Imaginative Capacities

February 2018

I was watching an interview with the pop culture famous Neil deGrasse Tyson. I hold no particularly strong opinions about him in either direction. He seems reasoned and fair, which are perhaps the best qualities to have as a public debater and as a champion of this movement towards intelligent scepticism in the public realm.

Tyson straddles really well. Generally speaking, I perpetually worry for public figures (not limited to just intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals) that hold strong opinions and spew matter of fact statements that more than occasionally go beyond their field. Often these figures are clever and tactical, for they wrangle language fairly well, realising that every utterance and every phoneme is presented as worthy of criticism. A precision of language provides excellent protection against the very chance of criticism – for not only does specificity of language and definition matter, but what is unsaid cannot be criticised. I think most figures who project a public image and message inevitably make that realisation. Tyson’s proclamations regarding his spirituality actively refuse strict labelling, preferencing an avoidance of categorisation – he narrows the scope of language here – if he doesn’t admit to a label, he cannot be held tantamount to that.


Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas (1656)

In this particular instance, with careful word placement and arrangement, Tyson discusses his daughter and the childhood myth of the Tooth Fairy. That very utterance had me worried, for the implication was set – was Tyson going to draw a comparison to his atheistic beliefs? Was Tyson going to admit that he had openly obliterated this fiction for his daughter, that the Tooth Fairy was utter nonsense? Broadly, is the absolute obliteration of these myth figures (including, under this scheme, God) just as bad as believing in these myth figures? Tyson certainly drew a fine parallel to his adamance on suspending from any talk about a divine god. And that is the very point: Tyson did not go so far to obliterate, but to promote suspension from truth-statements. Instead of forming the white lie which verifies the existence of the unverifiable and unobservable Tooth Fairy, he refrains from any definites in either the truth or false camp.

Tyson nevertheless continues the transaction with his daughter. He and his wife instruct the daughter to place her tooth under her pillow. The tooth is swapped for some money; a token. In the morning, amongst her daughter’s conscious commentary, she concludes that this unobserved creature had swapped her tooth for a monetary token. Tyson however raises the question of whether or not it was indeed this so called Tooth Fairy who claimed her tooth. How could the daughter know for sure? He imbues a working sceptical attitude: there is no truth without adequate proof. He lets his daughter figure the rest out – her scepticism grows, she talks with her friends. Maybe it’s mum and dad after all. The ontological dangler of the mythical creature is removed, and plain simplicity and reason lead to conclusion that it may indeed be mum and dad. Tyson never reveals if he admits anything to his daughter.

At first, this approach seems like a good idea: to develop the inclination to question. But viewing this forced me to ask myself whether or not there is value in nourishing a child’s imaginative capacity? Of course there is, but in this way? And furthermore, does scepticism (too early) quash imagination?

I wish to approach this question by targeting the apparent parallel between holding a belief in God and holding a belief in, say, Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, or the Tooth Fairy. One may argue they are both a form of deception. God can be construed as grandiose folklore, the king of the myths. Strict empiricists would find than any evidence in favour of these fantasies would be nonexistent, and hence they would remain fantasies. I have no problems with this construal, but my question asks if there is any benefit to maintaining these fantasies? There is a key point of difference here. Generally, these childhood mythical characters are exposed and demystified in late childhood. God, on the other hand, is often forever – but belief in this entity is prone to unbelief: critical and sceptical faculties take over and danglers are swept away. That certainly was the case for me. Nevertheless, I wish to refrain from making heavy statements about spirituality, that isn’t of interest in this essay. I also wish to highlight that I actively avoided using the adjective irrational, for I do not think it is at all relevant in this paper to discussion the rationality of belief.

That now established, what then is the value of mythical fictition? They arise from superstition. In ye olde folklore, if a witch came in possession of one’s teeth, through magic she was said to have power of them. Furthermore, teeth were burned in the Middle Ages to prevent hardship in the afterlife. The Norse wore teeth as a measure of good luck in battle. It seems that teeth possess a quality beyond their mere physicality; they symbolise and represent more beyond itself. Overtime the myth mutates, and we arrive at the folk conception of the Tooth Fairy of today. It is the very belief in the fantasy that begins to shape the imaginative capacities of a child: of idealised realities, imagined landscapes, and grandiose fantasies. Consider the mythological tapestry of Christmas time, woven with fabric which includes elves, flying reindeer, an epic overnight feat, lumps of coal, Santa’s apparent ability to satiate the materialistic desires of the gift recipients, magic, …etc. In my mind, a belief in entities like those noted triggers a complex to become receptive to the sublime and that which is worthy of awe, that is, a greatness beyond seemingly logical comprehension. A transcendental quality to mythology, achieved through emotional engagement, necessarily conjoined with the power of imagination and wonder. This is the power of the fable: being good is met with reward as judgement is imposed (Christmas time and Easter mythology); difference is powerful (Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer); preserving oneself as they develop is rewarded (Tooth Fairy); and of rebirth (Easter).

By the very definition of fable we must remind ourselves that there is a underlying richness and an existant value to what might otherwise be hastily disregarded as childish fictition. Why champion scepticism when these fables offer a meaningful commentary which positively guides, directs, and reinforces approbative behaviour and mentality? Then additionally developing a sensitivity for emotions that only stem from creative pursuits – Adults have Radiohead, Rembrandt, and Joyce. Children have Little Golden Books, nursery rhymes, the Tooth Fairy, and Play-Doh. Why diminish something so powerful?

2 thoughts on “Imaginative Capacities”

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