Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Mind or Stomach? Imagination or Necessity?

"An army marches on its stomach" said Napoleon, who is also credited with saying "Imagination rules the world". Is history driven by raw necessity and elementary needs? Or is history hewn by people from their imagination, dreams and ideas?

The answer is simple: 'Both'. The challenge is to untangle imagination from necessity. Consider these examples:

An ancient Jewish saying is "Without flour, there is no Torah. Without Torah there is no flour." (Avot 3:17) Scholars don't eat much, but they do need to eat. And if you feed them, they produce wonders.

Give a typewriter to a monkey and he might eventually tap out Shakespeare's sonnets, but it's not very likely. Give that monkey an inventive mind and he will produce poetry, a vaccine against polio, and the atom bomb. Why the bomb? He needed it.

Necessity is the mother of invention, they say, but it's actually a two-way street. For instance, human inventiveness includes dreams of cosmic domination, leading to war. Hence the need for that bomb. Satisfying a need, like the need for flour, induces inventiveness. And this inventiveness, like the discovery of genetically modified organisms, creates new needs. Necessity induces inventiveness, and inventiveness creates new dangers, challenges and needs. This cycle is endless because the realm of imagination is boundless, far greater than prosaic reality, as we discussed elsewhere.

Imagination and necessity are intertwined, but still are quite different. Necessity focusses primarily on what we know, while imagination focusses on the unknown.

We know from experience that we need food, shelter, warmth, love, and so on. These requirements force themselves on our awareness. Even the need for protection against surprise is known, though the surprise is not.

Imagination operates in the realm of the unknown. We seek the new, the interesting, or the frightful. Imagination feeds our fears of the unknown and nurtures our hopes for the unimaginable. We explore the bounds of the possible and try breaking through to the impossible.

Mind or stomach? Imagination or necessity? Every 'known' has an 'unknown' lurking behind it, and every 'unknown' may some day be discovered or dreamed into existence. Every mind has a stomach, and a stomach with no mind is not human.

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