Suspend Your Disbelief

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Reality and imagination: two sides of the same coin?

Everything you can imagine is real.

image credit: Flickr

In an essay for the New York Times, professor of logic Timothy Williamson examines the connections between imagination and reality—and comes to some counterintuitive conclusions:

On further reflection, imagining turns out to be much more reality-directed than the stereotype implies. If a child imagines the life of a slave in ancient Rome as mainly spent watching sports on TV, with occasional household chores, they are imagining it wrong. That is not what it was like to be a slave. The imagination is not just a random idea generator. The test is how close you can come to imagining the life of a slave as it really was, not how far you can deviate from reality.

Fiction and reality, Williamson appears to argue, are intricately intertwined. Fiction may help us better negotiate reality —and it can also help us expand our understanding, and vice versa:

Even imagining things contrary to our knowledge contributes to the growth of knowledge, for example in learning from our mistakes. Surprised at the bad outcomes of our actions, we may learn how to do better by imagining what would have happened if we had acted differently from how we know only too well we did act.

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