Humans have long had fertile imaginations. It isn’t just that we see patterns everywhere, but that we see them and make up stories about them. Whether it be the forest, the wind, or the stars, we have long read into the world around us a rich tapestry of our own imagination.
A thread that runs through it all is the agency we ascribe to the patterns. The gods control our fates, the spirits reward or punish us, the stars foretell our future. Even the remnant of tea leaves in the bottom of a cup gives us an important and relevant message.
But what happens when we don’t exercise our imagination?
It doesn’t go away, it’s far too fundamental in us to simply vanish. A river flowing that deep and wide doesn’t just evaporate, it finds a path. We can’t help but apply our innate human tools.
Yet modern culture not only rarely begs of our imagination, it often actively campaigns against it. As society becomes more and more secular, more based on numbers, religions and astrology are put on the same shelf — viewed as discards and refuge of the needy and poor.
[Even spiritual pursuits for most moderns is received dogma that asks little of the mind other than acceptance and belief. In fact, some are hostile towards questions.]
So our scientific numerical world, outside the hands of mathematicians and some scientists, requires no imagination. There is little or no room left for imagination in most daily lives.
At least not in our work and regular interactions. In modern cultures, play, that oh so vital mental activity, has always been the final bastion of imagination.
Children still have the rich imaginations of our ancestors. To play with a child is to enter a world of literal magics and innocent delights. It’s something that many adults find awkward and challenging — a native talent that growing up often erases.
We might point to movies, TV shows, or video games, as vast instances of imagination, which they surely are, but they don’t require much of our imagination, and that’s the point.
We just sit back and watch.
Modern techniques have made visual entertainment look entirely lifelike. Unlike books or plays, which require our imagination, the verisimilitude of modern video gives us a real life experience that parallels what we experience from the news or documentaries.
The blurring of the line between reality and fiction is a topic for other posts; right now there is just the fact that the visual forms we consume for entertainment have become very realistic and don’t ask us to imagine anything — they show it to us.
As an old phrase suggests, “It doesn’t leave much to the imagination.”
My canonical example has long been how we depict being gunshot. Long ago it involved the victim clutching their (bloodless) stomach, groaning, and falling down. For real excitement a stunt guy might fall off a stunt horse. Through the ages, those visuals have… changed.
[If you want one more thing about our history to piss you off, look up the “Running W” horse stunt. The best outcome was a very unhappy horse that was done for the day. To steal an old medical punchline, “the stunt was a success, but the horse died.” So the horses are safer now, and the visuals are the horrific part.]
Anyway, it has occurred to me that the superior realism of today’s movies, TV shows, and video games, may have had an unfortunate double whammy on our psyches.
Firstly, I’ve long thought the level of realism makes our visual stories much more powerful, which is a sword with two edges. They’re more immersive and engaging, but they also have greater power to affect and shape us (just as real life does).
So while CGI and film techniques bring wonder and realism, we may also have given them more power to program our minds.
Books and plays don’t have the same power because the lack of realism distances the viewer from the content. (Which is generally a good idea — stories should not be too immersive. We must always be able to know they are stories.)
That said, literary fiction has the power of ideas, which famously move mountains.
Secondly, and this is my thesis, such realism in stories, contra books and plays, removes the need for, and exercise of, our imaginations. We no longer need to imagine anything about Lord of the Rings or Sherlock Holmes.
Indeed, in the latter case, there are myriad visualizations to pick from, which has the nice effect of making the character blurry again.
[I’ve mentioned before how the LotR movies have “collapsed” my imagination wave-function regarding those characters and settings. Now if I read those stories Frodo has collapsed to Elijah Wood. I’m currently re-reading American Gods, by Neil Gaiman, and thanks to the Starz series, Wednesday is forever collapsed now to Ian McShane. Fortunately, that’s great casting.]
So what is the consequence of rarely exercising our imagination?
More importantly and to the point: Does it get subverted into a tendency to believe in fantasy bullshit?
I can’t help but wonder if our need to imagine, when subverted, doesn’t turn into a generic fascination with conspiracies or astrology or flat Earth or multiple worlds or whatever fantasy bullshit comes along and seems grabs the mind.
Is this explained by our need to imagine?
Take away the gods, take away the spirits, take away the stars, the cards, and the tea leaves, and what remains? Our fantasy heroes and ideas?
Especially since the 2020 election, and extra especially since Wednesday of this week, I’ve been wondering how people can be so deluded.
Are people really that stupid? I’ve never actually met anyone that stupid, so I think something more is going on. Consider the scientific delusions, SUSY or string theory, for two examples. Highly intelligent, highly educated, highly capable people with good track records believe these things, pursue them as real. String theory captivated (and still does) a large segment of physics.
It’s not stupidity. I think — maybe — it’s our imaginations running wild in a world that doesn’t tend to exercise them. Perhaps it’s like how one gets muscle cramps when stressing unused muscles.
[With science, some imagination and guesswork is required. Science is nothing without inspiration and intuition. But, as always, the key is recognizing fact from fancy and not conflating them. And in the end, it’s experimental results that wins the day.]
I think paint ball games and climbing walls might reflect our need for imagination. Flight simulator games may also tap into the desire to imagine.
On a deeper level, those who play militia and survivor games are clearly indulging their imaginations. Watching the members of an invading army raping the Capital I was struck by the dress-up nature and strong sense of people living in an imaginary world.
I saw a lot in common with those most far gone into science fiction or Renaissance Faire fantasies, but here with an ideology based on fear, hate, grievance, perceived privilege, and violence.
I suspect much of it revolves around a small number of hate-fueled disgraces to the human race (cockroaches that should simply be squashed and forgotten), but they are amplified many times over by followers and technology.
Utterly starved for something to imagine, they believe in the world they’ve been handed by false prophets.
A small ray of sun through the clouds, it seems that some of them have finally, at long last, found the bottom of the rabbit hole.
Too little too late for my money, but better late than never.
I wonder what the hangover on that one must be like. “OMG! I sided with Satan! I’ll never be clean again.”
No. No, you won’t. That’s a stain that won’t wash off.
[I’d say, “Be ashamed,” but it seems shame is one of those old-fashioned social imagination things we lost somewhere along the way.]
On a lighter and harmless note, the subverted imaginations of scientists can, in some cases, take on tinges of cultism, which I think is a good indication of how invested our imagination can get.
I must cite the MWI here for the striking evangelism and arrogance of its strongest proponents. People like Sean Carroll and David Deutsch, who, no mistake, have made enormous contributions to physics, have a “One True View” approach that both puts me off and throws a red flag on the play.
It’s also, I think, a good illustration that intelligence and education alone aren’t a shield from fantasy bullshit. They only up the quality of the bullshit. It’s well-grounded scientifically plausible bullshit.
But it’s still bullshit.
[Do I need to explain that “bullshit” is meant in a broad and mild way? Actual bullshit is excellent fertilizer and manure from ruminants doesn’t stink like the feces of meat-eaters. If a friend starts going on about something, one might affectionately say, “That’s some bullshit there, my friend!” It just means: not factual, not evidential, not real. Kinda like: No shirt, no shoes, no service.]
I do sometimes wonder about the canonical spherical cow of science. Physics traditionally oversimplifies, and I wonder if that thinking is infectious.
Not to pick on the MWI here, but one thing that strikes me is the sweeping (and contra observational) idea that the wave-function meaningfully applies to classical objects. It seems an overly simplistic view to assume a single piece of math applies to all of reality.
It seems another example of imagination subverted.
So what’s the solution? As always, my one-word answer is: Education!
Teach children to think critically and for themselves, expose them to the width and depth of the genuine real world and its peoples, excite them with the possibilities unlocked by true knowledge and understanding,… and so much of this shit goes away.
It could be the world the Victorians imagined way back when knowledge and science lifted us from our dark bestial ages and seemed capable of delivering utopia to all (or, at least what they thought of as “all”).
I do think education is one key. Another is ruthless self-awareness. One of my favorite quotes, due to Albert Camus, is: “An intellectual is someone whose mind watches itself.”
It’s about reducing the hidden-from-self part of the Johari Window. It’s about asking why one believes the things one believes. If the belief is sound, it’ll survive those questions just fine. One might even thrive on the better understanding of one’s own beliefs.
Stay watching your minds, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.