Science produces results. What do religion and the arts produce?

In his groundbreaking work, Solitude, Anthony Storr suggests that dissatisfaction with what is, or ‘divine discontent’, be an inescapable part of the human condition. [Solitude, 63]  Our success as a species springs directly from this discontent, which drives us to employ our imagination.  The more discontent => the more imagination => the more invention.  As in Bernard Shaw,

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” – Bernard Shaw, Maxims for Revolutionists (1903).

Except that post-Freudian psychology suggests that ‘reasonable’ be replaced by ‘imaginative’, as we shall see.  This short piece draws other strands toward Storr’s work, in the context of seeking recipes for encouraging inquiry and creativity among children and adults.

Primitive communities may seem to have all that they desire, yet they will be at risk when a more dissatisfied community encounters them: “it is always the dissatisfied who triumph” [Solitude, 64], since more imagination has gone into expansion and conquest.  Biology and the survival of the species demands that we be discontent, that we imagine the world in a realm of phantasy, counter to what we see in reality – because, if we simply accepted reality, we would not create new things or imagine the world to be any other way: the human race would stagnate in a pool of pure objectivity.

Freud believed the opposite of Shaw in this respect: for Freud, adaptation to the world as an adult meant – rather puritanically – putting away flights of fancy, imagination and the superstitious investment (whether infantile or religious) of objects with emotional significance, and seeking to govern our world view with deliberate thought and rational planning.  However, more modern psychology suggests the opposite: that

“an inner world of phantasy is part of man’s biological endowment, and that it is the inevitable discrepancy between this inner world and the outer world that compels [humans] to become inventive and imaginative.” [Solitude, 66]

If survival depends on imagination, then instead of seeking to move on from our phantasy realm, we should build bridges between this inner, subjective world and the external, objective world.  That this project can never be complete is, oddly, cause for joy: if we did not reach beyond our grasp, we should no longer be human.  What’s more, a race without the capacity for phantasy would not only miss out on conceiving of better lives materially, but would also lack religion, music, literature, painting and so forth. [Solitude, 67]

I was once asked by a don at university – a top chemistry professor – “What do the arts actually produce?”  His tongue-in-cheek question was the opposite of dismissive; the answer, naturally, is and was “the sciences”.  Many scientific leaps start with flights of fancy, which are first counted as unevidenced nonsense.  Thank God for the ridiculous: Newton’s concept of gravity comes to mind, or Kekulé’s dreaming about “atoms combining in chains which then formed into coils like snakes eating their own tails”: whence his subsequent discovery of the ring structure of organic molecules.  Or Einstein, constructing far-flung imaginings of how the universe might look to someone approaching light speed.  These subjective phantasies connected with the external world and provided illumination and understanding.  Other phantasies turned out to be nonsense, including phlogiston theory: phantasy does not offer perfection, but potential.

Two kinds of phantasy emerge, then, whether in the arts or in science: [Solitude, 68]

  1. One that reaches out and connects with the external world, corresponds with its workings and provides a fruitful metaphor, a psychological truth or a spurring hypothesis.
  2. One that offers no metaphorical or actual connection with the world and can be dismissed as delusion or escapism.

A great writer, theologian or painter uses his or her internal imagination to invent characters, narratives and settings that affect us deeply and inform our reality.  A lesser writer – and here one, perhaps snobbily, finds the line between ‘literature’ and ‘fiction’ [see Fig. 1 below] – might only produce a romantic novel or thriller, which is simply escapism and provides no insight into how to live our lives, nor any psychological truth or metaphorical spur to discovery.

Literature vs Fiction

Fig. 1: Literature vs Fiction

Freud would have irrestistibly had to agree here and would have concluded, taking his own work to its conclusion, that “while some kinds of phantasy are [purely] escapist, others foreshadow new and fruitful ways of adapting to the realities of the external world.” [Solitude, 69]  People at the height of their artistic power build those bridges between internal and external: they, unlike Freud, do not forget their power of phantasy in favour of growing into taking some purely objective view of the world.  Evidence is beside their point.  They harness both subjective and objective in the service of humanity, as in Goya:

“Phantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters; united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels.” [Epigraph to Los Caprichos]

A lower-key example might be Dumbledore’s injunction to Harry Potter to use his imagination and phantasy; to further his belief in ‘unreal’ magic to enhance the ‘real’ world – reinforcing the (Kantian) idea that, just because something is only happening in your head, doesn’t mean it isn’t – or can’t be – real, or useful to the real.

The first ‘creative act’ by young children is to bridge this gap.  By investing external objects – say, a teddy bear – with the colouring of the subjective imagination, they have built a bridge and created meaning for an otherwise inert piece of artificial fur.  This is a key moment in their developing independence.  The teddy bear does not replace the child’s mother (the key Freudian figure) as a source of comfort, nor imply that she has somehow been inadequate.  The opposite is true: to project feelings of warmth and security onto an object, the infant has first to have experienced them from a parent.  Similarly, the capacity to be alone for a time in early or later life, without creating anxiety, is a sign of health, not withdrawal: it reflects inner security derived from the knowledge and experience of love.  A young child who can feel comfortable dispensing with the actual presence of his or her mother, instead feeling the same security from a teddy bear, has been well-raised and is mentally secure.

Such security, then, would have been impossible without the power of imagination and phantasy, mapping an internal desire onto an exterior object.  To imagine the fur-covered toy as a loving friend is, of course, nonsense – but that doesn’t mean the comfort derived, or the psychological stability achieved, is any less real.  [Solitude, 68-70]  To discourage the phantasy is to harm the child.  As we shall see, much the same is true with adults: when we “put away childish things” [1 Corinthians 13:11] in the realm of phantasy, like teddy bears, we should replace them, with creative or scientific objects of endeavour.  The phantasy itself is thus not childish, but simply human (and, for a theologian, divinely inspired).

The concrete reality of a stable child at play therefore depends on the child’s ability to replace the unsatisfactory reality of the absent mother.  Internal phantasy outperforms objective reality in allowing the child to live its life well.  Later in life, not even an object is necessarily needed to spur the emotional flight: the phantasy meaning attaching to such objects may transfer to objects of scientific enquiry, or any productive aspect of the adult world.  We ‘play’ with creating scientific hypotheses precisely because of our capacity to phantasise and believe in what is not objectively real – not in spite of it.

The same can then be said of religion: and, fortunately, it matters not whether one believes in God or not to accept the point.  An internal capacity to believe in something that might, objectively, be seen as unprovable nonsense, provides a human being with enormous imaginative power.  The metaphorical and psychological truth behind many biblical stories – indeed, especially the central Christian narrative of death and ressurection – allows the phantasy-capable human to live more securely in real terms, to have greater power of invention, to the benefit of science and the arts alike.  To drive phantasy away – whether the arts, or religion – in the name of reason, is self-defeating: reasonable endeavour first requires unreasonable phantasy.  And none of this confirms or denies the existence of God, nor the importance of empirical evidence to science.

Both ‘sides’ of the religion-science debate would therefore almost certainly agree on this point: that there is no more powerful phantasy than that of religion.  The cynic, nowadays most often identified with the militant brand of non-believer, would be suspicious of that power and simply dismiss it as ‘unreal’, or ‘unobjective’, which – as we have seen – rather misses the point, and doesn’t help the discontented invention of the species as a whole.  The believer, on the other hand, would add that the subjective truth imagined within the religious experience, especially when bridged productively into an objective reality in the manner described above, makes religion a powerful tool for human advancement, survival and invention – not to mention endlessly productive of artistic creation.  When the playful and the fantastical disappear, joy goes with them, along with any sort of power to innovate.  [Solitude, 71]

So does mental stability: the ill-conceived recent bus slogans of Dawkins & co. would have us believe that “there is probably no God, so stop worrying and enjoy your life.” [See Fig. 2 below]  Unfortunately, all the psychological evidence would seem to suggest otherwise: that the power of phantasy – of being able to believe as subjectively ‘real’ something that may seem objectively ‘unreal’, and map it onto the outside world – is crucial to human enjoyment and to the prevention of worry.  In linguistic terms, perhaps Dawkins ought to have thought about the difference a subjunctive would have made to his opening line.

Dawkins, with bus.

Fig. 2: Dawkins, with bus.

The same goes for the infamous contention of indoctrination: that there is ‘no such thing as a religious child’. Au contraire, every child is fantastical and innately capable of religion: hence the mature and healthy child is able to believe his teddy bear has a spirit of its own.  And, by extension, the mature and healthy adult enjoys a strong power of imagination and faith, spurred by an ability to believe in the unreal, and an internal capacity to colour and wonder at an objective, real world that does not match his or her psychological expectations.  Dismissal of human belief is therefore, literally, dispiriting – not to mention self-defeating for those who prize scientific discovery.

A cautionary word, however, for both ‘sides’: if the subjective (internal / phantasy) world is over-emphasised, then madness occurs.  If the objective (external / real) world is over-emphasised, then the external world becomes simply something unavoidable to which one has to adapt, and life becomes meaningless or futile – and madness, apathy or depression occur. [Solitude, 70-2]  The most useful truth for individuals, as ever – whether artist, scientist, theologian or otherwise – lies in the careful bridging of otherwise unrelated pyschological and real truths.

Solitude - cover image