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Diving between worlds

Ruth Bancewicz

The most inspiring scientists, like the best theologians or artists, are amphibians moving between material reality and the deep resonance of our visionary minds. Ruth Bancewicz explores the depths - and limits - of the human imagination.

Imagination is part of what makes us human. We have the ability look beyond our immediate needs: to dream and invent, tell stories and search for spiritual realities. Of course, other animals can also be creative in small ways. Many species sing or dance, some build homes, and a few decorate their environment or make tools. Whether these actions are truly creative is open to interpretation, but they appear to at least express something of what the animal is feeling.

There seems to be something distinctively human, however, about our own abundant use of imagination. We interact with other people by imagining how they feel, and choose language we think they will be able to relate to. We can also transcend our physical environment, reflecting on our experiences and finding meaning in life.

The act of imagining seems to be instinctive, but what is going on in our minds when we do it? To imagine is to have a mental image, either of something real or invented. You use your imagination to conjure up an idea or a plan for the future. Imagination is what we use for remembering, or to guess what happens next.

The creative arts are an excellent outlet for our imaginations, but so are many of the tasks we do every day. Gardening, planning holidays, choosing gifts, or cooking meals all involve imagination at some level. Imagination is also an essential part of any intellectual activity.

 

AMPHIBIOUS BEINGS

Douglas Hedley, a philosopher and theologian at Cambridge University, has thought very deeply about how we use our imaginations. In his book Living Forms of the Imagination he describes how, like amphibians, we inhabit two different worlds: the outer, material world, and an inner, mental world of memories and ideals. These worlds are distinct but related, and we have adapted to inhabit both at the same time.

Children are a great example of our amphibious nature. They move seamlessly from real-life situations to imaginary scenarios, and back again. Two little girls might be running down the beach when they come across a piece of driftwood. Suddenly one of them is a lifeguard heroically rescuing the other from quicksand. They reach the sea and are little girls again, screaming and daring each other to put their feet in the freezing cold water. Then they run back up the sand and one of them becomes a horse and the other is a rider.

As adults we tend to use our imaginations in a less overt way. The imaginary worlds we inhabit are more likely to be made up of memories, problems that need to be solved, or plans for the future. When we make decisions we work imaginatively though different scenarios based on our knowledge of the world and our past experiences. By transcending our environment we can come up with solutions that seem more promising than others. We are amphibians, Hedleysays, moving between the limited world of what our five senses tell us, and 'a much vaster domain populated by after-images from memory and projected fears and desires'.

 

ROUTE TO REALITY

Samuel Taylor Coleridge divided imagination into two categories. The primary or reproductive imagination is to do with seeing things, and ordering them in our memories. The secondary or productive imagination transcends the mental order we have created and reorganizes it to make new and deeper meanings. This is where our ideas come from, and is essential for any creative activity.

So far, so uncontroversial. Let's push the boat out a bit further. Each of us interprets the world in order to make sense of it. Everything we see or hear is stored away in its chosen cubbyhole. That mental sorting system then feeds back into our thinking. If ice cream is categorized as 'food', then when I am hungry I might reach for an ice cream. If, on the other hand, ice cream is pigeonholed as 'unhealthy food' I might avoid it. In many ways, we imaginatively create the worlds we inhabit.

To find out how a working scientist uses her imagination, I met up with Dr Jennifer Siggers, a senior lecturer in the Department of Bioengineering at Imperial College, London. Her office is an inspiring space in a grand corner of the capital city - perched up in what was once the Royal School of Mines in South Kensington, just around the corner from the Museums of Science and Natural History. The windows look out over roofs and domes, the walls were covered with just a few bookshelves and a whiteboard, itself covered with formulae, marked the room out as a place of study.

 

FLUID THINKING

Jennifer studied maths, specializing in fluid dynamics (the way fluids move) at Cambridge University. During her time as a PhD student she strayed into some seminars on the medical applications of mathematics, and was firmly hooked. One of her main research projects now involves studying microcirculation through capillaries in the liver.

When I asked Jennifer about her understanding of imagination in her own context, she said that 'science is very creative and you need to have good ideas … The more you can think out of the box, the better'. Sometimes what is needed are ideas that are - in Jennifer's words - 'a bit wacky', and staring at a blank piece of paper is not always conducive to that sort of thinking. She said, 'I tend to get [ideas] when I'm going to bed or I'm quite relaxed … having thought about the problem deeply and then stopping thinking about it, going home and doing something different, or even on the way home: that can be the time when inspiration strikes.'

Jennifer also thinks her environment inspires her ideas. Being next door to so many museums and having an office perched among the rooftops are great perks of her job. 'It's impossible to tell whether those things really help or not, but I think they probably do. What definitely helps is walking through the park on my way to work, because I tend to arrive in a good mood… That has been tested!'

 

MENTAL SCIENCE

Scientists use imagination in a number of other ways, all of which feed into the process of having ideas.1 The first - and most important - is visual imagination, which scientists use to create mental pictures or models, and do thought experiments. Just before I met Jennifer she had been using mental pictures to help solve an equation. She was breaking it down, using a different physical concept to visualize the effect of each mathematical term. So diffusion is when things spread out, decay means things drop off, and so on. After adding a new term, she would check the equation to see if it had the effect she had envisaged.

Scientists also use their imaginations to come up with everyday examples that illustrate difficult concepts. One useful analogy for Jennifer comes from the human body. 'A lot of researchers will think of our blood circulation system as being like a big electrical circuit with a battery, which is the heart sending off signals. So resistance (slowing down of the current) represents how long and narrow the arteries are, and capacitance (ability to store charge) represents their elasticity.'

Finally, there are the assumptions we bring to science: our mental pigeonholes. Einstein thought his equations should show symmetry, unity, and continuity, and although these ideals led him to make some mistakes later in his career, he didn't regret having them to start with. He said trying to work without assumptions would be like trying to breathe in a vacuum. We need an imaginary framework within which to start making sense of the world, even if that framework is replaced by something else later on by a bold leap of imagination.

 

TESTING REALITY

The biologist Sir Peter Medawar described a hypothesis as 'an imaginative preconception of what the truth might be'. The scientist's job, said Medawar, is then to do experiments that are 'designed to find out whether this imagined world of our hypothesis corresponds to the real one'.2 As amphibians, we need to constantly move between our inner and outer worlds, testing which of our ideas are good and which need to be revised or jettisoned completely.

C. S. Lewis described this process of sifting ideas in his imaginatively titled essay, 'Bluspels and Flalansferes'.3 He said that 'imagination is the organ of meaning', because it is the source of all metaphors. Is my love a red, red rose or a bloodsucking vampire? Is DNA like a blueprint or a set of switches? Once a number of potential meanings are on the table, then reason - 'the natural organ of truth' - looks at the information available from both our inner and outer worlds, and judges between them. So reason needs imagination before it can get started, and imagination needs reason to keep it in check.

For Jennifer Siggers, this process of hypothesizing and testing - both in and out of the lab - leads her to God. She said, 'science makes much more sense if there is, at some deep level, a truth that we're pursuing'. For her, mathematics has its origin in God. Through her work she is 'discovering what he's already put there, and it's absolutely beautiful'. When she uses her imagination to tackle a problem in bioengineering, she expects to discover something. 'The fact that I believe in a God makes me confident that there's an answer to any scientific question we're asking. Whether we'll find it, I don't know, but there is an answer.'

 

THOUGHT EXPERIMENTS

Imagination is important in all of Christian living, and in similar ways to science. First, there are mental images. Perhaps the best example of these is scriptural meditation - visualizing a scene from the Bible or imagining yourself to be one of the people there. I have used this as a way to become more aware of the full implications of Jesus' teaching for my own life, and understand them more deeply.

We also use thought experiments in a Christian context. Psalm 139 includes an exercise in thinking about the mind of God: 'How precious to me are your thoughts, God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand - when I awake, I am still with you.' The picture the psalmist paints of his own slumbering on the job creates a beautiful image. It's almost as if the counting continues throughout the night as he sleeps, and when it's over he awakes to enjoy God's presence.

Analogies are likewise important in Christianity. God is spirit, so we need concrete ways to remind ourselves about him. A very powerful set of analogies are found in Jesus' teaching. Discovering God is like finding a priceless pearl. We should be like the 'good Samaritan'. God loves us like the best kind of father. Jesus used these stories to capture the imagination of his audience, and drive home his point in a very memorable way.

 

LIMITS OF METAPHOR

Some scientists are very cautious about using visual illustrations in science. It's impossible to avoid using them because they provide one of the best ways of understanding the world, but we need to remember that the picture is only one way of describing a much deeper and more complex reality. The same applies to a Christian's understanding of God. I can only think about him through metaphors, but I need to remember that God is more real than even the best imaginative illustration of his character. For example, human fatherhood is a picture or shadow of God's fatherhood, and not the other way around.

When it comes to imagination, science can enhance faith. Jennifer Siggers explained how this works for her. 'I definitely bring a lot of the skills from my work into things that I do with church. For example, when I explain Bible passages to people, something I almost always do is to make an analogy to try and bring the passage alive to the listeners in a new way. As I do this it helps me to understand the meaning better, because I've created an illustration and in doing so had to think about whether it conveys the right meaning. When I do this, I often have to drop a few of them, because I've thought, actually that's not really what it's like. The story isn't quite trying to convey that theme. That is very similar to aspects of the process of research.'

 

SENSE-MAKING

The last use of imagination in Christianity is in making sense of what we experience. According tothe theologian and scientist Alister McGrath, there are signs in nature that point beyond themselves to another reality: to God. The order we see in the universe, the fact that we can understand it, the emergence of life, and our own experience of spirituality are not proof for God, but for many people they point to his existence. When you look at how things are in nature, the God hypothesis makes the most sense.

Douglas Hedley agrees: 'In the Scriptures, faith tends to be opposed to sight, not to knowledge'. If 'sight' is similar to science - the desire to see hard evidence for something - then what God does can go beyond scientific knowledge. There are limits to the type of questions science can answer, but there are other types of knowledge - particularly where relationships are concerned. As Hedley says, 'Just as we use the imagination to relate to other minds, appreciate beauty and understand goodness, we need imagination to engage with God's action in the world.'4

Some people would label this type of imagining as 'fancy' (dreaming up imaginary worlds), but Hedley disagrees. He thinks that human curiosity reflects something real about the world. 'We seek order, and we find it.' One important scientific technique is inference to the best explanation. Any data set can be interpreted in a number of ways, and the challenge then is to decide which interpretation is the most correct. This sorting of possibilities and running of mental scenarios requires imaginative judgments and intuition, and Christian thinking requires the same skills.

 

IMAGINATIVE FREEDOM

Scientists are cautious about imagination, and so are theologians - which is good because both types of people influence the way many people live their lives. Whether trusting the scientific principles behind technology or making decisions about the way I live my life, I want to avoid being misled. We can also mislead ourselves. I can use my imagination to make sense of the world in a productive way, but the undirected imagination can lead to some very dark places.

Douglas Hedley calls the wrong use of imagination 'fantasy': not the type of fantasy we use to entertain children or explore truths about life, but a way of fooling ourselves that can lead to destructive behaviour. He writes that 'Selfishness, anxiety, cruelty, fanaticism and superstition are products of fantasy … Fantasy creates a substitute domain for the empirical world … and is frequently marked by a poverty of imaginative possibilities.'5

Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, summed all this up when he wrote that sin is simply 'the condition of being seriously wrong about reality'. He went on to say that our perception of reality is naturally skewed, so we need to keep asking ourselves awkward questions.6 Is that the best interpretation of the data? Am I understanding that person properly? Developing this constant awareness is not easy, and we can't simply rely on our own resources to do this. The humble recognition that we can't pull ourselves up by our own bootlaces, said Williams, is the beginning of the way back to the reality that knowing God brings, and true freedom of imagination.

 

FULFILLED AMPHIBIANS

So we use our imaginations to build up a picture of the world, and hopefully a realistic one. We pigeonhole things and rearrange them to make better sense of what we know, or come up with new ideas. We move amphibiously between our inner and outer worlds, testing our ideas against experience of the world and other people.

Thinking about imagination in this way can be a bit mind-bending. Of all the topics I have written on in my new book, this one has been the most challenging - but it might also be the most important. I am now more aware of the ways in which imaginative thinking can help or hinder the way I live my life.

In his book, Pensées ('Thoughts'), Blaise Pascal described an imaginary journey through the immensity of the universe, immersing himself in the vast scales of astronomy and cosmology. For Pascal, a French scientist whose many talents included physics and mathematics, scientific knowledge enhanced faith by expanding his own mental picture of the world:

'Let man then contemplate the whole of nature in her full and lofty majesty, let him turn his gaze away from the lowly objects around him; let him behold the dazzling light set like an eternal lamp to light up the universe, let him see the earth as a mere speck compared to the vast orbit described by this star, and let him marvel at finding this vast orbit itself to be no more than the tiniest point compared to that described by the stars revolving in the firmament. But if our eyes stop there, let our imagination proceed further … Nature is an infinite sphere whose centre is everywhere and circumference nowhere. In short it is the greatest perceptible mark of God's omnipotence that our imagination should lose itself in that thought.'7

 

Ruth Bancewicz is a senior research associate at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, Cambridge. Her PhD is in genetics, and she now works on the positive interaction between science and faith, and the Test of FAITH project. Her blog is at scienceandbelief.org, and her latest book God in the Lab was published by Monarch this autumn.

NOTES

1 Holton, 'On the art of scientific imagination', Daedalus, pages 183-208

2 Peter Medawar, The Limits of Science, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986, page 51

3 C. S. Lewis, 'Bluspels & Flalansferes: A Semantic Nightmare', in Selected Literary Essays, Ed. Walter Hooper, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969, pages 251-65

4 Douglas Hedley, Living Forms of the Imagination, London: T&T Clark, 2008, page 3-5

5 Douglas Hedley, Living Forms of the Imagination, London: T&T Clark, 2008

6 Rowan Williams, 'Sinners', in Joan Chittister & Rowan Williams, For All That Has Been, Thanks: Growing a sense of gratitude, Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2010, pages 52-64.

7 Blaise Pascal, Pensées, number 72. http://www.gutenberg.org/ files/18269/18269-h/18269-h.htm