A long discussion with Sam last night about many things, including God, magic, and imagination: Agreeing, among other things, that imagination is the most powerful force in human experience, powerful enough that it creates “Gods,” which in turn are purported to create everything else, and that its (imagination’s) manifestation in “reality” is often so inexplicable yet so undeniable a force as to be deemed no less than “magic.”

(Another form of magic, we agreed, is love: as we would both define “magic” as a force or forces that are inexplicable, yet undeniable.)

Perhaps a counterpoint to this notion of imagination as magic–the other side of the same coin? or the yin to magic’s yang, the cheese to its macaroni?–is belief. Belief in imagined concepts–whether imagined by oneself or by another and borrowed–is itself a powerful act of the imagination. Belief undercuts the need for “rational” (i.e., scientific) explanation: In the words of the Judeo-Christian God, “I am that I am.” Zeus is king of Olympus because he is king of Olympus.

Sam and I are both insatiable readers of Wallace Stevens, whose utterly atheist philosophy nevertheless celebrates Gods, so long as they are acknowledged to be products of human imagination:

“The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly” (Adagia).

Stevens described the imagination as a form of self-defense. To illustrate what that means exactly, I think of imagination as wish-fulfillment. When the willful, terrified human being cannot possibly discover the answer to a vitally important question such as, “what shall become of me when I die?” there are two choices: suicide, thus to find out first-hand, or else to invent the best possible (wishful) answer. But having done so, it must live its life in such a way that accords with that answer–and thus we have religiosity, penitence, prayer, virtue, and faith–all that good stuff. If the being’s imagination is strong enough, it connects it’s day-to-day life practice as evidence to support its imagined answer, and the being is at peace. (This is borrowing a bit from what I recall about asceticism from Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, which I read in Modern Social Theory last fall).

If the imagination is not strong enough, it seeks outside assistance–in other words, someone else who might lend their stronger imagination to the cause. Thus, belief becomes a thing that is shared. The power of communicated, shared, belief is incredible, as we know–the driving force of civilizations and genocides.

What if everyone, each human being, were able to imagine their own wish-fulfillment, without requiring the justification and support of a community of co-believers? What if belief were utterly individual? Can you IMAGINE such a species?–would they be better off, more advanced, than us–or would they lack community?