Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Imagination and reality

On a wall of an administration building here at the college someone has made a bulletin board of inspiring quotes for graduating seniors. One of them caught my eye: "Imagination is the one weapon in the war against reality." -- Jules de Gaultier.

I haven't a clue who is Jules de Gaultier, but his thought strikes me as infelicitous. America is presently engaged in a "faith-based" war on reality, and I would want our graduates to ally themselves with the "reality-based" community so denigrated by the present administration in Washington and its political base.

Which is not to denigrate imagination. Imagination is at the heart of all great art and science; it is the wings that let us soar where no one has gone before. But imagination need not be at war with reality. Rather, a healthy respect for reality is the one thing that keeps imagination from winging off into superstition, hubris, and paranoia.

Einstein is sometimes quoted by those who exhalt the role of imagination: "Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world." It is certainly true that Einstein had a prodigious imagination. But he always tested the products of imagination against the hard blade of empiricism, and he was not afraid to let go of an imaginative concept when reality gave the nod.