Welcome to Emerging Futures -- Vol 57! HOW? Examining Causality in Creative Processes...
Good morning empty-full beings — over the last dozen or so newsletters we have been focusing on exploring a few key topics in greater detail to both really understand key aspects of creativity/innovation and uncover key practical techniques.
This started with our five part series on Exaptations which then led us to explore Processes over the last nine weeks. That investigation just ended last week. Now we want to turn to a critical topic that needs no fancy words or long introduction:
How does anything happen?
This is a critical topic for creativity and innovation — without understanding the how very little can happen.
In reality it is not one topic but a vast array of topics. One could make a strong argument that everything falls under this topic of “how did something new happen?” To answer this question we would need to consider exaptations, affordances, distributed agency, environments, a vast array of processes… and much beyond. Why? Because all of these things play a causal role in the creative process.
When we inquire into how something happened we are interested in the causes — causality. But it will do us no good to jump into using any number of techniques and processes if we don’t understand the “how” — how does exaptation cause something? We cannot just focus on exaptation or any other technique without first understanding causality.
This caused that. If I hold a pen and open my fingers, the pen drops. I could say that releasing my grip on the pen caused it to drop. But what role did gravity play? Or my intentions? The immediate cause was the releasing of my grip — but after that things get complicated.
We live causality at every moment, and at every moment we are dancing between immediate causes and that vast messy world beyond. The immediate world can be explained as a linear one — we can draw a line back from an event to a proceeding action that caused it — from pen falling to hands opening. Much of our everyday lives involves this sense of causality. We might sense that there is much more to things, but nonetheless we experience and frame our experiences in practical and linear ways: I have been drinking coffee all morning which explains my sudden urge to get up and go to the bathroom. That there might be other causal factors involved remains in the background of our immediate experience. Our sense of things and our explanations are linear. Much like the great, and greatly problematic, and highly fictional London detective we often imagine we can draw clear accurate causal connections between one thing and another.
Occasionally we experience something directly in what we are doing that we cannot explain — “how did that happen?” Or, “that should not have happened!” But most often we sense ourselves in linear experiences.
Our linear approach to reality is something that is produced and reinforced by many aspects of our environments: Just one favorite example: Marshall McLuhan liked to point out how the use of a written alphabet organized on a page, “fostered and encouraged the habit of perceiving all environments… in terms of a space and of a time that are uniform, c,o,n,t,i,n,u,o,u,s and c-o-n-n-n-e-c-t-e-d… the line, the continuum… became the organizing principle of life.”
All of these habits, practices, tools and environments reinforce a direct and linear sensibility — this causes that — which can lull us into a sense that this is really how things happen. Something causes something else.
And it leads us to think of complex causality as a direct extension of linear causality. Often it seems that our explanations of complex things are just acts of adding more connections that radiate out from an event. As a culture we break things down into a series of parts each exerting some causal force on some other part which all eventually leads to some outcome — say me dropping my pen.
Even when we add more and more arrows in more and more directions the basic logic is linear and decomposable. We see this approach often in Systems Thinking where vast causal diagrams will be presented that are despite their apparent complexity still linear models.
Historically, we believe we can accurately explain complex things by a two step operation of (1) breaking things apart into their discreet and essential parts, and (2) ascribing a position and role in a causal web.
Linear processes are thus direct and additive. To this we need to add a third concept: causality is proportional (1+1=2). The outcome of all of this is a resultant aggregate.
But, is this really how the vast majority of our reality works? Is this really how creative processes work? Can we go from ideation to carry out a plan to a final novel result? Has any creative process actually operated in this manner?
Can a set of linear connections really explain a sports team's actions during a match? Or how and why I dropped a pen? Or how a novel tool came into existence?
Sure, on the “surface” such an explanation might be satisfactory. But it will not be accurate — linear decompositional stories when used to explain or understand novel outcomes are in almost all cases of “just so” stories — fables that lull us into false pictures of what and how things happen. It is more than just a poor story — linear causal models undermine and derail creative processes in significant ways.
Reality is not a world of discreet interacting components in the model of billiard balls or dominos. Of course there are aspects of reality that are linear (and we will get into this in later posts), but from the perspective of developing and fostering creative processes this is not our predominant reality.
Our reality is one where there is a tight integration between components and scales such that the relations between the component processes form a “whole” — systems that have a logic distinct from the component parts.
Causality is primarily a non-linear phenomenon. And non-linearity is qualitatively distinct from linearity. It is not hyper linearity — that’s just longer and more complex linear chains.
It is of a fundamentally different nature from linearity.
Non-linear causality takes us into a new and different terrain — the terrain of emergence. Linear processes produce “resultants” while non-linear processes generate “emergents”.
Emergent outcomes represent a form of causality where we cannot trace causes back to any one thing or any set of things. (Note: we have discussed Emergent Processes in detail here.). Linearity simply does not apply.
What can we say about causality in such contexts?
First we need to recognize that it is a process —if a very odd one: an emergent causal process that realizes emergent outcomes.
Then we need to recognize that such integrated and unified systems are hierarchical — processes cohere at one level that lead to things being able to happen on higher levels.
Tightly relationally integrated lower level processes give rise to higher level processes and these higher level processes (also tightly relationally integrated) “restrain” lower level processes. Instead of a direct one-to-one proportional causality we have a distinct causal process.
Global patterns arise from and “govern” local interactions. These terms: restrain, govern, or constrain are indicative of this differing logic of causality. This nonlinear causality is reciprocal, indirect, and non-proportional. It is “circular” — but not in a direct manner (that would just be linear causality all over).
What is “constraining” or shaping the logic of the system is nothing other than the relational properties that “the parts possess in virtue of their being integrated or unified (not aggregated) into a systemic network… The configuration of a system limits or prevents certain possible behaviors the parts could have on their own…” (Evan Thompson).
It is critical here that we understand the processes of constraining as a formal process — a probabilistic process where certain outcomes are far more statistically likely than others. The “constraint” is not a thing — there is no “governor” — it is the non-proportional immanent logic of the (whole) relational logic of the system.
It is easy to see a constraint as a negative imposition from the outside— and the terms used in dynamic systems theory of : “governing”, “constraining”, “restraining” or even “enslaving” give an utterly unfortunate and wrong impression of this top-down impositional negativity. It is easy to see this as a limit to freedom and thus as a limit to creativity. And thus to describe systems as the things that control us from the outside. But this is to fall back into a linear model of causality as a form of power.
Here it is informative to see the connections between the classical western model of power is that it is a “power over” things — power over others — in a word oppression and linear causality.
This model of power and causality is connected to the fixed essence model of identity: things have a deep and true essence which power represses, distorts and suppresses.
This is mirrored in the discourse around creativity — with creativity being a space of absolute freedom — no rules. It is where our, and others things, true essence can act unfettered. We need to break the rules, get out of the boxes and connect with our true selves — let things become themselves.
Now, oppression is very real, and a central and expanding feature of our neo-liberal world. And we need to absolutely challenge it at every turn. But to conflate all forms of power and causality with this Sovereign model of “power over things” (and its twin the essence model of things) is to miss the fundamentally creative nature of power — after all how were things created to begin with? — neither the essence, nor the sovereign power model have a non-theological answer to this…
The question of how things come together to have agency (power) is the fundamental question of creativity. The question of “how” is the question of causality. In coming together — in the tight relational integration of a system what is constraining is also enabling. “The form of a system limits certain behaviors the parts would have on their own, while simultaneously opening up new possibilities for them in virtue of the states the system as a whole can access” (Evan Thompson).
Emergent forms that limit are the productive force — such “constraints” are enabling— “it” makes things. We are not the expression of a fixed ahistorical essence — nothing is — we are the outcome of a dynamic system’s relational emergent creative constructive forces.
The reconceiving of power is connected to the reconceiving of relationality, systems, constraints and most importantly causality.
Like power, constraints are non-things but relational states that are productive and emerge and act in ways that are non-linear (causality). We cannot point to single sources or essences to understand how a creative event happened. Creativity is not willed into being but relies on the relational and distributed agency of things — processes (which we can work with in indirect ways— things we will get into in detail in future newsletters).
The language of imposition is a flawed one — we are not looking at a “top-down” causal situation — the use of the language of “constraints”, “governing” and other such metaphors are holdovers from a linear perspective.
“The right way to think about this is not so much “top down” but as system causation. The system, as a system, has causal effects on each element, even though the system is made up of elements” (John Searle).
Moving away from linear causality is to move to a systems-causation approach. To talk only of “non-linear” causality is to leave this qualitatively distinct causality with only a negative definition: it is not that it is just nonlinear — it is something entirely distinct from linearity — this has a name: it is systems causation.
How do things happen? How does novelty emerge? We need to approach answering these questions from a systems causation logic.
Next week we will explore how enabling structuring system causation is fundamental to engaging with creative processes. Till then stay “global” and stay relational — surf the reality of the relational wholism of creative processes.
Till Volume 58,
Jason and Iain
Emergent Futures Lab
We’re How You Innovate
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