This is a chapter from our newest book The Adjacent Possible: Guidebook & Stories Of Artistic Transformation. It is a kind of “extra credit” chapter, philosophical musings on the nature of being and existence and their relationship to the process of artistic creativity. It will not be graded, and in fact we will never know if you read it or not. But if you read it you might be able to pet Schrödinger’s cat.
Scientific Concepts Writ In Electricity
Lightning, with its forking patterns shocking the landscape, is an illustration of scientific concepts writ in electricity, searingly bright and ephemeral.
In 1941, the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges wrote a story called The Garden of Forking Paths.
In this novel, the main character Dr Yu Tsun, a Chinese professor of English and descendant of novelist Ts’ui Pen, seeks to unravel his ancestor’s creations.
In the story, Ts’ui left a cushy government post to devote his life to creating a labyrinth and a novel.
The labyrinth and Ts’ui’s novel turn out to be one and the same.
An Unresolvable Puzzle
Ts’ui’s ambition was to create a labyrinth in which “all men become lost,” an unresolvable puzzle.
We assert that artistic creativity is deeply intertwined with the idea of resolvability.
In most fictions, a character chooses one alternative at each decision point and eliminates others.
In Ts’ui Pên’s novel many possible outcomes of an event occur simultaneously, all of which themselves lead to further proliferations of possibilities.
All the different possibilities continue to exist simultaneously with the chosen path, all of them are potentially viable and consistent.
This certainly sounds like the adjacent possible.
In the 18th century, Gottfried Leibniz, a German polymath who developed the main ideas of differential and integral calculus independent of Isaac Newton, thought that the “paths not chosen” continued as ideas in the mind of God, having an existence separate from the world that contains us and our experiences.
A related concept to Leibniz’ has shown up more recently in the “Many Worlds” interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, blowing the dust off old ideas.
Feynman’s Path Integral Formulation
More recently, there is a formulation of quantum mechanics due to Richard Feynman called the “path integral formulation.”
The idea is there are an infinite number of possible paths for a system to get from one configuration to another.
Each path is associated with a probability and all paths contribute to what is observed because they carry information that evolves the whole system forward.
When an experiment is performed to observe the system; however, only one path is seen.
The rest are behind the curtain of reality, unseen but not absent.
Some claim that Feynman, who spent a year in Brazil as a visiting scholar and met Borges at one point, was directly influenced by the novel.
But, lacking written evidence, it remains a perfect theory in that it can’t be proven one way or the other.
Schrödinger’s Cat & The Many Worlds Hypothesis
A more recent interpretation of the quantum mechanical garden of forking paths is the “many worlds hypothesis.” This is where each act of observation branches off a Universe from all other possible Universes.
The other possible Universes continue to exist in the sense that they are all plausible and obey the laws of physics.
An illustration that is often brought forth to argue for this interpretation is “Schrödinger’s Cat,” a famous physics thought experiment. (Gedankenexperiment)
This describes a cat in a box where a single quantum mechanical event of nuclear decay can release a poison that could kill the cat. Before observation, the system has a mysterious combination, a “superimposition,” of cat-alive and cat-dead.
Afterwards, a path has been chosen. This assumes that a cat has only one life or at the very least starts the scenario on life number 9.
Imagine what it would be like taking such a cat to the veterinarian.
Borges’ story has entered the subconscious as a widespread meme, or perhaps his novel was the first fruiting of an earlier seed, or one of an infinite number of explanations.
It can even be seen as the coalescence point of an entire literary genre known as Uchronia or alternate histories.
Examples go back to alternate histories of Alexander the Great’s conquests, Napoleon and Russia, and the American Civil War.
At least three recent films have explored the idea of alternate pathways existing simultaneously:
Run, Lola, Run
In all three, the precarious knife-edge of reality is made visible and dramatic.
Some video games have embraced the concept wholeheartedly, with player interactions driving the game’s narrative through a vast ensemble of possible stories.
This is a practical application of combinatorics–10 orderings of 10 choices results in 10 billion possible stories, enough even for ardent gamers.
Art & Alternate Pathways
The earliest art form that makes use of alternate pathways within a composition as a compositional technique may be the Musikalisches Würfelspiel (musical dice game) employed by Mozart and others in the 18th and 19th centuries.
This is where the path through a composition is determined by successive dice throws.
John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and others further developed the idea more recently, using electronic instruments and computers to create a richer palette of possibilities.
But even all those possible musical pathways are written down in advance, so they don’t properly embody what we call the adjacent possible.
In real life, the alternate pathways are created on the fly rather than sitting there waiting to be explored.
Jazz & The Adjacent Possible
Musically, this is more like jazz– what has happened unfolds possibilities for what might happen next, and the paths not taken inform the path taken.
If we had infinite knowledge and predictive power, could we specify all the adjacent possibles in advance, making life into a kind of gigantic video game?
This is an open question, but there are reasons to suspect we cannot.
This requires introducing a couple of new characters, Kurt Gödel and Georg Cantor.
These gents explored the ideas of different classes of infinities and the nature of unprovable assertions in the 20th century.
But we will have to defer a discussion about their ideas until another book.
Creativity & The Garden of Forking Paths
Since every composition creates a new world unto itself, the process carves out a new world from all the worlds that might have been and perhaps still exist in the mind of the creator.
This is akin to how a sculptor like Michelangelo releases a figure from the stone. Bach knows how the fugue might have gone; Picasso knows how the brush stroke might have differed.
The unconscious world is much larger than the conscious one, a related and adjacent infinity, a greater world of possibility only the artist can perceive.
We have come full circle to find the unconscious, the creative, and the possible are all deeply connected.
In that place lives Art.
Vignette: Bob Reid
(Note: In homage to our beloved friend, Bob Reid, a person and artist extraordinaire, whom we lost in 2023. Bob is always in our hearts.)
I was born during World War II, a war baby.
If that wasn’t rare enough, I was the first grandson, first male on both sides. Two grandmothers lived nearby; they couldn’t do enough to help me become the real Bob Reid. They had a mission.
As I grew up, this little balloon that was Bob was growing. The surface between knowing and not- knowing was also growing. I became more and more aware of how much I didn’t know. So much to explore!
At the age of five, one grandmother gave me a Brownie camera, the other gave me a set of oil paints. All through school I painted and took photographs.
Some things I learned early on:
I realized that pleasing people was a dead-end street when they started commenting on my work. Person A wanted the sunset this color. Person B wanted the sunset a different color. I disagreed with them all. So, I learned to ignore them.
My grandmothers arranged my first show, a tableau of art and photographs spread across the top of a grand piano.
My mother adored it. My father, a man of few words, said “Bobby, you’ll never make a living as an artist.” My first art critique.
So, I veered off in the direction of photography. You can’t do photography “wrong,” can you? It is reality after all, whatever that is. It was enough to get my father off my back in any case. Later in life I would circle back to painting.
As an adult I spent many years flying all over the globe, working as a consulting statistician, educating people in business situations about the bell curve while avoiding telling them that it was anything but normal. I accumulated enough frequent flyer miles to go to Mars.
I also taught art and photography at the college level. I was confronted with the conundrum of teaching creativity. I decided that you can’t teach people anything, but they can learn.
If people don’t have curiosity, you can’t instill it. And I facilitated creativity by not telling them what to do, just as Nancy doesn’t tell her students what to do, but rather, exhorts us to trust ourselves so we can go to that edge of allowing something new to emerge in our art and life.
Instead, I attempted to arrange for them to stumble over interesting things, to explore and experiment, to find a nascent way to be themselves.
I took my class to the woods and told them to look around at the patterns and colors and shapes that they saw and to incorporate that into their work, but I didn’t tell them how to do it. I said, “Pick up something in the woods. Create a picture using the colors from the woods.”
This provided a fortuitous and spontaneous path into the adjacent possible. It is always there, but it is not packaged and “off the shelf” because it is different for different people and constantly changing.
By the time you get to a ripe age, all you’ve heard and experienced is, “Do this. Don’t do that. Go here. Wrist slap.” As Picasso said, “It takes a lifetime to learn to paint like a child.”
We must give ourselves the freedom to fail, get away from definitions of right and wrong in art. There are too many rules and too many people telling you to listen to them. We’re all dying of starvation at a banquet because of rules.
We can grant ourselves the liberty to learn. My wife’s parents went to the grave without ever eating Chinese food, which was both adjacent and possible. What marvelous things are right under your nose?
What will you explore when you give yourself “the freedom to fail, the liberty to learn” that Bob talks about? Write about it in your art journal–and then, begin experimenting!
With gratitude from our studio to yours,
Nancy & Bruce
Take Your Art Somewhere New- Nab your copy of our newest book: The Adjacent Possible: Guidebook & Stories Of Artistic Transformation.
Click on the arrow above to watch the video.
Get your copy of the book HERE.