Michael T. Stuart

The Black Box at the Centre of Science

Scientists rely on imagination to generate hypotheses, design experiments, interpret data, and turn data into theory. They invent diagrams, thought experiments, metaphors, and colourful examples to explain their findings because they know that imagining is an important step toward understanding. Also, many scientific research objects are themselves imaginary. These include frictionless systems, Maxwell’s demon (and other, lesser-known demons), the economics of perfectly rational decision-makers, alternate genetic codes (e.g., XNA rather than DNA), species with three or more sexes, and much more.

Scientists typically want to understand, troubleshoot and streamline their methods. So, they have a good reason to focus on imagination. And philosophers are interested in how imagination leads to new understanding, and science is a perfect case study. Despite this, very few people are trying to figure out how scientific imagination works.

The good news is that we’re beginning to make progress, though things are still at an early stage. Here is a to-do list of burning questions:

  • What kinds of imagination can we find in science? How does each work?
  • What explains the different uses of imagination in different places? For example, some scientists imagine using something like mental diagrams/videos, while others imagine in a non-sensory way. How do differences like this impact scientific practice?
  • What attitudes do scientists have toward imagination, and how do these compare across fields and career stages?
  • Imagination is not taught to scientists. It is often actively discouraged at the undergraduate level, only to be brought back at the graduate level. What are the effects of this? Can the education of scientific imagination be improved?
  • How do scientists imagine things that cannot be visualized, e.g., higher dimensional, quantum, or very complex biological systems? I.e., how does science overcome the limits of human imagination?
  • What is the connection between imagination, emotion, and creativity in science?
  • How do scientists share imagination with each other, and with computers?

Despite its traditional association with muses and mystery, imagination shouldn’t be left inside its black box forever: its contributions to science can only be properly celebrated once we know what it is, and how it works.

Michael T. Stuart: Associate Professor at the Institute for Philosophy of Mind and Cognition at the NYCU in Taiwan and a research fellow at the Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science at the London School of Economics, and the Department of Philosophy at the University of Geneva who works on scientific imagination.

1 Comment

  • Gordana Vukelić
    12 months ago Reply

    This was nice. I like your points and it would be perfect to ponder more into the matter. Since science generally tends to be exact and precise in defining “things” or phenomena, it is to some extent questionable what science has to do with imagination which is by its nature quite opposite to science, ie. it is illusive, uncatchable, airy, not consistent, not consistent etc, but of course, imagining in science is a process different from science itself. Very rarely great minds, ie. Nikola Tesla, who has extremely imaginative mind, was able to visualise his own inventions in details, before he manifested them in real world. But not, all scientists are capable to do the same. Anyway, for imagining things you need to have a rich and profound mind set, certain predispositions, genetics, love, satisfaction in doing what you like, and many more elements, which today’s world lack. I am very suspicious about whether modern science can precisely say what imagination really is.

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