The Irrationality of Imagination

We interrupt our summer hiatus to bring you this piece, originally published on the Psychology Today blog, by Bence Nanay.

It is easy to make fun of the Aristotelian idea that humans are rational animals. In fact, a bit too easy. Just look at the politicians we elect. Not so rational. Or look at all the well-demonstrated biases of decision-making, from confirmation bias to availability bias. Thinking of humans as deeply irrational has an illustrious history, from Francis Bacon through Nietzsche to Oscar Wilde, who, as so often, came up with the bonmot that sums it all up: "Man is a rational animal who always loses his temper when he is called upon to act in accordance with the dictates of reason"

My aim is to argue that humans are, in fact, not more rational, but less rational than other animals. Aristotle talked about rationality as the distinguishing feature of humans compared to other animals. I think we can use irrationality as a distinguishing feature. It’s not just that humans are irrational animals; humans are more irrational than any other animals.

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Summer Hiatus

The Junkyard will be on summer break until late August.  We will return on August 21 with new weekly postings.  You can check out our lineup for Fall 2019 on our Upcoming Posts page.

As always, we would be happy to hear your suggestions for future posts.  If you are interested in writing for us, please feel free to get in touch by email.

Have a happy summer, and go Team Imagination!

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Knowing by Imagining a Hypothetical Scenario

A post by Margot Strohminger.

I’m walking to the office and decide to take a slightly different route from usual. Normally I take High Street up to Cornmarket Street and then go straight. It takes me around twenty-five minutes. This time I turn off High Street much earlier. I’m wondering if I will still reach the office in under thirty minutes.

I seem to have two different ways of reaching a verdict on the conditional

(1)  If I take the new route, then I will reach the office in under thirty minutes.

The first way consists of a series of inferences. For example, I might believe that the distance travelled via the new route is roughly the same as the distance of the old route and that my old route only takes twenty-five minutes. I use these beliefs in an inference to (1). The inference I use is not deductive, but it is an inference all the same.

There is also a second way that uses the imagination. I imagine myself taking the new route and then consider by what time I would reach the office. I fill in various details of the hypothetical scenario. One of these details may be that the walk takes me no longer than usual. When I imagine the hypothetical scenario as one in which the walk takes less than thirty minutes, I come to believe (1).

We might ask under what circumstances beliefs like my belief in (1) constitute knowledge. The question I’ll explore in this post is whether I have just presented you with two fundamentally different methods for reaching knowledge or just one. I’ll suggest the answer is ‘two’.

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Not in the Mood: Affective Forecasting and Cognitive Architecture

A post by Andrea Blomqvist.

Why is it that some things are easier to imagine than others? A substantial part of the answer can be formulated by looking at the cognitive architecture of the human mind (i.e. the structure of the mind), which is what I will to do in this post. Here, I will explore how the cognitive architecture of our affective system influences the ‘affective forecasting’ system - the capacity we use when we try to accurately imagine (or forecast) our future moods and emotions in order to make decisions. When we affectively forecast, we do something more than just trying to imagine the phenomenal character of a mood or emotion; we try to imagine the phenomenal character that we actually will experience in a future scenario. For example, to decide whether or not to move to a new city, you can use imagination to figure out how you are going to feel when you are there; or, as in L.A. Paul’s example, to decide whether or not you want a child, you can try to imagine what having a child will be like and how that will make you feel (Paul, 2004). We can also use it in more mundane cases, like imagining how you will feel if you do badly in an exam, or if you are rejected by a date (Wilson and Gilbert, 2000; Levine et al., 2012).

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Experience-taking and I-states

A post by Yuchen Guo.

Imagine the following case:

Paul, a method actor, has been playing the role of Romeo on stage for a long time. Each time he takes the stage in front of spectators he feels that he becomes Romeo and that Romeo’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors seem to be his own.

This case shows that Paul enters Romeo’s experience and shares his thoughts, emotions, and beliefs. Two psychologists, Geoff Kaufman and Lisa Libby (2012), introduced the concept of experience-taking to describe this phenomenon. According to Kaufman and Libby, experience-taking is an “imaginative process of spontaneously assuming the identity of a character in a narrative and simulating that character’s thoughts, emotions, behaviors, goals, and traits as if they were one’s own” (Kaufman & Libby 2012, p. 1). Through this experience-taking, Paul assumes that he is identical to Romeo and adopts Romeo’s thoughts, emotions, and actions as if he were Romeo. Kaufman and Libby also found that the extent to which one’s self-concept is salient is a crucial determinant in the occurrence and degree of experience-taking (see pp. 4–8); being in a state of reduced self-concept accessibility promotes higher levels of experience-taking, while being in a state of heightened self-concept accessibility makes it more difficult to engage in experience-taking. Experience-taking means not only thinking and feeling how others are thinking and feeling but also entails a kind of self–other merging.

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Enactive Imagination in Nature Aesthetics

A post by James M. Dow.

At the peak of the mountain the sky hurled a lightning bolt in my path. A rounded and gnarled knot of white light and white heat hung at the center of the bolt. The phenomenon connected me, the sky, and the ground. I tried to imagine myself projected into the light and walked forward into the space where the orb hovered. I found myself standing in awe in the empty place where the lightning had been.

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Imagination and the Experience of Sounds as Music

A post by Jennifer Church.

How does imagining contribute to our ability to experience sounds as music?  Most people, when they listen to music, imagine a variety of things: a singer, a rising line, a swirl of activity, an approaching disaster, and so on.  Some of these imaginings seem more closely connected to the music than others, but how are we to understand the notion of ‘closeness’ and when, if ever, is such imagining necessary?

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Extreme Imagination and the Nature of Dreaming

A post by Cecily Whiteley.

It is standardly thought that imaginative experiences are not only ontologically homogeneous, but also phenomenally so. When asked to imagine the Notre-Dame Cathedral, construct visually elaborate daydreams or picture the face of a loved one, we naturally assume that in such cases -  episodes of sensory imagining - each of us undergos experiences of roughly the same sort:  conscious experiences involving mental imagery. Recent empirical findings however, suggest that this ordinary assumption is mistaken. In a number of recent studies Adam Zeman and colleagues at the University of Exeter document the main neurobehavioural features of a new mental imagery generation disorder known as aphantasia - a condition characterised by the total (or otherwise severely reduced) incapacity to produce visual forms of mental imagery. There are, it turns out, a small percentage of the population - current estimations fall around the 2% benchmark - who lack a mind’s eye.

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Logic(s) of Imagination

A Post by Christopher Badura.

What is the logic of imagination?  Which, if any, inferences involving the concept of imagination are valid?[1] Answering this contributes to understanding how and what we can learn from imagination, and also how imagination is constrained. In what follows, imaginative agents of interest are subjects that can be reasonably described as being capable of performing at least one step deductive inferences like conjunction introduction/elimination, modus ponens, and disjunction introduction.[2]

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Imaginary Reasons

A post by Jonathan Drake and Eric Peterson.

What is the relationship between imagining some thing and being motivated to act by that thing? More precisely: what is the relationship between imagining that P and acting for the reason that P? In this exploratory post, we sketch out some of the terrain, eliciting some crucial questions that need to be settled in order to better understand the relationship between imagination and rational motivation. We make a tentative initial argument for the view that there are no imaginary motivating reasons.

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A Post by Nenad Miscevic.

How can a theory of imagination help us understand thought experiments (“TEs”, for short)? In particular, can it help us answer the question of where they belong and what is their wider genus?  Where should we locate TEs on a wider map of related activities? What are their closest relatives? Finding an answer is an important task that has not been undertaken seriously until now (but see on the Junkyard the posts by Eric Peterson and Mike Stuart, and Maks Del Mar).

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Under-explored Epistemic Uses of the Imagination

A post by Madeleine Hyde.

Our imagination is useful in a variety of ways - including ways which engage with our beliefs, desires and knowledge, and ways that the philosophical literature sometimes overlooks. Our focus has often been on how the imagination can aid modal reasoning and scientific discovery – both important, but limited to technical thinking and expertise rather than everyday knowledge. Here, I want to highlight some more familiar ways that imagining can impact our beliefs and knowledge. I'll start by telling a story of why our attention has often been elsewhere until now.

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Artists with aphantasia: extended imagining?

A post by Matthew MacKisack.

In this post I am going to discuss the procedural narratives of visual artists with aphantasia, ‘a condition of reduced or absent voluntary imagery’ (Zeman et al 2015, p1). With the aim of finding out how aphantasia informs the individual’s creative process, I will focus on a claim that appears several times in the narratives: that the pictures the artists make stand in for or somehow supplant the mental imagery they lack. I will explore what could be meant by this, suggest an answer, then conclude by looking at how the answer might square with aphantasia being specifically a deficit of voluntary imagery. The post is a sketch for a more comprehensive qualitative study - comments and suggestions are very welcome.

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The Junkyard Turns Two!

A post by Amy Kind

Today we celebrate The Junkyard’s second birthday.  A year ago, I reported some stats on The Junkyard’s first year.  At that time, there had been about 9K unique visitors to the blog.  We’ve had similar traffic in year two.  As of the writing of this post, there have been over 18K unique visitors to the blog.  These visitors have come from over 50 different countries.  Though the vast majority of our visitors have come from the United States and the UK, we also seem to receive a fair amount of traffic from (in order): Canada, Israel, Germany, Japan, Australia, and Italy.

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Imagining Being Someone Else and Personal Identity

A post by Andrea Sauchelli.

Can you really imagine being someone else—mind you, not just suppose that you are someone else, but imagine being an altogether different person? In what sense and to what degree can we actually achieve this task? What are the theoretical consequences of episodes of imagining being someone else for the contemporary debate on personal identity?

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Machines who Imagine

A post by Sridhar Mahadevan.

We discuss a fundamental challenge for artificial intelligence (AI) enabled systems: can machines imagine? According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,  “to imagine is to represent without aiming at things as they actually, presently, and subjectively are… to represent possibilities other than the actual, to represent times other than the present, and to represent perspectives other than one’s own.”[1] Art is perhaps the paradigmatic example of human imagination. Figure 1 shows an untitled painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat that sold at a recent auction in New York City for over $100 million. 

The scope of imagination in human society goes far beyond art: numerous examples can be given to illustrate that human achievements in the sciences, technology, literature, sculpture, poetry, religion, and beyond, depend fundamentally on our ability to imagine. The importance of imagination to humans naturally raises the question of whether intelligent machines can be endowed with similar abilities.

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Moral Knowledge through Imagination

A post by Razvan Sofroni.

It has been only a few years since the idea that imagination might be a source of non-modal knowledge started to be taken seriously again. Up until now, however, the focus has been almost exclusively on non-normative knowledge (Kind 2016, Kind and Kung 2016, McPherson and Dorsch 2018). In this post, I’d like to explore the idea that imagination might be a source of moral knowledge and address possible reasons to resist its appeal.

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Book Symposium: Stock Commentary and Response

This week at The Junkyard, we're hosting a symposium on Margherita Arcangeli’s recent book:  Supposition and the Imaginative Realm (Routledge, 2018).  See here for an introduction from Margherita.  Commentaries and replies appear Tuesday through Thursday.

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Commentary from Kathleen Stock.

I’m delighted to contribute to this symposium. The book is a fantastic addition to the literature on the nature of supposition. My aim in this piece is to outline what I take to be Margherita’s view, and contrast it informatively with my own.

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Book Symposium: Kind Commentary and Response

This week at The Junkyard, we're hosting a symposium on Margherita Arcangeli’s recent book:  Supposition and the Imaginative Realm (Routledge, 2018).  See here for an introduction from Margherita.  Commentaries and replies appear Tuesday through Thursday.

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Commentary from Amy Kind.

It’s a pleasure to be taking part in this symposium on Margherita Arcangeli’s Supposition and the Imaginative Realm, a book that is sure to generate much interest and discussion.  As Margherita indicated in her opening post [insert link] for the symposium, she ultimately defends a view according to which supposition is a sui generis type of imagination, in particular, it is acceptance-like imagination.  Though such a view had previously been hinted at by authors such as Kevin Mulligan, as far as I know Margherita is the first to develop this kind of view in detail.

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Book Symposium: Humbert-Droz Commentary and Response

This week at The Junkyard, we're hosting a symposium on Margherita Arcangeli’s recent book:  Supposition and the Imaginative Realm (Routledge, 2018).  See here for an introduction from Margherita.  Commentaries and replies appear Tuesday through Thursday.

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Commentary from Steve Humbert-Droz.

In her excellent monograph, Margherita Arcangeli argues in favour of a positive account of supposition that aims at situating this phenomenon within the imaginative domain. Embracing a simulationist approach of imagination, she debunks faulty desiderata on imagination used against the imaginative account of supposition (Part. I) and argues that supposition is a re-creative state of acceptance (Part. II). She also makes a valuable contribution to the literature by showing against a widespread view that supposition is more demanding than merely entertaining a content (§ 5.2).

Supposition and the Imaginative Realm is, in my opinion, an important book and the best existing defense of the imaginative account of supposition.

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