Belief, Knowledge and Imagination – a common thread

Deb Marber is a PhD candidate at the University of St Andrews where she works with Patrick Greenough as primary supervisor. Beyond working on philosophy, she likes to play with pictures and light (with paint and cameras) and do yoga after watching the tennis match between Brussels (where she was born) and Westminster.

Deb Marber is a PhD candidate at the University of St Andrews where she works with Patrick Greenough as primary supervisor. Beyond working on philosophy, she likes to play with pictures and light (with paint and cameras) and do yoga after watching the tennis match between Brussels (where she was born) and Westminster.

A Post by Deb Marber.

1.   Broad differences.

According to a very popular view of imagining, belief and knowledge, the three dramatically contrast with one another.

For example in his poem L’enfant ((‘The child’)-see figure 1. For translation see figure 2), Maurice Carême implicitly opposes, through a careful word choice, on the one hand beliefs about the actual observable world, knowledge, objectivity and shared perspective; and on the other hand what the child imagines when he closes his eyes and plays, a world to which only he has access through his mind’s eye.

In philosophical literature, similar contrasts are frequently drawn. In his article ‘Imagination and Belief’, where he provides an overview (and attempts a rejection) of recent views bringing imagination and belief closer together, Neil Sinhababu observes:

Figure 1: illustration by Bruno Gilbert

Figure 1: illustration by Bruno Gilbert

‘While believing and imagining both involve representations, broad differences between them suggest that they’re fundamentally different kinds of representational states that can’t be understood in any especially u­nified way.’ (Sinhababu 2016, p.112)

Figure 2

Figure 2

The differences are too stark, it seems. They are indeed apparently numerous. For example, Kendal Walton once stated ‘Imagining aims at the fictional as belief aims at the true’ (Walton 1990, p.41)

The metaphorical phrase ‘beliefs aim at the true’ employed by Walton here encompasses some features of belief defended by Bernard Williams (and since then heavily discussed; (Chan 2013) provides a good overview of this issue). The phrase is meant to summarize the intuition that it is appropriate to judge a belief as correct when its content is true, or incorrect when it is false, and that one cannot believe a proposition P without believing that P is true so that expressing a belief that P amounts to asserting that P is true. (Williams 1973, p. 137) For example if I express my belief that owls are nocturnal, it seems that I also assert that it is the case that owls are indeed primarily active at night and examples to the contrary may contribute to others judging my belief to be incorrect at least to some extent.

Imagining by contrast is frequently thought to deal with the ‘irreal’ (cf. (Jansen 2016, 70)) and consequently to be apt to stray freely from reality.  Scottish philosopher David Hume thus said of the imagination that “nothing is more free” (Hume 1777/1975, 47).

One consequence of belief’s close connection with truth is an alleged disparity in thevoluntariness’ of the two attitudes: many think that we can't voluntarily choose what to believe (at least, not directly, see the debate on the ethics of belief; for an overview, see (Chignell 2016)), whereas we often can voluntarily decide what to imagine.

It has also led many to point out further disparities in the functional role of belief as opposed to that of imagining. Thus in her collection of papers Intuition, Imagination and Philosophical Methodology Tamar Gendler asserts:

“Our perceptions and memories of what we take to be real are typically linked up to our actions and responses in ways that our representations of what we take to be imaginary are typically not.” (Gendler 2010, p. 7).

2. A puzzle.

Assuming that what we merely imagine generally departs from the real has led to a call for explanation of various phenomena. First, imagination seems able to arouse strong emotions. For example, reading Philip Roth’s description of Les Farley, a fictional Vietnam war veteran suffering PTSD symptoms in his novel The Human Stain, filled me with pity I never had previously experienced towards real war veterans. Imagination’s apparent tie to emotion in the context of fiction has prompted many to offer explanations of ‘the puzzle of fiction and emotions’ (see for example (Weinberg & Meskin 2006) and (Walton 1990)). Likewise imaginings’ ability to motivate real world action, when pretending or play-acting, for example, is explained by some via imaginings motivating indirectly through facilitating beliefs about what would be appropriate to do given the context of the game alongside real desires to play ((Schellenberg 2013) is an example of this kind of approach), and by others through eliminating the need for imagining to play a role at all (Langland Hassan 2012). These discussions are fascinating for many reasons. But I am particularly interested here in another puzzle.

The puzzle I will focus on here arises because despite indeed much talk differentiating reality bound belief from imagination’s escapist tendencies, it is commonly acknowledged that imagination can result in forming beliefs and even knowledge. The rich literature employing thought experiments and discussing their justificatory power is testament to this, as are anthropological studies on religious conversion such as David Smilde’s (Smilde 2007) which isolates ‘relational imagination’ as a key capacity at play in successful conversions to Evangelicalism in Caracas, Venezuela. Thus a quandary: how can imagination enable us to transcend reality and yet also form a basis for our beliefs or knowledge? Amy Kind and Peter Kung have dubbed it ‘the puzzle of imaginative use’ (Kind and Kung 2016).

3. Sketching a solution: Imagination, Conditional Processing and Evolution

One promising approach to solving the puzzle of imaginative use involves disputing some of the very characteristics that allegedly distinguish imagination from belief and knowledge.  If imagination is shown to be more similar to belief than has been presumed, the puzzle may be easily resolved .

In my PhD thesis, I attempt to dispel most of these contrasts by demonstrating that they are due to some oversimplification in understanding of both imagining and belief, which are both more complex and heterogeneous than they are frequently portrayed, extending (Kind 2013)’s case for the heterogeneity of imagining to belief. Though I certainly won’t give a full picture of either belief or imagination in my thesis and less so in this short post, I hope to make a bit more plausible the idea that our capacities to believe, know and imagine are connected in a deep way.

One can read a similar attempt in Williamson’s essay “Knowing by Imagining” (2016) where he offers:

“that stereotypical contrast is utterly misleading. Far from being the opposite of knowing, imagining has the basic function of providing a means to knowledge—and not primarily to knowledge of the deep, elusive sort that we may hope to gain from great works of fiction, but knowledge of far more mundane, widespread matters of immediate practical relevance.” (Williamson 2016, p.113)

Williamson’s argument is rich so I can only highlight a few noteworthy points here. At its core is, roughly, the idea that imagination provides a means to knowledge because it is both selective and reality-oriented, when it runs in the ‘involuntary mode’. On this, Williamson asserts that ‘Left to itself, the imagination develops the scenario in a reality oriented way, by default.’ (p.116). The term ‘reality oriented’ is not standard. In suggesting imagination is not reflecting reality, but oriented towards it, Williamson implies that although transforming some aspects of reality, imagination develops content mostly in line with it. That imagination can play a justificatory role despite the transformation of reality involved relies on Williamson’s claim that imagination rationally responds to evidence.  To defend this he points out strong cognitive similarities between the processes that update belief in light of new information and the way imaginings are developed. And he also speculates that if we evolved an imagination to have better survival prospects, it must generally be a useful capacity rather than a cumbersome distraction, and so there is a good chance that it would be selective so as to develop only likely possibilities when we do not voluntarily intervene.

His distinction of two modes in which imagination can run, a voluntary and involuntary mode, breaks away from the disparity in voluntariness pointed out above. He also presents imagination as a capacity that is both rationally responsive to evidence and rule bound, and can thereby play a direct role in the assessment of the truth of propositions (p. 115). So if Williamson is correct, the capacity of imagination and therefore the resulting state of imagining is neither always voluntary nor always involuntary, and certainly less free than frequently assumed.

Williamson’s argument is fascinating, and I am very sympathetic to its overall goals, but it has some shortcomings.  For example he describes involuntarily imagining as amounting to developing an initial supposition, whereas it is a topic of debate whether or not supposition is a kind of imagination (for arguments that it is not, see (Balcerak Jackson 2016) and for a detailed defense of why it is see (Arcangeli  2018), and her upcoming book symposium on this blog.

Furthermore, by ignoring the psychological literature on the topic he fails to acknowledge that the idea that imagination can be rational and responsive to evidence is not new and has been developed in some depth already. For example, psychologist Ruth Byrne develops the idea in much length in her book The Rational Imagination (2005)  where she grounds her argument in decades of experimental results obtained by herself and colleagues since the 1980s (for example, see (Kahneman and Miller 1986)). There, she also highlights specific key principles which guide the possibilities people think about when thinking counterfactually about alternative possibilities (a good summary of these is provided in Ch.2 of (Byrne 2005)).

Franz Berto (2018) presents a more precise variation on Williamson’s view as he proposes an account, and a semantics, of what he calls ROMS – Reality Oriented Mental Simulation – a kind of imagination ‘constrained by topicality and minimal alteration with respect to what one believes or actually knows to be the case’. The account clearly integrates cognitive science findings such as Ruth Byrne’s comments that background knowledge and recent context direct which possibilities we consider when we imagine counterfactually and (Nichols & Stich 2000, p.62 )’s idea that counterfactual imaginings are developed through mechanisms also at play in belief revision. His view consequently offers ROMS (which he is more careful to distinguish from supposition) as ‘simulated belief revision’, from which he concludes: ‘The key epistemic role of imagination is to allow us to reliably form new conditional beliefs’. (Berto 2018, p.5)

Backed up by this further support, the hypothesis that imaginings can be developed involuntarily and significantly connected to evidence and truth becomes more compelling.

But it makes me wonder: if this sort of reality-oriented simulation is indeed a form of imagination, and is clearly constrained by background knowledge and topicality constraints, can this kind of imagination truly allow us to transcend what we already know beyond recombining these pieces of knowledge in new ways? If not, is it truly apt to be presented as a step in solving the puzzle of imaginative use? And is a different kind of imagination than the main culprit for the seeming arbitrariness and freedom of what can be imagined?


Arcangeli, Margherita (2018). Supposition and the Imaginative Realm: A Philosophical Inquiry. Routledge.

Balcerak Jackson, Magdalena (2016) “Imagining, Conceiving, Supposing,” in A. Kind and P. Kung (eds.) Knowledge through Imagination, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Berto, F. (2018). Synthese

Byrne, R. (2005). The rational imagination. How people create alternatives to reality. Cambridge, MA:MIT Press.

Chan, Timothy. (2013) The Aim of Belief. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Chignell, Andrew (2016). The ethics of belief. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Currie, G., and I. Ravenscroft (2002) Recreative Minds: Imagination in Philosophy and Psychology, Oxford:Oxford University Press.

Harris, Paul (2000). The Work of the Imagination. Wiley-Blackwell.

Gendler, T.S. (2010) Intuition, Imagination, and Philosophical Methodology, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hume, D. (1777/1975) Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principle of Morals, eds. L.A. Selby-Bigge and P.H. Nidditch, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jansen, Julia (2016). “Husserl”. In Amy Kind (ed.), The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Imagination 69-81.

Kahneman, D., and Miller, D. 1986. Norm theory: Comparing reality to its alternatives. Psychological Review, 93, 136–153.

Kind, A. (2013) “The Heterogeneity of the Imagination,” Erkenntnis 78(1): 141 159.

Kind, A., and P. Kung (eds.) (2016) Knowledge through Imagination, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Langland-Hassan, P. (2012) “Pretense, Imagination, and Belief: The Single Attitude Theory,” Philosophical Studies 159: 155 179.

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Nichols, S., & Stich, S. P. (2003). Mindreading. An integrated account of pretence: Self-awareness, andunderstanding other minds. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schellenberg, S. (2013) “Belief and Desire in Imagination and Immersion,” Journal of Philosophy 110: 497-517. 

Sinhababu, Neil (2016). Imagination and Belief. In Amy Kind (ed.), The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Imagination 111-123.

Smilde, D. (2007) “Reason to Believe: Cultural Agency in Latin American Evangelicalism”, Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Walton, K.L. (1990) Mimesis as Make-Believe: On the Foundations of the Representational Arts, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Weinberg, J.M., and A. Meskin (2006) “Puzzling over the Imagination: Philosophical Problems, Architectural Solutions,” in S. Nichols (ed.) The Architecture of the Imagination: New Essays on Pretence, Possibility, and Fiction, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 175 202.

Williams, Bernard. (1973) "Deciding to Believe." In Problems of the Self, by Bernard Williams, 136-151. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Williamson,T. (2016).Knowing by imagining. In A. Kind & P.Kung (Eds.), Knowledge through imagination (pp. 113–23). Oxford: Oxford University Press.