Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Imagining Itself (Part X: The Bounds of Imagination)

 “The world of reality has its limits; the world of imagination is boundless.” -Jean Jacques Rousseau
We often hear of the boundlessness of the imagination, of the limitless ability of our minds to envisage the extraordinary, the bizarre and the unrealisable but it doesn’t take a great deal of thoughtful reflection to come to the conclusion that there are realms of understanding and awareness that are wholly impervious to the supposed boundlessness of the imagination. For instance, if the imagination were truly boundless, envisaging just one extra new colour besides those formed by the intermingling of the three primaries should be a matter of relative ease. If the imagination were boundless there should be no end to the varied hues and intensities we could imagine. Of course I can imagine that such things could exist – but, like a colour blind philosopher attempting to contemplate the difference between red and green, I’m simply unable to bring any conscious awareness to mind. Perhaps with the assistance of regular practice, drugs or neural stimulation I might enjoy a broader spectrum of hues and tones than those with which I am already familiar and very likely I would be able to recall these intensifications of experience, but as it is I am unable either to perceive or to imagine such wonders.

This relationship between perception and imagination has also be observed in patients suffering from lesions on the occipitotemporal region of the brain. This region is responsible for colour perception and memory and it has been found that patients with such lesions are unable either to perceive or to imagine colour.

Whilst there is much evidence for enhanced perception, intensity and acuity amongst individuals - not to mention species - there is much less evidence for entirely undiscovered colours. If humans could perceive ultra violet, x-rays or gamma rays, for example, would these be entirely new colours or simply variations or redistributions of the spectrum with which we are already familiar? If we could see infra-red, like pitvipers or pythons – with the help of specially adapted facial pits - would the sensation be one of colour or more like smell or taste? And might such an enhancement allow us to perceive a whole new rainbow in the electromagnetic emanations of microwaves and radio waves? Whilst we can certainly dream of such things in the abstract, the specific sensations – or more accurately - the associated mental responses are simply impossible to call forth. These responses and the dispositional states that produce them haven’t yet formed and this lack of experience would seem to impose a finite limit on our imaginings. It might even be said that the development of technology comes as a direct consequence of an implicit realisation of this fact: of the understanding that without tools to extend our perceptions of the world, our imaginations alone are far too limited to peer into the darkness of the unknown.

Rousseau may have believed that imagination was boundless but it would seem that his optimism was unfounded. Rousseau’s contemporary and brief friend, the philosopher of the Scottish enlightenment; David Hume, expressed an entirely opposing view. For Hume the imagination is bounded by the objects and events of lived experience and our powers of imagination are firmly tethered to the bedrock of perceived experience.
“But though our thought seems to possess this unbounded liberty, we shall find, upon a nearer examination, that it is really confined within very narrow limits, and that all this creative power of the mind amounts to no more than the faculty of compounding, transposing, augmenting, or diminishing the materials afforded us by the senses and experience. When we think of a golden mountain, we only join two consistent ideas, gold, and mountain, with which we were formerly acquainted.”
Fifty years later, scholar Richard Payne Knight expressed a very similar view:
 “We may compose, paint, and describe monsters and chimeras of a very extravagant variety of form : but still, if we analyse - them, we shall always find that the component parts, how much soever they may be distorted or disguised, have been taken from objects or qualities of objects, with which we have previously been acquainted through the organs of sensation.” -An analytical inquiry into the principles of taste. (1805)
While it may be strictly true that the imagination is bounded, it is also the case that these bounds have two aspects: one of near infinite recombination and the other of dependency upon the recall of experience. In other words, the more limited the repertoire of recalled experience, the more limited the imaginative potential.

Imagination cannot generate something from nothing but instead requires sensory inputs and memories upon which to draw. In the next post we will explore why this might be the case and why it is unlikely that evolution could ever furnish us with greater powers of imagination than the extraordinary but necessarily limited ones we possess.


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