Conference Report: Imagination and Social Change

A report by Amy Kind.

Last spring, in a video called “A Message From the Future With Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,”  a graying and much older AOC recounts how the country was finally able to achieve environmental reforms.  As she rides the bullet train from NY to DC several decades from now, she recalls the diverse group of people who took congressional office in 2019.  Young people of color across the country were finally able to see themselves reflected in their political leaders.  This gave rise to new hopes and dreams for, as AOC notes, it’s often said that “you can’t be what you can’t see.”  And this leads her to draw an analogy to the Green New Deal.  The criticisms that arose when it was first proposed came from the fact that people just couldn’t picture it yet.  After telling the story of how significant reforms were finally enacted, she notes that:  “The first big step was just closing our eyes and imagining.”

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Ethics of Scientific Imagination: Who Gets to Use Imagination in Science?

A post by Mike Stuart.

Scientists imagine a lot. They imagine to come up with new research problems, design experiments, interpret data, troubleshoot, draft papers and presentations, and give feedback to each other. But what kinds of imagination are used in science? When do scientists feel it is appropriate to employ imagination, and when not? How are the tricks of the imaginative trade taught?

Answers to these questions require data that we don’t currently have. There is research done on imagination in animals, non-scientists (especially young children), and studies focusing on science students, but there are no in-vivo sociological studies on the role of imagination in practicing scientists. Since 2015, I have been trying to perform my own sociological research (interviews and observations) on scientists, including mathematicians, biologists, geologists and physicists. In this post I want to talk about an early but provocative finding.

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Pretending with no mental images

A post by Monika Chylińska.

As children, my brothers and I used to play a game of pretense in which we were surrounded by sharks. We would bounce vigorously on a large rubber ring (similar to this one but three times bigger), expecting one of us to fall down or touch the ground with a foot or a hand. Falling down meant being eaten by sharks (sudden death); touching the ground with a body part meant that the sharks had bitten off that part. We greatly enjoyed all the elements of our pretense: the jumping, the falling, the shouting. There was no goal to be the survivor because there was no goal except for fun. Even after being 'annihilated' one was back right away, bouncing with the rest.

Pretending to be dealing with sharks or any other dangerous phenomena seems to be a common practice among children. You likely also played it or something like it too. If you did, I am curious whether you recall your mental experience of such play. Let me be more clear about my curiosity: Did you objectually imagine sharks (or aliens, or lava, etc.)? Did you picture them in your mind or projected their image onto something?

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Incrementalist Imagination

A post by Shen-yi Liao.

1.        To Change the World, Imagine Differently

Nothing is more free than the imagination of man, said Hume. We use imagination as our tool for accessing possibilities other than the actual, times other than the present, and perspectives other than our own. Imagination’s power takes us beyond things as they actually, presently, and subjectively are.

Given this power, it is no surprise that imagination often comes up in discussions about how to ameliorate our social ills. Imagination lets us transcend reality, to travel to a better world in our heads, a world that we might one day make. “Moral imagination”, “political imagination”, or whatever its name, the thought remains the same: to change the world, imagine differently.

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The Value of a Free and Wandering Mind

A post by Miriam McCormick.

Is there a place in the mind where we are free to let our thoughts go, where normative judgments and assessments are out of place, and where praise and shame do not apply? Much recent work, including my own, has been concerned with widening the scope of agency beyond that which is under our direct voluntary control. Many states of mind, including beliefs, emotions, and desires, are appropriate targets of certain reactive attitudes, even if such states cannot be directly controlled.

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Recent Work on Religious Imagination

A post by Guy Axtell.

The role of imagination in religious consciousness is a topic of interest in philosophy and psychology of religion, religious studies, and theology. Study of religious imagination often goes together with phenomenology of religious experience, with the study of religious art, and with theologies emphasizing hermeneutics, or model-theoretic tasks.[i] My studies of the literature of religious imagination lead me to think that attitudes among theologians towards imagination’s role in the formation of religious ideas are often captive to broader differences between liberal and conservative theologies.[ii] This is seen to some extent across the Abrahamic family of testimonial traditions.[iii]

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Beauty and the Scientific Imagination

A post by Alice Murphy.

Is there a role for aesthetic judgements in science? One aspect of scientific practice, the use of thought experiments (TEs), has a clear aesthetic dimension. TEs are creatively produced artefacts that are designed to engage the imagination and are used to motivate, undermine, explain or clarify theories. Comparisons have been made between scientific (and philosophical) TEs and other aesthetically appreciated objects, namely works of art. In particular, TEs are said to share qualities with literary fiction as they invite us to imagine a fictional scenario and often have a narrative form (Elgin 2014). It is therefore unsurprising that TEs should bear significant aesthetic features. But philosophical discussions of aesthetics in science have focused mainly on the epistemic role of beauty and elegance when it comes to theories and mathematical proofs and TEs have been widely overlooked.

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A Lack of Imagination in the Predictive Mind?

A post by Max Jones.

The Predictive Processing framework (PP) has become increasingly influential in recent years, with some claiming that it provides a grand-unifying theory of mental function, explaining perception, action and all cognitive processes in between (Clark 2015; Hohwy 2013). Some proponents of PP have claimed that it is particularly well-placed to explain imagination (Clark 2015 ch. 3; Kirchhoff 2018). This optimism is partly based on the idea that imagination-like processes, where agents endogenously generate content, are somewhat ubiquitous, playing a role in our everyday interactions with the world through perception and action.

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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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