Richard J. Severson
Perhaps our greatest cognitive asset as a species is the ability to imagine alternative worlds. Like all creatures that must seek food and shelter from their environment in order to survive, we are realists by nature. But our incredible cultural achievements wouldn’t have been possible without an ingrained flair for flights of imagination.
What is imagination? It isn’t only the forte of creative people who can invent metaphors or paint pretty pictures. Every playground is replete with make-believe worlds conjured up by little children. Nor does our tutelage in imagination end with childhood. The everyday use of language by people of all ages is a byproduct of the imagination. Words are not things, yet our distant ancestors figured out how to employ them to represent things in our minds. That enabled us to build complex symbolic systems that eventually became the budding framework for cultural evolution.
Self-identity would be impossible without the ability to project ourselves backwards and forward in time, which is also a feat of imagination. How could I be myself if I had no memories of my upbringing, or no ambitions for how to plan and live my life? Even morality is grounded in imagination. We invent virtues and build ideal characters so that we will be better able to thrive in cooperative groups that exceed the sum of their individual parts. Chimpanzees, our closest animal relatives, behave exactly the same whether they are being watched by other chimps or not. Not so, human beings. We behave better—more sharing, less stealing, etc.—when we are being observed by other people. We have a sense of “we” that defines the moral attributes of each one of us. We live by our wits, or the ability to imagine and improve upon our most basic experiences.
We live in a world that is filled with alternative worlds of our own making. Among other things, that means we are the only creature (so far as we know) that invents itself to be itself. It all begins in the pretend games of childhood play, and continues throughout our lives as we strive to become the better angels of our own imagination.
We imagine (invent) alternative worlds that merge together to form complex cultures that enable us to live in civilizations that are capable of transforming the earth itself. Imagination is the daring ability to challenge the givenness of reality as such.