Imagine being a slave in ancient Rome. Now remember being one. The second task, unlike the first, is crazy. If, as I’m guessing, you never were a slave in ancient Rome, it follows that you can’t remember being one — but you can still let your imagination rip. With a bit of effort one can even imagine the impossible, such as discovering that Dick Cheney and Madonna are really the same person. It sounds like a platitude that fiction is the realm of imagination, fact the realm of knowledge.
Why did humans evolve the capacity to imagine alternatives to reality? Was story-telling in prehistoric times like the peacock’s tail, of no direct practical use but a good way of attracting a mate? It kept Scheherazade alive through those one thousand and one nights — in the story.
On further reflection, imagining turns out to be much more reality-directed than the stereotype implies. If a child imagines the life of a slave in ancient Rome as mainly spent watching sports on TV, with occasional household chores, they are imagining it wrong. That is not what it was like to be a slave. The imagination is not just a random idea generator. The test is how close you can come to imagining the life of a slave as it really was, not how far you can deviate from reality.
A reality-directed faculty of imagination has clear survival value. By enabling you to imagine all sorts of scenarios, it alerts you to dangers and opportunities. You come across a cave. You imagine wintering there with a warm fire — opportunity. You imagine a bear waking up inside — danger. Having imagined possibilities, you can take account of them in contingency planning. If a bear is in the cave, how do you deal with it? If you winter there, what do you do for food and drink? Answering those questions involves more imagining, which must be reality-directed. Of course, you can imagine kissing the angry bear as it emerges from the cave so that it becomes your lifelong friend and brings you all the food and drink you need. Better not to rely on such fantasies. Instead, let your imaginings develop in ways more informed by your knowledge of how things really happen.
Constraining imagination by knowledge does not make it redundant. We rarely know an explicit formula that tells us what to do in a complex situation. We have to work out what to do by thinking through the possibilities in ways that are simultaneously imaginative and realistic, and not less imaginative when more realistic. Knowledge, far from limiting imagination, enables it to serve its central function.
To go further, we can borrow a distinction from the philosophy of science, between contexts of discovery and contexts of justification. In the context of discovery, we get ideas, no matter how — dreams or drugs will do. Then, in the context of justification, we assemble objective evidence to determine whether the ideas are correct. On this picture, standards of rationality apply only to the context of justification, not to the context of discovery. Those who downplay the cognitive role of the imagination restrict it to the context of discovery, excluding it from the context of justification. But they are wrong. Imagination plays a vital role in justifying ideas as well as generating them in the first place.
Your belief that you will not be visible from inside the cave if you crouch behind that rock may be justified because you can imagine how things would look from inside. To change the example, what would happen if all NATO forces left Afghanistan by 2011? What will happen if they don’t? Justifying answers to those questions requires imaginatively working through various scenarios in ways deeply informed by knowledge of Afghanistan and its neighbors. Without imagination, one couldn’t get from knowledge of the past and present to justified expectations about the complex future. We also need it to answer questions about the past. Were the Rosenbergs innocent? Why did Neanderthals become extinct? We must develop the consequences of competing hypotheses with disciplined imagination in order to compare them with the available evidence. In drawing out a scenario’s implications, we apply much of the same cognitive apparatus whether we are working online, with input from sense perception, or offline, with input from imagination.
Even imagining things contrary to our knowledge contributes to the growth of knowledge, for example in learning from our mistakes. Surprised at the bad outcomes of our actions, we may learn how to do better by imagining what would have happened if we had acted differently from how we know only too well we did act.
In science, the obvious role of imagination is in the context of discovery. Unimaginative scientists don’t produce radically new ideas. But even in science imagination plays a role in justification too. Experiment and calculation cannot do all its work. When mathematical models are used to test a conjecture, choosing an appropriate model may itself involve imagining how things would go if the conjecture were true. Mathematicians typically justify their fundamental axioms, in particular those of set theory, by informal appeals to the imagination.
Sometimes the only honest response to a question is “I don’t know.” In recognizing that, one may rely just as much on imagination, because one needs it to determine that several competing hypotheses are equally compatible with one’s evidence.
The lesson is not that all intellectual inquiry deals in fictions. That is just to fall back on the crude stereotype of the imagination, from which it needs reclaiming. A better lesson is that imagination is not only about fiction: it is integral to our painful progress in separating fiction from fact. Although fiction is a playful use of imagination, not all uses of imagination are playful. Like a cat’s play with a mouse, fiction may both emerge as a by-product of un-playful uses and hone one’s skills for them.
Critics of contemporary philosophy sometimes complain that in using thought experiments it loses touch with reality. They complain less about Galileo and Einstein’s thought experiments, and those of earlier philosophers. Plato explored the nature of morality by asking how you would behave if you possessed the ring of Gyges, which makes the wearer invisible. Today, if someone claims that science is by nature a human activity, we can refute them by imaginatively appreciating the possibility of extra-terrestrial scientists. Once imagining is recognized as a normal means of learning, contemporary philosophers’ use of such techniques can be seen as just extraordinarily systematic and persistent applications of our ordinary cognitive apparatus. Much remains to be understood about how imagination works as a means to knowledge — but if it didn’t work, we wouldn’t be around now to ask the question.
Timothy Williamson is the Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford University, a Fellow of the British Academy and a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has been a visiting professor at M.I.T. and Princeton. His books include “Vagueness” (1994), “Knowledge and its Limits” (2000) and “The Philosophy of Philosophy” (2007).