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Imaginative Resistance in Science

Abstract

The paper addresses the problem of imaginative resistance in science, that is, why and under what circumstances imagination sometimes resists certain scenarios. In the first part, the paper presents and discusses two accounts concerning the problem and relevant for the main thesis of this study. The first position is that of Gendler (Journal of Philosophy 97:55–81, 2000), (Gendler, in: Nichols (ed) The Architecture of the Imagination: New essays on pretence, possibility and fiction, Oxford University Press, New York, 2006a), (Gendler & Liao, in: Gibson, Carroll (eds) The routledge companion to philosophy of literature, Routledge, New York, 2016), according to which imaginative resistance mainly concerns evaluative scenarios, presenting deviant moral attitudes. The second account examined is that of Kim et al. (in: Cova, Réhault (eds) Advances in experimental philosophy of aesthetics, Bloomsbury, London, 2018), who insisted on the link between imaginative resistance on the one hand and counterfactual and counterdescriptive scenarios on the other. In the light of both theories, this paper discusses the importance of addressing the problem of imaginative resistance in the scientific enterprise in the light of some mechanisms of embodied simulation, based on the activity of mirror neurons and investigated within the framework of the Embodied Simulation Theory.

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Notes

  1. The problem is known as 'the puzzle of imaginative use': on the basis of what criteria can we distinguish between cases in which the imagination is used to escape from reality and those in which it enables us to learn something about the world? (Arcangeli, 2013; Kind & Kung, 2016; Langland-Hassan, 2016, 2020; Spaulding, 2016; Williamson, 2016).

  2. See e.g. Weinberg (2008), Nanay (2010), Liao (2011).

  3. See in particular Liao & Gendler (2011), Skolnick & Bloom (2006), Woolley & Cox (2007), Weisberg & Bloom (2009), Weisberg & Goodstein (2009).

  4. In a general sense, the problem of the relationship between imagination and scientific progress is part of a much broader debate that concerns the attempt to define a phenomenon as complex and heterogeneous as the imaginative one (Kind, 2013; Langland-Hassan, 2020), an attempt that is beyond the scope of this paper. Among contemporary philosophers, there seems to be a surprising reluctance to offer a substantive definition of imagination, as there is a recognition of the ambiguity of a phenomenon that eludes all definition: imagination in fact “is perception-like but not quite perception, or bilief-like but not quiete bilief” (Kind & Kung, 2016, p. 3). Unlike a clear phenomenon to be explained, there are no competing theories here, but the very consensus around the phenomenon under discussion and its nature is lacking (Kind & Kung, 2016). In the face of such complexity, the tendency, in the current philosophical landscape, has been to distinguish between different types of imagination, in relation to its use and other mental states related to it, such as belief and perception (cf. Balcerak Jackson, 2016; Langland-Hassan, 2020; Nichols & Stich, 2000; Spaulding, 2015). The notion of imagination that is presupposed in my analysis of imaginative resistance in science is not so much that of a particular mental state (Salis & Frigg, 2020), but rather that of an ability (Stuart, 2019) connected to the body, a capacity to construct, in science, and in particular through the use of thought experiments, certain counterfactual scenarios, through a series of methodical-operational constraints. Scientific creativity must always ultimately resolve itself in particular methods or techniques, in principle always reconstructible in an intersubjective sense thus guaranteeing scientific imagination an authentic epistemic role, in every phase or context of science. As we shall see, the dimension of the body constitutes the primary constraint. If we want to refer to McLeish's (2019) distinction between visual, textual and abstract imagination, as he argues, all three are part of science and could find a "place" of encounter in the dimension of the body. However, this discourse is very complex and would require further in-depth study elsewhere.

  5. If the role of imagination is not relegated to the sphere of discovery alone (cf. Spaulding, 2016), but is recognised as essential at every stage of research (cf. especially Buzzoni, 2009; Williamson, 2016), we avoid reducing the imaginative act to an empty exercise in fantasy, acknowledging the epistemic value of scientific imagination as a guide towards a new knowledge of the world. In recent years, several authors have addressed the problem of imagination in science, seeking to understand how imagination operates in the scientific enterprise (see e.g. Boden, 2004; Currie & Ravenscroft, 2002; Gendler, 2000, 2003, 2006b; Liao & Gendler, 2020; McAllister, 2013; McLeish, 2019; Nichols, 2004; Paul & Kaufam, 2014). At least two main, closely related, trends have emerged: on the one hand, imagination is studied in the construction of models, thought experiments and exercises in fiction (cf. Frigg, 2010; Godfrey-Smith, 2009; Thomson-Jones, 2010; Yablo, 2020); on the other hand, some authors, in synergy with the findings of cognitive science, have tried to define scientific imagination and its specific field of application (cf. Salis & Frigg, 2020; Stuart, 2019).

  6. Stuart, echoing Buzzoni (2008, 2013, 2016 and 2017), argues for a transcendental justification of thought experiments and takes up the Kantian notion of imagination capable of making connections between affective, sensory and rational elements of knowing.

  7. In Kung 2010, for example, imagination is investigated as a guide to the possible. The main problem, addressed by the author, can be summarised as follows: if we can imagine the impossible, how can we give imagination an epistemic value? How can imagination be a guide to the possible? The author's answer is articulated in an analysis of the components of sensory imagination, components that can be distinguished into "basic observational proprieties" and "stipulation or stipulative contents". Only the qualitative and phenomenal components, dependent on an intuitive act of the mind, would allow a modal epistemology, giving evidence of the possible.

  8. Regarding the complex relationship between imaginative and non-imaginative states, we can use an expression by Arcangeli (2013), who speaks of a “functional homomorphic simulation” of imagination with respect to other mental states, such as perception. Arcangeli addresses the debate between simulationists (Currie & Ravenscroft, 2002; Goldman, 1992, 1995, 2006a, 2006b, 2009) and one-code theorists (Nichols & Stich, 2000; 2003, Nichols 2004; Weinberg & Meskin, 2006). While one-code theorists only recognise the similarity between imagination and belief, focusing on cognitive imagination (CCI), simulationists argue that imagination is capable of imitating different mental states, referring to imagination as a heterogeneous activity, similar also to perception. Despite procedural and phenomenological differences, imaginative states are functionally similar to other mental states. However, from the perspective of both approaches, imagination remains a sui generis faculty with its own characteristics. Among these, we can certainly identify the cognitive freedom proper to the imagination, compared, for example, to perception. On the one hand, therefore, scientific imagination in particular, in the use of thought experiments for example, can be understood as an extension or completion of observation and as a constitutive part of the activity of representing the world (Mc Allister 2013); on the other hand, however, the peculiarity and ambiguity of the imaginative act, which is sometimes used to penetrate deeper into reality and sometimes to escape from it, must be acknowledged.

  9. In recent years, the collaboration between philosophy and cognitive science has proved particularly valuable (cf. Levy & Godfrey-Smith, 2020). On the one hand, cognitive science has opened up the study of imaginative processes to empirical investigation; on the other hand, philosophy has begun to ask how to relate to such processes in order to capture the limits and strengths of imagination. My proposal to address the phenomenon of imaginative resistance in science through the contribution of Embodied Simulation Theory is part of this trend.

  10. The fact that simulation processes can also be extended to the activity of imagination leads the author to reflect on the relationship between the neurobiological mechanisms of embodied simulation and the world of figurative and cinematographic art (Gallese, 2019). Considering the possibility for neuroscience to cognitively elucidate the constitutive mechanisms of aesthetic experience, Gallese argues that there are also simulation mechanisms behind aesthetic vision and judgment that depend on the motor system. Figurative works of art, such as film images, provoke a series of kinaesthetic responses such as muscular reflexes or motor impulses of various kinds; therefore, from the author's point of view, it can be said, for example, that the identification with films, by our imagination, does not depend only on concepts or propositional attitudes, but is based on sensory-motor schemes, through mechanisms of embodied simulation, which exploit the body-brain system. The fact that I imagine myself performing a series of actions together with the protagonist of an adventure movie would therefore depend on simulation mechanisms that are activated in the brain when faced with certain imaginary scenarios, mechanisms that are always linked to the activity of a body placed in a certain physical and cultural context.

  11. For more details on this point, see Savojardo forthcoming.

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Acknowledgements

I would like to thank the anonymous referees for this journal for many helpful comments criticisms and suggestions.

Funding

This work wass supported by the Italian Ministry of Education, University and Research through the PRIN 2017 program “The Manifest Image and the Scientific Image” prot.2017ZNWW7F_004.

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Savojardo, V. Imaginative Resistance in Science. Found Sci (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10699-022-09857-x

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Keywords

  • Imaginative resistance
  • Science
  • Background knowledge
  • Embodied Simulation Theory