I couldn’t spend the rest of my life imagining I had magical powers that would let me walk through walls or that my best friend was an invisible unicorn that could fly
Despite having a lifelong interest in science fiction and fantasy, there was a stage in my life when I despised ‘imagination.’ Let me explain.
It came about as I started growing into my scientific boots in high school. Progressing through the educational system I heard the common educational platitudes like ‘Imagination unlocks the world’ or ‘Imagination unleashes your potential’ or the plain old ‘Use your imagination.’
However, as I studied biology, chemistry, and physics, I started learning about the real laws and real constraints of the physical world. I also began experiencing real life disappointments and setbacks. As a result, I felt a bit disillusioned by imagination.
After all, I couldn’t spend the rest of my life imagining I had magical powers that would let me walk through walls or that my best friend was an invisible unicorn that could fly.
Sure, imagination was a part of childhood development. Sure, it could still provide some entertainment value. But unless you were a fantasy novel author or in the movie business, imagination was bit overhyped.
…when I became a man, I put away childish things
— Paul, 1st Corinthians 13
Moreover, as I increased in my faith and religious knowledge, I found I didn’t want to exist in a world of childhood imaginations. I wanted to see things as they really were.
As Paul said in the New Testament:
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
It was clearly time in my life to start putting away childish imaginations, and start focusing on reality. Admittedly, there was still room in my life for fun and imagination, good old-fashioned creativity, entertainment (like reading all the Harry Potter books), but those were just sideshows to the real virtues of reason, logic, diligence, hard work, and the pursuit of truth.
This approach worked well through my high school and into my college experience. I had opportunities to study math, science, history, and language. And in college, a lot of chemistry.
I also pursued the study of my faith, learning diligently about God and my relationship to him and the universe. I took religious classes while also keeping a consistent schedule of personal study and reflection.
As my education continued into graduate studies, I ultimately found that I reached some limitations in book learning. In my areas of deepest study, I had reached the edge of the known universe.
If the world’s knowledge of truth were a city, I had found some of its outer limits. I had always known such a place existed, but for years I had spent so much time learning the known streets and roads of various parts of the city, it didn’t seem like I would ever come upon the limits.
But it turns out they come pretty fast.
In graduate school, I was instructed that my main work was not to study what was already known. While I would continue to learn from others, my path to a PhD would involve forging a trail into the territory of the unknown. I would have to discover and learn things that no one else in the world knew about.
It might just be a small sliver of knowledge. But it had to be new.
The Return of Imagination to Science
Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.
— Albert Einstein
At this point, I began to understand better the importance of imagination. I learned that to progress beyond the limits of current knowledge, you have to hypothesize about possibilities that do not yet exist.
I also came to appreciate that many historical advances in scientific knowledge have been made by the younger practitioners in a field. This is not because they had extra wisdom, energy, or special insight. It is because they had not yet failed enough to stifle their imagination.
I also learned about some of the famous scientists that relied on imagination to guide their discoveries.
Albert Einstein used a Gedankenexerpimente (thought experiment) to imagine riding on a light beam.
String theorists imagined a world with 11 dimensions of space and time.
Stephen Hawking imagined what happens on the edge of the event horizon of a black hole.
And nearly every other prosaic or grand advancement in science started with a ‘what-if’ hypothesis.
As the famous quote from Einstein says:
I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.
The Return of Imagination to Faith
Can you imagine to yourselves that ye hear the voice of the Lord, saying…Come unto me ye blessed
— Alma, Book of Mormon
Similarly, in religious, faith-filled thought, imagination is needed to live by faith. For the faithful, there is a limit to what one knows about God and eternity in this life.
Study and learning and understanding can fill some gaps, but ultimately for those who walk by faith, it requires imagination to think of what might exist beyond this life. It is the “hope” of Christ that propels us on.
Without imagination, faith and hope are concepts that are not possible.
How can we look forward to life with our Heavenly Father unless we can imagine things that do not exist on this earth?
How can we look to be better and follow the Savior if we cannot imagine him in our place and think about what he would do in our shoes?
How can we fully repent unless we can imagine ourselves as a better person?
In the Book of Mormon, the teacher Alma asks his listeners to imagine a future state of being. He writes
Do ye exercise faith in the redemption of him who created you?
Do you look forward with an eye of faith, and view this mortal body raised in immortality, and this corruption raised in incorruption, to stand before God to be judged according to the deeds which have been done in the mortal body?
I say unto you, can you imagine to yourselves that ye hear the voice of the Lord, saying unto you, in that day:
Come unto me ye blessed, for behold, your works have been the works of righteousness upon the face of the earth?
To continue with Paul:
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
Uncertainty and a lack of clarity are a part of this life, but we can look forward to seeing clearly in the future.
Imagination to Knowledge
As discussed in this article, there is a tension that often exists when knowledge is limited. Most religious and scientific belief contain some measure of conflicting knowledge and contradicting fact.
The bridge to understanding from contradiction usually involves imagination and hypothesis along the way. It takes imagination to start to hypothesize and understand how contradicting thoughts can be resolved and how seeming inconsistencies can be resolved with a bigger picture.
In contrast with my past self, I now love imagination. I rely on fantasy, imagination, and hypothesis to help me understand the world as it really is, and as it really will be.
As Richard Feynmann said:
Our imagination is stretched to the utmost, not, as in fiction, to imagine things which are not really there, but just to comprehend those things which are there.
I now use imagination to picture how my future self would act and behave. I use imagination to see how I can get from my current state to my future state. I use imagination to help myself draw closer to God, to understand the world that he lives in, and how I can learn to be more like him.
I’ve come to understand that imagination is the key to reality.
If you haven’t heard of Alma (quoted above) or ever read the Book of Mormon, you should check out this article to find 6 reasons the Book of Mormon can add power to your life.