Science: Rationality & Imagination

Science: Rationality & Imagination (May, 2005 The Netherlands) by Blerina Berberi


By studying the “Philosophy of Science” I have been struck by the quest for clear dichotomies of approaches to knowledge, scientific and non-scientific. The Scientific Revolution that settled science as the only objective, rational, true, method of discovery for human knowledge, which is based on observational and experimental facts makes the “pool” of dichotomies becomes bigger and the boundaries seem to get blurrier when other issues within the realm of science and non-science, such as related to epistemology, ontology and methodology became clearer.

This research focuses on the importance imagination in science. The aim of the paper is to show how rationality and imagination, can be, and have been reconciled in the field of scientific discovery and present imagination and science as reciprocally related and progressed.

1. Scientific theories: Imagination

The Scientific Revolution is stated to have started either in the 16th, 17th century or maybe has not even started yet. Nevertheless, the basis of such a claim is the belief that science was the only field of looking at facts of observation and experimentation as the serious foundation of knowledge, i.e. “science is derived from facts” (Chalmers, 1999, p.1). Still factual knowledge is under dispute. When it comes to explain Galileo’s discovery as scientific, many do not agree on the interpretation of such discovery. H.D. Anthony states that what was different in Galileo’s discovery, was his attitude in taking observable facts as the main factors in building up his theory (Chalmers, 1999, p.1). For science observational and experimental facts on which scientific theories are based do really represent the reality, Realism, while others, such as Anti-Realists, claim that Galileo’s logical reasoning could not lead to such a theory. But before we discuss this in more details let’s take a look how scientific theories are set.

The two main schools of thought are the empiricists and rationalists, but while empiricists claim that knowledge derives from observation, rationalists hold that true knowledge lies in thinking. While the former claims induction is the best approach, the later holds deduction to be the right approach to true knowledge (Boon, Lect. 3). Thus scientific theories are set either by inductive or/and deductive logic. According to Chalmers, induction is building up laws and theories from facts acquired from observation, and deduction is deriving from the theories and laws predictions and explanations, so reasoning from the general to the particular (Chalmers, 1999, p.54).

Both approaches have their strong and weak arguments but most important is to see the validity of scientific theories that derive either from induction or deduction. The two dichotomous approaches to scientific theories are Realism and Anti-Realism. According to Anti- Realism:

“The enduring part of science is that part which is based on observation and experiment. The theories are mere scaffolding which can be dispensed with once they have outlived their usefulness” (Chalmers, 1999, p.227)

Anti- Realists claim that theories of the past weren’t correct descriptions of reality and that the scientific theories are just a set of claims that can be substantiated by observation and experiment (Chalmers, 1999, p.232). Moreover, Anti-Realists claim that theories are just useful instruments that help us just correlate and predict results of observation and experiment. An example, are Galileo’s discoveries which logically could not have derived at those theories. Furthermore, Anti- Realism holds that scientific theories developed either from the inductive or deductive logical approach are not true. So realists hold that observable facts are true but scientific theories are not. Thus Anti- Realism disagrees about the “truth” relationship between observable facts and scientific theories.

Yet Realists state that theories of science are true about the world since it describes the world as it is. Realism states science is realist in the sense that it attempts to exemplify the structure of reality, and has made progress by approximation of theories (Chalmers, 1999, p.245).

Furthermore, Realists state that nowadays-scientific theories are truer than the ones before. The reason is that they are based on true, rational, observable facts, and science progresses as we build more theories on the basis of the greater accumulation of facts. Anti-Realism, and other similar approaches, holds that history has tested scientific theories and many of them have failed to succeed and exist at the present time, thus nowadays scientific theories are not better than the earlier ones. The reasons are different and the conclusion is that if scientific theories really represent true, objective, rational knowledge than they would have not been discarded through out time.

Here we see a distinction of scientific theories with scientific observable facts whose truthness is questioned by Realists and Anti-Realists. But what escapes these two approaches is that in the processes of deduction and induction, another process takes place and that is imagination.

According to Hempel the narrow inductivist conception of scientific inquiry, is untenable. Even though the mechanical procedures for inductively “inferring” hypothesis can be specific for situations, he states about induction and “inferences”:

“There are no generally applicable “rules of induction”, by which hypothesis or theories can be mechanically derived or inferred from empirical data. The transition from data to theory requires creative imagination. Scientific hypothesis and theories are not derived from observed facts, but invented in order to account for them.” (Hempel, p.47)

Hempel seems to have the same approach as the Anti-Realists who claimed that Galileo’s logic could not have led him to those theories. And Hempel is stating that scientific theories set by induction are invented but still they can be proposed in science but have to be accepted by the scientific knowledge. Furthermore, Hempel states that:

“…imagination and free invention play a similarly important role in those disciplines whose results are validated exclusively by deductive reasoning, i.e. mathematics” (Hempel, p.47)

As we can see, Hempel claims that in building scientific theories, either by induction or deduction, there needs to be some ingenuity to make inferences to facts or theories through imagination and invention. Moreover, other scientists have also made discoveries not just on basis of scientific data, but on basis of their Imagination, such as the case of the chemist Kekule who in 1865 he found out to devise a structural formula for the benzene molecule just by gazing at his fireplace. Here, we come to Albert Einstein’s claim that:

“Imagination is more important than knowledge, for while knowledge points to all that is, imagination points to all there will be” (IM-BOOT, 2005).

This might be the case but maybe not always. The ancients’ imagination was that the world was flat but of course science proved the contrary and of course it deserve some credits. Still through their imagination they were wrong and gave the spark to science to develop and test their imagination.

In the following section I would like to demonstrate how imagination that is often regarded as opposed to rationality (science), which started with the Scientific Revolution, are both reconciled and have a necessary ontological relationship with each other.

2. Science: Rationality and Imagination

There are a lot of disputes about science and scientist’s position and a stream of different theories from many people, such as Chalmers, Kuhn, Popper, Lakatos, etc., have spread an extreme demand of trying to settle different perspectives of science. Yet the quest for rationality has neglected the crucial role of imagination. Toulmin says:

“… the man with the best trained mind can afford to give the freest rein to his intellectual imagination because he will be best qualified to appraise the rational context of his current problems and to recognize significant clues, promising new lines of analysis, or possible answers to his questions, as they come to mind.” (Toulmin, 2003)

As we know, in general the demarcation between science and non-science creates the dichotomy of rationality, objectivity, true knowledge, prediction, etc., and non-rationality, subjectivity, false knowledge, continuous change that doesn’t permit prediction, etc. But according to Toulmin it seems as though science needs imagination, as Hempel also stated, in order to make inferences between different theories and facts. Furthermore, the clear distinction between science and non-science is expressed in the following lines. For example, Adam Smith and Thomas Henry Huxley state:

(Smith) “Science is the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition.” (BrainyMedia, 2005a)

(Huxley) “Science is simply common sense at its best, that is, rigidly accurate in observation, and merciless to fallacy in logic.” (BrainyMedia, 2005b)

But others state that science is not just facts, logic, rationality, etc. Henri Poincare and Albert Einstein state:

(Poincare): “Science is built up of facts, as a house is with stones. But a collection of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house.” (BrainyMedia, 2005c)

(Einstein): “ The mere formulation of a problem is far more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skills. To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle requires creative imagination and marks real advances in science.” (QuoteWorld)

Here we can see, as in many other philosophers like Hempel, that imagination is also important to science and not just rationality. The list of these differences and that of the critics that doubt all these features of science is long and clear even though most of the times not always clear enough. The main reason for such complexities is the disregard of imagination, its role and place.

However, my point is that rationality and imagination co-exist and this love & hate relationship helps each other to be developed and tested. According to Nigel J.T. Thomas imagination is:

“(Imagination is)… what makes our sensory experience meaningful, enabling us to interpret and make sense of it, whether from a conventional perspective or from a fresh, original, individual one. …It also produces mental imagery, visual and otherwise, which is what makes it possible for us to think outside the confines of our present perceptual reality, to consider memories of the past and possibilities for the future, and to weigh alternatives against one another.” (Thomas, 2004)

The power of imagination is something often opposite to rationality. Being rational and exercising imagination are both conscious processes. However, sometimes imagination can be attributed in some cases to unconsciousness. We can try to distinguish between rationality in science based on facts and imagination as inferring facts and theories, but we know that they are not the same. Still, many scientists and other philosophers hold that imagination is important in order for science to progress.

But imagination can also lead to science fiction and other fantasies that are completely out of our objective reality. But that is not the point here. It can be said that our imagination created rationality, since our ancestors did not the science of our days, and furthermore rationality places a boundary to extreme imagination, such as to religion, but still science cannot progress or make new discoveries if we don’t have the power to imagine that we do not know much.  Yet the extreme imagination not confined at some extent to reality is not fruitful to science. According to ScienceDaily:

“Progress in scientific research is due largely to provisional explanations which are constructed by imagination, but such hypotheses must be framed in relation to previously ascertained facts and in accordance with the principles of the particular science.” (ScienceDaily, 2004b)

&         “One hypothesis for the evolution of human imagination is that it allowed conscious beings to solve problems (and hence increase an individual’s fitness) by use of mental simulation.” (ScienceDaily, 2004c)

First, imagination in science should be not completely free from objective constraints and practicality. However, imagination and rationality, science, both have an important relationship for each other. This is also the point made by Einstein, Poincare, etc., that without our imagination science would be just a heap of stones in the house (Poincare), and that without our imagination science doesn’t advance (Einstein). Furthermore, Wittgenstein also states, the contrary to Einstein, that science advances our imagination:

“Is scientific progress useful to philosophy?  Certainly.  The realities that are discovered lighten the philosopher’s task, (i.e.) imagining possibilities” (Wittgenstein, 1982, p. 807)

Thus while imagination exceeds some boundaries of objectivity and rationality, science tries to test, based on facts by observation and experimentation, the reality, rationality, truth, etc., of our imagination. In its course of finding the truth of our imagination science does progress. Whether the development in science can completely be attributed to imagination, I couldn’t tell, but the role of imagination is far greater in science, more than some rational scientists can even rationalize about.

3. Conclusion

Imagination and science go hand in hand with each other. Our imagination of the future gives science the “dream” to be achieved. While imagination trespasses the boundaries of objective reality, science tests these imaginations and in some cases it limits them, i.e. at the present there are not as many religious believers are there used to be, and in other cases it gives free reign to imagination, as is the case of Star Trek. Some recent news say:

“During its life in orbit, the Hubble Space Telescope has delivered transporting views of the heavens, pictures that fire the imagination of an unimaginably vast portion of the universe that we can’t otherwise see.” (Britt, 2004)

&       “Viagra, the famous sex-boosting drug, has grabbed headlines, imaginations and pocketbooks since its debut in April of 1998.” (WebMD, 1999)

In the first case, news states that science has advanced in finding out new images in space, and that our imagination of the universe is contested and in the same time our imagination of the universe expands as more scientific data we gather. In the second one, science has progressed by fulfilling our imagination. It is also worthy to note that most of scientific developments also claim to have captured our imagination, as though as it is trying scientifically too hard to fulfill our “dreams.”

Herclitus of Epheus (535- 474 BC), known as the “obscure” Heraclitus, stated:

“Men do not know how that which is drawn in different directions harmonises with itself. The harmonious structure of the world depends upon opposite tension like that of the bow and the lyre.” (Herakleitos, frag.52)

We can say that the demarcation between science and non-science is a necessary distinction to be made in order to understand the opposites, dichotomies. But that doesn’t mean that there is no harmony. There is harmony as long as the tension of one field doesn’t supersede the other. Thus a certain balance of opposites needs to be perceived in order to have harmony.

Finally, on February 8, 2004, Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” painting was discovered to bare similarities with the stars discovered by the Hubble telescope (ScienceDaily, 2004a). This case can be just a mere coincidence and it might be too much to ask to go back and discover what the ancients believed and see if the science of the future will discover the same things. But science doesn’t just discover the future it also makes it. Yet, as Einstein said:

“The important thing is not to stop questioning”!!!


– Boon, L. Lect. 3. (2005) Lecture 3, on  “Critical Rationalism and Karl Popper”.

-BrainyMedia (2005a). Retrieved from:

-BrainyMedia (2005b). Retrieved from:

-BrainyMedia, (2005c). Retrieved from:

– Britt, R.R. (April 22, 2004) Hubble still stunning of 14th birthday in Science and Space. Retrieved from:

-Chalmers, A. F. (1999). What is this thing called Science? (3rd ed). Open University Press.

-Science Daily, (2004a) Space Phenomenon Imitates Art in Universe’s Version of Van Gogh’s painting, Retrieved from:

– Science Daily, (2004b) Encyclopedia. Retrieved from:

– Science Daily (2004c) Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

-Hempel, C. (E-reader) The Role of Induction in Scientific Inquiry, p. 41- 49

-Herakleitos of Ephesos (Fragment 52) Réfutation des toutes les hérésies, IX, 9, 2.. Retrieved from:

-IM-BOOT, (2005). Retrieved from:

– QuoteWorld. Retrieved from:

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-Toulmin, S. E.. (2003) Movements of Scientific Thought, Discovery and Rationality in “The Competitiveness of Nations in Global- Knowledge-Based Economy. Britannica”. Retrieved from:

– WebMD, (1999). Retrieved from:       

-Wittgenstein, (1982) Last Writings on the Philosophy of Psychology (1948-9) i, p. 807; tr. Luckhardt and Aue. Oxford.