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The epistemic status of the imagination

Abstract

Imagination plays a rich epistemic role in our cognitive lives. For example, if I want to learn whether my luggage will fit into the overhead compartment on a plane, I might imagine trying to fit it into the overhead compartment and form a belief which is justified on the basis of this imagining. But what explains the fact that imagination has the power to justify beliefs, and what is the structure of imaginative justification? In this paper, I answer these questions by arguing that imaginings manifest an epistemic status: they are epistemically evaluable as justified or unjustified. This epistemic status grounds their ability to justify beliefs, and they accrue this status in virtue of being based on evidence. Thus, imaginings are best understood as justified justifiers. I argue for this view by way of showing how it offers a satisfying explanation of certain key features of imaginative justification that would otherwise be puzzling. I also argue that imaginings exhibit a number of markers of the basing relation, which further motivates the view that imaginings can be based on evidence. The arguments in this paper have theoretically fruitful implications not only for the epistemology of imagination, but for accounts of reasoning and epistemic normativity more generally.

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Notes

  1. Sensory imagination is sometimes also referred to as perceptual or imagistic imagination. Propositional imagination is sometimes also referred to as belief-like imagination.

  2. Kind (2013) has argued that the concept of imagination is heterogenous and that no single cognitive capacity can play all the roles which are attributed to it. Thus, Kind denies that there is a single cognitive capacity underlying all of these uses. This kind of heterogeneity is compatible with the claims I will argue for in this paper. First, the epistemic structure which I sketch out is not meant to apply to all uses of the imagination but only to the use of sensory imagination in reasoning about the actual world, which is a better candidate for a single cognitive capacity. Second, I will be arguing that the imagination has a certain epistemic, rather than psychological, structure. This normative epistemic structure is compatible with the kind of psychological heterogeneity which Kind advocates.

  3. This distinction between cognitive and non-cognitive uses of the imagination is related to, but importantly different from, the distinction between instructive and transcendent uses of the imagination put forward by Kind and Kung (2016). According to Kind and Kung, instructive imagination enables us to “learn about the world as it is” while transcendent imagination enables us to “look beyond the world as it is” (p. 1). These two distinctions crosscut each other. One might aim to learn something from an imagining which represents a merely possible world just as one might imagine the world as it is without aiming to learn anything on its basis.

  4. It could also be the case that my imagining causes me to suspend judgment on whether the proposition in question is true. I’m going to set this possibility aside for simplicity’s sake, but it can be accommodated by the more general characterization that cognitive uses of the imagination tend to lead to the formation of a doxastic state.

  5. I take the aim of learning something new or gaining new knowledge to be constitutive of cognitive uses as opposed to the actual formation of new knowledge. This is because someone might imagine with the aim of learning something new, but get distracted, or fall asleep, or spontaneously combust before actually forming a belief on the basis of that imagining. I also might fail to imagine properly and end up with an unjustified belief, despite aiming to gain knowledge. Intuitively, cases like these still count as cognitive uses of the imagination.

  6. Plausibly, there are constraints on the imagination which do not arise as the result of other mental states but rather as a result of architectural limitations on the imagination. For example, I am unable to imagine the same surface as being both red and green not as a result of any of my mental states, but rather as a result of the functional organization of the visual system. I set architectural constraints on the imagination aside in what follows and reserve the term “constrainers” for contentful mental states.

  7. Constraining can have both personal and subpersonal components. I might consciously choose to imagine a windmill. The fact that my imagining is so constrained is explained by a personal-level intention. But, the content of that imagining might be constrained by my beliefs and memories about windmills, along with my perceptual and imaginative capacities, in a way that is subpersonal. Even if I do not intentionally impose these constraints, and even though I may not be aware of them, they may nevertheless influence the content of my imagination.

  8. I will set the role of imagination in modal epistemology aside as it raises issues that are beyond the scope of this paper.

  9. This has been argued for by Wittgenstein (1948/1980) and O’Shaughnessy (2000). For discussion see Kind (2016, 2018) and Balcerak Jackson (2018).

  10. This objection is most forcefully argued for by Shannon Spaulding (2016). A similar point is made by Sartre (1948).

  11. One example from the empirical literature is the availability heuristic, where how easy a certain scenario is to imagine is used as a heuristic for how likely that scenario is to obtain.

  12. Although being constrained by states with justificatory force is necessary for imaginative justification, it is not sufficient. Intuitively, one can start with good constrainers but still imagine poorly, or unreliably, or imprecisely, or irresponsibly in ways that undermine the justificatory force of the imagining.

  13. The fact that the constraining beliefs causally influence the imagining does not assuage this worry. Mere causation is, in general, not sufficient for the transfer of justificatory status.

  14. This does not entail that all imaginings have epistemic status. Intuitively many do not, such as imaginings that are the result of engaging with fiction or daydreaming. One plausible account of this difference might appeal to the different aims or goals with which one imagines. On this view, the aim with which you imagine sets the standards which the imagining can be held to. When one aims to imagine veridically, the resulting imagining is evaluable according to how well it is supported by one’s evidence. When one does not aim to imagine veridically, it would be inappropriate to hold it to the standard fixed by one’s evidence. Although I am sympathetic to this account, I will not pursue it further here.

  15. The fact that imaginings are often constrained by many different mental states raises many interesting questions about their epistemic structure. For example, assuming that imaginings have epistemic status, are imaginings justified simpliciter, or justified relative to certain parts of their content? Suppose you constrain your imagining in Luggage with a justified belief about the size of your luggage but an unjustified belief about its color. Intuitively, your belief that your luggage will fit in the compartment is still justified by your imagining, despite your imagining being partially constrained by an unjustified belief. This lends intuitive support to the thesis that imaginings have epistemic status only relative to certain contents. In this example, your imagining is justified with respect to the size content and unjustified with respect to the color content. This, in turn, has ramifications for which beliefs it is in a position to justify. If this is right, then it marks an important disanalogy between the epistemic structure of imaginings and beliefs. Beliefs are plausibly justified or unjustified simpliciter.

  16. See Myers (forthcoming) for an independent argument that cognitive uses of the imagination are best understood as a form of reasoning.

  17. Although there is good reason to think that this account generalizes to many cases of imaginative justification, I do not claim that it generalizes to all cases. For example, I suspect that the role of imagination in justifying modal beliefs is importantly different to the role of imagination in Luggage. There may be other cases in which imaginings justify beliefs in conjunction with an explicit inference about the imagining’s reliability, and thus do not require the imagining itself to be justified.

  18. Both the thesis that imaginings can have epistemic status and the argument I presented in support of this thesis bear obvious similarities to Susanna Siegel’s view that perceptual experiences can have epistemic status (Siegel 2017). Nevertheless, it is worth keeping in mind the various dissimilarities between perception and imagination when comparing the two views.

  19. It is very difficult to say exactly what this sensitivity amounts to. If one stipulates that the belief must be sensitive to or caused by the fact that the evidence epistemically supports its content, then it will be impossible to base beliefs on bad evidence. On the other hand, merely being causally sensitive to the content is not sufficient because mere associations between mental states are content-sensitive without involving basing (Boghossian 2014). I will remain neutral on the different ways of spelling this condition out, since not much hangs on these more subtle distinctions.

  20. The mere fact that imaginings bear a causal relationship to their constrainers is not enough to explain why one can be held epistemically responsible for how they constrain their imagination. Causation is not sufficient for epistemic responsibility. After all, we do not hold subjects responsible for automatic, involuntary, and sub-personal causal relationships between their mental states. The fact that one can be held epistemically responsible for how they constrain their imagination is evidence that imaginings can stand in an epistemically thicker relation than mere causation to their constrainers.

  21. Even if one does not think that these markers are evidence for basing, they nevertheless are evidence that the constraining relation has epistemic/normative features and thus is a good candidate for being the kind of relation that epistemic justification can be transferred along.

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Acknowledgements

Special thanks to Paul Boghossian for insightful discussion and for providing feedback at every stage of this project. Thanks also to David Chalmers, Jane Friedman, Andrew Lee, Jim Pryor, an anonymous reviewer, and participants at the Fiction, Imagination, and Epistemology conference at Ruhr-Universität Bochum for helpful comments.

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Myers, J. The epistemic status of the imagination. Philos Stud 178, 3251–3270 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-020-01600-1

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