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Creativity, Voltaire and the Fallacy of Optimization- Nancy Hillis

Creativity, Voltaire and the Fallacy of Optimization- Nancy Hillis

Creativity, Voltaire and the Fallacy of Optimization

In a recent blog post, we talked about the Goldilocks Zone, a place where life and creativity can flourish, whether we’re talking about the conditions for life emerging on planets around other stars or the conditions for cultivating your very own creative life.

We briefly touched upon the idea of optimization, and we called the Goldilocks Zone optimal.

In a modern interpretation of the word, optimization is a mathematical or computational process of finding the best solution to a problem. It has deep roots in the Enlightenment, reaching all the way back to Newton and becoming well understood and commonly accepted by around 1800.

The Machine Metaphor

The concept of optimization has a strong flavor of the Industrial Revolution baked in. You can almost hear the whirring of the machines and smell the hot oil.

Besotted by the prospect of a sure and unique answer to our problem, we’re lured into the doctrine of optimization. We become smug in the knowledge that we possess the best solution for our problem.

The process of optimization tells you how to move from start to finish in the best way possible, so long as you are able to define what characterizes the best outcome you’re looking for. This assumes that you know the ingredients you have to work with and how they relate to each other.

You have to know how to keep score in this game.

It’s about the fastest way of getting from A to B with the least amount of problems.

Examples include: Achieving the highest crop yield in a given acreage, attaining the highest price per bottle of wine for your winery, weaving the most valuable carpets with the machines you possess.

Mathematicians call this kind of problem well-defined. One knows what one is working with and what one is working towards at the outset. It harkens back to a time when mathematics was closer to philosophy.

Two centuries ago, the term optimal had a moral flavor to it.

  • It was virtuous, the opposite of sinful.
  • It minimized waste and maximized growth and profit.
  • It was the Age of Reason, and optimization offered a way to apply reason to human affairs.

But even back then, not everyone was on board.

Voltaire’s Objection

Voltaire in his satire Candide spoke derisively about “the best of all possible worlds” to point out the limits of a reductionist mathematical approach to complex issues like human relationships. He showed that following such an approach led to a comedically dysfunctional state.

Voltaire was jabbing at his French mathematician colleagues, and just about anyone else in range, who were making increasingly extravagant claims about the power of their analytical methods.

In fact, paradoxically, Candide was originally titled The Optimist, a word which shares the same root as optimization.

Open-ended experiences

Where optimization encounters severe difficulties is in dealing with open-ended problems and questions.

Many issues in life cannot be reduced down to the construct of problem and solution.

The Danish existential philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said:

Live is a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved.


These are situations where one doesn’t know how to keep score and one might not even know the ingredients one has to work with at the outset. This describes many situations.

Life cannot be reduced down to a mathematical equation.

Ardent fans of optimization tend to think of life as largely optimizable with a few pathological exceptions off to the side.

Stanislaw Ulam, one of the Manhattan project nuclear scientists, wryly observed that these pathological exceptions can be compared to the study of non-elephant zoology.

But wait a minute!

Isn’t most of zoology non-elephant zoology?

That’s my point exactly.

The situations that optimization is incapable of addressing are not rare exceptions to some rule but rather the vast majority of experience.

To cope, ardent fans of optimization just stay away from situations where it doesn’t apply.

This reminds me of the joke about the patient who goes to the doctor and says, “Doc, it hurts when I do this.” The doctor replies, “Don’t do that.”

The effects of this avoidant behavior are illustrated in the following story:

A policeman sees an inebriated man searching for something under a streetlight and asks what the man has lost. He says he lost his keys. They both look under the streetlight together.

After a few minutes the policeman asks if he is sure he lost them here, and the drunk man replies, no, and that he lost them in the park.

The policeman asks why he is searching here, and the drunk man replies, “This is where the light is”.

The Streetlight Effect

This is called the streetlight effect and is an example of observational bias.

There is a world famous experiment where one is asked to count the number of times a ball is tossed and caught between a group of people, which causes a startling observational bias.

Try it here.

We can be led far astray when we misapply certain mental constructs to situations they are not intended for. The danger is: “To a hammer, everything is a nail.”

What are these inappropriate situations and what does all of this have to do with art, life and creativity?

I thought you’d never ask.

Life, art and creativity will not bend to the will of reductionism

Art, life and creativity are open-ended experiences

T.S. Eliot writes in The Four Quartets:

For last years words belong to last years language. And next years words await another voice.

Art and life are characterized by a situation where action influences context, which influences action which influences context in an endless circle.

This type of dynamic is not addressed by the techniques of optimization.

Shifting Sands

The rules and ingredients of the game keep changing because they’re the results of previous games.

We must keep evolving.

The drive to succeed and survive creates an endless churn- endless experimentation without clear indication that things are getting better in a consistently measurable sense.

Not only do the measurements change, so does the yardstick! Nothing is permanent.

Stephen J Gould, the renowned Harvard paleontologist, hypothesized that there was a direction to evolution, that there was a drive toward an external measure of optimality, namely, the complexity of organisms.

He hypothesized that organisms evolved to be more complex, with more genes and more cell types and yet, he found that paleontological evidence did not bear this out.

The Adjacent Possible

Gould found that organisms are just exploring different parts of a vast space of possibilities in a random way, something we now call the adjacent possible.

Sometimes the movement is towards complexity and sometimes it’s not.

It seems that the way of things is change, evolution.

We see this all around us.

A quotidian example is fashion. Fashion is continually changing whether it’s each season or over the course of decades.

The existential imperative is this message: Be different.

It’s not necessarily about being better than before.

Be different, no matter what….otherwise, you’re old news.

We desire change and surprise, otherwise how do we know we’re alive?

The abstract artist Michael Cutlip said,

When I go into the studio, if I already know what’s going to happen, it’s all over.

The computer scientist Donald Knuth said,

Premature optimization is the root of all evil.

I doubt these two have ever met, but if they did, I imagine they’d find a great deal to talk about.

In the Goldilocks Zone there are optimal conditions for life, but that does not mean there’s an optimal story of how life unfolds.

While the Goldilocks Zone optimizes for the biological reality of life, it doesn’t tell you what kind of life, what kind of experience, what kind of meaning will manifest from this creation.

Likewise, in art, there are optimal conditions for fostering artistic creativity, but the artistic creativity itself is not optimizable.

Creativity is not reducible to a formula.

Art is inherently about the unknown, the ineffable, the mysterious.

Moving closer and closer to your deepest self expression is not about technique, which, taken to an extreme, leads to empty virtuosity.

While techniques can be helpful, we don’t lead with them. We work with principles of art and move into the unknown through exploration and experimentation.

In art, it’s not about the answers but rather the questions.

The poet Rilke said:

Live the questions.


With gratitude from my studio to yours,





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