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Simplicity-Complexity-and The Observer In Creativity- Nancy Hillis MD and Bruce Sawhill PhD

Simplicity-Complexity-and The Observer In Creativity- The following post is informed by conversations with Stanford educated theoretical physicist and mathematician, Dr. Bruce Sawhill.

Simplicity, Complexity, and the Observer In Creativity


We continue our journey of moving towards the idea of a sweet spot in artistic creativity, a balance between freedom and constraint.

This sweet spot is informed by satisfiability, a strange and exotic subfield at the intersection of computer science and physics.

This satisfiability displays a phase transition, something we hinted at previously but have not yet fully explained.

This phase transition is related to complexity, a concept which has several formal explanations, none of which we have properly and fully articulated yet.

This is a common tactic of blusterers, to explain incomprehensible subject A in terms of incomprehensible subject B. “The frooble is activated by the interaction of the gwampf and the kerzzle”

We’re not going to do that, but the price we pay is a carefully constructed explanation that will take some time.

“But wait a minute!”, you might well protest, “Not all paintings or other works of art are equally constrained or complex!”

Some works of art are spectacularly simple, others seem completely unconstrained.


Simplicity & Constraint In Art


Below is a series of drawings by Picasso, successively stripping away detail until only a few lines remain. 

Yet it is still obvious what the drawing represents.

Those few lines, seemingly capricious and simple, are in fact very constrained.

The drawings are fascinating because of how much thought they generate within the observer.


The Bull- Pablo Picasso

The Bull- Pablo Picasso


Minimalism In Music


Another example, from the musical world, is a minimalist piece called Spiegel im Spiegel, by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, now residing in Berlin. 

The piece contains so much structure that it is hard to imagine how it could hold one’s interest, and in fact it could be represented by a short algorithm (computational recipe) on a computer.

You may find it boring, but we find it endlessly fascinating for reasons we cannot fully articulate- it feels inexorable, profound, calm, and accepting.

It’s also a piece that has become a deep connection in the relationship between myself and Bruce, where Bruce plays the piano and I play the  cello. It feels like a reaffirmation of vows whenever we play it.


Immutability and Experience


But we have a way around the seeming huge variation in complexity and constraint in art.

We are not speaking solely of the work of art as something immutable that sits out there in the cosmos somewhere, untouchable by human sentiment like a star thousands of light years away.

We speak of something that might touch us deeply and occasionally so profoundly as to be life-changing.


Milky Way- Simplicity, Complexity and The Observer In Creativity- Nancy Hillis MD and Bruce Sawhill PhD

Milky Way

Art & The Observer


We want to instead consider a system which consists primarily of the work of art combined with the observer. 

To a lesser degree, we need to consider the entire culture of which the observer is a part.

What the observer brings to the work of art is as important as the work of art itself, in terms of creating a meaningful or even profound experience.


The Thinker- Rodin

The Thinker- Rodin

Darwin Revisited


In biology, this is called the “unit of selection” problem.

We’ve often heard evolution a la Darwin expressed pithily as “the survival of the fittest”, but that is glib.

The fittest what? 

Is it individual, or family group, or clan, or entire species?

The idea of ‘fitness’ is easier to understand. It is the ability to keep on keeping on, to keep on stepping into the adjacent possible as the context morphs and changes.

Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle


In quantum physics, the phenomenon being studied and the observer are inseparable.

The act of observing changes what is observed because detecting something physical requires shining some form of light on it, where light can be anything from radio waves to X-rays.

Since light has energy, that energy interacts with what we’re looking at and modifies it, jiggling it around.

This is the root of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.


Heisenberg Diagram

Heisenberg Diagram

Humor Break


In grad school, Bruce was known for a drink called the Heisenberg.

It was a kind of atomic milkshake made out of milk, espresso ice cream, and a liberal amount of vodka, blended in a turbocharged blender that made the lights dim when fired up. 

It got its name because “it made you uncertain of your principles.”

It was very nerdy, but also delicious.

And it followed in the footsteps of illustrious libations at the boundary of literature and science such as John Steinbeck’s Ricketts’ Folly and Douglas Adams’ Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster.

Back To Uncertainty


In physics, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle is easily expressed in terms of quantifiable parts. We will keep our minimal equations promise, though, and not show it here, but were we to do so, it would fit in one line with room to spare.

Complex Systems


In terms of the complex interactions of a species (or clan, or individual, or family…) and its environment or an artwork and its observer, we do not yet have equations to describe the interaction.

Equations are simple things that compress a huge amount of information into a few symbols, and perhaps the hallmark of complexity is incompressibility.

It’s not clear we ever will have equations to describe this kind of complex interaction in its entirety, though that won’t prevent us and others from trying.

We want a kind of Heisenberg uncertainty principle for complex evolving systems that describes the interaction of a reasoning and feeling observer with a creative work or an ecosystem and its environment.

It’s a tall order.

Since we don’t have such a principle yet, the next best thing is to make an educated guess as to the best place to start looking.

This is the ultimate goal of this series of the thirty or so last blog posts.

Our suspicion is that:


The balance between freedom and constraint is part of what drives creativity.


Art Quote- Nancy Hillis- Freedom, constraint and creativity


Another significant part is the interaction with the environment of perception, in particular the realms of the known, the unknown, and the unknown unknown.


Wouldn’t it be interesting if the contemplation of the power of art was what enabled a generalized understanding of complex evolutionary systems?


It wouldn’t be the first time that art has preceded science.

Galileo & Mountains On The Moon


It is not so well-known that one of Galileo’s most famous observations was informed by art. 

Using his new invention of the telescope in the early 1600s, Galileo was able to observe mountains on the moon. 

But he didn’t really “observe” them, he inferred them.

In 1612, he wrote the following letter to the painter Ludovico Cardi:


The statue does not have its relief by virtue of being wide, long and deep but by virtue of being light in some places and dark in others.

And one should note as proof of this that only two of its three dimensions are actually exposed to the eye: length and width (which is the superficies . . . that is to say, periphery or circumference).

For, of the objects appearing and seen, we see nothing but their superficies; their depth can not be perceived by the eye because our vision does not penetrate opaque bodies.

The eye then sees only length and width and never thickness.

Thus, since thickness is never exposed to view, nothing but length and width can be perceived by us in a statue.

We know of depth, not as a visual experience per se and absolutely but only by accident and in relation to light and darkness.

And all this is present in painting no less than sculpture. . . .

But sculpture receives lightness and darkness from nature herself whereas painting receives it from Art.



By observing a ragged boundary between the bright and dark sides of the moon, Galileo was able to infer the existence of mountains casting shadows.

A two-dimensional image seen through a primitive telescope gave three-dimensional information.



Moon Drawings- Galileo

Moon Drawings- Galileo



This doesn’t seem like such a big deal, but at the time heavenly bodies such as planets were assumed to have a kind of Platonic perfection- perfectly spherical and featureless, rather than pitted and scoured like the corrupt Earth. 

Mountains on the moon were more than a bit heretical. 

Voodoo Physics


Unlike shining light on atoms as occurs in physics, our observing of a work of art does not change the physical artwork itself, but it changes how it lives within us.

It’s kind of a voodoo phenomenon- we act on the equivalent of a voodoo doll, an internal representation of an external work, in our minds.


An artwork is a kind of suggestion that sets off an elaborate internal process.


Art Quote- Nancy Hillis- Art As Suggestion

What Do Philosophers Say About Immutable Truth & Perception?


Both Plato and Kant talked about an immutable truth “out there”, inaccessible to us, and we only get to perceive shadows of it, limited and filtered by our perceptions.

Plato talked about it about using his metaphor of the Cave, Kant talked about in terms of the Ding an sich, an object existing independent of human perception.

Both philosophers sought an immutable reality independent of human perception and description.

Since art is intimately connected with perception, does that disqualify it from being profound, at least according to Kant and Plato?

Why Is Art Profound?


We assert that the process of experiencing art allows us to infer the deep truths of existence, to transcend the limitations of our perception and to experience a world not accessible in a physical way.


Art Quotes-Nancy Hillis- Art and the deep truths of existence


Art may draw us in with patterns and colors, but that is not what keeps us there. It transforms us and evolves us.

The physical reality of the artwork itself is almost incidental.


Art is a suggestion, a touchstone, an amulet, that allows us to briefly visit the deepest truths of our existence.


What Is Art? Qoute from Simplicity, Complexity & The Observer In Creativity- Nancy Hillis MD and Bruce Sawhill PhD


Art is an existential guest pass to leave the Cave for a moment for a brief glimpse of the infinities beyond.


With gratitude from my studio to yours,



P.S. Leave us a comment and tell us about what art means to you.




Say YES To Your Dreams- Nancy Hillis- The Artist's Journey®

Say YES To Your Dreams-
The Artist’s Journey®: Creativity Reflection Journal


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