28 November 2011

The Tyranny of the Imagination

An important error of the modern age is that with so many people dreaming up so many things so often, we are apt to place our prejudice on the side of the human imagination.

7,000,000,000  minds work alongside our own. I forgive anyone who might catch themselves feeling that, freed from the shackles of reality and yet focused by the immediacy of the human condition, this increasingly-interconnected system of cogitation should be capable of exploring every possible avenue of thought, solving any problem, and predicting all that might be found in this single, predetermined (mostly) reality. Witness the generally-accepted Rule 34 as a contemporary and humorous example of our confidence in this regard. Indeed, I even find myself believing this once in a while.

We all know, when given half a second to think about it, that this just isn't true. The combined work of all the scientists in the world daily reveal details about our universe that we as a species have not comprehended before - indeed, some things are discovered which simply defy the powers of comprehension for most of us. Some might argue that there are people who may have conceived those things before, yet their thoughts are unknown to us because of the tyrannies of distance, time, language, attention, etc. A glance at the corpus of human fancy in the form of our species' literary traditions, up to and including all forms of story-telling - spoken, written, hypertextual, film, game, musical, theatrical, or otherwise - will reveal this supposition to be similarly false. Certainly a corpus this expansive should constitute a representative slice of human thought, yet from this very "wellspring," cliché and genre sprang; it has never created anything that did not have a human experience to back it up. Who imagined a world even as mundane as the inner realms of Jupiter before they were discovered?

Throw this much money, time, technology, and human creativity at a project, and you still end up in a mostly earth-like rainforest with humanoid inhabitants. Not only are we incapable, but oftentimes we are willfully cliché.
(exciting conclusion after the jump)

To say "truth is stranger than fiction" is practically a truism, and we should not fault ourselves for this - we must pay attention to some things while missing out on others, and in this way the most exhaustive human imagining of a world must still be forever more incomplete than the smallest environ one could care to observe in the real world. Like a graphical representation of Mandelbrot's set, reality is infinitely detailed; the rabbit hole is as deep as you have time to pour into it. No amount of cogitation over any amount of time can map it, because should you choose to contemplate infinitely with infinitely many cogitators, still the infinite of the real would surpass you by the inescapable inefficiency of your act. The meta cannot surmise its primary and the simulacra must have a degraded resolution compared to its original.

This is the tyranny of our imagination. It is a powerful boundary to a powerful force, but it is overcome not through the brute force assaults of millions of minds. Like many human problems, acknowledging our weakness is actually the first act in a drama ending with the transformation of a crucifixion into a resurrection.

The solution is always within our grasp - to imagine without using imagination, which is really less of a koan than it sounds (but I think this is a pretty way of putting things). Discovery picks up for us where pure imagination finds itself up against a wall - what we cannot intuit we can find in the infinite variety of the multiverse. This approach does have a caveat: if one is not careful, there is the risk that our imaginative limitations can limit our exploration here, too. As Rumsfeld said of epistemology, there are "known unknowns" and "unknown unknowns," and so with discovery there are "Conceivable Conceptions" and "Inconceivable Conceptions":

Conceivable Conceptions - Those ideas which we can think about thinking of, or those discoveries which we can think about discovering.

Inconceivable Conceptions - Those ideas which we are incapable of thinking about thinking of, or those discoveries we are incapable of thinking about discovering.

Conceivable conceptions are the children of human-directed discovery; inconceivable conceptions are the result of serendipitous discovery. One example of this would be the discovery of penicillin. Serendipity escapes the tyranny of the imagination by causing us to consider things we cannot consider without prodding from experience, but which still lie within the realm of our ken.

It is a mistake to think that when and how this happens is down to luck, however. Using fractal geometries, chaos theory, the principle of evolution and genetic algorithms, and just plain getting out there and seeing stuff (and sometimes making it blow up just to see what happens), we can cause events that we did not foresee, which can in turn prod us onto the paths of totally inconceivable discoveries.

This still is essentially truism, but I plan to make a point with it. I believe it follows from all this that imagination and the scientific method are not the only valid methods of discovery available to us. These both work within the constrained space of the known unknowns and the conceivable conceptions, but to go beyond that the only ship that will carry us there is most aptly named Controlled Accident.

It follows that a methodology of productive and ethical accident should follow in order to make this form of discovery more productive for us than it has been in the past, but thus far it appears little thought has been put into it.




Unknown said...


let's continue to trade ideas!

Adam Wykes said...

For sure man. Do you have a blog?