Knowledge and Imagination

Intelligence, imagination, talent, and creativity will get nowhere without a basis of knowledge and skills, and for this education must be sufficiently structured and focused. But an education too rigid, too formulaic, too lacking in narrative, may kill the once-active, inquisitive mind of a child. ~Oliver Sacks

Albert Einstein may be the quintessential genius of our age. His insights propelled humanity into realms of understanding that were previously not only unknown, but unimagined. But, Einstein was not immune from making mistakes, and, true to the magnitude of his intellect and insights, some of his mistakes were quite profound, too.

Those in the know likely recall Einstein’s fumble of the cosmological constant, and his refusal to accept Georges Lemaître’s early thoughts on what we know today as the Big Bang theory and the expanding universe, which Einstein did not believe in at the time. Einstein famously told Lemaître, “Your calculations are correct, but your physics is atrocious.” Edwin Hubble later proved that Lemaître was correct and Einstein was wrong.

Perhaps most bitter among his errors was Einstein’s uneasy relationship with quantum mechanics, which may be understandable as quantum mechanics not only cast doubt on Einstein’s belief in a deterministic universe, but also dealt him some mocking and ironic insults. Einstein’s famous quip, “God does not play dice with the universe,” emerged out of his skepticism toward quantum mechanics. Einstein believed that the universe and its workings are a fixed quantity, governed by mathematical laws which, if one was to decipher all of them, would allow perfect knowledge and the ability to predict outcomes with perfect accuracy. Quantum mechanics—the most accurate science ever to be developed by humanity—indeed shows that the universe is governed by mathematical laws, as Einstein hoped, but in a bitter rebuke of Einstein’s determinism, these mathematical laws appear to not return singular answers. Instead, they return probabilities. Randomness, it appears, is encoded into the very laws of physics, which also outright prohibit one—no matter how intelligent or knowledgeable—from knowing everything.

If Einstein’s blunders about quantum theories were not embarrassing enough, consider that he won the Nobel prize not for his seminal signature work on Relativity, but for his contributions to… quantum mechanics—contributions resulting, among other things, from his desire to disprove it. As it turns out, God does play dice… with everything… all the time. In fact, if that was not the case, material existence would not be possible—the fact that matter even exists as we know it, from the grains of sand we walk on to our own bodies, all the planets, stars and galaxies, and more that we may not yet know, is owed to random and unpredictable fluctuations.

Without taking away from so many brilliant philosophical analyses of such things as the “human condition” and other forms of collective navel-gazing explored by philosophers, I believe that the most profound philosophical contemplations yet to be articulated are those arising out of quantum mechanics. Indeed, it is possible that such philosophy may turn out to exceed the limits of our intellect and imagination. This brings me to the point of this article, which is this: although I accepted it as a truism for many years, I have come to believe that another of Einstein’s often quoted aphorisms—”Imagination is more important than knowledge”—is also rooted in error.

That knowledge—even what relatively little of it we possess—exceeds the limits of our cognitive ability to imagine, should have been clear to Einstein as much as to anyone else. His knowledge of mathematics and Newtonian physics, helped to a degree by imagination, led him to discoveries never imagined before him, and showed that the nature of reality exceeds in spectacular ways the limitations of human imagination.

Quantum mechanics pushed the boundaries of knowledge, and our acknowledgment of the limitations of human imagination, even further—much further—than Einstein’s principles of Relativity. In contemplating the nature and implications of such things as wave/particle duality, quantum superposition, or the Uncertainty Principle, not only do we find ourselves lacking the means to grasp what we already know from experiments, but also in our ability to imagine what these scientific insights tell us about the nature of existence. Indeed, anything previously imagined about such things pales in comparison with what we learned and now know to be true.

Richard Feynman made a similar observation, writing, “It is a great adventure to contemplate the universe beyond man, to think of what it means without man—as it was for the great part of its long history, and as it is in the great majority of places. When this objective view is finally attained, and the mystery and majesty of matter are appreciated, to then turn the objective eye back on man viewed as matter, to see life as part of the universal mystery of greatest depth, is to sense an experience which is rarely described. It usually ends in laughter, delight in the futility of trying to understand.” A Nobel-winning physicist himself, Feynman also conceded, “Will you understand what I’m going to tell you? … No, you’re not going to be able to understand it. … That is because I don’t understand it. Nobody does.”

Einstein was a proponent of thought experiments, so I’ll suggest one to illustrate my point: stretch your imagination as far as you can and see if you can come up with something more mysterious, bizarre and astounding than demonstrable (albeit still profoundly lacking) knowledge about such things as the magnitude of the universe or such phenomena as quantum entanglement (called “spooky action at a distance” by Einstein in yet another embarrassing demonstration of his failure to acknowledge quantum mechanics).

Consider what we regard as the great natural beauty, diversity, and majesty of just the ordinary planet we live on, so much of which is still unknown to us, and try to imagine the implications and mysteries of the undisputed existence of trillions upon trillions of other planets and worlds, many far larger than our Earth, in just that limited realm of material existence we regard as the known universe.

Let this not lead you to believe that I am suggesting that imagination is of little importance or use. My point is just to place imagination in context—to offer an understanding of the immense magnitude of the difference between imagination and knowledge.

Imagination indeed is a powerful and useful catalyst for the acquisition and expansion of knowledge, but knowledge fuels imagination much more than imagination fuels knowledge. Every level of knowledge only allows so much in the way of imagination. Expand knowledge, and you also expand the boundaries of what can be imagined. But, let us not brush aside the fact that knowledge has revealed to us things spectacularly grander, more complex and more mysterious than our “highly-” (graded on a curve arbitrarily and ironically representing just what we know) evolved brains are even capable of coping with.


I was recently asked to offer “a word of advice for fellow artists,” which, as a thought exercise, I decided to take literally. My word of advice is this: read.

Even a basic knowledge of such things as natural history, geology, cosmology, chemistry, and physics, will unleash greater awe and inspire more meaningful contemplations about the nature of existence than anything you could imagine if lacking this knowledge.

Imagination indeed is a useful tool in prompting creative thought, in encouraging exploration, in improving the living experience… but no imagined existence can come close to the immensity of existence as revealed by what knowledge we have—even as there remains so, so, much we do not yet know, or may never know, or may be incapable of knowing.

In the narrow context of being a self-expressive artist, my work arises out of my experiences; and my experiences, while undoubtedly enhanced by my ability to imagine, benefit most from increasing my knowledge of myself and of the things and places that inspire my work: how they came to be, why they appear to me as they do at this point in time, why they feel to me as they do, the scale of their existence and the magnitude of the forces that shaped them, etc.

Imagination is important, but only insofar as it prompt us to explore in search of knowledge. Imagination is, by a very long margin, not a substitute for knowledge.

To put a finer point on Einstein’s misconception regarding imagination and knowledge, consider that he also said, “knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world.” It is, in fact, (human) imagination that is profoundly limited by the very fact that it is a product of the mind of an animal—a primate happening to be the top species on a small planet at this particular point in the unfolding saga of existence. It is knowledge that, practically speaking, is limitless, as even the knowledge accumulated by our species to date is already beyond the cognitive abilities of any of us to learn, let alone understand. Every new leap in scientific understanding reveals to us just how lacking our knowledge is, but even more so, how lacking our imaginations are for failing to conjure marvels even approaching those we know to be true.

Certainly, I encourage anyone interested in enriching his or her life, to contemplate and to imagine and to seek creative epiphanies. But consider that such cognitive tools as contemplation, imagination, and creativity, are but means to an end—the small vessel that can carry us into the immense ocean of knowledge to be had. In time, and with knowledge, we learn how to improve our vessels of exploration, and venture further still.



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8 thoughts on “Knowledge and Imagination

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  1. Guy, For me knowledge, imagination, and inquisitiveness are an inseparable trilogy that conspire together to push the human species forward. Although a classic chicken or egg existense, it takes inquisitiveness to ask the big questions, imagination to conceive the possibilities, and knowledge to set the foundation of facts to feed a continuous cycle of growth. Thanks for the deep thought.

    1. I agree, Mark. Certainly for any practical purpose both imagination and knowledge (and, as you said, inquisitiveness or even passion) are indispensable. I think it is still worth contemplating, however, how, with every leap in scientific understanding, we realize how much grander and more beautiful reality is than anything we could imagine before.

  2. Interesting thoughts in this post Guy. I can follow your process and come to agreements, but I can also come to a disagreement with your thoughts on this as well. Guess that’s why I find it interesting. If nothing else, it sparks my imagination as to how one forms knowledge without first imagining something first. Of course the same can be said of the exact opposite.

    A thought that kept going through my mind as I read this was; what came first, the chicken or the egg? I also have a thought that knowledge and imagination are not a directly comparable thing. Or at least there are completely differing criteria that should be used when comparing them.

    The Oliver Sacks quote seems to state something to this effect albeit highlighting knowledge over imagination, but only if imagination is allowed to thrive freely and honestly. So, that brings me back to my thought. Is the chicken more important than the egg?

    Anyway, it’s been fun trying to figure out how to reply to this. Thanks for the thought provoking article.

    1. Seems to me that imagination requires a foundation of knowledge, but not necessarily the other way around.

      What most people miss about the chicken/egg euphemism is that eggs existed for a very long time before chickens, or any birds, did. I’m not saying it to be argumentative, but because we should keep in mind that we are strictly discussing knowledge and imagination in the limited context of human experience. We are born with a degree of innate knowledge and the ability to imagine, so it’s not a question of which came first but rather (as Einstein considered) which is more important (granted, this needs to be qualified, too). My sense is that one may live quite well in today’s world having little or no imagination, but the same is not true of knowledge, which suggests the origin of the expression, “knowledge is power.”


  3. Very well put, Guy! Thanks for the article.

    Though I have to make an addition to this. I think that Nikola Tesla is the utmost genius of our age, far superior than Einstein was. His works surpass Einstein’s by far. Just my opinion. Thanks. 🙂

    1. The more I learn about Tesla, the more I admire him both as a genius and as a human being. Not sure there’s a way to compare genius. In fact, my theory is that most people who deserve this designation never had the means and opportunity (or desire) to put their skills to common use. Either way, I’m grateful that both are among the giants on whose shoulders we get to stand.

  4. I absolutely agree with your advice to read and was wondering if you can find the time and have the desire to post a suggested reading list perhaps that could deepen the photographic experience for many of us. Not just photography books but others that helped you connect with the landscape. Just a thought. Thanks for the new book – am really loving it.’

    1. After posting my original reply before, I realized that there is a book I consistently recommend, which is On The Shortness of Life by Seneca.

      I considered it before, Deigh. I always started off thinking it would be a straightforward task only to realize how subjective such a list would have to be. Rather than suggesting specific titles, I recommend taking an introductory class to philosophy, not for the sake of identifying favorite philosophers but with the goal of establishing good habits of critical/analyical thinking that one can then apply to other resources. I worry about influencing where one may wish to venture from there.

      And, preempting a question I often receive: if you take/took such a class and did not find it engaging and useful, find a better teacher rather than giving up.

      Thank you for the kind words on the book!

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