Friday, August 14, 2009

Imagining the Unseen

Consider what preferences you have over unseen outcomes. (For example, are you indifferent to the idea of your corpse being secretly donated - without warning - to the necrophiliacs society, or would you prefer that this not happen even if you're never told about it in advance?) To assess such questions, you likely try to 'picture' or imagine what the hypothesized state of affairs would be like, and then introspect your (actual) affective reaction to this mental exercise. If negative, as seems likely, then it seems you're not indifferent after all. You really do care about some things of which you could never learn. You would prefer that your corpse not be defiled, even if it has no impact on your experiences while you're alive.

Hedonists may object that this imagination-based methodology doesn't really get at your preferences concerning unknown and unseen outcomes. After all, they may say, all that this episode really establishes is that you are unhappy when you see, in your mind's eye, your corpse being defiled. Since you are imagining (mentally perceiving) the event in question, this corrupts your judgment concerning what was supposed to be an unperceived (by you) event. The hedonist may agree, after all, that this is unpleasant to think about. They just don't think that the event itself is bad (or undesirable for your sake).

I think this is not so much an objection as a cautionary note. It's true that someone might, if they're not careful, mistakenly conclude that they disprefer some X when really all that they disprefer is thinking about X. For example, when I imagine the sound of scratching a blackboard, I shudder in aversion. But that obviously doesn't commit me to disprefering a state of affairs in which a tree falls against a blackboard in an empty forest. As long as nobody is pained by the sound, it obviously doesn't matter. And, indeed, 'indifference' is precisely the response I have when I reflect carefully on what that state of affairs is like.

So, although it is easy to conflate conceiving that X and conceiving that X is conceived, it is not by any means inevitable. We can train ourselves to be careful in distinguishing the two. And we may then find that even if some of our preferences are purely hedonic in nature, many others are not like this. (It would certainly be a mistake to think that we can never have preferences about anything other than our experiences, or that we cannot identify such preferences via careful consideration of the hypothesized outcomes.)

For example: If you learn that there's a serious risk of blackboards being scratched in your vicinity after you die, that doesn't really call for any response. But if there's a serious risk of your corpse ending up in the hands of necrophiliacs, you might want to do something about that. (Just sayin'.)


  1. I'm one of those wacky folks who wouldn't be concerned, at least for my sake, if necrophiliacs got to my corpse after my death.

    One way I like to discipline such judgments is by considering how I would rank tradeoffs. For example, how much would I pay to prevent necrophiliacs from getting to my corpse? Or, would I rather have one additional day of happy life or prevent the necrophiliacs from getting to my corpse? I find that for any positive gain, I prefer the positive gain to preventing the necrophiliacs from getting to my corpse. To my this suggests that if preventing the necrophiliacs from getting to my corpse really is a value for me, it isn't much of one. (And, if you don't think some values lexically trump others, which is a rather defensible view, this suggests that preventing the necrophiliacs from getting to my corpse has no value at all.) On reflection, if there is some value here, it isn't the kind of value that's worth making any sacrifices to protect.

  2. I'm sure you're not totally unaware of the social psychology work on our various cognitive biases; the research does not in general suggest that cognitive errors can be easily excised by attempting to "train ourselves to be careful." We usually don't know what biases we suffer from, and a disturbing number of them continue to operate even when we're aware of them and trying to correct for them.

    In particular, the present instance involves attempting to be objective about a situation we can vividly imagine. One of our strongest biases, most resistant to any correction, is our tendency to put more weight on vivid information than on genuinely relevant evidence. Thus, I think you seriously underestimate how easy it is to address the problem here.

    (Incidentally, I'm with Nick on the specific case as well; I find it hard to think of a gain small enough that I'd be willing to trade it away merely to protect my corpse from the necrophiliacs).

  3. I hadn't really thought of this as a case of bias, as opposed to conceptual sloppiness (or confusion as to the particular proposition to be entertained).

    The sort of bias you mention might come into play in cases where you only vividly imagine some aspect of the situation, neglecting other relevant aspects. For example, suppose you're told a great deal of information about one child, whose life you can save at the expense of ten other nameless people. Maybe the bias you mention would then incline us towards the one, just because we haven't really thought sufficiently about the impact on the other ten. But I don't see how that's relevantly similar to the sort of case I'm discussing here, since this isn't a question of balancing trade-offs, so much as simply determining whether some consideration has evaluative weight in its own right at all.

  4. This ia an interesting post and has some connections in the argument against Hume's Master Argument. Hume's radical empiricism posits that to be is to be perceived. In this case there seems to be the problem in which he think that imagining about something implies conceiving the something. A chilgon (1000- figure) can be imagined, but can it be conceived? Many philosophers have made this error and by understanding this distinction can be used to be make more informed and less biased decisions.

  5. Do you mean Berkeley? He had some infamous argument about the inconceivability of an unperceived tree, which yes, rests on exactly the kind of conflation I referenced here. (But note that this isn't really anything to do with the difference between mental imagery and more abstract conceptions.)


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