An astronomer and flute player are talking about how they see the world. The astronomer says “I see the world as a creative process that began with a big bang and is unfolding through time in a creative and exploratory way.” The flute player says “I see the world in exactly the same way, and I try to play the flute as a way of collaborating with the creativity of the wind and hills and rivers.”
They go to a museum and see a Chinese landscape painting. Beneath the painting there is a description of the landscape. The description says: “The hills and rivers, trees and stars are all expressions of a continuous creativity called qi（气）.” The astronomer says “I study the mathematical properties of qi（气）.” The flute player says “I play the musical qualities of qi（气）.” They go drink tea together and note that the tea, too, contains qi（气） This is how Whitehead, steeped in the sciences and the humanities, looks at the world. He sees the world as inherently creative. He thinks science focuses on the mathematical properties of a continuously creative universe and the humanities on the axiological or value-laden qualities of the universe. In order to understand this point of view, let’s consider two realities: creativity and creative transformation.
What is creativity? Perhaps it’s best to ask where creativity is.
Creativity is in the subjectivity of each and every human being as she responds to the circumstances of her life, moment by moment.
Creativity is in the subjectivity of every other living being - each animal, each living cell – as it responds to the circumstances of its life.
Creativity is in the activity by which a single pulsation of energy within the depths of an atom – a momentary quantum event within an electron, for example – responds to the conditions which precede its occurrence. It is the spontaneity of the quantum event itself, to which (so Whiteheadians believe) quantum theory points. This is how they interpret the principle of indeterminacy. We live in a universe in which the future is not yet decided.
Creativity is in the subjectivity of the supreme being whom Whitehead names “God” in Process and Reality and which he calls “Peace” in Adventures of Ideas, as this subjectivity gathers each event in the universe into an everlasting and fluid act of concrescence.
Creativity is also in emergence of new events in the ongoing history of the universe, which occurs every time there is a perishing of immediacy in the old events. For example, as you are now reading these words, the event of getting up in the morning, which occurred earlier in the day, has now perished, making way for this act of reading. This is happening all the time and everywhere. Something new comes after something old has passed away.
Creativity is in the differences between things: the way in which each entity in the universe asserts itself as being this rather than that, even as it is connected to every other entity in a network of inter-being. This act of self-assertion is not vain or arrogant; it is simply the entity being what it is, in the moment: an individualized concrescence of the universe.
It is important to note that creativity as described above is neither good nor evil. It is what philosophers call ontological creativity. Ontological simply means “related to the existence or being of things.” The new event that takes the place of older events may be quite tragic. Things can get worse rather than better, less just and more unjust, less peaceful and more violent. The subjective response of a person to her environment may be filled with hatred, or confusion, or sadness. The living cell with its creativity may be cancerous and thus destructive to the life of the person it inhabits. But the creativity is creativity.
We sometimes call this creativity a person’s freedom. Here freedom is not necessarily a positive word, just a descriptive term. His freedom is the act of decision which occurs moment by moment, amid which one possibility is cut off and another actualized. Imagine a man climbing a mountain, and he must choose, moment by moment, where to step. As he steps on one rock, he automatically cuts off, at that moment, the possibility of stepping on the other. He creates a single action and becomes that action in that moment. Yes, the particular step he takes is preceded by many other steps, and he may be in the habit of always stepping on a certain kind of rock. But in the moment of stepping there is a decision to be made. This decision is his creativity.
In Whitehead’s philosophy this kind of creativity is not necessarily conscious. When we drive a car from one location to another, pressing our foot against the gas pedal and then the brake, we are making decisions all the time. But most of them are pre-conscious and habitual. The same goes for walking. Whiteheadians believe that this kind of decision-making is found within other animals, too. As a fox chases a rabbit, it makes decisions where to run. It is from this creativity that the differences in our world emerge, whether happy or sad. A violent mob is creative, and so is a peaceful group of monks. Creativity in this sense is the sheer happening of what happens, as it happens, moment by moment. It is the becoming of what is becoming.
Whiteheadian philosophers in the East and West speak of this creativity as the Brahman of which the Upanishads sometimes speak, and as the Tao of which Taoism sometimes speak. And the qi of which Chinese medicine sometimes speak. Or, to put it differently, these diverse traditions illuminate different aspects of, and deepen, our understanding of creativity. There is not a single word to name the happening of what happens in its newness, moment by moment. But everywhere we look we see it.
Understood in this sense, creativity is life itself. Imagine a Chinese landscape painting. You see hills and rivers, trees and stars, rivers and mountains, and in one corner a small village with people in it. You see a man fishing on a boat. From Whitehead’s perspective all are expressions of creativity. It is the essence of the Ten Thousand Things.
In addition to the creativity just described, there is another kind of creativity that is important in human life. Whiteheadians call it creative transformation. We might also call it constructive creativity or harmonious creativity.
Creative transformation is the kind of creativity that occurs when people are open to fresh possibilities for harmony and intensity in their lives, when these fresh possibilities, as actualized, create mutually enhancing bonds with other people. These mutually enhancing bonds are what, in East Asian traditions, people call harmony.
Again it is best to ask where we see it. We see it in a language student when she enjoys the intensity of learning a new language and having her mental and spiritual horizons expanded. We see it in a wise old grandfather who, in the face of hardships in his life, has somehow managed to face the world with grace and true grit. We see it in a young woman who experiments with making Korean bibimbap in fresh ways, or simply repeats a recipe she learned from her mother in joyful ways. We see it in a student who enjoys the thrill of discovery in the sciences, and becomes a physicist or engineer. We see it in another woman who volunteers her time to help orphans. And in a student who has the courage to be honest about the difficulties he faced in high school.
We also see this kind of creativity can also be found in the business world, when entrepreneurs use their business skills, not just to make money, but to help the world as best they can. And we see it in people who resist the injustices of the world, and speak truth to power, like Martin Luther King Jr. In all of these kinds of creativity there is change or transformation, and something good emerges from the change. Indeed goodness might be another name for this creativity, all the while realizing that goodness is a process – an activity – and not a static state of affairs.
For many Whiteheadians the love at the heart of the universe – “God” or “Peace” – is the internal catalyst for this kind of healthy creativity, this kind of goodness. We find “God” in the goodness itself, as it unfolds in human life, and also as the lure toward goodness within human life, which is often expressed as a lure toward wisdom and compassion.
Related to this kind of healthy creativity is also the subjective sense of curiosity or wonder. They are, as it were, the symptoms or subjective side of creativity. Thus the purpose of education at its best is to help students discover this kind of curiosity and wonder and then channel it in constructive directions that benefit themselves and the whole of society. Education should be in service to this kind of creativity: in service to creative transformation. In Vivian Dong’s essay on Learning to Love Science we see the role that teachers can play in education, if given the chance. Of course most teachers want to foster this kind of creativity, but face various constraints in what they can do, given the size of their classes and the demands they face. This is why so many Whiteheadians are interested in educational reform.
Also related to this kind of healthy creativity is the simple ability to make the best of a bad situation: to make “lemonade from lemons.” It goes without saying that for many people in our world, life is filled with suffering and hardship. Every day, every moment, the best they can do is to have courage and turn misfortune into something creative. High school students who face terrible pressures to succeed must do this; older people who face death must do this. For people who are seriously depressed, just getting out of bed in the morning is an achievement. This, too, is creative transformation.
Still another important form of creative transformation is play. As Nietzsche points out, there is something deeply important – something beautiful – about having a playful and exploratory mind, a flexible and jazzlike mind. This kind of mind has a certain joy inside it: a love of life. The capacity for having this love of life begins with childhood, when parents give their children opportunities for unstructured play and when, in addition, they join them in playing games together. In the mutuality of play, there is the beginning of a creative life. Playfulness then becomes a habit, which helps a person make it through the most difficult of times. One of the most glorious expressions of this playfulness is a sense of humor. Humor is a form of creativity, too.
Constructive chaos is a form of creativity, too. We see it in human life when, as life becomes too habitual and too stale, old habits must be broken in order for new things to emerge. Too much order is the enemy of creativity; and so is too much chaos. Constructive chaos is that place in between too much order and too much chaos where improvisation occurs. We see this, for example, in music when artists take an existing piece and do something creative with it, and also when they experiment with forms of music that may seem chaotic, but that are making space for new possibilities. And we see it when an educator throws away her game plan and tries something new in the classroom. Even if her experiment fails, there is something good in the experimentation itself.
At their best the cultural and religious traditions of the world offer guidelines for creative transformation. At their worst, they offer obstacles to creative transformation. In China, for example, the May Fourth movement of the 1920’s was an attempt to throw away the cultural traditions of the past and move into something new. The impulse is understandable but the method was problematic. Genuine creative transformation at a cultural level occurs when people build upon the wisdom of their past but also enjoy the experiment of being open to new possibilities. It is sometimes said that a good parent provide children with roots and wings. Cultures need roots and wings, too. In the very activity of building upon the best of the past there is creativity of the healthy kind; and in the activity of being open to new possibilities there is also creativity. The aim of creativity in both instances is harmonious creativity – the fullness of life – moment by moment.