Imagination and people who lack it

The world is full of many very annoying things, and one of them is people who don’t get thought experiments. With these people, I feel, it’s probably legitimate to just walk off and start talking to someone else.

You’ve probably met them. They hear about Schrödinger’s cat and their main concern, without a hint of irony, is that the experiment is cruel to cats. Their response to both Maxwell and Descartes is either to inform you that demons don’t really exist or to assume that the whole point of the thought experiment is to suggest that they do.

I remember once asking someone to imagine time suddenly moving backwards and try to say what they’d notice as different (my point was that, if we imagine ”everything” reversing itself—which is a reasonable interpretation of what it means for time to suddenly move backwards—then this would be indistinguishable from everyday experience). The response depressed me: “But time doesn’t move backwards!”

I don’t think that all non-academics have imaginations this stunted, and I suspect that a fair few academics do (I know that a couple do). It is, however, probably true to say that there are fewer such people inside academia than outside, and that there are very few of them in science and philosophy, where thought experiments play an important role. It’s interesting, therefore, that while a good imagination is probably a requirement of being a good scientist, there are people who think that science is somehow opposed to imagination. A surprising number of people think that, by trying to explain the universe, we make it less wonderful. That understanding how a flower works detracts from the beauty of the flower.

Now that really does show a failure of imagination.


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One response to “Imagination and people who lack it

  1. Last year in freshers week, I went to the first meeting of the Philosophy Society, which was in the style of a series of debates, with members of the audience selected to sit up at the front and give their views. We went through a number or well-worn moral thought experiments – The trolley problem etc. I was on the panel for one of these: A pregnant woman is stuck in the mouth of a coastal cave with the tide coming in, two men are in the cave with a stick of dynamite, they can save themselves from drowning, but only by killing the pregnant woman, who will die of drowning anyway. I had a lot of trouble trying to get people to understand that the point of such thought experiments is not the particulars of the situation itself ("This would never really happen!" "The men might be killed themselves!" "What if they push really hard?" etc…), but to get at our moral principles and intuitions, to distill them down so that we can examine and test them. Annoyingly, some of them really just couldn't 'get it'. and kept bringing up irrelevant stuff.I've always thought is was reading lots of sci-fi as a child (thought experiments writ large, of course) that primed me for studying philosophy.

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