Monday, 6 July 2009

Fiction and Imaginative Resistance by Ronnie de Sousa

Our ability to imagine counterfactual situations enables us to explore alternative scenarios and possible outcomes, in a process akin to computer “simulation” (Oatley 1999). This, in the happy phrase often attributed to Karl Popper, “allows our hypotheses to die in our stead” (Dennett 1996). Such exploration has the function of providing information about a course of action's likely outcome, but also, crucially, about the significance of that outcome for the agent. If I were to abandon my attitudes when I explore the space of possibilities, the simulation would not serve its purpose. Hence we should not be surprised that our attitudes are more difficult to modify at will than the purely representational aspects of imagination.

This difficulty was first explored in a much cited passage where Hume describes our response to writings about other ages or places:
There needs but a certain turn of thought or imagination to make us enter into all the opinions, which then prevailed, and relish the sentiments or conclusions derived from them. But a very violent effort is requisite to change our judgment of manners, and excite sentiments of approbation or blame, love or hatred, different from those to which the mind from long custom has been familiarized. And where a man is confident of the rectitude of that moral standard, by which he judges, he is justly jealous of it, and will not pervert the sentiments of his heart for a moment, in complaisance to any writer whatsoever. (Hume 1965, §33).
The thought is that it is easy to imagine strange people doing extremely strange things, but that “a very violent effort” is needed to imagine oneself approving of what they do. What is not clear from Hume's remarks, however, is whether his allusion to effort implies that we may sometimes be literally unable to imagine endorsing certain judgments, or rather that we ought not do so: “I cannot, nor is it proper I should, enter into such sentiments”, he writes in the preceding paragraph. If his claim is that we should not imagine certain things, he may be endorsing Plato’s reason for banishing art, namely that art enlists the imagination in the promotion of bad behaviour. The tradition that rehearses this argument is alive and well even now (Inderscience, 2008). Alluring though it is, I shall make every effort to evade that debate. Since “should” is often held to imply “can”, some have taken the view that imaginative resistance is exclusively a matter of unwillingness rather than inability (Gendler, 2006). In that guise, the puzzle raises questions about what we want to imagine; but it also invites us to ask whether there are constraints on what we can want to imagine. That aspect of it connects with a classic problem about the compatibilist conception of free-will: whether some of my wants are deeper or more deeply “mine” than others, and how to tell which those are. And that, in turn, evokes a certain model of the self—as a sort of onion, perhaps, with endless concentric layers. Purely on the basis of conceptual analysis, then, even that narrow form of the puzzle leads us far afield.

Although Hume's discussion invoked specifically moral attitudes, I shall ignore the question of the aesthetic value of immoral art or pleasure, except to acknowledge that the purest aesthete may find it difficult to circumscribe the aesthetic domain. Even the most hedonistic gourmet's pleasure in eating chocolate may be spoiled by the thought of the conditions under which cocoa beans are harvested. But that sort of interference may have more in common with distraction than with imaginative resistance—best compared to the difficulty of concentrating on your reading in a noisy environment. The difficulty that attends the sort of cases I am looking for is unlike this, and also unlike the difficulty I might find in imagining four-dimensional objects. What I am unable to do is not to frame the content of an imagined situation but to respond in certain ways to certain imagined prospects. That crucial distinction is nicely elucidated by Goldie (2003, 57), who gives the following illustration: “The disgust and horror I now feel at my [imagined future] self, old, decrepit and senile, is a response to what I imagine; it is not part of the content of what I imagine.”

Two cases will most clearly make my point: sexual arousal and amusement. I know of, and to some extent can visualize (with or without the assistance of the News of the World) sexual practices that others enjoy, but which entirely fail to arouse me. Similarly, the same joke or event can move one person to laughter which, although I can see the point, leaves me quite cold.

Our attitudes are not absolutely inflexible: they can vary according to context. We should be able to learn something from the nature of those variations. Simple observation, as well as some indirect evidence from brain studies, suggests that our attitudes are most resistant to change in the light of counterfactual imaginings when they are most likely to require us to do something. In fiction, our attitudes are safe from commitment: we can't be expected to do anything about it, and so we can allow ourselves a broader range of sympathies than we can in active life. But the same applies to cases of actual belief about remote events. Plato's thought experiment about the ring of Gyges would be ineffectual if the average person could not fantasize without too much guilt about enjoying the powers it conferred, but we might not feel comfortable doing the same with a real tyrant closer in time and space. Fiction can indeed serve to broaden our sympathies as well as our imagination; but the more extreme the divergence between our own and the imagined attitudes, the more secure we need to be in the thought that “there is [no] risk of being drawn into action” (Goldie 2003, 68). One consequence of this, as Goldie noted, is that we may sometimes care less about real people one personally knows than about fictional ones. A related point, yet sufficiently different to complicate the matter further, is made by the character of Pegeen in the climactic scene of Synge's Playboy of the Western World. Pegeen, who thought she admired Christy for murdering his father, changes her mind entirely when he actually splits his father's skull. “And what is it you'll say to me,” he cries, “and I after doing it this time in the face of all.” “I'll say,” she replies, “a strange man is a marvel, with his mighty talk; but what's a squabble in your back-yard, and the blow of a loy, have taught me that there's a great gap between a gallous story and a dirty deed” (Synge 1911, III/223–4). Her answer underlines the essential unreliability, noted above, of assent to conditionals as an indicator of conditional assent. It also shows that the difference doesn't line up neatly with the distinction between fiction and practical imagination. In the case of real life, it is more important to protect our enduring attitudes through the thought experiment. Fiction, by contrast, can explore outlandish situations that might entail radical changes in our own values. Thus fiction can indeed take us to mental places closed to ordinary practical deliberation. This important fact tends to be forgotten by crusaders against violent and sexually aggressive games or movies. Many who enjoy fantasy games as fiction would be repelled by the prospect of acting them out in real life.

Functional MRI explorations of the brain lend some credence to this view of what causes our resistance to shifts of attitudes. When subjects consider different versions of the “trolley problem”, their response is driven more purely by emotion in proportion as their own involvement in the envisaged scenario gets more personal. Most people say they would flip the switch that would divert a trolley from a track where it will kill five people to one where only one will be killed; but the same subjects are mostly reluctant to effect the same result by physically pushing a single fat man onto the track. With few exceptions, they reject the consequentialist solution—save five lives at the cost of one—when their personal involvement is more immediate. Different parts of the brain are active when one is making the utilitarian calculation than when responding to the “deontological” prohibition against causing harm (Greene et al. 2001).

(A pdf of a longer version of this piece is available by clicking here.)

Daniel Dennett (1996). Kinds of minds: Towards an understanding of consciousness. New York: Basic Books.

T. S. Gendler (2006). Imaginative resistance revisited. In The Architecture of the Imagination: New essays on pretence, possibility, and fiction, S. Nichols (ed.), 149–73. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Inderscience (2008). Could videogames reduce rather than increase violence. Science
Daily, 15 May. Science Daily. Retrieved March 20, 2009, from

Peter Goldie (2003). Narrative, emotion, and perspective. In Imagination, philosophy and the Arts, M. Kierans and D. Lopes (eds.), 54–68. London: Routledge.

Joshua Greene et al. (2001). An fMRI investigation of emotional engagement in moral judgment. Science, 293 (14 September): 2105–8.

David Hume (1965). Of the standard of taste and other essays. Intro. by J. W. Lenz (ed.). The Library of Liberal Arts. Indianpolis: Bobbs-Merrill.

Keith Oatley (1999). Why fiction may be twice as true as fact: Fiction as cognitive and emotional simulation. Review of General Psychology 3(2): 101–17.

J. M. Synge (1911). The playboy of the Western World. Boston: J. W. Luce., 2000. Accessed 2008/07/24.

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