Friday, May 16, 2008


Imagination gets a bad rap in academia--at least most of the time. It certainly has not been revered like rationality is, at least not in the past few centuries. But it plays a crucial role.

As academics we work with theories, and we work with data, and we're supposed to be objective. But where do hypotheses come from? How do we expand on the theories we do have? Imagination plays a crucial role.

And yet, because it gets a bad rap, it gets ignored. "I can't listen to my imagination! It's not rational!"

I'm here to say to throw that idea out the window. Imagination plays a crucial role in good academic work, and it's got a venerable history in the world of philosophy (a field of study that, sadly, is less well studied than it ought).

Thought experiments, a valuable tool to any researcher, are a tool that use the imagination. What is a thought experiment? Basically any sort of speculation about how things could work, that then tests the logic of the hypotheses of the speculation.

For example, in the world of cognitive science and artificial intelligence research, there are two very famous thought experiments. The first, and the better known is the "Turing test", named for Alan Turing. The Turing test explores the idea of computer intelligence through a thought experiment the asks whether intelligence is equivalent to a computer that can have a conversation with a person. The second thought experiment, John Searle's "Chinese room," is a well-known and much discussed Follow up to the Turing test. Searle, in attempting to argue against artificial "understanding" postulated a room in which a person who does not understand Chinese is given a rule book that says how to respond to written Chinese messages. Searle argues that despite rules producing correct linguistic responses, "understanding" is not present.

What I'd like these examples to show is that imagination, sometimes in the form of thought experiments, plays a valuable role in academic work.

Today I spoke with two writers both of whom are getting stuck: "I can't write, because I don't know for certain; I can't write because I don't know enough." In both cases, they're looking for knowledge, when they should be trying their own imagination.

What's research about if not explaining how the world works? Historians try to explain what happened in the past and why--why did Rome fall? Physicists explain the natural world--what interactions occur and why? And so on and so forth. The point of knowledge is to explain the world--not just to document it, but to understand how it works. In whatever field you work, it can be useful to sit back and speculate and let your imagination wander in search of useful explanations and hypotheses.

Say you're studying psychology and you're interested in a certain condition. Use your imagination to try to come up with explanations for behavior: he did it because of confidence; he did it because of fear; he did it because of high attachment with his mother; he did it because he really likes chocolate cake. Come up with possible explanations. Some will seem better than others--and those explanations are routes to explore. But you can't explore those routes until you start to try to imagine what the important dynamics could be.

It can be hard to use a faculty you've avoided for a long time. So give it a little practice. Conduct thought experiments; use your imagination to explore the possibilities. It is in this space, where you open up possibilities for good research through use of the imagination, that you can find your own voice, your own explanations and analyses.

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