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What Is the Essential Feature of Creative Intelligence?

Creative intelligence is easier to describe by what it is not than by what it is. But there is a clue in that very fact…

I’ve spent the past couple articles debunking artificial intelligence. It is just as artificial as its name suggests. It takes on the appearance of intelligence through speed but it lacks the fundamental ability to create a well-matched start and end. So a perceptive reader has returned with another good question: “What is creative intelligence?”

The reader is right to ask. Yes, telling someone that the exquisite dessert is not celery and not cod liver oil does not help us understand what the dessert itself is.

There is a mystery regarding the very nature of human intelligence. Like its antithesis, randomness, creative intelligence is easier to describe by what it is not than by what it is. But, we can try!

I liken creative intelligence to finding a puzzle piece. Think back to when you’ve had that “aha!” moment. In my experience, what happens is I’ve tried a whole lot of different ways to solve a problem, none of which have worked. In the course of trying many possibilities, a gap begins to emerge in my mind. I see that the problem has begun to take shape.

Instead of a blank void, the problem space has become filled with all the failed attempts, leaving an outline of what the solution must look like. When that outline comes into focus enough, suddenly, in a flash of insight it is filled in with the solution.

To use another analogy, creative intelligence is like the “connect the dots” puzzle. We start out with a bunch of random, numbered dots. As we connect them together at some point we suddenly see a picture emerge. After that point, knowing what the picture is supposed to be, we can easily and confidently connect up the rest of the dots.


Coming at this from another angle, sometimes the problem is not so much a blank void as a cluttered attic. We must reduce and simplify until we can find the long lost chest lying hidden. After enough cleaning and organizing, the answer just appears.

Take one final example, the magic eye puzzles. When we look at the flat chaotic image in just the right way, a 3D image pops out at us.

From all of these examples, a single, unified concept emerges. Our creative intelligence is not a Rube Goldberg machine of useless complexity cobbled together to achieve a random goal. Even in our sophisticated inventions, such as the car or computer, the complexity is all organized around a single concept and that concept is the key to understanding the complexity. Once you understand the purpose of the system and its constraints, the mechanisms to achieve the purpose tend to fall into place.

We call this unified concept the principle of the system. In mathematics, principles are called axioms. The interesting thing about mathematical axioms is they cannot be generated by other axioms. They are self-subsistent fundamental truths. This was proven by mathematician Kurt Gödel in his famous Incompleteness Theorems.

From all this we can see the hallmark of creative intelligence is to somehow pull principles into existence. But, the trick is, we cannot say how the fundamental flash of insight occurs. This is the
fundamental dilemma, and we must pay attention here:

For if we could in fact define how to get flashes of insight, then we would have a method to generate principles. And as Gödel proved, if we can generate the principle, it is not fundamental, and therefore, not a principle. To discover the principle of all principles would cut off the very limb we are sitting upon. That is why the very nature of creative intelligence, though we can catch glimpses of it, will remain forever outside our grasp.

You may also wish to read:

For computers, smart is not the same thing as fast. In response to a reader’s good question …

Computers are getting faster but are they getting smarter? No.
Computers are Turing machines, limited to operations that can be completely understood in relation to their programming


Could one single machine invent everything? The king’s perpetual innovation machine was all ready to roll but then a skeptic butted in…

Eric Holloway

Senior Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Eric Holloway is a Senior Fellow with the Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence, and holds a PhD in Electrical & Computer Engineering from Baylor University. A Captain in the United States Air Force, he served in the US and Afghanistan. He is the co-editor of Naturalism and Its Alternatives in Scientific Methodologies.

What Is the Essential Feature of Creative Intelligence?