To analyze Einstein’s assertion that “imagination is more important than knowledge” requires definitions of “knowledge,” “imagination,” and “important.” Knowledge is an attribute gained by study, synthesis, and application of information and materials already in existence. Imagination is an innate ability exercised by creative impulses that bring new information and materials into existence. Knowledge requires information; imagination inspires information. The depth of our knowledge depends upon the strength of our commitment to study, and upon our memory. The depth of our imagination depends upon the strength of our creative impulses and our willingness to act upon our inspirations. Anyone with a functioning brain can develop knowledge, but not anyone can develop an imagination.
Imagination leads to evolution, a forward movement like swimming to a new shore, while knowledge leads to enrichment, which is less like swimming and more like treading water. For example, Einstein, dissatisfied with the body of knowledge available to him in his search for answers to perplexing problems of the universe, instead created entirely new theories within his own mind, countering established information, and leading to an evolution in physics itself. Since his creation of the theory of relativity, scientists have expanded upon the knowledge he created from his imagination, enriching his theories. Consider also the ancient invention of aspirin as a pain reliever and fever reducer, an invention that evolved from a scientist’s imagination (and historians still debate the identity of exactly which scientist invented aspirin). When the use of aspirin eventually revealed a side effect, blood-thinning, modern scientists applied their knowledge of aspirin’s effects to the modern-day prescription of aspirin in smaller doses for maintaining healthy blood flow. Invention obviously precedes new knowledge, but the new knowledge may then enrich our lives even more than someone originally imagined. Thus, while knowledge keeps us afloat and strengthens us, only imagination truly propels us forward.
If we define importance as “the potential for affecting the world,” then yes, imagination is more important than knowledge, as Einstein declared. If, however, we define importance as “value for the sake of personal growth,” then a balance of knowledge and imagination is more important than an abundance of only one. The pursuit of knowledge connects us with our predecessors by honoring their imaginations, whereas the exercise of imagination connects us with future generations who will build upon the knowledge we have established. The weighing of imagination against knowledge is thus affected by…relativity!