Imaginary Reasons

J. Drake  is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Creighton University. His research is centered around answering questions about the nature of reasons and rationality, and tracing out the implications of those answers to other philosophical questions.

J. Drake is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Creighton University. His research is centered around answering questions about the nature of reasons and rationality, and tracing out the implications of those answers to other philosophical questions.

A post by Jonathan Drake and Eric Peterson.

What Would Imaginary Reasons Be?

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.

In order to get going at all, we need to say something about what an imaginary reason would be. This requires clarification on two fronts: ‘imagination’ and ‘reason’. On the first front: readers of this blog are well aware that there is no consensus answer to the question, ‘What is imagination?’ There are challenges related to the taxonomy of imagination.[1] There are worries about the disparate explanatory roles of imagination.[2] There are significant debates as to whether imagination is one, or rather a set of, type(s) of mental state, whether imagination is primarily imagistic, and whether imagination is primarily attitudinal.[3] And so on. None of this, of course, precludes good theorizing about imagination –– just peruse this wonderful blog! For a broad operational definition that we expect will be relatively uncontroversial, we will follow Kind in saying that

Eric Peterson  is Visiting Assistant Professor   at Creighton University. His research interests include imagination, philosophy of mind, ethics, and much more. The little dancer is his daughter Emerie (5). And, as many of you already know, he proudly serves as the managing editor for  this blog.

Eric Peterson is Visiting Assistant Professor at Creighton University. His research interests include imagination, philosophy of mind, ethics, and much more. The little dancer is his daughter Emerie (5). And, as many of you already know, he proudly serves as the managing editor for this blog.

imagination is a primitive mental state type that is intentional and is not constitutively constrained by truth.[4]

For our purposes, this rough and ready characterization will suffice; nothing in our argument hangs on whether the difficult issues just mentioned have been settled.

On the second front, there is a helpful clarification to make, in light of the increasing multiplicity of the term ‘reason’. Our inquiry here concerns what have been called motivating reasons: considerations in the light of which agents act. Less metaphorically, we can say that a motivating reason is a consideration taken to favor a response. So, when we say that “A φs for the reason that R,” we mean, roughly, that A is motivated to φ by the consideration that R.[5]

The phrase ‘imaginary reason’ will be a misnomer if taken to imply that what is imagined is the status of some consideration as a reason. That is: imaginary reasons, in the sense were are interested in, are not considerations imagined to be motivating reasons. Instead, as we employ the term,

an imaginary reason is a consideration that, qua consideration imagined by some agent A, motivates A to perform some action φ.[6]

Alternatively, we could say that A φs for an imaginary reason just in case A φs for the reason that R, where R is a consideration (merely) imagined by A. Those familiar with recent work in action theory will be familiar with the ideas that things believed and things known by an agent are poised to rationally motivate that agent to act.[7] So, one further way of putting our question is: are things imagined similarly poised?

Considerations True, Imagined, and Believed

Facts Imagined and Reasons. Let us quickly set aside one initial argument against the possibility of imaginary reasons. As already mentioned, imagination is not constitutively constrained by truth. Another way of putting this is to say that imagination is not, as philosophers say, factive: the fact that A imagines that P does not entail that P. Acting for a reason, it might be thought, is factive: the fact that A φs for the reason that R entails that R. As such, imagined considerations are simply not of the right ontological kind to be motivating reasons.

This line of thought, if initially tempting, can easily be seen as misguided –– or at least hasty –– for at least two reasons. The first is that it is far from clear that acting for a reason is factive (or that motivating reasons must be facts). Indeed, Drake has made the case that the default, intuitive view is that acting for a reason is not factive; and the non-factive banner, though perhaps in the minority, is carried by many prominent philosophers.[8]

Second, although imagination is not factive, it is clear that things imagined can be true. One can easily imagine, for example, historical events; one can imagine Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon. This being so, the factivity of acting for a reason would not preclude imagined considerations from being reasons –– the nonfactivity of imagination notwithstanding. It would simply be that only true imagined considerations could serve as motivating reasons.

Things Believed and Things Imagined. A more enlightening line of investigation might be to think about the relationship between belief and motivation. For some time, it has been widely accepted that rational motivation is significantly constrained, and perhaps even partly constituted by, belief. Consider, for example, the widely endorsed

Belief View: Whenever A φs for the reason that R, A believes that R.

While the Belief View has the status of something like consensus in action theory, one finds upon taking a closer look that there is hardly any real consensus on the issue. This is because the question of whether motivating reasons are beliefs admits of at least three disambiguations, at least two of which are fundamentally different in their ontology.

With respect to belief, we can make the following threefold distinction, between: (i) the fact that A believes that P, (ii) A’s belief/believing that P, and (iii) that which A believes, namely, P. Here (i) refers to a psychological or mental fact about A; (ii) refers to the psychological state (or, if you prefer, event, or act) that A is in; (iii) refers to the content or object of A’s psychological state or act. The Belief View implicitly invokes the third disambiguation here; and, while we find this view plausible, the other two legitimate options are not to be ignored.[9]

In any case, we think that, in asking whether there are imaginary reasons, we would do well to keep in mind similar distinctions with respect to imagination. That is, we can distinguish, in a similar sense, between: (i) the fact that A imagines that P, (ii) A’s imagining that P, and (iii) that which A imagines, namely, P.

Starting Skepticism About Imaginary Reasons

With these preliminaries in hand, we propose to spark inquiry concerning imaginary reasons by raising a skeptical argument thereabout. The suspicion driving the skeptical argument is, roughly, that no consideration merely imagined –– that is, not also believed –– can be taken to favor an action.

Imaginary Reasons and Beliefs. A helpful exercise, we think, is to focus on cases in which an agent A merely imagines some proposition P. As we saw above, imagination is in no way constituted by truth; neither is it constituted by an ascription of truth. When we say that A merely imagines that P, we have in mind a case in which A imagines that P without believing that P or taking it to be true that P. In any such case, we may reason as follows.

[1] If A merely imagines that R, then A does not believe that R.

[2] So, A does not believe that R.

[3] If A φs for the reason that R, A believes that R.

[4] So, it is not the case that A φs for the reason that R.

Here we make use of the supposition that A merely imagines that R, an assumption that this precludes A’s believing that R, and the widely endorsed idea that acting for a reason requires believing that R (in our supposition, claim [1], and claim [3], respectively). The upshot of the argument, then, is that if A merely imagines that R, then A cannot φ for the reason that R. In other words: there are no imaginary reasons.

A superficially tempting response, for those inclined to believe in imaginary reasons, might be to reject premise [1] on the grounds that imagining does not preclude believing. Of course, it must be granted that it is possible that some agent A both imagines and believes that P. Recalling our earlier example: I believe that Caesar crossed the Rubicon; I can now both occurrently believe and imagine that proposition. But whether imagining is compatible with believing is not to the point. The question of whether there are imaginary reasons is the question of whether some proposition P can, qua imagined consideration, motivate an agent to act. Our way of getting at that point has been to focus on that class of cases in which the agent merely imagines the consideration in question; if there are imaginary reasons, one would expect that merely imagined considerations be poised to motivate action. But that does not seem to be so.

We can concede that imagined considerations can serve as motivating reasons when believed. But the skeptical view here would suggest that, when A both imagines and believes that R, and R serves as A’s reason for φing, it is qua thing believed (not thing imagined) that R so serves. Why? Recall that a motivating reason is a consideration taken to favor a response. Our contention, in line with the Belief View, is that only things taken to be the case can be taken to favor a live response. If I merely imagine –– but do not believe –– that an axe-bearing madman is chasing me, it seems nigh impossible that I take the consideration that an axe-bearing madman is chasing me to favor any (actual) response on my part (say, running down the halls). Only if I took it to be the case that (that is: believed) an axe-bearing madman is chasing me would that consideration motivate me to act.

The Inquiry Ahead. We do not insist that this is conclusive reason to reject the possibility of imaginary reasons; we certainly do not reach for any bold claim to the effect that imagination has no role to play in motivation or practical reasoning. Admittedly, in the interest of brevity, we have ridden roughshod over many complications concerning the nature of imagination and the nature of rational motivation. We have also not said anything about an interesting class of cases which might cut in the other direction: cases where beliefs about what is possible motivate an agent to act. We do think, though, given the commonsense nature of the premises on which this argument is built, that the argument might suffice to establish the skeptical view of imaginary reasons as the default view. Further inquiry will tell whether the default view proves correct.

[1] See Liao and Gendler [2019], Strawson [1982], Walton [1990], and Stevenson [2003].

[2] See Kind [2013].

[3]  See Peacock [1985], and Balcerak and Jackson [2016] on the first, Kind [2001] on the second, and Nichols and Stich [2003], and Nichols [2004] on the third.

[4] See Kind [2016: 2-3]. Though relatively uncontroversial, it does not enjoy universal agreement. For a dissenting voice see Langland-Hassan [2012, 2014, and forthcoming].

[5] Such reasons are sometimes called agential reasons, or the reasons for which agents act. These are standardly distinguished at least from normative reasons: considerations which count in favor of a response. Current usage of this distinction is traceable to Michael Smith [1992].

[6] We construe action here broadly, so as to include belief.

[7] The phrase ‘rationally motivate’ should not be taken to imply that the action in question is rational, in the sense of being afforded any positive normative status. Instead, ‘rational motivation’ is tied to the idea, due primarily to Anscombe [1957] and Davidson [1963], of a rational explanation: an explanation given in terms of the agent’s reason for doing what they did.

[8] See Drake [2018], Dancy [2000; 2003; 2011; 2014], Comesaña and McGrath [2014], Enoch [2010], Sandis [2013], Schroeder [2008], and Setiya [2007].

[9] A surprising, oft-overlooked implication here is that if the Belief View is true, then the so-called Humean or Davidsonian view, which invokes either disambiguation (i) or (ii), is implausible. While for the sake of brevity we do not do so here, we engage this paradigm, and those who bring it to bear on imagination (for example, Van Leeuwen and Velleman), in our fuller paper. Outside of the literature on imagination, Drake [2019] deals with this topic quite explicitly.


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