What the Imagination is For
Monday, May 29, 2006 -- 5:00 PM
Ken Taylor

Today's show features Alison Gopnik on the Imagination. This is Alison's second visit to Philosophy Talk. Check out the show she did with us on Nature vs. Nurture. Since it's been awhile since I've done a pre-show blog, I thought I'd jot down a few initial thoughts before we take to the air.

First, thought. The imagination is a pretty cool thing, but also in some ways puzzling. On the one hand, it seems sometimes to give us cognitive acquaintance with real possibilities. A kid from Hope Arkansas imagines growing up to be president of the United States. And lo and behold that kid does grow up to be president. So some of the things that we merely imagine are really possible. And it's arguable that the imagination teaches us that they are possible.

On the other hand, I can imagine being able to fly of my own natural powers, or imagine being able to travel faster than the speed of light. But these things are not possible, at least not physically possible.

If even the impossible is imagineable maybe the imagination doesn't really have any intrinsic power to acquaint us with possibilities after all.

I doubt that's quite right, though. Take my being able to fly by my own natural powers, unaided by motors or wings. That is physically impossible. But maybe it's logically possible. Maybe when I'm imagining that what I'm gaining acquaintance with is a merely logical possibility.

Can we imagine things that are not even logically possible? Maybe, but I don't think we can imagine them very thickly or richly. But that may not say much about the limits of our imagination. Maybe there just isn't anything very much to imagining a logical impossibility. Or maybe in a way there's too much to imagining a logical impossibility. After all, in a logically impossible world literally everything goes. So there's nothing specific, as it were, to this or that logically impossible situation which would distinguish it from any other in our imagination.

Or look at the imagination from another side. Sometimes our imaginations are too constrained by the actual. In that case, the thing we need to do is to unleash the power of the imagination, to let it roam more freely. Remember Condi Rice saying that no one imagined that a group of terrorists might hijack an airplane and use it as a missle. Turns out she probably wasn't speaking the whole truth. But let's forget that for now. It certainly seems as though the folks in charge should really let their imaginations run wild. And if they fail to imagine things that might well happen -- especially if some of those possibilites do turn out to be actual -- we can justly criticize them for a failure of the imagination. Failures of imagination wouldn't be worthy of criticizing, I think, if we didn't think that through imagination we were getting at something real -- a real possibility.

Of course, maybe sometimes we imagine sort of idly, without any deeper cognitive purpose except to engage the imagination. We just kind of play with the imagination. I think kids do a lot of imaginative play, for example. But I don' t think it's at all cognitively idle. I think they are exploring the outlines of the moral universe, figuring out who and what they shall be, gaining acquaintance with a world of possibilities, some near to actual, some quite remote from the actual, gaining fuller acquaintance with the causal and counterfactual structure of the world. All really cognitively momentous stuff.

Philosophy is often an exercise in imagining. A characteristic sort of philosophical question is "how possibly" question. How possibly could a mind embued with rationality, intentionality, consciousness, will, and personhood be just a part of material nature? How possibly could free will subsist in a deterministic universe? How possibly could norms be determined by the facts alone?

To answer such questions, philosophers try to construct in imagination more or less richly characterized alternative possible worlds. And then they try to convince you that the constructed possible world is really not so terribly distant from our own. Or if they want to show that it is not possibly so -- not possible to locate mind in nature or to reconcile free will and determinism, for example -- then they try to show that there is no possible world plausibly like our own in which, say, the mind is just a material thing or free will and determinism co-exist. That too usually involves trying to gain fuller imaginative acquaintance with the totality of possible worlds. Search all the possible worlds in your imagination, you won't find one in which free will and determinism co-exist (except perhaps very remote worlds utterly unlike our own.).

Either way, the point is to try to gain fuller imaginative acquaintance with some set of possibilities and thereby to answer the how possibly question, whatever it was, with which we started.

This post is just to get the juices flowing for the show. I'm sure that after Allison and John enlighten me, I'll have many more thoughts.

Tchau for now.

Comments (10)


Guest

Wednesday, May 31, 2006 -- 5:00 PM

Honestly, I have trouble with the claim that imagi

Honestly, I have trouble with the claim that imagination provides genuine acquaintance with objects that do not exist -- because I doubt we can ever have genuine acquaintance with non-existent objects. How could we? Genuine acquaintance entails existence, does it not...?

Guest

Tuesday, June 6, 2006 -- 5:00 PM

hi profs, a great programme, i like it very much.

hi profs, a great programme, i like it very much. my question is, how can i download those past programmes? u know, i need listen again and again, sometimes not for the very beginning....thanks

Guest

Thursday, June 8, 2006 -- 5:00 PM

Paul, Depends on what you think an object is or

Paul,
Depends on what you think an object is or what "object" means. A person of nominalistic bent might say that an object is just an intelligible idea before the mind, in which case genuine acquaintance with the idea wouldn't entail existence of it.

Guest

Friday, June 9, 2006 -- 5:00 PM

I don't see the connection -- whether or not unive

I don't see the connection -- whether or not universals are real has nothing to do with acquaintance. Or am I missing something? Furthermore, we can be acquainted with "an intelligible idea before the mind," without that idea also being true, or denoting anything. I can be directly acquainted with the fear that an anvil will fall on my head, without an anvil actually falling on my head! Acquaintance with a map does not entail acquaintance with the territory the map depicts.

Guest

Friday, June 9, 2006 -- 5:00 PM

Being able to imagine is just one of man's great t

Being able to imagine is just one of man's great talents and abilities. Our imagination lets us venture into the theorical without having to physically be there; its part of with our abilitiy to deal with the abstract. No other animal is capable of abstract thought as we are. Our imagination is almost like a sixth sense. Still as all our senses, imagination does have its limitations. Whatever we imagine remains in our mind, outside of reality. Imagination by itself can make no progress in making anything come to life. It takes physically action to do that.

Guest

Sunday, June 11, 2006 -- 5:00 PM

Hi ! Your site is

Hi ! Your site is very interesting. Thank you.

Guest

Tuesday, June 13, 2006 -- 5:00 PM

Imagination is a bit like love or faith. All three

Imagination is a bit like love or faith. All three are skittish and they don't always come when they are called or needed. The work of imagining, say, a new piece of art can happen while doing something else entirely, like drifting off to sleep or typing a blog entry! Yikes - gotta go - where's my sketchbook?...

Guest

Saturday, June 24, 2006 -- 5:00 PM

Hi, sorry this is off-topic, but I can't find a "c

Hi, sorry this is off-topic, but I can't find a "contact" page. I LOVE the podcasts, have caught up through Moral Dilemmas, and have been waiting in vain for more posts. Nothing! I now see that you have many more past programs that are not available through the podcast subscription. Perhaps you didn't realize this, or perhaps you've abandoned the podcast format. In either case, I beseech you to make all your programs available as podcasts. I love having them on my iPod, awaiting a long car ride or other opportunity to listen!
Tom

Ken Taylor

Saturday, June 24, 2006 -- 5:00 PM

Tom: We will soon launch a new podcast service

Tom:
We will soon launch a new podcast service that will include the opportunity to subscribe to all future podcasts of Philosophy Talk and will include access to our entire archive of past episodes.
We are in negotiations with two providers even as we speak and will probably sign a contract within a week or so. By mid to late summer, all of our past content should be available through one of the providers.

Guest

Thursday, June 29, 2006 -- 5:00 PM

There has been debate as to whether or not we can

There has been debate as to whether or not we can create our own experiences. It seems confusing that imagining some "possible" things can come true, while other things considered "impossible" cannot. It may be said that by way of our own in-ablility to see rather "impossible" things as "possible" we are then constrained by our own imagination, which most often is without boundaries.

 
 

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