None of us believe Mr. Darcy or Oliver Twist are real, no matter how much we might wish it so. Yet fiction's most fantastical creations have a habit of leaping into reality. Does imagination create reality, and if so, do we need to conjure new visions of better worlds to relegate the darkness of the present?
Dylan Evans is a behavioural scientist and CEO of risk intelligence company Projection Point. He has been selected as among the Independent’s twenty best young writers in Britain and described by the Guardian as “Alain de Botton in a lab coat”.
Here he speaks to the IAI about the relationship between imagination and reality, and why this affects how we can build a better future.
You take the view that our imaginations play a very important part in shaping our reality. Can you give a few examples of how this works?
It is more accurate to say that our imaginations shape our perception of reality, than to say that they shape reality itself. Perception is not just a matter of sensory input; it is also shaped by the ideas and preconceptions we have. Two people can see the same situation in very different ways. To a convinced atheist, for example, the crucifixion of Jesus seems a mere gruesome spectacle, an act of bloody torture. But to a Christian the crucifixion is not merely a man being tortured, but the Son of God, suffering to redeem our sins. The latter imagines something entirely different to the former. Or take Steve Jobs. To a believer in free markets, he can seem like a pioneering entrepreneur, creating jobs and wealth. To a communist, on the other hand, he might appear to be the very embodiment of an exploitative capitalist, living off the labour of others.
Do you think that the role our imaginations play in shaping who we are and the world around us is a good thing, or would we be happier and more fulfilled seeing and accepting things for what they are?
We cannot see things for what they are. Our perception is inevitably shaped by the perspectives we bring with us. Would we be happier if we could somehow scrape away all our preconceptions and view the world “as it really is”? I doubt if this even makes sense. The world as humans see it is not a set of objective facts, but a universe thoroughly imbued with meaning. Even atheists live in a world of meaning. Therefore I don’t think this question is well-posed. However, it does embody the widespread illusion that we or our descendants might some day achieve a god-like view of the universe. This is a naïve idea.
"It is stupid to imagine a perfect future. In fact, it impedes progress, rather than aiding it."
Our online identities are often prone to be unrealistic representations of who we really are. This seems to be one way in which our imaginations cause us inner fragmentation and unhappiness. Do you think there are any benefits to our virtual lives?
Of course there are benefits to our virtual lives. Thanks to networking sites like Facebook, it is much easier to stay in touch with distant friends. But it is also true that online communities can become silos that exclude unwelcome information and foster a kind of narcissism. I don’t think the Internet poses a fundamentally different challenge here than previous technologies though. The rise of the novel in the nineteenth century gave rise to similar concerns.
How do you think we can best use our imaginations to build a better future?
By not letting them run riot. I am going against conventional wisdom here, which suggests that we should give our imaginations free rein in order to build futures that are radically different from, and radically better than, the present. That is a seductive argument, but it inevitably leads to people wasting their time on thinking about long-term risks, or unlikely threats, their heads in the clouds, while civil wars rage and millions are forced to flee their homelands. There is a role for imagination in building a better future, of course, but it is a limited one. It is one that is constrained by what we know about human nature. It is pointless to imagine a society without greed, for example.
Could there be a danger that by imagining the perfect future, we are actually setting ourselves up for dissatisfaction and discontent?
It is stupid to imagine a perfect future. In fact, it impedes progress, rather than aiding it. I agree with Amartya Sen, who argues that we should focus our attention on eliminating the obvious injustices that face us in the present, rather than on overcoming the inevitable disagreements about the most just world in some hypothetical future. There are many manifest injustices in the world today; we should ask ourselves, “how can we make the world a little less unjust?” rather than “how can we build the perfectly just society?”