carlo_rovelli's picture
Theoretical Physicist; Aix-Marseille University, in the Centre de Physique Théorique, Marseille, France; Author, Helgoland; There Are Places in the World Where Rules Are Less Important Than Kindness
The Dangerous Fascination Of Imagination

Worries about imagination might seem out of place in a context like Edge, where intelligent creativity shines. I myself have often spent words in praise of visionary imagination and of those who could think what nobody else could. But I worry that free imagination is overvalued, and I think this carries risks.

In theoretical physics, my field, technical journals are replete with multi-universes, parallel dimensions, scores of particles that nobody has ever seen, and so on. Physicists often look down to philosophers but they are influenced by philosophers' ideas more than they admit—and most of them have absorbed from Popper, Kuhn, Feyerabend, and other philosophers, the idea that science advances by throwing away the past and fancying novel visions.

The heroes are Copernicus, who dared sending Earth flying around the Sun, and Einstein, who dared imagining space curved and fused with time. Copernicus and Einstein turned out to be right, in a very strong sense. Will the current fantasies be equally successful? I feel a strange sense of unease. It is one thing to have ideas, it is another thing to have good ideas. There is value in producing ideas. There is value in screening them.

A number of my colleagues in theoretical physics have spent their life studying a possible symmetry of nature called "supersymmetry". Experiments in laboratories like Geneva's CERN seem now to be pointing more towards the absence than the presence of this symmetry. I have seen lost stares in the eyes of some colleagues: "Could it be?", how dare Nature not confirm to our imagination?

The task of separating the good thoughts from the silly ones is extremely hard, of course, but this is precisely where intelligence matters, what should be nurtured. Isn't it? But many say today that, after all, there are no "good ideas" and "bad ideas". All ideas can be good. I hear this in philosophy departments, from very smart colleagues:  "every idea is right in its own context"; or, "we do not have to suppress ideas that might turn out to be better tomorrow"; or "everything is better than lack of creativity". We often have to choose between truth or consolation, between realizing that we do not know, or making up pretty stories.

To a large extent, we live in narrations we weave ourselves. So, why not just go for the sweetest of these? After we have freed ourselves from the close-mindedness of the past, why not feel free? We can create enchanting explanations, images of ourselves, of our own great country, of our great society. We can be fascinated by our own dreams.

But something tells me we should worry. We live inside a real world, where not all the stories are equally good, equally effective. One dream out of many is the good one. Few explanations are the correct ones. Einstein used to say "I have no special talents, I am only passionately curious". His curiosity led him to find the diamonds in the dusty shelves, not dreams out the blue sky. The difficulty is that more often than not, our wild imaginations turn out to write poor drafts with respect to the surprising variety of reality.

Scientific intelligence met the triumphs that have lead us here by positing theories and by being extraordinarily suspicious about its own products. My worry is that we are going overboard with our contemporary fascination with imagination, and, in so doing, we risk losing track of the harsh independence of the world from the weakness of our minds.