Knightian uncertainty bookRuminations

Imagination and Free Will

A distinguished speaker at a Riksbank event in Stockholm kindly cited something in my forthcoming book about the relationship between imagination and evidence.

I was naturally flattered, but I was also struck by something that had not previously occurred to me – and lies outside the direct scope of my book.

This is the nexus between imagination and human agency – and, possibly, moral choice.

There is an old debate, going back at least to the Enlightenment, about whether or not we are entirely the creatures of our sensory experiences. The “radical empiricists” say we are born as blank slates, and everything we know or believe results from what we experience through our senses, including what we hear or read. On the other side, most notably, Kant’s, is the view that we are born with innate capacities for logical reasoning (and practical postulates) through which we interpret our sensory impressions. We can also intuit the relationship of abstract ideas, as in Euclidean geometry, without any experiential influences.

I have tended to favor the radical empiricist view: speaking for myself, I believe that geometry was drilled into me.

But in either case, there seems to be little room for human agency. Our actions are ordained by whatever experiences might happen to shape our worldview, which we may or may not interpret through some innate logical capacity or, per Hume, an animal inductive “instinct.”

The absence of agency has also long made me uneasy about rational choice theory. Uber rationalists don’t choose. They deduce the preordained best alternative.

But now it strikes me that we may also be born with an innate capacity for imagination, not just a computer’s logic circuits or instinctive beliefs in the “uniformity of nature.” Therefore, we see not just connections between what is and (as in the case of geometry) what must logically be but also the possibilities of what could be or might be. These are guesses and judgments, not logical deductions or instinctive extrapolations. Now we have a real possibility of considered choice.

Imagination also informs our ethical choices when we cannot deduce — or instinctively know the right thing to do. It’s all very well to say, per Kant, that we should act in a manner that we would want everyone else to act in similar circumstances. Or that we should make Benthamite choices that maximize the sum of everyone’s happiness. But surely doing either requires imagination and not just what we could call moral courage.

I will readily concede that our experiences influence what we imagine. But I am also inclined to believe — again speaking for myself —  that there is an innate foundation for our imaginations, compared to a universal capacity for deductive reasoning.  More importantly this innate foundation is more idiosyncratic, more variable from person to person, than any inborn logic circuits (which, in principle, should be the same for all).

Perhaps this idiosyncrasy is simply the result of our genetic inheritance or circumstances of birth.  If that’s the case, then again, everything is preordained, and there is no individual agency or choice.

But I like to think (‘imagine’!) that it isn’t. That we can, to some degree, “will” how our imaginations evolve- the possibilities we tend to conceive of — and thus our considered choices.

I can’t believe these are original ideas. Nonetheless…