Frank Herbert’s Dune has been fueling my thoughts lately. it’s been twenty years since i first read it, and i’m finding it well worth a second visit. the themes that strike me hardest now are those related to time and the course of events, and how prophecy, religion, imagination, and free will are players on those stages.
prophecy is prediction, bounded by physical possibility, and it soothes fears of unknown futures. the prophet, whether tool or visionary, becomes an avatar bringing messages from that unknown future, and gives light where there was shadow. only gods (or our conception of them) could presume to grasp the chaos of connectedness in our world, to divine how that chaos hardens into an immutable past. the prophet and their prophecy are thus bound in a Gordian knot with religion and mysticism.
imagination, on the other hand, gives birth to a brilliant zoo of ideas and visions, some of which may exist, many of which do not. unlike prophecy, it isn’t bound by possibility or time. the only limits imagination knows are those created by collective knowledge and the mind’s ability to dream. imagination has no need for religion or politics or physics, because there is no expectation that the fruit of imagination need bear any resemblance to reality. a crucial point, however, is that we can constrain our imaginations to the possible or the real if we desire it; we can create boundaries to make the imagined thing more plausible. we can imagine a physics or politics or religion that entertains and inspires.
imagination and prophecy intersect where the imagined thing lives in the future, where we dream of what could be. in this sense, i think imagination can become a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. our imagination spawns a beautiful thing (a flying machine, a space craft, a world filled with peace), and then our bodies strive to create it, to make it real. the dreamer becomes a prophet, yet not one bound by religion or mysticism.
the third lover in this menage à trois is free will. prophecy seems to deny free will on some level, since it posits a pre-determined future that exists and can be predicted. on closer inspection, and with the multiple-world theories of quantum mechanics in mind, maybe it’s better to say that prophecies harvest the tree of all possible futures, and reveal one or more likely branches. free will still exists in this world of prophecy, since our actions can lead us down one branch or another. imagination, and its transformation into self-fulfilling prophecy, all but requires the free will of an individual to mine the creative depths, and to proactively direct the course of events.
In Dune, Paul Atreides gains visibility into multiple possible futures, and directs his actions to avoid the less desirable ones. he is a prophet, and yet he is not spoken to by any visible gods. his consciousness has evolved to the point where he is no longer shackled by the manacles of the present. Arrakis and the fantastic world of the Fremen comes from the imagination, and speaks of prophecy and imagination and religion itself, a never-ending self-reference. who can say whether anything like Herbert’s dream will come to pass?