Limits to Imagination
Several weeks ago, while discussing a philosophy text with some really good students, I said, “MacIntyre’s point is that we can’t imagine a good life for human beings without practices. And since practices require virtues, we actually need virtues for the good life.” Or something to that effect. Claire, being a really good philosophy student, challenged the claim. “Let’s imagine someone stranded on a desert island,” she said. “Why couldn’t this person live a good human life?” And so the classroom discussion/debate continued.
(Side comment: I get paid to do this! How cool is that? Yes, being a professor means reading and marking lots of mediocre essays by half-hearted or sleep-deprived students. But it also means doing philosophy with smart, enthusiastic young people like Claire.)
At the end of the hour—at the end of the semester, for that matter—I still agree with Alasdair MacIntyre. Human beings are social creatures, and I can’t imagine a good life for human beings that did not include “practices” (a semi-technical term in MacIntyre’s theory of the virtues). But my point is not to resume a classroom discussion, but to think about the limits of imagination.
What does it mean to imagine or conceive of something? In philosophy we sometimes speak of “broadly logical” possibilities. The only limitation here is logical consistency. The sun has risen in the east for ten million mornings in a row; can we imagine that it will not rise in the east tomorrow? Yes. The sun “rises” because the earth turns on its axis. If there were no earth, there would be no sunrise. So if the Vogons put in a hyperspace bypass (see Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), there won’t be an earth and there won’t be a sunrise. There is no logical contradiction between the fact that the sun rose ten million mornings in a row and the possibility that it will not rise tomorrow. In contrast, “a stone so heavy that an omnipotent God could not lift it” is a logical contradiction, naming nothing. We may think we can imagine such a stone, but we can’t, no more than we can imagine round squares.
But logical limits are not the only limits to our imagination. We can conceive of beings somewhat like human beings who could live happy, productive and fulfilling lives in total solitude. They might be some sort of angel or extraterrestrial. Of course, these imagined beings would only be “somewhat” like human beings. They would not have language, since we are imagining them to live wonderful lives without any interactions with others. An intelligent being with no language and no interaction with other intelligent beings… Hm. Aristotle remarked that a solitary life might be fit for a god or a beast, but not for a man. The limitation here rises from human nature, not pure logic.
Some people object to arguments that appeal to “human nature.” For good reason! In times past, people have argued that human nature requires or allows superior people to enslave inferior ones, or that women are designed naturally to be mothers and wives and not much else, or that human beings are naturally warlike. Objecting to such arguments, some have come to think that “human nature” is a fiction. They believe that people can be literally anything they want.
But that’s not true. Each one of us has a certain physical form, organs of particular kinds, and mental capacities peculiar to us as individuals. And in spite of the differences between us, we are far more like each other than we are like the ET or the angel who could delight in lifelong solitude. We cannot be “simply anything” and still be human beings. Who would want such an undefined life? We are human beings, and what we want is a good life for human beings.
There is yet a further limitation on our imagination, a limitation especially important for writers. George MacDonald, nineteenth century writer of fantasy stories, pointed out that the fantasy writer has enormous but not unlimited freedom. In a fantasy, the author can make fairies small or tall, princesses serious or light (MacDonald’s “The Light Princess” is so light she defies gravity, which is a problem for her parents), dragons of all sorts, and intelligent parrots (as in my story, The Heart of the Sea). But what the fantasy writer cannot do is change good into evil or vice versa. The moral world extends to the land of fairie, MacDonald said. There cannot be a world where cruelty is the ultimate good or kindness the worst of evils. Of course, there may be imaginary worlds with lots of cruel characters and those characters may pour scorn on kindness (think Game of Thrones), but even in those stories vice has not been turned into virtue. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche called for a revaluation of all values, but even he pleaded with his readers: “Let us be honest with ourselves!” It turns out Nietzsche wanted to revalue some values, not all of them.
Despite the truth in MacDonald’s teaching, imagination does have the power to shape our understanding of morality. It’s not so much the explicit teaching of stories that matters, though that is important. Stories help us see what is possible. For example, if a person reads or sees story after story built on the myth of redemptive violence, he may come to see the world that way. He may come to think, perhaps only unconsciously, that evil can be defeated only by destroying the source of evil—that is, by killing the enemy. Marduk kills Tiamat, Luke Skywalker destroys the Death Star, the good guys imprison the bad guys (even better, execute them); this is how good defeats evil. An imagination shaped by the myth of redemptive violence may be offended by a gospel of redemption through suffering. It is important to attend to stories shaped by Jesus’ story.