This is a famous quote from Einstein, which has since been turned into countless GIFs, JPEGs, and before that, posters, t-shirts, and so on. I’ve seen such posters on the walls of people whom I wouldn’t describe as particularly scientific. My sense is that many such people tend to interpret this statement as, “imagining various things (preferably, exciting/odd/cool)  is more worthwhile than knowing facts about how motion works or some formula I don’t care about.”

Of course, like many quotations taken out of context, I don’t think that’s entirely what Einstein intended. Looking at the full original quote (according to wikiquote), we get a slightly different picture:

Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution. It is, strictly speaking, a real factor in scientific research.

Having only just re-read the full quote, this is pretty much what I inferred Einstein meant from the more well-known first sentence. Namely, when we say “knowledge,” what we basically mean is “things which we’re fairly sure about up until this point in time.” Where does such knowledge come from? Well, in the case of science, and basically any other human endeavor, knowledge is only a product of experience–experimentation, observation, conclusions–that’s the scientific method, as is commonly taught.

Still, how does the ball get rolling in the first place? We can observe various things that happen in front of us, but to set up experiments, to probe phenomena that causes other chains of thoughts, questions and future tinkering that is a consequence of some initial or previous observations, we need to have some sort of idea or hypothesis. And that’s the problem with the scientific method, at least as is usually taught. There’s no nice 1-2-3 logic in how you get to that first step or series of steps that sets the whole thing in motion that eventually gives you this nice tidy piece of “knowledge.” Cognition of this gap in the scientific process really started to kick in when I read Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance at the age of 20. Another vivid, related memory, came during my sophomore year at Harvey Mudd, while taking a required course in electricity and magnetism.

“But why are Maxwell’s Equations true?” I asked a physics professor.

He simply looked at me blankly, and said, “Well, that’s just how they are.”

There is no answer to some questions. That’s another lesson about the limits of knowledge.

But, the source of all this stuff called knowledge may very well be put under the umbrella of “imagination,” for what else is it? I believe that’s exactly what Einstein meant by imagination “stimulating progress,” and “giving birth to evolution,” not to mention, the definitive sounding, “a real factor in scientific research.”

I believe that Einstein was not saying that imagination is a separate thread apart from knowledge and that one trumps the other, but rather, that the real epistemological roots of knowledge are, if you will, imagination. There’s other words or descriptors he could have used: vision, creativity, fascination. Intuition. The source. These things will result in knowledge, but the reverse isn’t necessarily true, though I do believe knowledge is complementary and necessary to achieve certain heights and progressive steps of the imaginative/creative process.

If you accept this, then you have to accept that the truest form of knowledge is through direct experience. I would go so far as to say that the only kind of real knowledge worth having is that which develops intuition for a particular subject. Until you see and do science, or martial arts, or music (to use a few examples of things I’ve spent a fair chunk of my life doing), in the same way that you breathe, or eat, or know how to intuitively walk along different grades and uneven surfaces, then you don’t really understand them at their full depth. Blasphemous as it may be for me, as a teacher, to say this, but the longer I’ve taught, the more I become convinced you can’t really teach anyone anything; all you can do is serve as a kind of human pinball machine, bumping them towards more correct paths and away from less correct ones, as they attempt to   develop some degree of intuition.

It takes a damn long time to develop this kind of intuition. As famous as Einstein’s referenced quotation, is Malcolm Gladwell’s much more recent claim that it takes approximately 10,000 hours of time in a skill to become a master of it. One will start to see the natural, extreme restrictions inherent to classroom settings, particularly when it comes to the sciences, if the goal is to develop scientific intuition in the same way one develops intuition for riding a bicycle. For this to really be achieved, the entire structure of most science classes would have to be shelved. We would have to give up on teaching the vast majority of information that is required for a given course, and instead spend almost all the time in lab activities. Even though this would require major effort and overhaul, I believe the results would likely bear fruit.

Understandably, particularly in the modern, instantaneous-information age, we want to be kept current on all the advances that have been made up to the present so that we’re not starting with the same knowledge base as in Plato’s time. That’s a perfectly reasonable assumption. And that’s where conceptualization comes in. This is a type of imagining. If we can not get direct experience–which the truest forms of real knowledge derives from–then the best we can do is to look closely at what others who have directly discovered and then conceptualize their findings and the ideas they have come to.

Of course, direct experience will naturally lead one to conceptualization, which itself, spurs on further experimentation, and this is true in every possible endeavor, in my experience. Since it isn’t reasonable to repeat every experiment that’s ever been done from first principles,  we have to acknowledge that the ability to conceptualize, to imagine, becomes extremely important–essential, really–towards understanding, particularly within the sophisticated realm of studying the sciences.

Thus, the scientific method, could really be restated as:

1) Direct Experience (observations, experiments, findings), 2) Imagination/Conceptualization (which both precedes and follows (1) ).

And there’s always pithy t-shirts.