A Note to the Reader:
What follows is the text of an (unpublished) essay that I wrote back in 2002. I was 16 at the time, and because of that this essay contains some misunderstandings, is a bit simplistic, and–to put it in way that’s kind to my past self –“overconfident” both in its ambition and its style. Nevertheless, in spite of that and the fact that I have changed my views on quite a few points since then, I still think there is some value in it, and so I’ve decided to post it here.
~ On Imagination and Conception ~
If I may be allowed to borrow your attention for a moment, I will explain to you a thought that occurred to me one day: Philosophy has gone on for thousands of years with logic, that is, the rules for correct reasoning. Logic is useful, to be sure, but oughtn’t philosophy have another implement in its tool-bag? One that tells it, for example, what the correct rules are for imagining and conceiving something?
It seems this new implement would be a sister-science to logic. Not, of course, that I mean to develop such a science myself. That is not the purpose of this essay. What I want is not to create this new science, but rather give something of a rough outline of it.
First of all, it shall be necessary for us to define what we mean by “imagine” and “imagination”. By “imagination”, we mean that class of mental phenomena which involves the production of sense images that are not given in actual perception; whether they are visual , audial, tactile, etc. By “imagine”, we mean the production of one of these images voluntarily. Secondly, for the “reference frame”. By “reference frame”, we mean what is usually termed the visual or phenomenal field. Specifically, we shall be interested in the phenomena of imagination as they relate to philosophical arguments for or against the conceivability or possibility of something. Fallacies of imagination I shall call abuses of the reference frame.
Since the time of Hume and Locke, not much has been said by philosophers concerning the nature of imagination, and I suspect that many still unconsciously subscribe to such an empiricist ‘cut and paste’ theory. Thus, the first thing we need to do is disabuse ourselves of such a notion, and especially of the idea, if any still have it, that such phenomena could be the product of a tabula rasa mind.
Once hearing a tune, I may change its tempo, add to or subtract from the background layers of sound, and even completely change its instrumentation, say, from a violin to a clarinet; all the while retaining the ability to recognize it as ‘the same’. Here’s an interesting question: “How do I change the tempo of the song to make it faster or slower?” It is not accomplished by a mere verbal mental command, but in what it positively consists we never observe, nor do I think we can.
Once hearing a voice speak for a short while, I may retain its sound, and so imagine it to to speak words I have never heard it say. One finds that one does this sort of thing very often, though usually thinking of how some friend or relation is going to respond to something.
To say I read a text means this: My eyes scan the page, while my mind speaks the words to itself in the voice it thinks the author of those words would have. And if I type like this, why does your mind put extra emphasis on the words ‘like’ and ‘this’?
Before you build a house, you must have some idea of it. But what could you possibly have in your mind before you construct that idea? It will simply not do to say that you form it as if by painting or by piecing colors together: in all such cases you have some conception of what you are creating beforehand. Yet, if it were spontaneous and random, there would be no structure to the scene. So just how is it that any of these mental landscapes we concoct initially come to mind?
Simple images may be flipped on a horizontal or vertical axis. If I, for example, form an image of a triangle that I have never before seen, and decide to flip it upside down, how does my mind know, before flipping it, what this, which is right side up, will look like upside down, in order that It may create that image? Surely I am not reversing some object. This is rather the destruction of one image and the creation of another.
I believe that we must allow the mind some inventiveness of its own, for all this seems completely unaccountable on any tabula rasa view. Philosophically, it makes sense to say that the mind is a tabula rasa, because no one knows what ‘the mind’ is. But if you say that the brain is a tabula rasa, everyone knows you speak nonsense.
Now, we ask ourselves, what is it like to imagine something? How do mental images differ from those given to us in perception? They all seem to share a common characteristic, which I think can only be described as a kind of faintness. If I hear a sound, I am always aware that I hear it, even if I am completely unable to determine what it is. When I imagine a sound, on the contrary, I am always able to determine it, even though I never hear it for an instant. And though I am perhaps able to increase its pitch, I find myself quite incapable of raising or lowering its “volume”. An analogous thing happens with sight. I may form whatever image I please, but regardless of the detail, it never enters into my visual field, nor does it disturb any of its content. In these instances, it is as though a second reference frame were created, and that nothing which goes on in the one has any effect upon the other. I believe that the first shall be called the perceptual frame, and the second, the imaginal frame. Each has its own peculiarities. The perceptual frame may increase or diminish in size depending upon the focus of one’s attention. When reading a book, say, it will seem that the text is all that exists, everything beyond the page being relegated to obscurity. Though our perceptual frame never vanishes, there are certain occasions, such as absorption in a daydream, when we become completely oblivious to its content, and on reflection cannot decide whether we were truly conscious of it or not. The imaginal frame, unlike its counterpart, is in no way permanent. It is created as soon as something suggests an image, and vanishes as soon as one’s attention is withdrawn from it. Images are formed continuously during the reading of a novel, and rarely or never at all during the viewing of a film or television program. During the remaining time the pace of the flow of images is located somewhere in between these two extremes.
Having explicated the nature of imagination sufficiently for our purposes, we shall now concentrate on the abuses that philosophers have made of this faculty. I believe these may be divided into three major categories: abuses of amphiboly, abuses of improper imputation, and abuses of misapplication.
1. The abuse of amphiboly: The confusion of the noumenal and phenomenal sense of a term, or the mistaking of an image or perception for the thing itself, as this relates to philosophical arguments.
Example: Hume said that a man, lacking in the requisite experience, could not deduce from the qualities of FIRE, that it would burn him. But fire of the sort Hume means has never burnt anyone, and never will. For the ‘fire’ he is thinking of is naught but a certain conjunction of sensory qualities, viz.; hot, red, semi-translucent, etc. Our mind may conjure as much in a dream, without us suffering any ill effects. But if we were to take a studious pupil, whose subjects were chemistry and physics, and ask him what effects would ensue, upon the excitation of the molecules in my hand past a certain point; I cannot help but think that his answer would be “ignition”, even though he had never experienced for himself such a thing as ‘flame’.
2. The abuse of improper imputation: When imagining, to think or tell yourself something that you have not made the sensory qualities adequately represent. Or, to not imagine what the definition of the object or concept would entail, either fully or partially.
Example: McTaggart’s B-series. Whenever we try and represent to ourselves a tenseless timeline [I.e., a view of time according to which there is no "passage of time" and that all times are equally real], we find that we always imagine the events as simultaneously given, and subsisting in time. But that completely fails the conception of a temporal series, for it is the essence of time that its moments are not simultaneously given, and its component parts do not subsist. And when McTaggart said that the poker would always be hot on Tuesday, it is evident that he was using this picture, viz., the still image of a glowing poker, because that image does indeed subsist temporally. But the instants of the actual day would not exist in such a manner, even though that is how he represented them to himself.
3. The abuse of misapplication: The taking of the standard of our ability to form mental images as the standard of the possibility of things.
This abuse consists of three subsections:
1. The first form of the abuse of misapplication consists in the belief that whatever is imaginable and non-contradictory is also, for that reason, possible. In recent years, this principle has borne the title of “analytic-synthetic dichotomy”. It seems a bit odd, if I do say so myself, that this doctrine should be advanced by the empiricists as self-evident, without any further argument or experiment. Is there a way to test this hypothesis, so that we may see whether or not everything imaginable and non-contradictory is possible? I believe there is.
Let us suppose, for our example, a crystalline sphere. Let us also suppose that this concept we have conjured up possesses a very special property: once thought, this magical sphere will cease to exist merely as a concept or mental image, but will instead manifest itself in physical reality. Now, let us conceive of the proposed object. We do so, and… nothing happens.
To any sensible person, the answer to this question should seem exceedingly obvious. But our goal here is to be rational, not sensible.
We ask ourselves: Is there any obstacle to our imagining this event? No, there certainly is not. We can quite clearly imagine ourselves thinking of the sphere, and then that the sphere appears in the space outside us. And we may be sure the the proposed event is not ‘logically impossible’, for the thought of such an occurrence engenders no contradiction. Since this magical concept is both imaginable and non-contradictory, it must, according to the principle, be a genuine possibility. But we have thought of the concept, and it has refused to manifest itself. Therefore, we must conclude that the proposed event was never really possible.
Allow me to clarify this line of reasoning:
p. Whatever is imaginable and non-contradictory is possible.
q. A concept which, when thought, will obtain in physical reality.
1. (q.) is imaginable and non-contradictory, and so according to (p.) must be possible.
2. (q.) is thought, but does not obtain.
3. (2.) creates a conflict between (1.) and (p.).
4. We cannot reject (1.), because (q.) is imaginable and non-contradictory.
5. Therefore, we must reject (p.)
2. The second form of the abuse of misapplication consists in the violation of the the boundaries of the reference frame. For example, it has been argued by some (such as Kant, in his antinomy concerning space and time) that we must always think of space as being infinite, and cannot imagine that it comes to an end. From whence is this belief derived? I imagine it arises from a thought experiment like this: Imagine any colored shape, such as a square, or perhaps a tree. Regardless of the shape, you must always represent it as being against some background, whether black, or white, or blue, but it must always be some color. From this, you may come to the conclusion that for any colored area, there must be a colored border. The opposite you will decry as unimaginable, entirely inconceivable. Allow me to ask you a question. Does your visual field stretch on to infinity? No, I do not believe you can affirm that it does. Very well, then what lies outside it? Your very reference frame is a colored area outside of which there is no colored border! But if that is so, then your perceptual space comes to an end. So what’s going on here?
Everything that we see lies in our visual field, and thus within the borders of the reference frame. In order for us to see where the reference frame ends, we would have to drag its borders within themselves, which is absurd. Because we cannot “see” its boundary as we could the juncture of two colored areas, we feign it has no boundary at all. There arises a similar illusion regarding our perception of time. Whatever we perceive, we perceive at a certain moment in time. Because perception must occur at a given moment, we cannot technically experience its ‘beginning’ or ‘end’ (And, in my opinion, it is this that gives rise to the ‘specious present’ [The 'specious present' is the notion that our perception of time always involves extended intervals of time rather than durationless instants, and hence that what we experience as present is an interval of time.]). Here, as in the previous case, our experience terminates in a boundary that is itself unobservable. Because of this, we find that we cannot imagine a beginning or an end to time, though it is certainly possible in itself. When Kant plucked time from out the world, he dragged the antinomy the removal was supposed to efface in its train. It is all very well and good to say: “There is no time in the world, so there is no fact of the matter of time’s beginning or not.” But can one likewise affirm: “There is time in the mind, and there is no fact of the matter of time’s beginning or not”? The question comes down to this: “Is our past temporal history finite or eternal?” [In other words, what I meant was this: Consider the set consisting of all your past experiences. The set is either infinite in the "past direction" or not. If it is infinite, there was never a first moment at which you had a conscious experience, and so even if there is no fact about whether the physical world has existed forever, you and your experiences have always existed. If, on the other hand, the set is finite in the "past direction", there is a first conscious experience that you had, and so for you there is no time prior to that. In that case there is a beginning to your "experiential time", and if so, why should a beginning to time be inconceivable in the case of the physical world? Either way, I didn't see--and still don't, for that matter--any reason to think that Kant has established his antinomy.] If we are to take Kant’s first antinomy as proving its conclusion, then it is absolutely impossible for him to answer this question. Hence, there must be some defect in his conception of time. Therefore, I declare Kant’s first antinomy to be fallacious, for he has committed the abuse of misapplication.
3. The third form of the abuse of misapplication consists in the belief that whatever is unimaginable must, as a consequence, be impossible. This opinion, I suspect, is derived from a certain arrogance of the mind. Being naturally overconfident, it overestimates the power of its faculties, and if it finds that it cannot drag anything within its sphere, it must suppose the difficulty to arise from some defect in the thing, and so declares it to be nugatory and impossible in itself.
It has been alleged by many, though most famously by Hume and Berkeley, that the human mind has no power of conjuring up any image that is not fully determinate and particular in every degree. I shall advance no arguments against this position. Indeed, I heartily endorse it. But I shall not proceed with them in drawing their conclusion, viz., that an indeterminate image is impossible. For if they had been more attentive to their own perception, they would have realized that it is positively littered with indeterminacies! If you don’t believe me, you may try this experiment and see for yourself. Go into any room, preferably one that is brightly lit with a diversity of variously colored objects. Now, stare straight ahead, and focus your eyes on the very center of your visual field. While leaving your eyes where they are, focus your attention on the outermost periphery, preferably fifty degrees or more from the center. I believe you will notice that, though you can see that something is there, you cannot see it as being in a determinate shape, or having a determinate color. If you feign that you do, then try and tell yourself what its shape and color are without looking! This is especially evident in the case of text. Try focusing your eyes on one page of an open book, whilst focusing your attention on the page opposite it. Though you can discern the general shape that the words together form, it is quite impossible for you to honestly affirm that you see any individual character, or if you can, that you see what shape it is in. These experiences, though possible, are entirely unimaginable. Now, if our imagination cannot tell us about what it may be possible to experience, then a fortiori it applies even less to what is possible in reality. Thus, whenever a philosopher should henceforth proclaim something to be unimaginable, our reply shall be a resounding “So what?”
Finally, we shall draw our conclusions:
1. The mere fact that we can imagine something does not prove it to be possible, and the mere fact that we cannot imagine something does not prove it to be impossible.
2. Since we can have and now remember ‘unimaginable’ experiences, our inability to form such images stems not from a defect in their nature, but a defect in ours.
3. Hume, Berkeley, and innumerable others have committed the abuse of misapplication.
Our knowledge of nature, be it ever so great, has taught us but one thing throughout the ages, that humanity, through its blindness, refuses to learn: Reality is not quite so narrow as to be confined to our conception of it.