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Counterfactual Knowledge from the Imagination

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - CKI (Counterfactual Knowledge from the Imagination)

Período documentado: 2018-09-01 hasta 2020-08-31

The project "Counterfactual Knowledge from Imagination" investigated the epistemology of counterfactual thinking and its connections to the imagination. Thoughts about counterfactual situations are a central feature of human cognition, key to planning in any domain of activity: What would happen if I missed a mortgage payment? What would happen if May had called a second referendum on Brexit? It seems that knowledge about counterfactual situations is possible under some circumstances. The project aimed to improve our understanding of those circumstances and what role the imagination plays in specifying them. The guiding hypothesis of the project was that normal human cognition includes an imaginative capacity for evaluating conditionals; this same capacity can be used to evaluate a range of other claims too. How we can learn from the imagination is important for society because much of our decision-making, both individual and collective, relies on judgments reached using our imagination. The overall objectives were to get clearer on the nature of the imagination, its role in the evaluation of conditionals and related claims, and the relevance of the problem to the issue of how philosophers and scientists learn from what are sometimes called "thought experiments". The conclusions of the project provided support to its guiding hypothesis and helped to achieve these objectives. One project publication argued against a view of the imagination, "intentionalism", which has been thought to be incompatible, or at least in tension, with the thesis that the imagination can produce knowledge. Another project publication examined a prominent thought experiment from the history of physics due to Galileo. It argued that we are expected to use two different kinds of imagination in order to see how the counterfactual situation described by the thought experiment poses a challenge to a principle of motion.
During the research fellowship I undertook scholarly research on the nature of the imagination and its role in the acquisition of knowledge. Provisional results were presented at several international conferences in the UK, Canada, Germany, Turkey, Spain and the Netherlands. Public outreach in the project consisted in contributions to a widely read blog in the philosophy of the imagination, the Junkyard of the Mind ( and volunteering as part of the Welcome Team at a Tate Modern Workshop, "Moving Humans with CREATE".
The main results published thus far are as follows. "Two Ways of Imagining Galileo's Experiment" (in a Routledge volume entitled Epistemic Uses of the Imagination) examines Galileo’s famous thought experiment about falling stones, which is a central example in the debate about how thought experiments in science work. It argues in favor of a new interpretation about how the the thought experiment poses a challenge to an Aristotelian principle about falling bodies. The new interpretation of the thought experiment relies on a distinction between two ways of imagining Galileo’s experiment, one of which requires Aristotelians to temporarily ignore their belief in the principle under challenge. It is suggested that the distinction tracks an increasingly familiar distinction among dual-process theories in psychology: ‘intuitive’ and ‘reflective’ imagination. In order for Aristotelians to appreciate the thought experiment’s challenge to their theory, they are expected to use their intuitive imagination and not just their reflective imagination. "Are We Free to Imagine What We Choose?" (in the journal Synthese, with Daniel Munro) argues against "intentionalism (about the imagination)", a view that is associated with the claim that the imagination cannot generate knowledge. According to intentionalism, the contents of your imaginings are simply determined by whatever contents you intend to imagine. Thus, for example, when you visualize a building and intend it to be of King’s College rather than a replica of the college you have imagined the former rather than the latter because you intended to imagine King’s College. This is so even if the visual image you conjure up equally resembles either. The article proposes two kinds of counterexamples to intentionalism and discusses their significance. In particular, it sketches a positive account of how many sensory imaginings get to be about what they are about, which explains how the causal history of our mental imagery can prevent us from succeeding in imagining what we intended.
The investigation was guided by the idea that constrained imaginative exercises can, and often do, supply knowledge about counterfactual scenarios—knowledge that includes knowledge of counterfactual conditionals as well as knowledge of certain kinds of modality. The project extended the state of the art by developing a view on which we can learn from imaginative exercises which can but need not involve mental imagery in order to produce knowledge, and on which they are distinct from inferences from pre-existing beliefs. At the same time it also deepened our understanding of some important test cases in the epistemology of the imagination, particularly thought experiments in science. Whether we realize it or not, we often use the imagination to engage in counterfactual thinking both about matters large and small, and it is hoped that the project will encourage wider reflection on how we can deploy the imagination in order to maximize our chances of securing knowledge.