Learning from Imagination
The imagination is not just for dreaming up new possibilities. It is also a powerful tool for learning about the world as it is. The imagination can be used for spatial reasoning, as when I imagine packing a suitcase into the trunk of my car to decide whether it will fit; for understanding other minds, as when I imagine what things are like from my partner’s perspective in order to understand how she is feeling; for physical reasoning, as when I imagine pulling out a block from a Jenga tower in order to decide whether it will cause it to collapse; and for aesthetic reasoning, as when I imagine the flavors of two ingredients in a dish that I am cooking in order to decide whether they will go well together. Although these examples are so commonplace as to be mundane, they demonstrate something extraordinary: sometimes all you have to do to learn something new is to imagine it.
Many philosophers have seen this as puzzling, and indeed many philosophers have been skeptical that we can learn from the imagination at all. After all, I can imagine anything I would like to, from the fictional to the fantastical. How could merely imagining something give me any reason to believe that it is true?
The answer lies in the way that the imagination can be informed by one’s evidence. Only when we rein in the unlimited potential of the imagination and instead constrain it with our evidence about what the world is like can we use it to learn new things. Although I can imagine my suitcase as any size or shape that I would like, only when I constrain my imagining with my prior knowledge about the size and shape of my suitcase will it be able to teach me about whether it will fit in my trunk. If my imagining is instead informed by wishful thinking and irrational optimism, then it may inspire confidence, but it will not yield knowledge.
The potential of the imagination to ground new knowledge gives us all the more reason to hone our imaginative skills—not only to transcend our reality, but to better understand it.
Joshua Myers is a PhD Candidate in philosophy at New York University doing research in philosophy of mind, epistemology, and cognitive science with an emphasis on the imagination and imagistic representation. He is writing his dissertation on the nature and epistemology of the imagination.