MLA: When fact and fantasy collide

December 20, 2002

Is imagination more important than knowledge? Both are crucial to our species’ evolution, argues Kathleen Taylor in a prizewinning essay

Berlin, 1929. The poet and journalist George Sylvester Viereck has charmed an interview out of a reluctant superstar physicist. He asks: “How do you account for your discoveries? Through intuition or inspiration?” Albert Einstein replies: “Both. I sometimes feel I am right, but do not know it. When two expeditions of scientists went to test my theory I was convinced they would confirm my theory. I wasn’t surprised when the results confirmed my intuition, but I would have been surprised had I been wrong. I’m enough of an artist to draw freely on my imagination, which I think is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”

Knowledge versus imagination. Einstein’s aphorism reflects a recurrent theme in human thought. The ancient dichotomy between what we know and what we dream, intuit or sense by instinct is found, in some form, in every field of human intellectual endeavour. Artists, geniuses and other rebellious spirits have often claimed imagination as their territory. Knowledge is black and white, logical, conservative - the domain of curators and accountants. One’s view of which is more important depends on one’s personality.

The relevant distinction was best captured not by a psychology text but by a history book (of sorts): in their discussion of the English civil war, W. C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman famously described the Cavaliers as “wrong but wromantic” and the Roundheads as “right and repulsive”. Who’d be a Roundhead? Who won the civil war? Like many dichotomies, this one is an oversimplification. We know that the brilliance of many great artists was grounded in years of hard training; we know some excitingly imaginative museums and some highly creative accountants. Throughout our development as a species we have relied on a blend of imagination and knowledge. Both are valuable.

What then their relationship? Metaphors are plentiful. Knowledge is a stepping stone to imagination; it stands to imagination as honeycomb does to honey. Knowledge and imagination are enemies, or independent strands in the web of our mental lives. The Oxford English Dictionary states that imagination involves “forming a mental concept of what is not present to the senses”. But the full flavour of Einstein’s aphorism eludes this definition. I can form a mental concept of what I ate at last night’s dinner party though it is no longer present to any of my senses. Imagination is more than memory, it is something novel: adding a movie star or picturing the guests naked. Knowledge concerns itself with what is present to the senses, but it is also a stored and shared repository of publicly acceptable thoughts, many frozen into physical symbols (written or spoken), transmitted through time and space.

Knowledge coded, stored and expressed using symbols can, because of the entrancing flexibility of symbol systems, be broken up and reassembled in a multitude of novel combinations. It is this act of recombination that underlies the power to imagine. Our imagination is and must be grounded in our knowledge. The more memories we accumulate, the more material we have to work with, the richer and stranger are the fruits of our imagination. But imagination is not just the recombination of stored experiences. Such recombination happens every night even in organisms blessed with much less cortex than human beings. What distinguishes us is our capacity for controlled, wakeful dreaming. This is a useful survival aid, helping us to solve problems, anticipate challenges and conceive alternatives. But we have turned imagination into much more - a good in itself.

Like money, sex and drugs, we use it to satisfy our needs, flaunt our wealth and status, tighten our social bonds or distract us from realities we would rather avoid. The comparison with drugs implies the risk of addiction and, indeed, our urge to imagine and to consume the products of other people’s imagination can sometimes become extreme. Reality can be a bleak place, especially for those who lack the essential antidote: love. When depression sets in, an individual may lose the strength to use imagination to counteract the automatic, overwhelmingly negative thoughts characteristic of the condition. The products of others’ imaginations provide an alternative. A bestselling page-turner or fast-paced movie thriller draws us into another world.

These “fakeworlds” have two ingredients in common that make them attractive to millions. First, they provide an opportunity for “losing” oneself in an absorption where consciousness of self-as-independent-entity disappears: a sweet, safe, temporary death. Second, they deny Darwin, confirming T. S. Eliot’s view that “humankind cannot bear very much reality”. In a “fakeworld” the hero or heroine is special and is recognised as such by others. An uncaring universe cannot destroy them, indeed, they are at its centre - if they die the “fakeworld” dies with them.

Identifying with a person who interests such potent beings does no harm to the self-esteem. In some individuals such cognitive massage can become an obsession in a world where the public ideal is super-confidence. Here again we see the complementarity of imagination and knowledge. At both group and individual levels, knowledge facilitates community and continuity, while imagination facilitates change. Knowledge binds us to a sometimes oppressive existence; imagination helps us to escape it. However, imagination evolved as a tool for facilitating survival. Imagining, we take a step beyond what we know into the future or into another world. We see alternatives and possibilities; we work out what we need to reach our goals. Unhooked from reality, imagination no longer serves these life-enhancing purposes. Without new knowledge to feed it and keep it in check, it can become sterile and even dangerous: in Hume’s words, “nothing but sophistry and illusion”.

Another measurable way of thinking about the balance between imagination and knowledge (the “I/K ratio”) is to consider each as private or public, individual or group. Wittgenstein famously argued that language is essentially public, requiring consensus about the use of its symbols to maintain consistency in meaning over time. One might say the same about knowledge: it must derive from experience in a way that can in principle be reproduced by others. Imagination is a private thing, the leap of a single brain from established fact to exciting novelty. But once again the dichotomy is too simplistic. Knowledge strengthens group bonding, but the emergence of new knowledge in, for example, the sciences, can threaten a group’s very existence. Imagination can challenge rules and traditions by putting information together in novel ways; yet shared acts of imagination can also help to strengthen intra-group bonds. We think of ourselves as the only species capable of controlled dreaming, but it is hard to keep control unless we make our dreams public.

The greatest acts of imagination - from Bach’s cello suites or Milan Cathedral to Star Wars or Gunther von Hagens’ Bodyworlds - require not only creation but admiration: they depend for their impact on being heard, seen and understood in a cultural context built up over hundreds of years by thousands of people.

Was Einstein right? Is imagination more important than knowledge? As our realities become more complex we seem increasingly to prefer imagination, but that preference is culture dependent. Imagination flourishes when its products are highly valued. Leisure, wealth and a degree of political stability are prerequisites for the freedom essential to creativity and for the use of artistic products as indicators of social status. The relative political stability of 15th-century Italy, for example, was the context for some of the greatest artwork of the Renaissance.

When a society feels under threat, shared knowledge, exalted as “culture” or “tradition”, may be valued more, lowering the I/K ratio. Resources previously dedicated to artistic creativity may be diverted into attempts to protect the society or to acquire knowledge about the changes it is experiencing, leading to reduced artistic output. That the I/K ratio is culture-dependent is surely unsurprising. Even within a single society, the preferred I/K ratio in any given field of intellectual activity will depend on the field in question and on the person making the assessment.

This brings us to another aspect of the complementarity between knowledge and imagination: its dynamic nature. The I/K ratio changes over time. In some cases, a new branch of the sciences can begin with a few mavericks (high I/K ratio) whose research is initially dismissed as speculative. As their way of thinking gradually wins acceptance, it attracts recruits at an increasing rate until a paradigm shift occurs and allegiances transfer wholesale from the old establishment to the new. A time of growing stability follows in which knowledge is assembled (decreasing I/K ratio) that supports the new ideas. Creative output falls, stagnation gradually sets in. Problems start to emerge, which are ignored by all but a fewÉ and the cycle begins again.

As for science, so for religion. Cults often start with an act of radical imagining, but their doctrines tend to solidify into the restriction of dogma, leading to the rejection of any information that does not fit. As social psychologists have noted, however, the pattern of growth, stability and attrition seems to be a fundamental one for human groups across many different fields of endeavour. So is imagination more important than knowledge? It depends who you ask, what you ask about, and when.

Kathleen Taylor is a research scientist in the department of physiology at Oxford University. This is an edited version of her essay - inspired by the Einstein aphorism, “Imagination is more important than knowledge”, which won the 2002 THES /Palgrave Humanities and Social Sciences Writing Prize.

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