False confidence

A personal experience

Continuing in the spirit of Tapies’ game-playing approach to creativity, we find ourselves jumping sideways to false confidence and self-deception, two closely interrelated subjects of great pertinence to both artists and scientists. These I will spread over two Posts. Both can be approached via episodes in my personal history.

The first anecdote, which is on the subject of confidence, concerns a flight of fancy that popped into my head at the time I was meditating on the mysteries of recognition, and how on earth the eye/brain systems could enable it.  My reverie took the form of what I came to call the “Abstraction-Hierarchy Model”.  It was a simplistic conception relating to brain-system processing that will be explained in more detail in a later Post.

Despite, at first, taking my model with a large pinch of salt, I soon found myself enjoying the mind games it engendered. Then, the playfulness became infectious, and, to my surprise, it was not long before I found myself taking matters more seriously. As it turned out my growing confidence was justified, for the ideas spawned by my seemingly trivial model were to play a key role in the development of the much more sophisticated model, produced by myself and colleagues, which forms the climax of “What Scientists can learn from Artists”. The title we gave it is: “Principles and mechanisms, derived from biological processes, that may facilitate the synthesis of vision and other cognitive systems”.

The basic insight which the “Abstraction-Hierarchy Model” enshrined was that any process of abstraction must involve picking out common elements from at least two sources and, consequently, must entail the loss of information about that which differed.* From this simple proposition flowed a bubbling stream of speculations that were to prove to inspire a watershed in my conceptual development as I was struggling to come to grips with my life an experimental psychologist. These concerned ways of making sense out of:

  • The chaos of still half-digested ideas communicated by my psychologist mentors that I was struggling to absorb.
  • The more coherent understandings coming from my own drawing experiments.

(More on both of these in later Posts)

The ideas came thick and fast

When the ideas came, they flooded in, always suddenly and unexpectedly, one after the other in what seemed to me the most amazing way, giving me what I experienced as being potentially worthwhile insights into practically all the subjects that had been puzzling me. Despite having previously felt myself to be so much at sea on every one of them, and in spite of being only too conscious of the primitive nature of my model, I found myself increasingly confident that I had stumbled upon a gold mine of theoretical insights. I felt buoyed up with excitement and highly motivated to make more of the riches that I had uncovered.

How good do good ideas have to be?

I have read somewhere that this feeling of extreme confidence, bordering on certainty, has been associated with the birth of many of the great ideas of history. Yet, from where does it stem? And, even if we knew the answer to that question, can it be relied upon? History is too full of strongly held, incompatible and later to be proved half-baked beliefs to suppose that it can be. Examples, cited in these volumes, include the world-wide acceptance of the “Theory of Intellectual-Realism” (see Chapter 5- Negative shapes) and the still persisting idea that all possible paint colours can be mixed from three paint primaries (see future Post on colour mixing).

Nor would it be difficult to come up with the names of significant artists who have based their life’s work on beliefs that hardly anybody else would take seriously for a moment. And here is the rub, for in these cases, much of value and interest was discovered or created on the back of intellectual excitement generated by these highly questionable beliefs. Nor should the situation be considered in terms of black and white. Thus, flawed ideas can work up to a point and/or can play a significant part in the development of more satisfactory ones. Examples of such half or, at least, not yet fully baked notions are abundant. They include:

  • Euclidean geometry, because it does not work in multidimensional space.
  • Newtonian physics, because it takes neither relativity nor the role of the observer into consideration.
  • The wave-theory of light proposed by Leonhard Euler, because it does not account for certain phenomena that can only be explained by the particle theory.

And to these we could add many more, including the ideas of Einstein, for it is now realised that aspects of what he had to say were much more fallible than many wanted to believe. Indeed, according to Thomas Kuhn, the progress of science itself depends on the repeated discovery of shortcomings in the ideas which have been guiding the community of scientists during a particular phase of their quest for knowledge.

In the realm of art, ideas do not have to be anything like as substantial as those of Euclid, Newton, Euler or Einstein to be capable of spawning masterpieces. Almost anything goes, just so long as the artist concerned is able to convince him or herself of the value of their particular pipe dream. And, luckily for the history of art, that can be only too easy for human beings to do. Indeed, it is lucky for the human race, for false confidence that eventually turns out to be fruitful is rampant in every sphere of human activity. The snag is that it can also, only too easily, lead nowhere in particular.

As for my “Abstraction Hierarchy”, despite its seemingly insubstantial origins, there can be no doubt of its potential for creativity: Pretty well every chapter in all four of my books, not to mention all my Posts, owe something to it. What others have to decide is the value of the conclusions reached.


* A trivial example would be comparing a dog and a cat. An obvious thing they have in common is that they are animals. Abstracting this information would loose all information concerning their dog and cat natures. Another example would be comparing two complex curves. What they have in common would be a crude generalisation that would loose all but difference information. Luckily, if the difference is slight, attention will be drawn to it, thereby providing potentially useful feedback. For example, it would enable the identification of mistakes in drawings made from observation.

Posts from “Having Fun with Creativity”, Chapter 10 of “Fresh Perspectives on Creativity”

Other Posts from “Fresh Insights into Creativity”


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2 thoughts on “False confidence”

  1. I’ve been experiencing that roller coaster of uncertainty valleys and euphoria hills in my recent paintings, but not regarding ideas. Portraiture adds a dimension of accuracy not demanded by other subjects. It’s not technical accuracy but a connection to the essence of the subject that is animate.

    There’s a phase of frustration that is followed by the loss of all confidence followed by euphoria when determined reworking finds that spark. Much more work is still needed but that’s when the joy of pure creativity gets to be freed.

    I believe now that it’s taking the roller coaster ride willingly that allows us to run off the tracks into uncharted territory, which can be beyond our expectations. Not always, but like golf, the good hits keep you swinging.

  2. An interesting topic for everyone really. One question it engenders for me is when and how do we decide to keep going with our ideas, and trust that something fruitful will come of them, and when it is time to simply ‘let go’? Thank for sharing your thoughts.

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