Why Don’t You Build a Spaceship?

on May 5, 2010

I’ve been thinking on and off about the differences between the chaos vision and the creative imagination vision, and it’s occurred to me that one of the most obvious is that chaos is heavily dependent on the concept of the subconscious, while creative imagination isn’t.

Chaos didn’t start out in the 18th century with a theory of the subconscious, but it did focus heavily on the whole range of non-rational mental states, from dream to madness to supernatural terror. And when the chaos vision started getting more organized in the late 1800’s, Sigmund Freud’s concept of the subconscious provided the first really satisfactory explanation for all those anomalous states.

The reason-and-science partnership was at its peak just then, and human beings were seen as primarily creatures of reason. But Freud’s theory suggested that it was only the conscious mind that was rational, while the subconscious was the natural home of everything that reason excluded — sex and violence, nameless fears and inexplicable urges, primitive instincts and childlike wonder.

In the first half of the 20th century, as reason faded and the chaos vision took on greater authority, the subconscious became correspondingly more powerful as well — perhaps even more powerful than the conscious mind. In science fiction stories of the 1940’s and 50’s, the subconscious was frequently represented as either a vast unknown territory, full of ghosts and archetypal presences, or a kind of shadow self with its own knowledge and agenda.

I grew up reading those stories, and for a long time I believed in the assumptions of Freudian psychology — though I never found them of very much use in understanding my own abilities and limitations. But when I look back over what I’ve written here, I realize that at some point I must have lost my faith in the subconscious, much as other people gradually and almost imperceptibly lose their faith in a god or gods.

I’ll grant that much of my writing is produced through methods that would formerly have been attributed to the subconscious. When I get into a groove and start asking the right questions, I find myself spontaneously coming up with apt examples, striking metaphors, and answers I didn’t know I knew. I trust the process because it works, but I also can’t help wondering, “Gee, where did that come from?”

The old answer, of course, would have been “from the subconscious.” But I simply can’t believe that everything new and surprising which enters my awareness has previously been stored away in some basement filing cabinet of my mind, just waiting for the proper request slip to call it up. Why would I think that for a moment? It’s not as though these are ideas that I’ve repressed or forgotten, or that an automatic subsystem could have been assembling in some mental back room while I wasn’t looking.

What it really feels like is that everything I stumble upon — the theories, the connections, the interpretations of classic songs and stories — comes not from my own mind but from out there someplace in the noosphere. And any time I manage to grab onto the corner of a particularly fruitful question and start following the thread, significant pieces will begin spontaneously tumbling into my lap and assembling themselves in meaningful patterns.

That process certainly lies outside my conscious control — to the point where merely trying to work things out rationally can put me off the track for days. But to say that much of creativity is unconscious is very far from implying the reality of a “subconscious mind.”

I’m reminded of an old story about the Middle Eastern trickster figures Mullah Nasruddin, which Alexei reworked some years ago as a Tale of the Old Space Ranger:

One day the Old Space Ranger called up Catalog Central on his planet.

“Do you have bubble forms?”

“This is Catalog Central. If it is listed in your computer, we have it.”

“What about life support systems?

“Oh, yes.

“An engine. Do you have that?”


“Guidance systems?”


“In that case,” said the Old Space Ranger, “why don’t you build a spaceship?”

That catches a lot of the flavor of what it’s like to work on this blog. I’m able to order whatever I might want from Catalog Central — but the catalog isn’t in my head. Instead, it’s out there in the cloud somewhere, and I rely on the Google and Wikipedia to supply precisely what I need when I need it.

That concept of the cloud — the extended network — may be the real crux of the difference between chaos and creative imagination.

The chaos vision was addressed to the understanding of a culture which had given up believing that there was anything magical and mysterious “out there.” No spirit realm, no Heaven, no Mind of God. Just the physical universe and the human mind.

And since the physical universe was a random bunch of atoms bouncing around blindly, and the conscious mind had no room for dark corners or unknown spaces, it meant that the entire weight of inner experience had to be crammed into the individual subconscious.

Boy, did it get crowded.

It’s actually much simpler, and a lot less claustrophobic, to think of higher knowledge as a kind of distributed network, spread around here, there, and the other place. Some of it in my mind, some in yours, some hidden in old books, some concealed in the workings of nature.

And all of this data is susceptible of being swapped around as freely and easily as living creatures swap around bits of DNA, and for much the same reason. It’s built on a common code-base and is part of a single universal system — which is why it’s also accessible to be data-mined in order to construct new meaningful wholes.

But to say as much immediately raises the question of what constitutes a “meaningful whole.”

Here it’s worth referring again to the Old Space Ranger story. Catalog Central is the exact opposite of a meaningful whole. It’s a grab-bag of everything that exists, raw material waiting for someone to sort through it and pull out pieces to be set to a higher purpose.

But doing that requires a special kind of vision — the ability to look at a junk heap and see in it the makings of something new and wonderful. And this is where the Old Space Ranger comes in, with his seemingly childlike question, “Why don’t you build a spaceship?”

In the context of the story, the Old Space Ranger represents the voice of inspiration. But in real life, where does the inspiration to build a spaceship come from?

It comes from creative imagination. And creative imagination — the ability to look at what is not yet and imagine what might be — grows out of a sense of purpose.

A sense of purpose is a distinctly human characteristic. Robots don’t have it, even when they’ve been programmed to give the illusion that they do. But in recent years, I’ve run across two stories of robots acting in ways that appear almost human.

The first of these — which I haven’t been able to find online — involved a group of robots which had been instructed to head for the brightest source of light in their vicinity. For some reason, one of them was left unattended in a dark corridor with a door at the far end that was slightly ajar — and by the time its bewildered handlers caught up with it, it had made its way out into the parking lot and was headed towards the sunshine.

The second account concerned a robot which was fitted with rudimentary wings and instructed to get its body as far off the ground as possible. Within a few hours, it had discovered the basic principles of flight — but along the way it had tried such creative cheats as folding its wings down and walking on their tips or climbing on top of nearby objects.

Both these robots seemed to mimic a human sense of purpose far more closely than any device which has been designed merely to pass a Turing test by engaging in idle conversation. This may be because they were not given a specific sequence of steps to follow but were provided with an objective and left to work out the best way of achieving it on their own.

But there’s more to it than that, because the particular goals those robots were handed — “strive upwards” and “seek the light” — have something peculiarly transcendent about them. These are among the most enduring and powerful metaphors of personal, social, and spiritual growth, and it’s no coincidence that they would endow even robots with at least a touch of higher purpose.

I suspect that a very similar imperative may be hard-wired into us humans as well. For one thing, if you’ve been instructed to strive upwards and seek the light, but without being given any specifics, you might plausibly conclude that the answer was to build a spaceship and go zooming off to the stars.

But the same imperative could easily underlie every aspect of the creative imagination vision. That impulse to look beyond the junk heap and see larger possibility is the source of magic, morality, and wisdom. It is what enables us not only to recognize existing patterns but also to create new, higher-order patterns.

It is thus the dynamic that powers creative change. And it may even be the source of the strange assurance expressed in the Whole Earth Catalog that “we are as gods.”


A listing of all my posts on the cycle of visions can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

A simple list of all the visions can be found here.

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