The Value of a Free and Wandering Mind

Miriam Schleifer McCormick is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Richmond. Her primary research interests focus on the nature and norms of belief. She is the author of Believing Against the Evidence: Agency and the Ethics of Belief.

Miriam Schleifer McCormick is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Richmond. Her primary research interests focus on the nature and norms of belief. She is the author of Believing Against the Evidence: Agency and the Ethics of Belief.

A post by Miriam McCormick.

Is there a place in the mind where we are free to let our thoughts go, where normative judgments and assessments are out of place, and where praise and shame do not apply? Much recent work, including my own, has been concerned with widening the scope of agency beyond that which is under our direct voluntary control. Many states of mind, including beliefs, emotions, and desires, are appropriate targets of certain reactive attitudes, even if such states cannot be directly controlled.

I now worry that this expansion project has gone too far, so that no area of mind is beyond the reach of assessment and judgment. It is important that there be a domain of the mind where you are safe to let your thoughts and images go wherever they take you without concern that you are doing anything wrong. There is wide agreement that such judgment does not apply to dreams of sleep. While it is undoubtedly the case that one can wake from a dream and feel some shame for what occurred, such shame is not called for.[1] I think certain imaginative states, ones that I call “pure fantasies” are normatively on par with sleeping dreams.  Any reproach for such fantasies would be akin to reproach for the size of one’s nose.

To get clear on what I mean by pure fantasy, let me first say what I mean by fantasy. The wakeful state that most resembles nighttime dreams is the “daydream.” What is a daydream? You let your mind wander without a clear purpose or intention. But it is not daydreaming if you end up anxiously obsessing about your “to do” list or Donald Trump’s latest tweet. One requirement of daydreaming is that it involves mental imaging, and the second is that it has a kind of narrative structure. A third feature that distinguishes fantasies (or daydreams) from other exercises of the imagination is that they have an overall positive valence.

It certainly seems constitutive of daydreams that they are pleasant. We think of the student smiling wistfully in class and then being brought back to the present task by the teacher asking a question. The dictionary defines a daydream as “a series of pleasant thoughts that distract one’s attention from the present.” Aaron Smuts, one of the few to discuss the ethics of fantasy says, “the notion of a sad fantasy is incoherent” (2016, 385). This may be a bit strong, but I include this third feature in what counts as a “fantasy,” because it is finding images pleasurable, according to some, that makes fantasy worthy of reproach. We can get more clear on the kind of fantasizing that I think should be excluded from judgment by distinguishing it from fantasies that accompany hopes and desires. Hopes and desires are inextricably linked to motivation, while pure fantasies are motivationally inert. 

Hoping for something can often affect what you actually do, but even more so it leads you to devote mental and emotional energy toward the hoped-for outcome. The focus and energy that hope elicits can help explain its potential motivational power. And one way that this energy is manifest is in fantasizing about the hoped-for outcome. If a fantasy is expressive of hope, then it is open to normative assessment. In such a context when I ask “Should I have this fantasy?” I am asking “Should I have this hope?” A mental state—or attitude—that is responsive to reason is open to normative assessment. It would make sense, for example, if I asked why you have such an attitude; there could be reasons for you not to have the attitude, and those reasons could function in your revising it.[2]

Hope is such a mental state. It makes sense for me to ask why you have hope, or to ask your reasons for hope. But while some degree of fantasy may frequently accompany hope, the converse is not true: one can fantasize without hoping. An example of fantasy without hope would be the make-believe play of a child. She may pretend to be an elephant, or the villain who gets shot by the super-hero, but she does not hope to be either.

When one engages in hopeful fantasy, one has a desire for the hoped-for outcome. But is this the case in a fantasy without hope? One way of getting at the difference is to think that, in the former, one is fantasizing about the content of the fantasy really coming to be, while in the latter, one is not. This idea can be made more vivid if we think about darker fantasies, say like murdering an ex, or about some sexual fantasies. One can fantasize about things while not fantasizing about them really coming to be. Think of a genie appearing and telling you he will make your fantasy a reality. If the fantasy is of something hoped for, one would welcome the genie’s gift. But there are some fantasies where one would politely decline the generous offer.

One can have desires that are not hopes, either because one does not believe it possible to obtain what one desires (and so despairs), or because one does not want to have the desire. Even such desires seem open to normative assessment. Why? Some think that desires include some kind of representation of the object desired as good, or even more that to desire something entails that one believes one has reason to so desire.[3]  On such accounts, one can be mistaken in one’s representations. But even on less cognitive views of desires, if you desire something, it has some pull on you. It is quite common to have desires one would prefer not to have, but it takes work to overcome them. Now if desires are intrinsically motivating states, and I am claiming that pure fantasies are motivationally inert, then it follows that such states are void of desires. And I think this is right; pure fantasies are pleasurable imaginings but without desire.

Why then would fantasy without desire be exempt from reproach? Couldn’t certain pure fantasies reveal that I am not thinking and feeling as I ought? The attitude being assessed in the case of pure fantasy is that of “finding pleasurable.” We can then ask, can such a state be bad in itself? When we think about the badness or even wrongness of finding pleasure and enjoyment in things, it seems they are activities and, often more importantly, activities involving others.  If one takes pleasure in causing pain or subjugating others, this is morally problematic. If I take pleasure in thinking about something, this may not be too far away from taking pleasure in actually doing this thing. But this need not be the case with pure fantasies. And so the badness must be only in having certain thoughts. It is telling that those who think such fantasizing is open to a kind of moral judgment often invoke frequency and repetition. If one constantly fantasizes about something, it is hard to see how this wouldn’t seep into one’s motivational structure, and if it does, then it leaves the “no judgment” zone.

It may well be that letting one’s mind freely wander is risky; it can risk a loss of virtue, damage to one’s character. But on the other side, if one does not allow free wandering of the mind, there is a risk of being overly controlled, even in one’s private and internal thoughts. Judgment-free mind wandering can be of value in artistic creation and innovation. A vivid example of the connection between free mind wandering and artistic creation can be found in the work of David Lynch. The contrast between the darkness of Lynch’s films and his own positive (even cheerful) outlook on life is frequently noted. Laura Dern, who acted in many of his films says this of Lynch: “There’s a lot of self-judgment and shame in our culture, and David doesn’t have any of that. When he makes something, he never wonders what people will think of it, or what he should be making, or what the zeitgeist needs. He makes what bubbles up out of his brain, and that is part of his joy (Lynch and McKenna 2018, 213).” Lynch allows himself the freedom to experience darkness and violence in the realm of the imagination, but none of that penetrates his motivational structure or his character and temperament.[4]

Pure fantasies have no fittingness conditions, are not rationally evaluable, and have no intrinsic value or disvalue. If we discover the contents of this state, it will tell us no more about you than would the contents of your dreams of sleep. And so the normative judgments about such fantasizing should not go beyond what is appropriate for dreams. While mind wandering may be risky, allowing freedom of thought in the imaginative realm is linked to creativity and need not have negative consequences.

[1] Augustine does not agree that dreams are so exempt. See Couenhoven (2010) for a discussion of Augustine’s view, especially p. 116. He is quite sympathetic to his view, as are Matthews (1981) and Cherry (1988).

[2] As Kate Nolfi puts it, “being in a rationally evaluable mental state (e.g., believing that p) paradigmatically involves being answerable—being responsible, in some normatively significant sense of the term—for being in the state” (Nolfi 2015, 45).

[3] For discussion of ways to understand desires as representations that are correct if good see Hazlett (2018) and Gregory (2017).

[4] In a study on the phenomenon of “mind wandering,” described as “our minds drifting away from a task toward unrelated inner thoughts, fantasies, feelings, and other musings,” Jonathan Smallwood and Jonathan Schooler (2006) survey the many ways that such wanderings can inhibit completion of tasks that require a sustained focus, but they also cite findings that support the idea that such wanderings are importantly linked to problem-solving and creativity. Jonathan Schooler (2006) surveys the many ways that such wanderings can inhibit completion of tasks that require a sustained focus, but they also cite findings that support the idea that such wanderings are importantly linked to problem-solving and creativity.


Cherry, Chris (1988) “When Is Fantasising Morally Bad?” Philosophical Investigations 11(2): 112–133

Couenhoven, Jesse (2010) “Dreams of Responsibility,” Augustine and Philosophy 6: 103-123.

Gregory, Alex ( 2017) “Might Desires be Beliefs about Normative Reasons,” Deonna, J. and Lauria, F. (eds.) The Nature of Desire. OUP.

Hazlett, Alan (2018) “The guise of the good and the problem of partiality,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy, DOI: 10.1080/00455091.2018.1433794

Mann, William (1983) “Dreams of Immorality” Philosophy 58. 225: 378-385,

Lynch, David and McKenna, Krtistine  (2018) Room to Dream. Random House.

Matthews, Garreth (1981) “On Being Immoral in A Dream.” Philosophy 56: 47-54.

Martin, Adrienne, How We Hope: A Moral Psychology, Princeton University Press, 2013.

Nolfi, Kate. 2015. “Which States Are Rationally Evaluable and Why?” Philosophical Issues 25: 42–63.

Smallwood, J and Schooler, J, (2006) “The Restless Mind,”  Psychological Bulletin 132(6): 946–958

Smuts, Aaron, (2016) “The Ethics of the Imagination and Fantasy,” The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Imagination (ed. Amy Kind), 2016