Wednesday, September 21, 2011


Knowledge or expertise should not be taken too seriously, because there is nothing definitive about these. It is only when they are laid aside in play that the truth-generating core of the mind asserts itself. That truth-generating action of the mind does not yield definitive knowledge either because local cultural factors intervene; but the authenticity of the experience behind the creative act is in itself a kind of truth.
Play is essential to the operation of intelligence. Unfortunately the various cognates of the Latin verb ludere (illusion, delusion, collusion) show that we consider playing with ideas to be connected with falsehood. This may at times be so, but some playing is clearly generative of what we call truth. Playing generates truth when the result of the play is a creative synthesis that is of cognitive value and that constitutes a genuine contribution to understanding. Children are the specialists in true play and an ability to re-discover this ability in the mind of the adult is always fruitful.
Imagination is frequently considered to be a rather childish aspect of the mind. But once again, this is a theory of the left-brain, a theory of the control-freakish ego. Of course, children do have a rich imaginative life, but then so may adults if they do not stifle it. The difference with adult imagination is threefold: 1) it has far more intellectual material in which to express itself; 2) it is far more likely to be swamped by this material; and 3) it is liable to take fright at the strangeness of the new. Adult and child have opposite strengths and weaknesses. The child’s relative freedom from intellectual baggage is its great strength, but it is also its relative weakness, since it lacks the formal skills to give a convincing account of what is happening in its mind. The adult may have these formal skills, but is often so intent on manipulating them that the deliverances of the imagination are suppressed. Thus the imagination in human beings suffers from real problems that stem from either formal weakness or formal strength. The genius, the innovator, the creative individual manages to retain an imaginative richness while mastering and further developing high formal skill. There is, indeed no other way for the skills of humanity to be extended and deepened except by their creative extension and expansion through the imagination.
The superficial conception of the imagination is that of a sort of inner picturing faculty; and indeed, this is one of its most powerful modes of operation. But it can equally operate with feeling-toned ‘hunches’ concerning the nature of reality and concerning the inadequacy of prevailing beliefs. It is indeed always a rather emotional business and it might be salutary to attribute a cognitive role to certain feelings in this respect. The feelings of the unprejudiced, curious imaginative mind, whatever its expertise, are those of intense interest, excited anticipation, joy, aesthetic pleasure and the ecstatic ‘eureka’-reaction; they are quite distinct from the feelings of the scheming ego which are those of self-regard, self-promotion, fear of defeat and desire to dominate.
Descartes’ (rather dismissive) understanding of the imagination was entirely that of an inner vision, an inner ‘viewing’ of possibility and as such it has in his writing obvious weaknesses, as for example in the inability of the imagination to ‘picture’ a geometrical figure with more than a fairly small number of sides, whereas the intellect can conceive the most complex polygons, for example, according to definition with great clarity. It may be, however, that it is precisely the imprecision of the imagination that is its greatest strength as far as its role as originator of new structure is concerned. The imagination is unconcerned by internal contradiction: it can combine contradictory features without being restricted by the existing formal constraints of a formal system. But these contradictions are frequently resolved by the imagination itself through the recasting of the formal system so as to incorporate the former ‘contradictions’ as aspects of a higher unity.
As instances of the power of the creative imagination, examples such as Einstein’s adolescent fantasies concerning the behaviour of a light wave as observed by someone travelling on a light-wave, that became the precursor to the considerations leading to relativity-theory, or Kekulé’s dream of the snake biting its own tail as an image of the benzol-ring, are often quoted in books on creativity. They are quoted as examples of visual imagery that led in the minds of great innovators to major scientific discovery. But the limiting of the imagination to this kind of visual imagery is a grave mistake. The imagination can, indeed, allow ‘visions’ of all kinds, visions that have no visual content in them at all. For example, the imagination of Mozart was extraordinarily powerful, but operated with sound. The whole of a symphony could be present in the mind of the composer at once as a single field of complex vibrations, and at that point it would be simply a matter of writing it down in the musical notation of the time. The mathematical imagination of a Poincaré or a Ramanujan, the famous Indian mathematician of raw genius, seemed to work in substantially the same fashion, though with entirely different material. Poincaré felt the emergence of a new mathematical insight simply as a kind of pressure associated with a hazy visual image. This pressure was accompanied by an inner certainty that a problem that he had been working on for some time had been solved in his mind and that it was now simply a matter of writing it down in an acceptable formalism. Ramanujan discovered mathematics of a very advanced nature without having had the benefit of advanced mathematical training. He seemed able to invent his own formalism to express his astonishing gifts and to repair the lack of formal education. He talked of his mathematical inventiveness as a kind of ‘seeing’, but insisted that it was a seeing of a very special kind and only vaguely analogous to visualisation.
Much more than the ability to engage in a sort of inner visualisation, the human imagination seems to involve the ability to relax the control exercised by knowledge, training, conditioning and the like and to give in to a kind of playful dissolution of orthodoxy that is then followed by a reconfiguration of the elements of that orthodoxy in a new and more illuminating form. The fact that this breaking and re-casting of the old is in the highest degree an involuntary process makes it intrinsically worrying for the ego. The ego does not like to be the recipient of gifts it cannot control. Yet the imagination depends precisely upon the relaxation of control, on the abandonment – even if only provisionally – of control and on the yielding to a sort of mental fluidity. Control may be exercised at a later stage on the productions of the imagination, but the control is not the imagination, it is merely the tidying-up operation after the main creative work has been done. The ability to accept without prejudice, to receive without pre-conception is absolutely vital to the functioning of the imagination. Without this humility, this modesty, there simply is no imagination. A rigidly orthodox and doctrinaire ego will never submit to the presentations of the imagination and will never admit that the imagination can provide it with insight for which it can not claim sole and complete credit.
The imagination in western culture tends to be treated patronisingly and its activity officially restricted to the ‘arts’ – that is to say to areas of intellectual life that are intrinsically frivolous and of far lesser value than the authoritatively ‘rigorous’ offerings of science. But this general scheme of things is a deceitful – or self-deluding – invention of the scientific ego and of its favourite ideology. Imagination in all its forms is essential to the process of research in every field, not only in those fields that seem to deal with visual imagery. Every scientific discipline has been revolutionised by the imaginative overview of inventive genius. The work of the imagination in the dissolving and re-casting of scientific theory is not universally admitted. It is just that the intrinsically ‘scientific’ work is the careful job of testing theory experimentally and expressing the experimental confirmations of theory in precise formal language. Imaginative creativity operates, however, at all levels and in all aspects of the scientific process. Even the designers of experiment require imaginative solutions to experimental problems that cannot be arrived at by the application of old methods. Given this, it is all the more remarkable that the myth of the scientific researcher as a careful collector of evidence and a careful practitioner of logical method was so sedulously fostered by the scientific community for so long. One can only suppose that the desire of the ego to distance itself from the preoccupation with revelation at the heart of European Christianity was so great that it had to take over even that prerogative of the divinity and become its cause.
Yet revelation is not a bad term to sum up the innovatory products of the human imagination and their effects upon the history of human culture. Early societies, lacking the machinery of logic and systematised induction, were reliant on imaginative syntheses of the mythological type. No-one should be under any illusion about the role of these imaginative syntheses in ancient societies: those who used them were as conscious of the difference between mythologem and reality as any modern person. The language of myth was a formal language in which the vocables were not those of physical objects, but which nevertheless functioned in direct analogy to the cognitive worth of the modern scientific theory. The difference of course was that the mythological synthesis contained ethical as well as purely ‘physical’ explanation, thus the logic was different. Indeed, the distinction between the ethical and the factual was not made: ‘is’ and ‘ought’ were fused by the poetic imagery. However, one point of extreme importance that one has to retain in this context is that the same process of refinement and criticism went on with regard to the mythological world-systems as goes on in present day science. Indeed, the scientific arose directly out of the mythological, as can be seen in the thought of the first of the eminent pre-Socratics, the philosopher Thales. What disappears in the scientific refinement of mythological ideas is precisely the visual symbolism; yet it is this visual element that permits the development of a more abstract language. There is no absolute distinction to be made in fact between mythological and scientific views of the universe, though their language is different.
The modern scientific stance is derived very substantially from the religious notion of the monotheistic, lawgiving deity of the Jews. The entire notion of 'laws of nature' implies a lawgiver and that lawgiver was historically understood as the monotheistic God. The modern enthusiasm for abolishing the deity has more to do with academic self-love and with the ambitions of the ego than it does with any serious discredit to the religious idea. So religious and scientific thought can be seen as separate aspects of a single human experience, in which insights about the nature of the world are first expressed in visual or emotional images that contain in undifferentiated combination elements that the scientific mind will later find to be inappropriate – ethical, emotional elements that militate against the strictly ‘objective’ or ‘reificatory’ intent of scientific portrayal. These visual elements are winnowed out of our scientific vision of reality, but some of them nevertheless get through and continue to inform, however unconsciously, the scientific mind. It is these images that generate the new insights that re-cast science and that burst autonomously upon the innovator. In religion as in science, this irruption of novelty into the formal language of orthodoxy has a revelatory character that simply cannot be reduced to any known mechanism.
One may not want to use the mythological language of ‘revelation’, but if you think about it, this is no more mythological than the language of ‘laws’ of nature. The problem of the lawgiver is one that will not go away in modern physics. Similarly the problem of the agency that does the revealing of ever more depths to reality is one that will not go away in intellectual life. If it were left to the brain, we would be stuck in more or less routine behaviour like that of the non-human animals. The fact is, we are more than our brains: we use them; they are not us. We can see ourselves as having access in our creative intelligence to the indeterminate core of reality – that is to say, to the indeterminate core of mind, self, language and world. Objectivity, according to the dogma of naturalism, was supposed to be the practice of letting the world speak for itself; whereas it was no more than the ego’s talking the language of things and pretending that it was the world that spoke. In the creative, intelligent imagination, we come up against the indeterminate core of the world, we become hyperworld and we generate midworld – both archetypal human experiences. It is in this experience, where creating and being created become one, that the imagination reveals its greatest power and we, as beings, maximise out potential. Our imagination connects us with the active information that structures every aspect of the universal energy field, from sub-atomic particle to human brain. In this respect, the world has always ‘spoken’ for itself, though it may use our language to do so. In using our language as in using our brain, the world transforms both. It may be that we owe the evolution of our brain itself to the increasing intimacy of this talk, to the growing consciousness of this hyperworld connection. After all, you need a pretty powerful machine to bring the fundamental process of reality symbolically into consciousness. The onward course of this evolution is unlimited in our imagination and we should not allow the rational ego to suggest otherwise.

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