Imagination VS Reason

We don’t design our lives based on reason. We design our lives based on our passions. This is what Bertrand Russell meant when he said, “Reason is a slave to our passions.”  We like to think we are reasonable people but we use our reason to just to defend things we are already passionate about.

So, where do passions come from?

What makes you desire one thing over another? The answer is your imagination. Your imagination is the ability to picture a world that doesn't yet exist but could.

You might be thinking, “I’m not imaginative.” But you are.  Whether you recognize it our not, your imagination is constantly humming away in the background trying to bind all your experiences into a coherent whole.

Reason is the organ of truth, but imagination is the organ of meaning.” - C.S. Lewis

Your imagination tells you what is important about life. It attaches meaning to every conversation, every object, and every moment. Your imagination is how you explain the past and how you envision the future.

Its kind of hard to explain what your imagination is, but it is easy to show how it works:

  1. Our imaginations construct stories about the world that answer big questions about life. Why are some people bad and other people good? What is a successful life? What are virtues I should attain? These answers come from stories, either big, mythic tales or simple family narratives. We are told these stories from parents, pastors, books, tv, culture. And as we hear these stories our imaginations grab a hold of them and we filter life through them.
  2. Our imaginations create heroes.  In mid-century America imaginations were formed from mythic images like Marlon Brando on a motorcycle and Marilyn Monroe on a New York Sidewalk. For others their heroes are Mother Theresa or Batman.  Your heroes might be celebrities you see on the magazine stands or someone you follow on twitter. Our imaginations are constantly at work to remake ourselves in the image of our heroes.
  3. Our imaginations are formed by rituals.  Rituals like family traditions, religious ceremonies, or summer vacations.  Even the simple daily rituals like wake/work/tv/facebook/shop.  Any ritual we participate in forms our imagination by making us active players in a story. Every time you participate in a ritual you are letting that ritual reinforce what you imagine life to be.
  4. Our imaginations are formed by metaphors. Metaphors are an imaginative tool that explain something in light of something else.  A modern metaphor many people use is comparing our brains to computers. “Let me process that” or “I need a mental reboot”.  That kind of language comes from the  the "My-Brain-Is-A-Computer Metaphor", and it shape the way we imagine ourselves and others around us.

Change someone's imagination, change their passions.

Have you ever tried to change someone's mind with a well crafted argument just to find that the person doesn’t seem to care?  Their imagination has already been shaped and reason isn’t going to suddenly reshape it.

Yet we continually try to change people with reason. Why? Well, it is quick and exact. Reason is pointed and sharp. Like a knife. With reason you can explain things with precision and try to cut away error.  And this is an important exercise in many contexts.  But it doesn’t win people’s hearts.

Instead, think of your imagination like a star. Your imagination forms slowly over time and eventually grows hot and vibrant. You can’t cut into a star with a knife. You can only fuel a star with new stories, new heroes, new rituals, new metaphors, and eventually help reshape it.  Its a slow process remaking a star.  Many people don’t have the patience for it.[1]

Respect your imagination.

Don’t be cavalier about what stories you watch, what rituals you participate in, the heroes you adopt and the metaphors you use. These things are your leverage points.  If you want to change your imagination start here.

If you are a teacher, a parent, or a communicator of any sort then pay attention to what is shaping the imaginations of the people you are educating. Help give them new inputs and be patient.


1. This is why we sometimes feel like their is a dichotomy between what we “know to be true” and “what we believe.”  Even though we can rationally acknowledge something is reasonable our passions will fall back into the orbit of our imagination.

Jonathan Collins

I resides in Portland, OR with my wife and two sons. I'm a co-founder of The Bible Project and Epipheo. My mission is to Explore and Explain

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