Imagination is future-reasoning

Ken Taylor, who co-hosts Philosophy Talk, introduces a podcast of interest to people with an interest in ideas. In his introduction he asks, "Why imagine?"

Appearing on the very latest show is UC-Berkely Professor and Psychologist Alison Gopnik, who has done extensive research into the nature of childhood cognition.

Prof. Gopnik talks a bit about her interest in imagination, including her interest in knowing what it does. In her view, it shapes the environment. Since, as she points out, so much of what we're surrounded with is a creation of the human mind, we might also begin to answer the question "how can we live differently?" How can the future be better?

To be successful, imagination must also be constrained. Foundation assumptions are important to developing later "realities." It's counterfactual, but a grasp of what's real will lead to better imagining, which I find to be much like the idea that creativity needs constraints or that if anything goes, anything might. The trick of course: what's real?

[An interesting side note: the show includes one fascinating call from somone, formerly blind, whose imaginings were partly right and partly wrong when he gained his site. He expressed shock at how ugly people looked once he could see!]

I appreciated her view that the "reality-based" and imaginary worlds are not necessarily at odds, but rather, work together to advance knowledge. Without imagination, reason is capable of heading in lot of different directions.

Prof. Gopnik's raises the possibility that children, instead of using elaborate categorization systems based on perceptual properties such as shape an size, instead distinguish objects based on kind, or "essence," a point made in her publication, Words, Kinds and Causal powers.

Which, at great risk of oversimplification, I take to mean we are attracted to things with minds.

She argues that in saying we distinguish based on "kind," we are also making a claim about the causal powers of those objects and possible futures based on that knowledge. This requires serious abstraction (removing extraneous information to arrive what's essential) and logic abilities that children, we are finding out, seem to possess at a very early age. What's missing of course is the emotional maturity to evaluate those possibilities.

If imagination is your subject matter, kids are a pretty good place to start. So listen to the program. It includes a nice early segment on how kids use their imagination to explore, dig into big themes and deal with living in a world where grown-ups hold all the power.

There are lessons for grown ups as well.


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