Imagining as Mental Action

 Michael Brent is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Denver, working in metaphysics, action theory, and mind. This is his first foray into writing about the imagination.

Michael Brent is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Denver, working in metaphysics, action theory, and mind. This is his first foray into writing about the imagination.

A post by Michael Brent.

When imagining is a conscious mental action we perform, we typically bring content to mind and manipulate the qualitative features that such content possesses, and we do so intentionally. Right now, for instance, I am imagining the visual appearance of my old friend Matt, my flatmate in graduate school. I have intentionally brought to mind an image of Matt smiling, standing in the kitchen of our apartment, cooking dinner. With relative ease, I can manipulate the qualitative features of this image, now imagining him wearing his favourite t-shirt, now imagining him cooking risotto, and now imagining him drinking from a glass of wine. (Life in graduate school was tough, I know.) All of this imagining is intentional mental action, par excellence. How, exactly, do we do this? That is, how do we bring content to mind when intentionally imagining something?

On the standard accounts of intentional action, when your mental events cause and sustain the corresponding movements of your body, the result is an intentional action.[1] The standard accounts are reductive insofar as intentional actions are not fundamental, but are reduced to and explained wholly in terms of causal relations between events. In the case of conscious mental actions like imagining, the standard accounts run into a problem.[2] Consider what happens when I intentionally imagine the visual appearance of my old friend Matt. In doing so, I bring content to mind on purpose: an image of Matt is delivered to consciousness. According to the standard accounts, if this is an intentional action on my part, then it must result from a prior mental event of mine, such as a desire or intention to imagine the visual appearance of Matt. But, if that is the case, then the content of this episode of imagining is already present to mind as part of my prior desire or intention to imagine the visual appearance of Matt. This is a problem, for if the relevant content is already present to mind, then we have not yet explained how I bring content to mind intentionally in the first place. Hence, when applied to conscious mental actions like imagining, it seems the standard accounts are in trouble.  

In contrast to the standard accounts, Fabian Dorsch (2012) offers a constitutive account of conscious mental action, highlighting the case of imagining. On his account, imaginings are “essentially mental actions” (2012, p. 390). Imagining the visual appearance of my friend Matt consists in the occurrence of two mental events that stand in a constitutive relation: (1) trying to imagine the visual appearance of Matt, and (2) a visual appearance of Matt coming to mind. For Dorsch, the relation between these mental events is constitutive, so they are “dependent parts of a simple and indivisible mental episode” (2012, p. 400). However, Dorsch’s constitutive account seems to face a similar problem. For the visual appearance of Matt is brought to mind in trying to imagine the visual appearance of Matt. But, how do I intentionally bring about this simple and indivisible mental episode in the first place? Although Dorsch claims that it is performed directly, “the direct mental agency involved in voluntary [i.e., intentional] imagining is essential to its instances” (2012, p. 432), he does not say how I go about exercising such direct mental agency, or the conditions under which my doing so is intentional.

I think this problem stems from an assumption about causation shared by proponents of the standard accounts of action and Dorsch, namely, that the conscious mental actions in question are caused by your prior mental events. For Dorsch, though performed directly, our “mental actions come into being once our practical reasons actually begin to move us”, reasons “which we are put in contact with by some of our mental states—say, intentions, desires, or other states with the capacity to move us to act” (2009, p. 58). Similarly, on the standard accounts of action, prior desires, intentions, and other mental events cause and sustain the resulting mental action. In both cases, since the content that comes to mind during the performance of the mental action in question is already present to mind within those prior motivating mental events, it seems we have not yet explained how we bring content to mind intentionally in the first place.

I want to very briefly sketch a third option, one that employs an alternative concept of causation, and that uses imagining as a central motivating case. Consider someone who is asked to visually imagine a particular object and then manipulate the various qualitative features of the image, such as when you intentionally imagine the visual appearance of a three-dimensional shape and rotate it mentally.[3] This requires effort on your part, as anyone who has done so can attest.[4] Indeed, I think it is by exerting effort that we bring content to mind intentionally, both in the particular case of imagining and during conscious mental actions more generally. When you are exerting effort in the process of imagining something, you are using your cognitive capacities.[5] When using your cognitive capacities, content is delivered to mind in a capacity-specific manner. For instance, visual imagination and auditory imagination deliver content that is specific to those capacities, so that the content that comes to mind when imagining the sound of a trumpet differs from that which comes to mind when imagining the visual appearance of a trumpet.

Crucially, exerting effort is manifesting a causal power that you possess.[6] Because exerting effort is manifesting a causal power, an effect of some kind is necessarily produced whenever you are doing so. Equally as crucial, when exerting effort during a mental action, this occurs simultaneously with your use of the relevant cognitive capacities, which together cause the delivery of content to mind. So long as the relevant conditions remain unchanged, your ongoing exertion of effort, together with your continuous use of those cognitive capacities, sustains that mental action over time and the content that is present to mind. Hence, we have a cause, an effect, and a causing. Insofar as the causal power you are manifesting when exerting effort and the relevant cognitive capacities are properties that you possess as a conscious thinker, you are the cause; exerting effort while using your cognitive capacities are together causing the delivery of content to mind; and the effect is the conscious mental action that results from this process.

Of course, this is but a sketch of an alternative, and much more needs to be said. But, if what I suggest here is correct, it is no easy thing to explain how we bring content to mind when intentionally imagining something. My alternative attempts to explain just that. Here, conscious mental actions are neither caused nor constituted by your mental events. Rather, it is you, the conscious thinker in question, who causes your conscious mental actions by exerting effort when using the relevant cognitive capacities. As such, you are playing a necessary and ineliminable causal role in the process by which you produce and sustain your conscious mental actions. It is by doing something­—by exerting effort—that you bring content to mind intentionally as a result.


[1] For the standard accounts, see, e.g., Bratman (1987), Davidson (1963), and Mele (1992). Note that the causal relation must be non-deviant, and that there is some dispute whether the intentional action results from this causal relation or is identical to this causal relation, both of which I set aside here.

[2] For discussion of this problem, see Levy (2016), Mele (1992, 1997), Shepherd (2015), Strawson (2003), and Wu (2013).

[3] See Shepard and Metzler (1971) for a classic experiment involving mental rotation of images. For an overview, see Kosslyn, Thompson, and Ganis (2006) and Thomas (2017). 

[4] For defence of a similar role for effort in the production of bodily action, see Brent (2017).

[5] Here, I remain neutral about how best to individuate cognitive capacities.

[6] For a causal powers-based account of causation, see, e.g., Heil (2012). 


References

Bratman, M. E. (1987) Intentions, Plans and Practical Reason. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University

Brent, M. (2017) “Agent Causation as a Solution to the Problem of Action”, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 47/5: 656-673

Davidson, D. (1963) “Actions, Reasons and Causes”, The Journal of Philosophy, 60/23: 685-700.

Dorsch, F. (2009) “Judging and the Scope of Mental Agency” in L. O’Brien and M. Soteriou             (eds.) Mental Actions. New York: OUP

–––– (2012) The Unity of Imagining. De Gruyter

Heil, J. (2012) The Universe As We Find It. Oxford: Clarendon

Kosslyn, S. M., Thompson, W. L., Ganis, G. (2006) The Case for Mental Imagery. New York: OUP

Levy, Y. (2016) “Action Unified”, The Philosophical Quarterly, 66/262: 65-8

Mele, A. (1992) The Springs of Action. New York: OUP

–––– (1997) “Agency and Mental Action”, Philosophical Perspectives, 11: 231-249

Shepard, R. N., & Metzler, J. (1971) “Mental Rotation of Three-Dimensional Objects”, Science,          171: 701–703

Shepherd, J. (2015) “Deciding as Intentional Action: Control Over Decisions”, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 93/2: 335-351

Strawson, G. (2003) “Mental Ballistics or the Involuntariness of Spontaneity”, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 103: 227-256

Thomas, N.J.T. (2017). “Mental Imagery” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. E. N. Zalta (ed.) https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2017/entries/mental-imagery/

Wu, W. (2013) “Mental Action and the Threat of Automaticity” in A. Clark, J. Kiverstein, and          T. Vierkant (eds.) Decomposing the Will. New York: OUP