A post by Hanna Kim.
The phenomenon of imaginative resistance has been widely discussed in the philosophical literature, including a number of times on this blog (e.g., see here, here, and here). Imaginative resistance has been defined as occurring “when an otherwise competent imaginer finds it difficult to engage in some sort of prompted imaginative activity” (Gendler and Liao 2016). And one of the oldest and most widely discussed puzzles concerning the phenomenon has to do with an asymmetry between imagining counterevaluative propositions and imagining counterdescriptive propositions (Hume 1757, Moran 1994, Walton 1990, Gendler 2000). The empirical assumption underlying the puzzle is that people experience more imaginative resistance when they attempt to imagine scenarios that are evaluatively deviant (counterevaluative) rather than descriptively deviant (counterdescriptive). This “curious asymmetry” (Kieran and Lopes 2003, 8; Matravers 2003, 91) has been widely observed, not very often argued for, and frequently restricted to moral deviance. Given this backdrop, my collaborators, Markus Kneer and Mike Stuart, and I wondered: What motivates this asymmetry? Why should it be any more difficult to imagine a countermoral claim (or counterevaluative claim more generally) than it is to imagine a counterdescriptive claim? Could the puzzle, according to which a difference in imaginative resistance is due exclusively, or at the very least predominantly, to claim type (i.e., evaluative vs. descriptive) largely be a myth?
We suspected that the detected difference in resistance between counterevaluative and counterdescriptive claims might be due, not predominantly to claim type, but in large part to features of content – i.e., content that represents states of affairs that are considered unlikely, astonishing, unusual, etc. So, for simplicity, we introduced a catch-all term for potential resistance-inducing properties of this sort: “weirdness.” And to explore whether imaginative resistance is primarily driven by claim type (evaluative vs descriptive) as opposed to content, we tested the effect of claim type on imaginative resistance while controlling for the “weirdness” of the content. We operationalized the main theoretical terms as follows:
o Imaginative Resistance was measured in three ways: (i) expressed willingness to accept a claim as true in the fiction, (ii) expressed difficulty imagining a claim being true in a fiction, and (iii) the degree to which claims are thought possible to imagine.
o Claim Type was divided into two types: (i) Evaluative claims, which included moral claims (e.g., Giselda did the right thing in killing her baby), aesthetic claims (e.g., The painting was beautiful), and humor claims (e.g., The weather forecast was funny), and (ii) Descriptive claims (e.g., Giselda gave birth to octuplets).
o Content was approached in two ways: (i) Degree of counterfactuality was an experimenter-controlled independent variable that tracked the “objective” likelihood of an event or degree of difference from the actual world (e.g., Giselda gave birth to twins/quadruplets/sextuplets/octuplets) and whose effects on various judgments were tested. (ii) Weirdness was a dependent variable which measured subjects’ judgments – i.e., how unusual, surprising, or different from the actual world the scenario seemed to participants.
The following is what we found. While claim type had a considerable impact on imaginative resistance judgments regarding truth in fiction (𝜂p2=.10, a medium effect), it had next to no effect on either imaginative difficulty or imaginative possibility judgments (𝜂p2<.01, i.e. not even a small effect size). By contrast, degree of counterfactuality had a pronounced effect on difficulty (𝜂p2=.11) and possibility judgments (𝜂p2=.12), yet a much smaller effect on truth in fiction judgments (𝜂p2=.02).
Also, we explored whether claim type still had an impact on all three measures of imaginative resistance, once weirdness of content was controlled for. And we found that weirdness proved to be a strong predictor of variation in imaginative resistance for all three measures (truth, difficulty, and possibility), whereas an impact of claim type could only be detected for truth judgments.
Previously, we assumed that judgments regarding truth in fiction, difficulty and the possibility of imagining a non-actual state of affairs belonged to a single category. That is, we assumed they all captured different, yet not unrelated, aspects of imaginative resistance, just as judgments regarding wrongness, blame, permissibility and punishment are standardly conceived as different types of moral judgments. However, given our findings, we think it would be helpful to draw more attention to the distinction between imaginative resistance conceived in terms of truth judgements on the one hand, and in terms of difficulty and possibility on the other. Though more work needs to be done to investigate the matter further, our findings, we would like to suggest, might support a Dual Process Model of Imaginative Resistance, a model which is structurally (and structurally only) similar to Cushman’s (2008, 2013) Dual Process Model of Moral Judgment. According to Cushman’s account, wrongness and permissibility judgments are principally sensitive to mental states, whereas blame and punishment judgments are sensitive both to mental states and causal factors and outcomes. In the case of imaginative resistance, we found truth judgments to be sensitive both to claim type (evaluative vs. descriptive) and features of content (degree of counterfactuality, or weirdness); difficulty and possibility judgments, by contrast, were found to be sensitive to features of content only (Figure 5).
There are many questions to ask concerning imaginative resistance. Some relate to its scope. For instance, does imaginative resistance arise from certain moral propositions, evaluative propositions more generally, or also for counterdescriptive propositions? Do we resist any of these types of propositions more than others? And what explains the varying amounts and types of resistance?
Regarding scope, our pilot data showed that imaginative resistance exists for nonmoral counterevaluative claims as well as for counterdescriptive claims (see also Black and Barnes 2016). Do the different claim types face different levels of resistance in principle? We found that resistance can be stronger for nonmoral counterevaluatives than for moral counterevaluatives. Thus, if an asymmetry did obtain, it would hold for counterevaluatives of all kinds, rather than merely moral counterevaluatives. The overwhelming focus in the literature on specifically moral counterevaluatives might therefore be somewhat inappropriate. We also found that resistance can be more pronounced for certain counterdescriptives than for certain counterevaluatives. Therefore, the strong claim that counterevaluatives always produce more imaginative resistance than counterdescriptives appears to be false.
More importantly, we found that out of the three measures of imaginative resistance tested (truth, difficulty, possibility), claim type matters only for truth judgments (that is, whether something is judged to be true in the fiction). And even in this case, claim type is neither the only significant factor driving resistance (degree is also significant), nor is its impact particularly pronounced (the effect size of the main effect of claim type on resistance was medium-small, 𝜂p 2 = .043). This suggests that with respect to any of the three measures tested here, there is no principled asymmetry we can draw between counterevaluatives and counterdescriptives. Hence the alleged puzzle, according to which a difference in imaginative resistance is due exclusively or, at the very least, predominantly to claim type, simply does not exist.
What explains the varying amounts and types of resistance? We found that the “weirdness” of a claim was the main explanatory factor for resistance conceived in terms of difficulty and possibility, and a partial predictor of resistance conceived in terms of judgments of truth in fiction. As long as one wants to postulate a general concept of imaginative resistance that captures a variety of distinct, though related phenomena, we tentatively suggest a dual process model: difficulty and possibility judgments are influenced principally by features of content (as measured by degree of weirdness), whereas truth in fiction judgments are influenced by both content and claim type.
The main question that stands out now is: What is it about truth in fiction judgments that makes them turn on content and claim type, while difficulty and possibility judgments are only tied to weirdness? Mike Stuart, my collaborator, offers the following proposal, with which I agree. According to Cushman’s dual process model of moral judgement, wrongness and permissibility judgments are sensitive to mental states, whereas blame and punishment judgments are sensitive to both mental states and causal factors and outcomes. These causal outcomes are important for blame and punishment because there are social, personal, moral, legal and political consequences to our actions, and we feel a responsibility to include facts about consequences in our reasoning about blame and punishment. Analogously, in the case of imaginative resistance, truth in fiction judgments are sensitive to content and claim type. Claim type could be important because we feel we have a responsibility to denounce certain claims as true in the fiction, given a (perhaps implicit) recognition that calling something “true,” even if in a fiction, can have social, personal, moral, legal and political consequences. This coalesces with the work of Gendler and others who claim that imaginative resistance occurs when we refuse to imagine certain things to avoid contaminating our moral perspectives. While counterdescriptives can also contaminate our moral frameworks, perhaps that kind of case is comparatively rare, and so our consequence-based considerations tend to concern counterevaluatives. This idea could be tested by comparing judgments about truth in fiction for counterevaluatives and counterdescriptives that are perceived as equally dangerous with respect to the contamination of our frameworks. However, we should expect this effect to be most pronounced in moral domains, so more work needs to be done to see whether this could also be a good explanation for truth in fiction judgments concerning aesthetic and other domains.
* * *
This post is drawn from the following co-authored paper: Kim, Kneer, Stuart, “The Content-Dependence of Imaginative Resistance.” Advances in Experimental Philosophy of Aesthetics, edited by Florian Cova and Sébastien Réhault, Bloomsbury Press, 2018, pp. 194-224.
This post was updated on February 7, 2019 with minor clarifying changes.
 On the other hand, if Hume’s original puzzle is taken to refer only to imaginative resistance in the sense of resistance to truth in fiction judgments, and his observation is merely that claim type partially explains such resistance, the puzzle remains, though in a substantially weaker form.
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