the telescope; the camera and the cinema. How did we ever get along without all these things? What prompted the inventors of these artifacts to invent? What was the mother of all these inventions? Was it war and conflict? Was it the necessity to survive? What was the source of creativity behind all these new ideas, and all the devices in the arts that edify and entertain us, and all the religions, creeds, moral codes, that guide our behavior? Inspiration was the mother of these inventions, come to the inventors from another dimension of mind and matter, other than our own four dimensions of this universe: in order words, we really don’t know what the fountainhead of creativity is, so we invented the muses, and the gods that give us these wonderful gifts of new things. Aha! Inventions are new and useful ideas, which we may turn into material objects, or we may keep as useful ideas, such as the concept of justice, but they represent a different order, never seen before by other human eyes and minds. The act of creating new things is preceded by the inventor destroying an old order, creating chaos temporarily, and finally putting in place a new vision, dredged out with sweat, pain, tears, passion, and ecstasy from the vast subconscious mind of the inventor and the community.
You may say, creating a new order of things, that’s reasonable; a new vision, that indeed makes sense, and using the subconscious mind, I’ve heard it’s helpful. But how is it done? What methods do you have for this dredging of ideas? Is there a subconscious of the community? I have not heard of that before; does Sigmund Freud mention a subconscious mind in the social fabric? Well, I’m going to supply answers to the question on methods and techniques to be creative shown to work. As for the community subconscious, I will offer a hypothesis about that, a conjecture supported by some evidence. It is not necessary to believe in its existence to make use of the techniques for creativity I will suggest to you. You can believe you are the sole source of all you create.
Why should you bother to create new things? Don’t we have enough gadgets already, for Christ’s sake? I am not sure whether we have enough inventions and stuff already, but people always want more conveniences, tools, and things to buy in the stores with new and improved features, for Christmas gifts if nothing else. So, one advantage for you in inventing is that you can become fabulously rich, even wealthier than Bill Gates, if you have a business type with whom to hook up or you are a good manager yourself besides being an innovator—a rare combination. Another good thing in trying out new ideas is that it can be a very exciting way of earning a living or just passing the time. Finally, innovations accepted by society will get you honors, fame, and popularity, whether you want them or not. Einstein went beyond Newton in physics and published major papers, each important enough to win him the Nobel Prize when he was only 25; he also won world-wide fame and adoration, such as is usually reserved for popular singers.
Perhaps you don’t care so much for your own glory and are working out your destiny through an organization–business or spiritual. Innovating will be very difficult for you inside an organization, even those outfits that proclaim inventing to be their thing. The higher ups will put up road blocks to everything you try to investigate; changes are destabilizing and managers like their present positions just fine. I am not only talking here about the Catholic Church and Galileo. No wonder so many inventors and pioneering artists work in attics, or jails. If your ideas eventually prevail, however, you will have the satisfaction of moving up your organization quickly and gaining wider acceptance and faster implementation for your innovations thanks to the resources of your group. William Carlson struggled in a garret for years with xerography without producing a practical device, until a little manufacturer of photo film, Haloid Corporation, later known as Xerox, bought the process and went to work on it with their specialists; that was after IBM, Kodak, AT & T and many other major firms turned the idea down.
I was turned down too in 1964, when with the ink still fresh on my BSEE I proposed to my first employer, AT & T, a detailed cellular phone system. Later with my M.S. for Caltech, at work for Northrop Corporation as a research engineer, I proposed computerized multivariate diagnostics for avionics failures, but the company stuck to its go-no go electromechanical diagnostics. My research in computer pattern recognition earned me my Ph.D., but my design for a handwriting recognition system still remains on paper, as I tried to raise money to develop it and got only $25,000, which I returned to the investors with some interest. Recently, I designed a concept car for commuting, a personal car I call PC. You may get my article “The Design of a Personal Car” from New Vistas Media, P. O. Box 1897, Vista, CA, 92085 or newvistasmedia.com. I plan to build a prototype of the PC in my garage, because I know how the automobile companies would react to the idea.
Indeed, research and development can often be very frustrating and difficult. Invention has always been difficult and unpredictable; things which are not known and cannot be taught tend to be that way. My nephew, George Coss, currently headed to M.I.T. to study and research physics, said to me recently: “Finding new things in physics must be very difficult now that we have discovered so much.” My response to him was, “It was always difficult, and it is now no more difficult than when Archimedes researched the laws of water pressure.” Curious persons, walking into a new future, place their feet on treacherous ground. Like Lewis and Clark they wonder in the wilderness, guided by the stars and a hand compass only, sketching a map as they go. The difficulties are no worse today, because knowledge is like a growing tree without any apparent limits to its growth that we can see. Every discovery we make, any invention we contrive, any new idea we generate is a branch of the tree, which leads to more questions, problems, and answers, which grow into more questions. As an engineer, scientist, and now philosopher, I see that knowledge and technology are growing currently at an exponential rate, that is, at an accelerating pace.
Agreed, it has not always been so; in the beginning of civilization, discoveries came by at rare intervals and were not quickly disseminated to the human population on other parts of the world. In ancient times, scientists, philosophers, and scholars, had to travel with grave risks to far countries to find out what other societies had discovered. The ancient Greeks visited Egypt, with a far older civilization, or Mesopotamia, another cradle of culture. Later, Marco Polo went as far as China, following the silk and spice trade across the Asian desert and returning to Italy with the inventions of noodles and gunpowder. Also, history tells us of long centuries in Europe and other continents when people did not think up many new ideas, believing all was known that was worth knowing and there was really nothing new under the sun. Such times may come again; human progress is not irreversible, and all civilizations come to bloom, fade, and eventually perish, leaving seeds for other cultures to grow somewhere else or in another time.
But you and I are concerned about what to do here and now to boost our creative powers, profiting materially and spiritually from our efforts, and leaving the future to our descendants to shape it when their turn comes to create new artifacts. First, consider what inhibits you from being creative. When you are tired and lethargic, you are not going to accomplish much. Creating stuff requires a lot of energy; so get a good night’s sleep before getting to your project. Lack of confidence you are going to invent something you set your mind to invent is a sure killer of success. Self confidence is no guarantee of success, but without it, you are likely not even to begin your project. Being too attentive to people who discourage you with negative comments will surely slow you down or stop you. Thinking the job cannot be done when you run into difficulties will soon put an end to your efforts. Going into a frenzy to finish the invention fast will quickly exhaust you and will end your efforts before they bring forth their fruit. Too much respect for authority coupled with excessive admiration and study of the old masters of the craft will turn you into a scholar, not an innovator.
To innovate, you need to break free in some ways from what has been done before; some doubt regarding prior authority is helpful. Constantly challenge what you read, what you hear, and what you see. Don’t be such a good student that you miss spotting the errors and limitations of your masters. If you dismiss the achievements of others as somewhat deficient, you are more likely you to find your own way and bubble up new things from your own well springs. My brother-in-law, a very successful man who doesn’t read much, likes to say, “I don’t read much, because then I would not produce many ideas of my own.” I give him the standard response, “Go ahead and re-invent the wheel then.” I remind him of Isaac Newton who wrote, “If I have looked far, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.” Stand on shoulders but do look.
Remember, though, that the road to discovery does not begin on any body’s shoulders, but your own feet, and even hands sometimes. You begin with a great effort, a struggle to solve your problem whatever it may take. You sweat for a while at it, or something forces you to sweat, long enough to muster all of your psychic resources. Then, when you are feeling you can’t stand the stress any more, you find a way to relax, to rest, or sleep even; then the answer pops up suddenly from somewhere. From where does the answer come? Not from your conscious mind doing the focusing on the problem during your struggling, but from the vast subconscious. My point is: no strain, no gain; also, no break, no breakthrough. The mind, like other faculties, gets stronger when measured stress is put on it, but relieved as necessary. The mind weakens under continuous effort and stress, or continuous idleness.
Idleness, after a serious effort to solve the problem, will often allow a breakthrough to emerge. That is, during relaxation, after work, in the shower or during a leisurely walk, an important insight will lighten your mind to lead you to a solution. It may even happen to you in your dreams, as it did to the chemist August Kekulé, who discovered the ring structure of benzene in a “waking dream” on a London bus; it happened also to the mathematician and physicist Henri Poincaré of the famous conjecture, now theorem in topology. The story is told that Poincaré awoke in the night and wrote the solution on the margins of a newspaper, which was lost. So, keep a good pad and pen on your nightstand and make notes of your dreams about your problem upon waking.
For more details on the method of struggle and relaxation for discovering things, you may look up two volumes by Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard medical school: First, read “The Relaxation Response,” and second, “The Breakthrough Principle.”
Dr. Benson points out that we must be patient and wait for the answers after the struggle phase of the creative process. How long to wait? As a rule, the more difficult the problem or design, the longer we have to wait for the solution to emerge from the subconscious. What if we get no answer after a reasonable period of waiting? We return to attacking the problem again consciously, after having collected additional data and ideas. We may have to go through several cycles like this before we get our breakthrough.
I remember as a young man in high school getting bogged down with difficult problems in math or science exams, and not having enough time to finish. In college, I learned from reading the autobiography of Bertrand Russell, philosopher and Nobel Prize winner in Literature, that he used the method of waiting for the solution from the subconscious to a difficult problem after an intensive struggle at getting to it consciously. Thereafter, in engineering and mathematics tests, I would attack the difficult problem, but if I could not solve it, I would move on to other problems and return to the unsolved one at the end. If I had adequately prepared for the test, the solution would pop up in my mind more often than not.
You can prepare for the work of the subconscious by brainstorming the problem, after an exhaustive research of the relevant literature. You have heard of groups brain storming problems in companies and other organizations. You can do this activity alone also. The rules are seven (a holy number) and simple: first, you state the problem or design objective as clearly as possible; second, you allow you mind to float around freely across the space of all possibilities; third, you don’t neglect to investigate any possible solution only because it seems unlikely or even highly improbable—investigating an improbable, almost impossible, solution may lead to a major invention, because others thought it truly impossible and gave up; fourth, record everything you have thought about during brainstorming and review your records later; fifth, during brainstorming, don’t be at all critical of any thoughts that occurred to you or others, even though they may have struck you as trivial, redundant, or silly—nothing kills the creative process as abruptly as criticism, cold logic, or analysis (the time for analysis and criticism is in another session next day or later;) sixth, stay focused on your problem, because when you or your group wander into other subjects, you are no longer brainstorming, your bullshitting (you may limit your problem, modify it, or extend it even, but leave the new version of your problem until another brainstorming session;) seventh, don’t bother with what you cannot do about your problem, but concentrate on what you can do (every problem is like a tough nut in your cracker, which you turn around and squeeze at different places until you find a weak spot and you crack it.)
After brainstorming, we test and analyze all possible solutions we have recorded; this is done in the laboratory, in nature, or by performing thought experiments with the aid of a computer or writing instruments. Computer simulation of your system can provide some answers and lead to more brainstorming and later evaluations. If you are tackling an important and promising problem or design, the cycle of brainstorming and testing ideas against the facts can go on for years if your resources permit you to do so. The story has been told about Thomas A. Edison, probably the greatest inventor the world has ever seen, that he performed over 10,000 experiments in search of the light bulb before hitting upon the right combination of materials and processes.
Years later, when journalists asked Edison what he would have done if he had not hit upon the solution after so many tries, he said, “I would probably be in my lab now testing more ideas, instead of wasting my time talking to you.”
Edison was a quirky person. He worked until he was exhausted and then caught a cat nap in a nook under the stairs of his laboratory. A good measure of quirkiness is an ingredient of the creative process. I live in another dimension different from where most people live; a dimension not of space and time, but of mind, as Rod Serling used to announce in the old “Twilight Zone” episodes on television. If you live in the same place, where boundaries are those of the imagination, you are my spiritual brother or sister, whoever you may be. It’s not that we are smart; we know plenty of people smarter than we are. Some of these people are in jail or the psychiatric ward. We are not in such safe houses because we know how to control our sharp minds and our imaginations sufficiently, so far.
Creating is a touch and go game of running after figments of your imagination, and yet remaining under complete control of your emotions and your thinking. Inventing comes out of a powerful balance of freedom and discipline. It is the same in the arts.
With eagerness and self control you invite your Muse, the source of all bright ideas coming to you from another universe, which source you tap deep in your subconscious mind. I am getting now into the hypothesis regarding creation I mentioned in the beginning of this essay. There exists a collective subconscious mind which includes all sentient life forms in the universe. Oh, yes, works of genius appear to be the products of individual minds, not collectives: “The Magic Flute” was Mozart; Relativity was Einstein; Guernica was Picasso; The Napoleonic Code was Bonaparte; “Hamlet” was Shakespeare.
Ayn Rand expounds on the central role of the individual in “The Virtue of Selfishness.” She illustrates her points in the novel “The Fountainhead,” about a self-centered architect, Howard Roark, beginning and ending her book with his name. She continues stressing her points over and over in “Atlas Shrugged,” a super sized volume about creative and productive people going on strike in America and letting everything go to pot to prove Ayn Rand’s points. Some critics consider “Atlas Shrugged” the most influential book in America after the Bible, God help us. If you can stomach Rand’s breathless journalistic style of writing and her hype, you will find she makes a lot of sense.
A lot of sense, though, is not total sense. It is true most highly creative people tend to own overactive egos. Prima donnas are called such because they are. I see, however, that each great creator’s performance is bedded in the culture in which that person was raised and trained. The artist or scientist follows a traditional discipline, even if he eventually goes beyond it. Newton could not have appeared without the prior existence of Euclid and Archimedes. Einstein would not have made much of a dent in special relativity without Poincaré and Lorentz. Bertrand Russell would not have created “Principia Mathematica” without George Boole and that man’s “The Laws of Thought.”
Inspired persons receive the divine breath from their human idols as models; but some persons from villages, where no great intellectual ever trod, are born to inventiveness and glory, with little instruction. We say they are prodigies, geniuses, gifted, which does not explain anything about the source of their abilities; I hypothesize that the source is a cosmic consciousness, the universal mind, which we cannot fathom, but which makes itself evident by the phenomena it causes, such as the gifts of Mozart, Van Gogh, Gödel, and Stephen Hawking–a man with ALS disease for thirty years still working at physics and cosmology.
Hawking may be in contact with cosmic consciousness, enriching his own mind with the treasures sentient creatures have accumulated over vast tracts of time. How do you and I approach the universal mind? The way is through carefully directed meditation, or if you like, prayer. We now enter the shaky ground of spirituality in inventiveness. William Carlson, after the great success of his xerography and millions in his pockets, turned to spiritual pursuits, and we know of nothing important that he accomplished thereafter. In Petaluma, California, there exists an Institute of Noetic Sciences, founded by Apollo 14 astronaut Dr. Edgar Mitchell, who wanted to explore how inner consciousness, the nous, affects creativity, after having an epiphany in the capsule returning home. Earth floated freely in the vastness of space and he had a profound sense of universal connectedness; the presence of divinity became almost palpable to him. In his own words: “I knew that life in the universe was not just an accident based on random processes. The knowledge came to me directly.”
Many important inventors describe their creations as things revealed to them directly from another place, in the manner of the prophets like Moses, Socrates, the Buddha, Jesus, and Mohammad, told by the angel Gabriel to recite, yes, recite the verses of the Koran. We are surrounded by angels and the spirits of those gone before us, invisible to all our senses, except the sixth one, instructing and guiding us to live fully and create; spirits which reside in our books and other records of information, in our unwritten traditions and total culture, and in the medium of the ether, which I now invent again over a hundred years after the Michelson-Morley experiment for my own purpose.
You see, I believe that my purpose in life serves a much larger plan; this is something I feel and I cannot prove, but I choose to feel it, because it leads me to fruitful efforts. The way to creating good things then, my friend, is to leave our minds open to strange and unsettling influences from a source that we cannot identify but vaguely. If we are skeptics, the source is not God, but something out there, beyond our puny understanding, which is passing knowledge to us through our deep subconscious; let us just be thankful and hold our ground firmly.