© Szorstki,
© Szorstki,

On a recent trip to Nottingham I met Mike Clifford, who is an Associate Professor in Engineering at Nottingham University. He’s interested in the role of imagination in science and engineering, and spoke on this topic at the Christian Postgraduate student conference last year. In his talk Clifford described how Scottish philosopher Adam Smith recognised a strong link between memory and imagination. We tend to pigeonhole objects in our memories, grouping them into classes. When we see an obviously new type of object it provokes both wonder and the invention of a new classification category. Smith said that scientists are people “who have spent their lives studying the connecting principles between objects [who] will often note intervals between two objects which more careless observers will think are… joined. [Science] therefore may be regarded as one of those arts which address themselves to the imagination.” Not all scientists are classificationists, but I think that Smith’s principle could be also applied to ideas. Close observation of both objects and theoretical or mathematical models is extremely important in science. The most exciting advances begin when imaginative people spot holes in current thinking. Having a well-developed set of mental pigeonholes also makes lateral thinking possible. Coming up with original ideas often involves connecting different areas of knowledge in ways no one else had anticipated. New syntheses aren’t always arrived at by plodding from A to B – they often happen when someone tries to leap from A to Z in one jump.

I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world…Logic will get you from A to Z; imagination will get you everywhere.

Albert Einstein

Every great advance in science has issued from a new audacity of imagination.

John Dewey, The Quest for Certainty (1929), Ch. XI

Advances were made in physics when Einstein and others began to conceive of conditions where Newtonian laws didn’t apply. Quantum mechanics was born. In mathematics, the use of negative numbers took hundreds of years to catch on. ‘Imaginary numbers’ were just as slow to be accepted, though they have important applications in both science and engineering.

Although to many [imaginary numbers] appear an extravagant thing, because even I held this opinion some time ago, since it appeared to me more sophistic than true, nevertheless I searched hard and found the demonstration…let the reader apply all his strength of mind, for [otherwise] even he will find himself deceived.

Rafael Bombelli (1526-1572)

Clifford commented that ‘I find it interesting that a failure to fully utilise the mind (including the imagination) may result in deception…it is only through the use of the mind or of the imagination that the truth will be revealed.’

The Christian in the one whose imagination should fly beyond the stars.

Francis Schaeffer, Art and the Bible, 1973

Of course to be useful a scientist’s imagination needs to be rooted in reality. What fascinates me is the contrast between our ability to grasp deep truth (such as imaginary numbers or quantum mechanics) and a different order of deep truths that are at times more or less socially acceptable – those to do with the person of God. Both require deep thinking and are controversial. Our minds are capable of grasping both and it’s important not to be deceived, either in a scientific or a metaphysical sense, through lack of hard thinking. So keep up the comments please, I don’t want to get lazy!

8 thoughts on “Imagination

  1. J Hardcastle March 22, 2012 / 10:41 am

    A request for more comment? No problem!

    I was curious about your “different orders of truth”. Those truths you say have to do with the person of god.

    I suppose I should ask first what you mean by truth. I have a feeling your definition may be different from mine. I woul define truth as that which is true, or that which is in accordance with reality. In my definition truth is not subjective and holds irrespective of what a person believes.

    These different orders of truth you mention seem to be of a different character than what I say above. With different believers holding to different truths and these truths having no external reference by which we can evaluate them. Are these truths really truths? Is there more than one truth? Can we differentiate these truths from imagination, because they do share the characteristics of imagination?

    It seems to me to be a slight misuse of the language to call truths what appear to be beliefs.


    • Ruth Bancewicz March 26, 2012 / 12:00 pm

      I agree entirely with your definition of truth. Contradictory beliefs cannot all be true.

      My different orders of truth were ones that have bigger consequences. As John Polkinghorne has said, believing in quarks and gluons doesn’t change my life in a radical way (though it might drive important technological advances), but believing that Jesus Christ is the son of God will change my life completely./ As I have said before, you can’t prove God exists with science any more that I can prove that someone human loves me, but I can build up enough evidence to have faith that God exists, or that the person loves me.


  2. paulstuartanderson March 26, 2012 / 4:27 pm

    Thanks Ruth for this. I see how it connects to seeing science as an aesthetic endeavour. Adam Smith apparently did not regard wonder as a pleasant experience. It was more like an experience of incoherence and confusion to which scientists were particularly sensitive – like a musician hearing a wrong note that most of us would miss. The job of explanation was to turn the dissonance into an experience of harmony by filling the causal gap, or introducing a new classification etc. In this sense, the job of science was to soothe the imagination, to minimise dissonance, and increase predictability.

    It seems to me he describes the rise of commerce in similar terms. In The Wealth of Nations, he argues that the move to bourgeois capitalism in Europe (by soaking up the feudal surplus) minimised the arbitrary violence of the feudal lords, increased order and good government and improved the regularity of justice. I wonder if there was a connection in his mind: just as a modern economy constrained political despotism, modern science was given the task of constraining the apparent arbitrariness of nature.

    It might seem strange to put Jesus and Adam Smith in the same sentence, but Jesus offered a different kind of salvation. He spoke about the unconstrained sovereignty of God but also as you said in the other post the love of a father. Sometimes he put them in the same sentence: “I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God”.


    • Ruth Bancewicz March 28, 2012 / 9:50 am

      That’s a useful bit about Adam Smith, I’ll use that! Where did you get it from?

      I think though, I was thinking of imagination in science in terms of problem solving and lateral thinking – refusing to be limited but what’s already been achieved. Though aesthetics and wonder are an important part of science.


  3. paulstuartanderson March 28, 2012 / 1:59 pm

    not so wonderful!
    then it is section 2 under “History of Astronomy”


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