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How Can Imagination Change the World?

Imagination can change the world because new ideas can change the world and it takes imagination to have a new idea. For example, in 1936, the logician Alan Turing published a paper where he imagines in precise detail a computing machine. It has a finite number of possible internal configurations, and scans an infinite tape one square at a time, writing or erasing symbols from a finite alphabet on the current square, moving to the next square, and changing its internal configuration, as determined by its current internal configuration and the currently scanned symbol, according to fixed rules. Although Turing was not the first person to imagine some sort of calculating machine, his paper is generally regarded as the first appearance of the modern idea of a computer. In World War II, inspired by his imaginary machines, Turing had a real computing machine built that played an important part in decrypting German military and naval signals, and so in the defeat of Nazism. Computers have changed the world in obviously massive ways — and without them, you would not be reading these words. Turing’s imagination changed the world.

The imagination has a dark side too. World War II started partly because Hitler imagined a Europe dominated by Nazi Germany. He also imagined genocide on an industrial scale. Hitler’s imagination changed the world. But his opponents imagined a different future for Europe and the world, one that would not merely reproduce the problems of the 1920s and 1930s. If they did not completely succeed in bringing about the post-war Europe they had imagined, they did not completely fail either.

Imagination proposes ways of achieving our goals. Confronted with a problem, we can turn our imaginations to generating many potential solutions. To take an example from everyday life, if you have noticed someone at work whom you would like to get to know, you try to imagine ways of bringing that about. Even if most of your ideas won’t work, one that does may be enough. But as well as suggesting new means to a pre-given goal, imagination may also suggest new goals to aim at: for example, a flying machine or a society in which everyone can afford basic health care.

Imagination suggests all sorts of things we might do. But how do we choose between them, deciding which are better or worse? We must think through and compare the various options. What would they really involve? What consequences are most likely to follow? Imagination can help us there too. Suppose that you are looking round an apartment, wondering whether to take it. You wonder whether you would like living there. If you do not try to imagine what living there would really be like, you are liable to make a bad mistake. Again, good teachers imagine what it is like for their students, struggling to understand, and design their classes accordingly. On a much wider scale, policymakers must think through the likely consequences of the policy options they are evaluating. For example, how will the people most affected react? What will voters think? If policymakers are bad at imagining how people unlike themselves will view their policies and their effects, they risk policy failure. Of course, they can conduct opinion polls, but what people say now is not always a sure guide to what they will think two years later. If they or their advisors cannot imagine why people might answer insincerely, or how their attitudes might change as a policy unfolds in practice, policymakers will not make good use of opinion polls. In general, thinking through both ends and means to those ends requires imagination.

Of course, imagination is not enough. If you are highly imaginative but have inadequate knowledge of the facts on the ground, you will very likely choose the wrong option. Even if you have adequate knowledge but do not apply it properly when you imagine the probable effects of an action, you are still lost. In principle, we can imagine virtually any action having virtually any consequences, through some bizarrely unlikely chain of causation. But we are also capable of using our imaginations to think through a possible action in a more responsible and disciplined way, by letting adequate background knowledge inform the development of the imagined scenario. Although not even that guarantees a correct answer, it makes one more likely. We can hardly hope for more; human cognition must manage without prior guarantees.

We rely on past experience, and learning from our mistakes, but by themselves those are often insufficient. We have to make choices in new situations that present complex combinations of factors never previously encountered in that form. For big decisions, the method of trial and error is rarely adequate, because too much is at stake. You cannot just invade a country to see whether it is a good idea. Imagination typically plays a role when we have to evaluate options without trying them. It may both suggest the options in the first place and enable us to compare them. This happens even in everyday life. You want to impress someone you have met at a party; you imagine different things to say, and quickly decide between them by imagining what sort of impression saying them would make.

In more abstract terms, imagination contributes to both the asking and the answering of questions. It can raise ‘What if?’ questions. What if you were to carry out an action A? What if a contingency C obtains? The imagination can also help us answer such questions. It may lead you to realize that if you were to carry out the action A, then it would or might have an effect E. It may show that if the contingency C obtains, then the policy P will or may be counter-productive.

In such ways, imagination can alert us to both opportunities and dangers. What if our government publicly congratulates a foreign leader on her policy? Then she may steer more trade opportunities in our direction, but there is also the danger of her becoming unpopular in her own country, because people there suspect that her policy benefits us more than it benefits them. What if extraterrestrial life makes contact with Earth? Then we may be able to learn from their superior civilization, or perhaps they will decide that hunting humans for sport is fun. Aware of opportunities and dangers within our control, we are better able to act in ways that tend to maximize the opportunities and minimize the dangers. Even if the opportunities and dangers are outside our control, we can still prepare for them, making contingency plans so that if they occur we are not caught out, but react appropriately in time.

The imagination itself constitutes both opportunities and dangers. Although the emphasis so far has mainly been on the opportunities, the case of Hitler was a reminder of the dangers. Imagination enables doctors to discover new ways of curing disease, but also torturers to discover new ways of inflicting pain. An imaginative vision of utopia may inspire social improvements, but may also convince fanatics that they are entitled to eliminate all those who present obstacles to realizing their vision.

In that respect, imagination is like other means to knowledge, for all knowledge has the potential to be used for both good and bad ends. Nevertheless, it does not follow that imagination is simply neutral, neither good nor bad, for we should not and do not assume that knowledge is neither good nor bad. After all, who denies that education is a good thing? Despite our awareness that all knowledge can be abused, we proceed on the default assumption that knowledge is better than ignorance. It is not only that knowledge may be an end in itself. Whether or not it is, we are likely to act better if we know which ends are more worth pursuing than other ends, and which means to those ends are more effective than other means. Since imagination is a means to knowledge, it inherits at least some of the instrumental value of knowledge.

For instance, imagination helps us gain knowledge of the pleasure or pain, the happiness or misery, that the actions we are choosing between would probably cause in other people. The more vividly we imagine it, the more likely it is to move us. If you don’t picture the suffering of the victims of a famine in a distant country, you are less likely to contribute money to a charity that helps relieve it. Of course, even knowledge of pain and suffering can in principle be abused. A complete sadist might use it to maximize the suffering he inflicted. Fortunately, such people are comparatively rare. In practice, I trust, cruel acts occur far more often because the perpetrators refrain from vividly imagining from the victim’s point of view exactly how it will feel than because the perpetrators do the imagining and gloat over it. At any rate, if you fail to imagine the situation from the point of view of others whom your actions will affect, you are in a worse position to act well.

To sum up: imagination can change the world because it is a means to knowledge, and knowledge can change the world. Imagination can change the world for better and for worse, because knowledge can. Nevertheless, knowledge has some tendency to change the world for better rather than for worse, and imagination inherits that tendency too. For example, it has played an essential role in medical discoveries. Unfortunately, the tendency is not universal. Imagination also played a role in the scientific discoveries on the basis of which weapons of mass destruction were built and industries that degrade the environment developed. The pessimistic scenario is that imagination will ultimately change the world by destroying it. The optimistic alternative is that imagination will enable us to avoid the pessimistic scenario.

Discussion Questions:

1. Can imagination change the world in ways beyond those suggested in the essay?

2. Can people be trained to use their imaginations more effectively?

3. What forms of thought do *not* employ imagination?

Discussion Summary

Very naturally, the discussion raised the question: what counts as imagination? Like other contributors, I understand the imagination in a broad way: visualizing and forming other sorts of mental imagery is imagining, but not all imagining involves mental imagery. You probably form a mental image if you are asked to imagine your name in lights; you may not if you are asked to imagine what sort of government Syria will have ten years from now. We imagine when we daydream, when we fantasize, when we pretend, when we perform a thought experiment, when we think about how things could have happened differently or how someone else is feeling, when we work out in advance how to climb a tree or what to say to a difficult person.

We can even imagine something that is in fact present to our senses. For example, you may see someone who looks vaguely like Helen Mirren at a party, and just for fun imagine her being Helen Mirren, although you don’t believe she is — until you are introduced, and find out she really is Helen Mirren. On the other hand, not all thinking about what isn’t present to our senses is imagining. If you read some boring statistics about a faraway place, you are thinking about something not present to your senses, but you needn’t be imagining anything.

In the essay, I proceeded on the basis that my readers would already be able to recognize clear cases of imagining, and clear cases of not imagining, when they occurred. I didn’t provide an exact definition. That was deliberate. Often, the best time for defining a phenomenon is after we have discovered its underlying nature, not before. Premature definitions risk drawing lines in the wrong places. My guess is that we shall need to understand the imagination much better than we now do before we can define it properly. Of course, in some situations we need to define our terms exactly before we can make progress, but I don’t think this is one of them.

We should not assume that imagination is an exclusively human problem. My cats sometimes seem to be mentally rehearsing a difficult jump before they try to make it. Such primitive forms of imagination may be a much better guide to its evolutionary origins than are its grander manifestations in art and literature. Even if all creativity involves considerable imagination, not all imagination involves considerable creativity. You don’t need to be highly creative to rehearse a jump in your mind.

Nevertheless, we can use our imaginations to develop morally valuable habits of feeling, or even virtues. Empathy with another person involves imagining how things look and feel to them. One can cultivate some forms of imagination by cultivating the habit of empathy, and skill in exercising it, for example by being alert to one’s errors — for example, when someone clearly didn’t like the present you chose for them. Becoming better at empathy encourages virtues such as kindness, consideration, sensitivity, and mercy. The imagination may also foster virtues through imitation of imagined models. Alexander the Great’s favorite book was the Iliad. Perhaps vividly imagining the courageous acts of Homer’s Greek heroes helped him develop the virtue of courage in himself. There may be analogous cases for all the virtues. For example, in one part of his Decameron, the fourteenth century author Giovanni Boccaccio tells some stories of strikingly noble and generous acts. Vividly imagining the events narrated, and as a result wanting to emulate them, may have encouraged the virtues of nobility and generosity in many readers — at least a little!

Influence runs in the other direction too, from virtues to skillful exercise of the imagination. Cognitive virtues such as care, accuracy and honesty make us better at imagining how things really look and feel to someone else, or what the outcome of a possible action would really be. Someone who is unimaginative will be defective both cognitively and morally.

Of course, we must be careful not to overplay the connection between imagination and virtue. Someone who is unimaginative may still be brave and honest. Conversely, someone may cultivate their imagination for evil ends, as I emphasized in the original essay. Even so, we can make the reasonable conjecture that increasing imagination increases virtue and increasing virtue increases imagination, when other things are equal — which often they are not.

Two new Big Questions:

1.   What is imagination?

2.   Does virtue require intelligence?