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Imagination and its enemies

a woman sitting on the floor while looking up

Over the past few years I have become increasingly aware of two very important processes at work in the world. One is dogmatism, and the other is a kind of open-minded skepticism, which for the sake of simplicity I will call doubt. Dogmatism is comforting: for example we might regard a particular religion is ‘the only way’, leaving no room for argument. There is now no need for us to trouble ourselves further about the ways of the world. Doubt is of course the opposite. Doubt can make us uncomfortable; it can also make us think. For example it might provoke us into asking why, of all the religions in the world, ‘ours’ (whichever it is) is the only right one.
I use religion as an example, but dogmatism pervades many other aspects of our lives: our science, our politics, and much else. Religion, if we have one, shapes our world view into a matter of certainties, such as good versus evil, reward versus punishment. If we have no religion we might cleave to prevailing scientific attitudes, where currently our science, particularly our physics, is very materialistic.
Dogmatism limits our capacity to view the world more broadly, or to see problems when they arise. It also shuts us off from the opinions of people who are not our fellow travellers. And this matters. It puts our world view into a kind of bubble. We cannot venture out. We cannot go forward. This is tragic, because the real world, if we take the time to discover it, is amazing, mysterious, magical. It is composed of possibilities, not certainties. The real world is the beginning of fantasy, of suppositions, or say rather that fantasy is a ‘warm-up’ for our venture into the real world.
Anything which is an ‘ism’ should raise our hackles, if it is pursued as an answer to life’s problems: socialism, communism, capitalism, fundamentalism, neoliberalism, and so on. All of them are designed to remove problems, sometimes by violent means, and all will create problems that may be worse than the ones they removed. All isms are simplistic, while life is a very complex matter of interconnected needs. Problems need to be addressed: through dialogue, or practical measures such as providing services, or creating sensible laws. The starting point is to keep the mind open, and maintain dialogue with people who have opposing views.
One topic that creates a great deal of controversy among philosophers is the nature of consciousness. Western philosophy attempts mainly to capture ‘reality’ in a net of words, and anything that proves elusive (as most things that interest a philosopher will) is usually treated as a problem that language itself creates. This is particularly the case here. Language sometimes treats the mind, and hence consciousness, as a ‘place’, an ‘inner man’ or woman, inside us who is ‘looking out’ through our eyes, hearing with our ears. When this confusion is cleared away we are left with a mystery, perhaps the greatest mystery of all. Perhaps consciousness is really just a matter of smoke and mirrors. The stage is empty, and all we have is sensory equipment, a brain, and various feedback loops. Well, some have said this. But then there are those for whom everything is ‘made’ of consciousness: mass, energy, the bus terminus, the summit of Mount Everest, and of course that itch in the middle of the back. Well, a good scientist will ‘follow the evidence’ wherever it leads. The dogmatic scientist will pick and choose the evidence, or rather, only things that support his or her views will count as evidence.
And of course this is where the bedrock of fantasy, supposition, should make its appearance. Let us suppose that the mind is a sort of receiving/transmitting station for consciousness. How would we test for this? Obviously, through brain functions, brain anatomy, and perhaps the brain activity of those very sensitive people who claim to ‘pick up’ on the emotions of absent friends and relatives. And this would be just the beginning.
There are scores of other suppositions that could be made, and all would produce leads for investigation; and of course not just for consciousness. Another ‘hard’ problem in science involves superstring theory, which has made little progress since the 1980’s. Making unlikely connections or improbable leaps of intuition can be a good way to move ahead, and not merely in the production of fantasy fiction.
Serious thinking about the nature of the world, and our place in it, should begin at school level with the basics of science. This, if taught in a stimulating, interactive way with loads of questions, discussions and experiments is the foundation for an intelligent future world. It all begins with using the imagination, and avoiding dogmatism.

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