A post by Luke Roelofs.
Can imagination make a difference to what you ought to think or do, even when you don’t imagine anything?
I’m assuming here that, as several philosophers have recently argued (e.g. Dorsch 2016, Williamson 2016, Kind 2016, 2018) properly-constrained imagination (meaning roughly ‘imagination that seeks to accurately match some part of reality) can have epistemically and practically significant results. In particular, I’ll assume that it can do the following four things:
1. Change what beliefs we have
2. Justify those changes in belief
3. Change what desires we have
4. Justify those changes in desire
For example, visually imagining my doorway and a table I plan to buy can generate, and justify, a belief that the table will (or will not) fit through the doorway (Dorsch 2016, pp.94-54), and experientially imagining how I’ll feel if I choose one office over another can generate, and justify, a desire to take (or not take) that office (Kind 2018, p.242-243). And imaginatively projecting myself into another person’s perspective can sometimes generate and justify both beliefs about what they will do next, and desires to help them or hinder them. In each case, the justification (but perhaps not the generation) is conditional on whether we imagine our target accurately, in a way that is constrained by a norm of accurately matching reality.
But these examples all have someone actually doing the imagining, going through a mental episode which cases changes in their beliefs and desires. So here’s the further question that interests me: what about someone who doesn’t go through such an episode, but who knows (at least roughly) how their beliefs and desires would change if they did?
Suppose, for instance, that I am currently doing very well in an arrangement which does great harm to someone else. I know that if I imagined the situation from their point of view, vividly and fully and accurately, I would want to change it, and give up the benefits it accords me. But I don’t imagine it like that - indeed, I might actively avoid imagining things from their point of view precisely because I know how it will motivate me.
Here are three views we might take of cases like this:
1) The Dismissive View: there is no particular normative import to merely-foreseen imagining. If my present beliefs and motivations differ from those I know I would have after performing some reality-constrained imagining, that does not generate any rational pressure to adjust them.
2) The Pre-Incorporation View: If my present beliefs and motivations differ from those I know I would have after some reality-constrained imagining, that is a problem and I am under rational pressure to adjust them. I ought to ‘pre-incorporate’ the ways I would be affected by the possible imagining, adjusting my present beliefs and desires to match what they would foreseeably become.
3) The Deflationary View: If my present beliefs and motivations differ from those I know I would have after some reality-constrained imagining, that is a problem and I am under rational pressure to adjust them, but this is not because of anything about the imagining itself. It is simply because the only way it can be true that I know in advance what my imagining would do, is if I already have some relevant beliefs or desires which would guide the imagining to that outcome, and those beliefs or desires already make it rational to believe and act in the way imagination would support.
My aim in this post is just to get people’s reactions - which of these three seems most reasonable? Does it depend on further details of the case? Which details? Or does it depend on what we mean by ‘justify’?
My own inclination is towards option 2: I think that if I know looking at a situation from someone else’s perspective would make me want to change it, I should want to change it, and that this is a general fact about properly-constrained imagining. But I’m not sure how plausible that is to others, or what sort of objections are most urgent - so I’m hoping you folks can help me out!
 I’ll talk about this in terms of desires, though perhaps that’s not the best terminology. All I mean to insist on is that imagination change what actions we’re motivated to perform, and what actions we have reasons to perform, in ways that are more desire-like than mere changes in belief.
Dorsch, F. (2016). “Knowledge By Imagination – How Imaginative Experience Can Ground Factual Knowledge.” Teorema: Revista Internacional de Filosofía 35 (3): 87-116.
Kind, A., (2016). ‘Imagining Under Constraints,’ in A. Kind and P. Kung, eds., Knowledge Through Imagination, Oxford University Press: 145-159.
Kind, A., (2018). “How Imagination Gives Rise to Knowledge,” in F. Dorsch and F. Macpherson, eds., Perceptual Memory and Perceptual Imagination, Oxford University Press: 227-246.
Williamson, T. (2016). “Knowing by Imagining.” In A. Kind & P. Kung, eds., Knowledge Through Imagination, Oxford University Press: 113-123.