Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Imagining Itself (Part XX: Conclusion)

When I first set out to explore the subject of human imagination, more than 18 months ago, I hadn’t the faintest idea that I would be led on the journey that has culminated in these last 20 entries. I had expected to produce a total of perhaps 5 or 6 entries covering the limits of imagination, its possible evolution and some thoughts about its relation to learning and education. Instead I have encountered theories, research and discussions that have radically altered my understanding, not just of imagination but of the nature of consciousness and most especially of the indispensible role that our capacity to produce representations plays in perception, imagination and conscious action.

Complex fields of enquiry are often a source of contrasting opinions and interpretations and this is undoubtedly the case where imagination is concerned. Disagreements of this kind can be an important catalyst for closer scrutiny of the issues and more careful assessments of the available evidence. However, there are instances where the weight of opinion on a subject becomes so overwhelming that dissenting voices are simply drowned out of the conversation. In such circumstances the importance of discourse is easily overlooked and even the most questionable ideas can sometimes appear to be unassailable truths. One such theoretical presupposition that continues to command a significant amount of credence amongst scientists and philosophers is the notion that mental states necessarily involve the utilisation of representations of one kind or another, whether they be mental images, computational data structures or mental content. Nonetheless, a handful of scientists and philosophers interpret the lack of evidence for such representational states as grounds for serious doubt regarding what is sometimes called “representationalism”. As yet, no scientific study has been successful in identifying the coordinates, structure or encoding of any form of neural representation, yet for many influential researchers and thinkers the supposition is all but proven.
"The most successful tyranny is not the one that uses force to assure uniformity, but the one that removes awareness of other possibilities, that makes it seem inconceivable that other ways are viable, that removes the sense that there is an outside." —Allan Bloom
The desire to press ahead in any form of enquiry is always tantalizing, but the temptation to do so in the absence of sufficient evidence should probably be resisted, especially where the theoretical foundations are as uncertain as they clearly are regarding mental representations. Where there is no need for doubt though regarding the available evidence is in our genetically acquired and culturally evolved capacities to produce publicly available representations. As I have tried to clarify at various points throughout this series of essays, as well as in associated comments, brains have evolved as essential components in complex responsive organisms and it is these processes of response, and the dispositions that underlie them, to which we should be looking for insights into the workings of cognition, not to some incompletely theorised and scientifically questionable assumptions about representational states.

With the help of various theories I have tried to expose some of the obvious flaws in representationalism and to show that important alternatives exist that provide significant explanatory potential and scope. I have also tried to show that these alternatives offer important conceptual tools for resolving problems that have stymied thinkers throughout history. No doubt some will find these claims to be overly assertive or immodest on my part. Perhaps this is the price one pays for taking an unorthodox stand on any issue. But what I hope the reader will appreciate above all else is that the subject has been considered carefully and that genuine shortcomings have been identified within the mainstream theorisation of imagination and mental states.

Through my research I have come to the conclusion that a comprehensive understanding of genetically acquired and culturally evolved representational practices is fundamental to the furtherance of our understanding of imagination, perception and consciousness. Without the ability to recognise, create or use representations it is doubtful whether consciousness of any form would be possible and certainly there would be nothing to say or even to wonder about regarding the nature of imagination.


James A said...

I admit that I haven't always understood these posts! I lack much of the philosophical background, and I tend to get confused about the meaning of "representation", which is different where I come from. That's why I haven't commented as the stream has unfolded (do streams unfold?)

Nevertheless I've followed with interest, and now the argument is complete, I need to go back to the start and re-trace it in the context of the whole.

For me, substance aside, this raises interesting issues about how ideas are best presented; incrementally at the author's pace, or as a whole for the reader to pace? And how does that work in different contexts? Serial presentation is great for stories (Dickens) but for arguments...?

Jim--can you re-present (sorry about that!) these posts as a pdf download or similar, please? I think I may get even more out of them when my attention is even more under my control.

Jim Hamlyn said...

Thanks James, that's really useful.

The idea of an eBook has been on my mind and will definitely happen once I’ve made some changes - including clarification about what I mean by representation. Simply stated, representation is the means by which we substitute one thing for another. In part 9 I flesh this out when I introduced Donald Brook’s theory but I think there is probably a need to bring in the idea of “efficacious substitutability” earlier also.

You are spot on about Dickens. He was on my mind when I started this series of posts and my hope was that I might be able to string the reader along through the arguments. If the responses I’ve had on Facebook are anything to go by this worked for some people but, like you, they have found it difficult to keep track of the full ‘story’.

Having said this, it was vital to the development of my thinking that I posted it in sections because this gave me an opportunity to gather extremely valuable feedback along the way (from Brian and Drawstillwater in particular who have been extremely thought provoking in their responses). Several of the posts are a direct result of these commentaries.

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