Creativity, the Man-Made and the Metaphysically Given
October 23, 2003
The metaphysically given is that part of reality which exists without human participation, and could not have occurred any other way, whereas the man-made is that which occurred because of volitional human action and could have been different. Everything that is metaphysically given had to be, whereas everything man-made came about in part because of human choice. The metaphysically given forms the standard by which the man-made should be judged. Man is not limited to judging the man-made: he has the power of creativity, the ability to rearrange the elements of reality. He does this by using his imagination to rearrange the elements he sees in reality and applying his mind to bring his ideas into physical existence. This power of creativity does not contradict the fact that the metaphysically given is absolute, but rather requires that man recognize the difference between the metaphysically given and the man-made in order to exercise it. Failure to recognize the given and the man-made as such can only render man’s creativity impotent.
Man’s creative power is to rearrange the elements of reality, not to change the nature of reality itself. Treating the metaphysically given as the man-made renders man’s creativity impotent because it is an attempt to turn imagination into a tool of cognition. Viewing the laws of reality as optional and flexible is like flooring the accelerator while the stick is in neutral. It’s possible to think of any number of arbitrary inventions, but if they are not based on the laws of reality, they will remain mere fantasies. If an aerospace engineer wishes to design an airplane with a smaller wingspan, he cannot do so while ignoring the laws of aerodynamics. He can fantasize about a million different designs, but if he does not recognize the laws of nature as absolute, his plane will never get off the ground. In order to make his dreams a reality, a man must recognize the metaphysically given as absolute.
While mistaking the metaphysically given for the man made leads man’s mind into a fantasy world of the arbitrary, mistaking the man-made for the metaphysically given cripples man’s ability to improve his condition. Creativity requires that man not take any man-made fact for granted and explores all the alternatives to the status quo. Creativity requires an “unborrowed vision” - the ability to question the man-made truths that others view as an eternal, unchanging given. The aerospace engineer who wants to design a radically new airplane cannot rely on the same ideas that were used to design past models. He must be able to re-evaluate all previous assumptions and determine which ones are necessitated by the laws of physics and which ones are man-made assumptions that can be altered or discarded. In trying to build a plane with smaller wings, he may discover that the assumption that large control surface are required is wrong, and that computer-controlled micro-flaps will do the job of large flaps, and allow a smaller wing. His discovery does not change the laws of physics – it allows the new plane to more effectively use them to achieve flight. Creativity demands two things from man: the willingness to question every man-made fact, and that he hold the metaphysically given as an absolute by which man made facts are to be judged. Thus, the essence of a rational man’s attitude towards the metaphysically given and the man-made is: to accept what had to be, and to judge what was chosen.
The attitude man has towards the rest of the world applies to his own actions and his own mind as well. Just as all other men’s actions are chosen, so are one’s own actions. A rational man recognizes that he is in control of his thoughts, and (to the extent that he is free from oppression) his actions. He knows that nothing he does had to be done, and that his actions are a man-made choice. However, once a man acts on his choice, that choice become a fact, and he must accept the responsibility for its consequences. If he makes a mistake, he judges it as such (because the man-made should be judged) and changes his actions or attitudes appropriately.
A rational man also recognizes that his mind has an identity -- that his thinking is it is not automatic or infallible, but must be in line with the metaphysical nature of his mind. Because he understands that his reason is not infallible, he questions his own premises just as he does those of everyone else. Even if the engineer spends a lifetime working with a traditional wing design, he does not hesitate to question whether the assumptions he has accepted for many years are true, or whether the laws of aerodynamics allow his to design a radically new, more efficient wing.
Because the rational man recognizes that all of man’s ideas are chosen, he knows that they can only be accepted by an act of choice. He deals with other men by persuasion rather than by force because he knows that cannot force them to accept his idea, but must convince them of its truth – and even then, it takes an act of choice to accept even a self-evident truth.
Because he knows that his mind has a certain metaphysically-given identity, a rational man also has a certain attitude towards his creative endeavors. He understands that the nature of his mind is such that his creativity is not innate, automatic, or mystical: it requires conscious effort and consistent application in order to make his creative process a habitual and useful skill. This applies whether a man is an artist, engineer, teacher, or carpenter – all productive work requires or benefits from some degree of creative effort. A rational man exercises his creativity by asking, “Which commonly-held notions conform to the facts of reality, and which should be modified or scrapped?” and “How can I improve the ways things are done today to achieve my values?”
A great example of a man who did both is Frederick W. Smith, the founder of FedEx. He saw a market for an overnight delivery service and persisted with his idea despite a C for his idea from his college professor. He challenged the premise that packages could not be delivered overnight, and that no one could compete with the USPS. He recognized the metaphysically given limitations of a package delivery business — such as the laws of physics that limited how fast a given plane can fly to its destination, but he rejected the stale assumptions that were man-made – such as that the efficiency of package delivery could not be greatly improved, and that no one could compete with a government monopoly like the USPS. He saw that computerized information systems could be implemented to increase the speed and accuracy of deliveries, and made his ideas a reality. As he built his company, he kept offering new services that took advantage of the latest technologies long before anyone expressed demand for them. He implemented online package tracking services long before anyone thought it possible. Such creativity requires a consistent and continual examination of reality to determine which elements can be brought together to improve man’s life.
Man’s power of creativity does not contradict the fact that the metaphysically given is absolute. It is not the power to create or redefine reality, but to rearrange the existing elements in reality to achieve his values. To exercise his creativity, man must use his knowledge of reality to question man-made ideas and determine whether they conform to the metaphysically given facts of reality, or whether they should be altered or discarded in favor of a new idea. Confusing the metaphysically given for the man-made is an attempt to use man’s imagination as a means of cognition, and can only lead to a fantasy world. Mistaking the man-made for the metaphysically given paralyses man’s mind from imagining any alternative to the status quo. The only rational approach to the metaphysically given and the man made is a consistent focus on accepting what has to be, judging the chosen, and learning to know the difference.