The Gift of Imagination

It has often been said that Tom Godwin’s story The Cold Equations is the best science fiction story ever written. It is a story about how wishful thinking simply does not work. No matter what we would like to have happen cold hard facts will always win out in the end. The space ship only has enough fuel to safely land carrying up to a certain amount of mass. The stowaway on board must be ejected into space if the craft is to land safely. There is no getting around it. Force is not a mystic energy of the universe. It is mass times acceleration. The stowaway must be sacrificed.

The story is fiction with good science driving the plot. America’s space program lost a great deal of romanticism when Neil Armstrong was asked what he would if he could take with him to the Moon. His reply was, “More fuel.” There is a fatalism in the scientific enterprise that makes us gloomy.  Yet, as some other critic pointed out, while Godwin’s plot may be driven by good science, it is bad engineering. Yes, there are limits to what can be done. But name one designer that does not plan for possible problems to arise. If the spaceship had better design, then it could potentially accommodate the extra weight. Wishful thinking is one thing. Better planning is a difference.

I know it is odd to write a religious/philosophical reflection on the topic of engineering. Ask yourself this question, “what is the point of human living without planning?” Human beings possess imagination that allows us to look just a little bit into the future. If I throw the rock at the bird and miss, it will likely fly away to escape the danger. Therefore, my aim needs to get better. I must practice my throwing. That very thought occurred to somebody in prehistory. I guarantee it. The Olduvain hand axe is a prime example of how to aim better and make it count. A human made that weapon. A human used it. And modern humans figured out how it was used. There is one other most important point to be made here. It did not work on the first try. How do I know? Because human thought and knowledge is nothing more than trial and error until one succeeds ( or dies trying).

All human religions, philosophies, and belief systems are arrived at the same way. We have arrived at them by trial and error. An ancient King may have decided to take some action. The successor of that monarch either continued it or changed it. The action (or tradition) either succeeds or not. But, human beings also make contingency plans. Imagination has helped us survive, build, conquer, conserve, preserve, and steward. All too often, we think we have the final and better plan. And that thought is destroying humanity.

Human life is facing an extinction level event of our own making. We have, since the industrial revolution, overused earth’s resources. We appear to only be dealing with this problem by trial and error. Imagination is the only tool we have. And as the most advantageous tool, imagination is very limited.  We cannot see all the contingencies. We are looking at a process that is very difficult to comprehend. Humans crave security and stability. We want our lives to be regular and predictable. We want assurances that we aren’t making errors that cannot be corrected. We really want cold equations to tell us what must be. Unfortunately (and thankfully) that is not life.

Our religious traditions are often thought of as programs of stability. One only needs to look at where the saints and sages were to know that is wrong. Monasteries do not often make Saints. Sages must learn how to live in this world as it is. First, though, they must really see the world as it is and not what they assume it to be.

The world is a gift. Life in this world is a gift. Technology is a gift. Other people are gifts. Our institutions are gifts. All human being have to do is figure out how to use those gifts. When humanity learned to make use of the energy released by wood, charcoal, fossil fuels, and nuclear energy we failed miserably in viewing these avenues to energy as gifts. Instead we think of them as a curse when we see the negative effects of using these avenues. The Saints and the Sages would tell us that we misused the gifts and for some reason blame it on the gifts.  All that has happened is that we refused to allow imagination to continue being used. A great irony to ponder is how we use technology developed using fossil fuels to produce devices that allow humans to use renewable sources of energy.

Consider this then, Robert Thomas Malthus envisioned an extinction level event derived from the misery of overpopulation. He published his work on the eve of the Industrial Revolution. His prediction did not come true because the world as he knew it changed.  He was not wrong. His imagination was limited. And he was only looking in one direction.

How did our prehistoric human decide the bird would fly away if he missed it? Because that person (and the tribe) knew that was how birds react. They saw it happen too many times before to doubt it and even told one another about it. Imagination is governed by wisdom. Wisdom is from the past.

Our religious and philosophical traditions are built on recorded history. The era of Western modernism sought to explain, examine, and dismiss outmoded traditions. The methods of thinking developed were based on the traditions. Then the methods were questioned and dismissed because they rested on old foundations. Fortunately, people from other cultures saw the value of wisdom. Western culture is rediscovering that sense of traditional wisdom. This is not the first time one culture rescued another one. Averroes, a Muslim scholar, helped Medieval Europe rediscover the roots of its civilization. The gift of the Six Nations was to impress on English colonists in the Americas the importance of communities. The colonists arrived from cities. I am sure there are other examples.

The Christian Church, with all of it’s faults, contributed to Western Culture the idea that life, the world, food, water, shelter, indeed everything worth having, as a gift. It is an idea that comes from the Hebrew Bible.

We have come to believe that each of us must overcome all obstacles in order to reach the promised reward of life. I am sorry that I once thought that way. I now realize that we have gifts we could not have imagined. And that we can imagine how best to use the gifts. I believe we can change the culture of death to a culture of life by remembering that we cannot force anything by dictating how it must be. We can learn again to appreciate the gifts for what they are.


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