Paul P. Mealing

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Friday, 14 March 2008

Imagination

I first came across the term ‘intentionality’ as a philosophical term when I was reading John Searle’s Mind, and I had difficulties with it until I substituted the term imagination. I had forgotten about this until I read another account in The Oxford Companion to the Mind (edited by Richard L. Gregor, 1987), thinking I was going to read about intentionality as a mental purpose, as it would be used in ordinary language. Once again, forgetting all about my experience with John Searle, I was about half way through the discourse when I found myself substituting the term imagination, and then I realised: I had taken this mental journey before.

This is an example of how I believe we integrate new knowledge into existing knowledge. When we come across a new experience or phenomenon, or new information, we axiomatically look for something we are already familiar with that we can analogise it with. It’s also why metaphor is such a favoured form of description and is so readily adopted and understood without extraneous explanations. So, in the absence of anything better, I substitute imagination for ‘intentionality’ but the more I read the more I conclude that they are the same thing. According to The Oxford Companion to the Mind, intentionality is only evident in mental states and is about 'aboutness’. When I read Searle’s account and the examples he gave of someone being able to conceptualise a real event that had occurred in history or in another place or another time, or an event that had never occurred at all, then that’s imagination. Also I argue that this is not unique to humans. The fact that many species can plan and co-operate, especially when hunting, suggests that they can ‘imagine’ the outcome they are trying to achieve.

I once had a brief correspondence with Peter Watson, author of A Terrible Beauty (an extraordinarily erudite and comprehensive book of the ‘ideas and minds that shaped the 20th Century’), who contended that words like ‘imagine’ and ‘introspection’ have outlived their usefulness, and that they no longer fit in with our comprehension of our mental states, and, possibly, are even misleading. I had serious problems with this dismissal of our inner world, as I saw it. Also he talked about ‘imagination’ as if he really meant ‘creativity', which is an essential but limited aspect of how we imagine (more on that below). When I quizzed him on this, he explained that his real complaint was that he found words like ‘imagination’ vague; according to Watson, 'imagination' was even more vague than ‘mind’. (I must say in passing that I have the utmost respect for Peter Watson, even though we’ve never met, and he responded good-naturedly to all my criticisms.)

But I think the reason that people are uncomfortable with terms like these: imagination, introspection, mind; is that they defy objectivity by their very nature. You cannot talk with any validity about anyone's imagination, introspection or mind, except your own. Our inner world is subjectivity incarnate, yet, because we all have one, we can talk about it in a common language.

In my view, ordinary people know what we mean by ‘imagination’ and ‘introspection’ even if no one can explain how it happens, and they remain essential components of our psychological lives. In my posting, The Meaning of Life, I allude to Watson’s philosophical viewpoint by referring to an extreme position that considers our internal world to be so dependent on the external world, that it makes the inner world we all experience irrelevant (some people do take this view). In fact, Watson did make the point that our inner world is completely dependent on the external world – no one can really claim that anything is created independently of the outer world. And he said that this was his salient point: no one ever came up with a valid theory or idea by introspection alone, without considering external factors. I would agree with him on this, but it doesn’t mean that imagination and introspection have no role to play.

Also he has a point, regarding the dependence of our inner world on the outer world, when one considers that we all think in a language and we all gain our language from the external world (I make this point in my posting on Self). Language is one of the means, arguably the most important, but not the only one, that allows an interaction between the inner and outer world, and it goes both ways – we are not passive participants in the world. And yes, our imagination is fueled by external events, yet, without imagination there would be no art, in any form, and, in particular, no stories; not only for the creator, but also for the recipient.

Being a storyteller myself, this is something I can talk about with some experience. I find it interesting that a writer can compose a story that so engrosses the reader that he or she actually forgets they’re reading. How does one achieve this? It’s simple in principle, but very difficult in execution: one allows the reader to create an imaginary world that he or she inhabits so successfully, they become emotionally involved as if it was real, or as if they were in a dream. It's called suspension of disbelief - essential to the success of any story. And I think dreaming is the link, because writing a story is not unlike having a dream, only you consciously interfere with it, and that’s what ‘creating’ is really all about. I could elaborate on this, but this is not the place.

While it seems I’m getting off the track, I made a point in another posting, The Universe’s Interpreters, that the reason films, video and computer games have not made novels extinct (weakened yes, but not yet endangered) is because we can so readily and effortlessly create pictures in our minds. I contend, though I have no scientific evidence, that if we didn’t think in a language, we would think in images. The basis for this contention is that we dream in images and metaphor, and I believe that is our primal language. (Freudian yes, but without referencing Freud.) So much of imagination involves imagery – a point that Searle somehow misses when he discusses intentionality, yet it is obvious. (It occurred to me that Searle had the same aversion to the term that Watson revealed.) Searle does make the point, however, that intentionality can involve desires and beliefs, which, of themselves, can be manifested in sensory form (he gives the examples of hunger and thirst).

It’s only humans who create art, and it is often proposed that the emergence of art is the first indication of our evolutionary separation from other homo-related species. But imagination, along with the other conscious attributes we have, are not unique to humans, just our ability to exploit them and project them into the external world.

It’s not for nothing that Searle claims the problem of intentionality is as great as the problem of consciousness – I would contend they are manifestations of the same underlying phenomena – as though one is passive and the other active. Searle wrote his book, Mind, in part, to offer explanations for these phenomena (although he added the caveat that he had only scratched the surface), whereas I make no such attempt. That’s not to say that in the future we won’t know more, but I also think that our reductionist approach will find its own limitations – I predict we will uncover more knowledge only to reveal more mysteries, as we have done with quantum mechanics.

However, from this premise, I would say that imagination, or ‘intentionality’ (if I interpret it correctly) is a manifestation of mental activity, and one that we are unlikely to find in a machine, but that’s another topic for another day.

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