A Failure of Imagination – Scientific American Blog Network

I’d like to take a contrarian moment to reflect on one of the greatest imaginations of the past two hundred years: that of one Herbert George Wells, more commonly known to most of us as H. G. Wells. Wells did an astonishing amount of creative thinking between his birth in 1866 and death in 1946. Many of his speculative ideas bore an uncanny resemblance to what was to come – both within his lifetime and beyond. He also beat many other thinkers to the punch with his inventive twists on some truly outlandish concepts, from deep time travel to alternate realities.

Wells wrote about an as-then-fantastical future weapon, a devastating ‘continuous’ bomb that would be delivered by air (The World Set Free, 1914) and tap into the “internal energy of atoms”. This was more than fifteen years before the idea of a nuclear chain-reaction was developed by physicist Leo Szilard. Wells also gave us stories of biological engineering and artificial evolution (The Island of Dr Moreau), alien civilizations on Mars (The War of the Worlds), the far, far future of a dying Sun (The Time Machine), invisibility through refractive index manipulation (The Invisible Man), life extension and suspended animation (When the Sleeper Wakes), travel to the Moon (The First Men in the Moon), a fantastical otherworldly creature (The Wonderful Visit), a type of human transcendence (In the Days of the Comet), a speculative technological future (The Shape of Things to Come), a utopia in a parallel universe (Men Like Gods), and a version of the world wide web (World Brain essay collection).

Wells was remarkably analytical in his approach to working in science fiction and fantasy. His stated principle in constructing his speculations was that there should be only a single extraordinary assumption, which would then be developed with strict logic and attention to being translated into common terms. In other words: one fantastic leap of imagination was enough per tale.

This approach certainly worked for him, and in many respects it’s a strategy that has worked well for many others in writing fiction. Too many novel ideas can easily distract us from what is, after all, meant to be an entertaining narrative. That’s not to say that others haven’t gleefully broken this rule with great success, but it’s a tricky balancing act.

Indeed, we humans do seem to struggle in general when too many new things are thrown at us at once. Especially when those things are outside of our normal purview. Like, well, weird viruses or new climate patterns. Or the turmoil of unplanned economic shutdown and social distancing. In the face of such things we can simply go into a state of cognitive lockdown, flipping from one small piece of the problem to another and not quite building a cohesive whole.

These are all-too-real and all-too-pressing concerns, but what about our dealings with the greater nature of the universe? Do we suffer a slower-burning cognitive lockdown there too? The fascinating thing is that Wells’s ‘law’ for storytelling is very much associated with our modern scientific method: We look to strip away all but the central leap of imagination and construct a common-sense narrative around that. It’s clear that we’ve done this with Newtonian mechanics, with electromagnetism, with relativity, quantum mechanics, cosmology, and more. And, of course this has been enormously, demonstrably successful. Our present planetary civilization (good and bad) is in large part a consequence of our capacity to assess the world around us and to make accurate predictions about the properties and behavior of matter and energy; all flowing from our focused scientific stories.

Yet at the very heart of all of this – in Wells’s law and our need to create a streamlined narrative – is an imposition on the nature of reality. An imposition that we’ve variously justified as ‘beautiful’ or ‘natural’, or ‘elegant’, when a particular narrative seems to help unlock our understanding. The catch is that we really don’t know if this streamlining is truly justified, or indeed if it ever truly applies to reality in anything but special cases or in approximation. It could even be that this instinct of ours, sculpted in service of biological survival and keeping us from being cognitively overwhelmed, is far from optimal for decoding more than the superficial functioning of the world.

There’s been a lot of ink spilt on this with regards to fundamental physics, but for me the question also comes up in our quest to understand the nature of life and the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe. For instance, we ask questions about the origin of life as if it is a singular thing. Perhaps it is, but perhaps not. We simply don’t know whether there has to be a very specific set of circumstances (chemical components, reactors, environmental conditions) to initiate the evolvable chemical catalysis at the root of today’s biochemistry on Earth, or whether there could be all kinds of initiations that later converge (evolve) towards the complex toolkit we see today. Maybe there are a million ways for life to start. A million confusing options.

Similarly, when we try to make projections about other technological life in the universe we get very caught up in narratives that makes sense (in retrospect) for ourselves. From behavioral motivations to the piecewise ‘progress’ of a species in exploiting sources of energy and development of materials and machines. Do we really know that it’s improbable for a species to, for instance, learn about nuclear physics before it learns about oxygenic combustion? Maybe a species figures out quantum mechanics before it figures out chemistry. Or perhaps a species builds interplanetary transports out of rocks and organic matter before it learns about metal refinement? What if there’s the equivalent of Aristotle, Galileo, Newton, Laplace, Lovelace, Curie, Einstein, Feynman, Margulis, Hawking all co-existing in one generation? Perhaps too machines are actually nothing more than an evolutionary dead end, a branch of innovation that is always pruned away. 

These possibilities can seem pretty unlikely. But that is part of our narrative bias; our inability to imagine that our imagination may not be so good after all. In that sense, the amazement we can feel when we encounter a genius like H.G. Wells is entirely relative. It is quite possible that the universe can outdo us at every turn, layering together seemingly improbable phenomena to such an extent that we simply can’t assemble any kind of narrative that makes sense to us. Or worse, leading us to assemble a narrative that makes sense but is actually wrong.

Human imagination is indeed a glorious thing, as many a poet has testified, but we probably shouldn’t imagine it to be invincible.

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