Driving through the dark windy forested roads of rural Redmond, through the part of the eastside that looks like more like countryside with its numerous farms and pastures and horse-dominated fields, some part of my brain takes over and starts to imagine the impossible.
The road is unlit, save by the headlights of my car. It’s late, so the forest is only visible when I speed through a curve and the beams shine onto trees and yellow arrows. Beside that, it’s darkness.
As I drive through a straight segment of road, when it’s just the asphalt, I think that on the right is a steep cliff, a drop-off toward the Pacific, while on the left is a mountain. Swerve one way or the other and I’m a dead man.
Or there is a dragon, its eye at the level of the car and just about the same size, following my progress, watching me and ready to spit fire at this unwelcome mote in its kingdom.
Then there’s a turn in the road and reality of the forest comes crashing through and suddenly the cliffs of NoCal and the hidden dragon are gone. Then I’m through the turn and my mind is once again free to imagine what is clearly untrue about the surroundings.
Is our ability and even willingness to believe what is clearly false an asset? Could we have achieved greatness – in the sense of propelling mankind to its dominant position in this world – without the ability to lie to ourselves?
What if our ancestors weren’t able to accept lies as fact? Would anyone have thought to attempt to fly? Is the question “what if?” only reasonable in a mind that is able to lie to itself? If we can’t imagine the impossible, something that is clearly false – flying cars, immortality, traversing the globe, communication over vast distances – would we ever try to make the impossible come true? If we know, beyond a shadow of our doubt, that man can’t fly, would anyone bother spending time and effort on building a flying contraption?
I try and imagine a society where reality rules, where a few solid facts define the world. The shepherd knows about the seasons and knows, for sure, that night follows day and sheep must be moved indoors when it is dark and dangerous outside, then back out in the morning to graze. The world is simple. Your place in it is obvious and uncomplicated.
The shepherd’s parents passed down some knowledge, some rules that they themselves were told or happened to pick up, and that’s the entirety of the world right there. There is no room for the impossible, and thinking of things that are not covered by the system of the world is, by definition, a waste of time.
In this existence, believing in obvious lies must be wasteful and probably dangerous. The shepherd puts up the fence around the grazing stock not because he imagines dragons, but because in the past wolves have absconded with a sheep or two. If he had started in earnest to consider impossibilities such as dragons, the shepherd would have devoted a daunting amount of time to building walls and towers, or perhaps had decided to build underground fortifications against subterranean moles that he thought up. This is time, energy, and resources that the shepherd would dedicate to a crazy concept instead of to his livelihood, and would in all probability cause the poor soul to doom himself and his family. A level head, one not likely to be swayed by the absurd, would be invaluable, and the genes for such a mind would likely outnumber those of the dreamers. At least eventually, after enough dreamers killed themselves chasing impossibilities.
Is an overactive imagination something that only children possess? They are able to imagine castles in the clouds and easily see themselves as kings or queens of entire fiefdoms, who then – mostly – grow up to be boring and rule-bound adults. Teenagers rebel against authority, questioning the established order and throwing off the shackles of establishment, for at least a short time.
Is imagination a precisely timed force of nature, giving our societies just the right amount of turmoil and change, affecting fewer and fewer individuals as they age, thoroughly existing on the fringes? Too many dreamers and we forget the lessons of history, too few and we make zero progress as a species.
What is the right balance? How has it changed through time? As we move toward a world that is safer for the dreamers, a world where fewer and fewer must be sober-minded and unimaginative automation provides for our everyday needs, will we need to ramp up our ability to ask “what if?” in some as-yet unforeseen ways?