Poor Einstein. Is there anyone else who is misquoted more often? Is there anyone else to whom more nonsense is attributed?
I have no desire to rehash things that Einstein said about “God”. Einstein was by all accounts an atheist, an agnostic, or a pantheist—depending upon your definitions—and various religious apologists have been trying to co-opt the man for years by misquoting him. Others have already discussed this at length.
My goal today is to tackle that old chestnut, “Imagination is more important than knowledge,” as seen on T-shirts, bumper stickers, and even on the packaging of the Albert Einstein action figure. Did Einstein really say this, and if so, what did he mean?
Here’s the quote in context:
“At times I feel certain I am right while not knowing the reason. When the [solar] eclipse of 1919 confirmed my intuition, I was not in the least surprised. In fact I would have been astonished had it turned out otherwise. 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.” [From A. Einstein, Cosmic Religion: With Other Opinions and Aphorisms, p. 97 (1931).]
So Einstein did say this. However, I maintain that the full quote in context has a different feel to it than the quote in isolation.
When I see “Imagination is more important than knowledge” on a bumper sticker, I think this: “Flights of fancy and imagination are more important than learning stuff. So why should I study? Einstein didn’t study. He just sat around and daydreamed and came up with the most remarkable breakthroughs about the workings of our universe. Imagination is more important than learning all the proofs and figures ranged in columns before me. So I am going to follow good ol’ Einstein and daydream about being Batman.”
The New Age meaning of the quote is this: “I’d rather daydream than study.” It’s Walt Whitman’s “learn’d astronomer” nonsense all over again.
In context, it’s clear that Einstein was talking about doing science. Imagination is more important in making scientific breakthroughs than knowledge, but that doesn’t mean that knowledge is not important. Einstein worked very, very hard to learn an awful lot of physics. By all accounts, it took him almost 10 years to flesh out general relativity, during which time he had to acquire a lot of mathematical knowledge about Riemannian geometry and tensor analysis. The “intuition” that Einstein developed during this time frame is what allowed him to be so confident of the results of Eddington’s expedition. What Einstein calls “intuition” is just knowledge that has become so ingrained that you are no longer cognizant of it.
Einstein may have been more famous than most of his contemporaries, and it was probably due to his superior imagination. But take Einstein’s imagination today and give it to a twenty-five year old high school dropout, and he’d be lost in obscurity, stocking shelves at Wal-Mart. Imagination is more important than knowledge. But only slightly more.
[Note: my book Why Is There Anything? is now available for download on the Kindle!]