Tuesday, October 19, 2010

On Imagination

Imagination is more important than knowledge.
— Albert Einstein, Nobel laureate in physics & humanitarian

I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge — myth is more potent than history—dreams are more powerful than facts—hope always triumphs over experience—laughter is the cure for grief—love is stronger than death.
—Robert Fulghum, American author

Imagination grows by exercise, and contrary to common belief, is more powerful in the mature than in the young.
—W. Somerset Maugham, British author

It might seem odd to some that Albert Einstein, whom certainly prized scientific inquiry, would place a higher value on imagination than on knowledge. Not so strange if you understand how limiting knowledge is, and how freeing imaginative thinking is and can be for anyone willing to put aside conventional wisdom. Knowledge, on the other hand, often gets reduced to facts, especially today when people are pressed for time and want a quick answer.

On knowledge, let's use the example of the famous quote, a well-worn maxim, stressing the importance of knowledge and its attendant benefits: "Knowledge is Power." On the surface, we seem to understand its intentions, particularly in a modern sense with our modern mind and sensibilities.

Imagination (1896): Bronze door at main entrance of the Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building.
Artist: Olin Levi Warner (1844–1896). Photo Credit: Carol Highsmith, 2007. Courtesy: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-highsm-03137.

Or do we? Yet, my curiosity gets the better of me. Accordingly, my response to that axiom is to ask a host of questions, including 1) what kind of knowledge should one acquire?; and 2) what kind of power would one possess?; and 3) how would or should you exercise that power, should you be given it?

The word power in itself speaks of control, control of self, perhaps, and then control of others. As the Nobel Peace laureate, Elie Wiesel, pointed out: "Ultimately, the only power to which man should aspire is that which he exercises over himself."

So, now we are likely getting closer to the writer's original intent. The original quote comes from Francis Bacon, the 16th century English philosopher, in his book, Religious Meditations, Of Heresies (1597). Mr. Bacon was many things in his time, including statesman, philosopher, scientist and the father of empiricism. Thus, your knowledge of that fact gives a different meaning to Sir Francis Bacon's quote. It is linked, likely, to religious knowledge and the power contained within the wellspring of religious knowledge.

It takes imagination to search out answers in a way that defies conventional thinking, although that has its place in most circumstances. Truly, imagination might be the cure to the disease of the unquenchable thirst for power. Imagination is also not only the domain of the children. Adults need to nurture their imaginations if they want to enjoy life to the fullest.

Dr. Einstein's full quote on imagination gives us further clues to his thinking, and is found in Cosmic Religion: With Other Opinions and Aphorisms (1931) : 
I believe in intuition and inspiration. Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution. It is, strictly speaking, a real factor in scientific research. (97)
Many other scientists agree. Another consideration is that imagination offers an antidote to the thirst for power. It helps if you have young children to watch, as I do, since they offer reminders of the important things in life.

As for Francis Bacon's view on imagination, we can get a sense of his views from this quote: "Imagination was given to man to compensate him for what he is not; a sense of humor to console him for what he is." 

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