“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”- Albert Einstein

The pre-Socratic philosophers rejected traditional mythological explanations for the phenomena they saw around them in favor of more rational explanations. These philosophers asked questions about “the essence of things”[4]:
• From where does everything come?
• From what is everything created?
• How do we explain the plurality of things found in nature?
• How might we describe nature mathematically?

The aspect of the pre-Socratics, which I find to be of particular interest, is the quality of their thought. Thought like this is a beautiful gesture: it is open, fresh, and playful; simple, yet profound. Thought like this is not exclusionary, nor is it arbitrary, but has made use of the sublime power of our forgotten imagination. By using their intellect and imaginations in harmony, they were to discover profound truths about our world that would not be proven or recognized for thousands of years. Democritus of Abdera (460-370 BCE) and the Atomist School is the most famous example:
“This was the doctrine of atoms – small primary bodies infinite in number, indivisible and imperishable, qualitatively similar, but distinguished by their shapes. Moving eternally through the infinite void, they collide and unite, thus generating objects which differ in accordance with the varieties, in number, size, shape, and arrangement, of the atoms which compose them.”
In other instances they were just wrong, but even in some of the “wrong” theories one may find a unique beauty, which makes them “true” in another way. Their logic and imagination combined in surprising ways, leading one into the realms usually reserved for Art. The missing ingredient in much of today’s thinking is imagination. It is relegated to the realm of childhood whimsy; endearing and enchanting, but of little value in our day-to-day existence. I think, in part, this is because we have collectively forgotten how to use it properly. It can be a force of unlimited power, as histories greatest persons have proven, but is largely unrewarded in our society because its role is sketchy at best. One thinks of Hollywood films as being the first thing someone might mention when thinking of imagination’s role in western society. Unfortunately, there seems to be a connotation between special effects (FX) and imagination: the more special effects there are, they more “imaginative” the film. Technology here has become a crutch- it turns out that being able to do any special effect one wants is actually not that interesting. Too much importance is given to making “real” FX at the expense of other important cinematic elements, such as a plot or decent acting. Some of my favorite FX moments are from when all film makers had was the rudimentary tools and were forced to make do with some string, a piece of foil, and a lump of clay. In this way we, the viewers are invited to make use of our own imaginations, which are infinitely better than anything Hollywood churns out.
We might also hear of an “imaginative” company or corporation. Motive is at issue here because our system rewards “imaginative” corporations to a fantastic degree. The “imagination” in a capitalistic sense is not the same sort, or maybe it is not being employed in the same manner, as the brand of the pre-Socratic. Take Anaximander, “…he believed the beginning or first principle (arche) is an endless, indefinite mass (apeiron), subject to neither old age nor decay, which perpetually yields fresh materials from which everything which we can perceive is derived. The apeiron was never defined precisely, and it has generally (e.g. by Aristotle and Augustine) been understood as a sort of primal chaos. It acts as the substratum supporting opposites such as hot and cold, wet and dry, and directed the movement of things, by which there grew up all of the host of shapes and differences which are found in the world.
This sounds somewhat similar to the descriptions of the Zero Point Field of particle physics, a sort of basic elemental structure, pattern or field: ‘The term “zero-point field” is sometimes used as a synonym for the vacuum state of an individual quantized field. According to present-day understanding of what is called the vacuum state or the quantum vacuum, it is “by no means a simple empty space”[1], and again: “it is a mistake to think of any physical vacuum as some absolutely empty void.”[2] According to quantum mechanics, the vacuum state is not truly empty but instead contains fleeting electromagnetic waves and particles that pop into and out of existence.’
If a thought experiment could closely resemble the cutting edge of physics two millennia ahead, what could we do now: what could we see? If our motive is only the next quarter’s profit, then we will get no further than next quarter, instead of millennia. In some ways, scientists today have also dropped the ball. In favor of maintaining university funding or corporate backing, they find what they want to find and disregard or belittle data, which is too threatening to the status quo. But as history has shown us, over and over, we are never fixed: all is changing. As sure as the church attacked Galileo for thinking the unthinkable, a new idea tomorrow will be attacked as well. And change marches on. As Heraclitus said- “Everything changes and nothing remains still. We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not.” It would serve us well to remember this essential truth. Revolutionary new ideas will come and we should be prepared for them and keep a truly open mind. It seems humanity is at a crossroads and we can choose to evolve with dignity and awareness or we can go kicking and screaming. Or maybe we don’t go at all.

The Pre-Socratics and the Role of Imagination | 2009 | Anaximander, Art, Democritus, Heraclitus, imagination, pre-Socratic philosophers, zero point field | Comments (0)