【Christopher McCarroll】Memory and Imagination, Minds and Worlds

Memory and Imagination, Minds and Worlds
Christopher McCarroll

Episodic memory and sensory imagination are very similar intentional states. On some views, they are in fact fundamentally the same (Michaelian 2016). On this type of view, episodic memory is continuous with sensory imagination: any difference between them is a matter of degree, rather than marking a distinct kind of mental state. Such simulationist theories typically stand in opposition to causal theories of memory (Martin and Deutscher 1966), which emphasise that episodic memory is a distinct kind of state to imagination, because remembering necessarily involves an appropriate causal connection to the remembered event. Remembering, not imagining, necessarily involves a memory trace, which connects the present memory and the past experience in the right way. Remembering, according to the causalist, is discontinuous with imagining (Perrin 2016). This is the so-called (dis)continuism debate about the relation between memory and imagination.

The necessity of an appropriate causal connection is one way of thinking about the relation between memory and imagination. In this post I offer a different way of thinking about the (dis)continuism debate. Rather than focusing on the content of such states, and whether this content is appropriately causally connected to a past event or not, I adopt an approach that is gaining ground in recent literature (Robins 2020; Sant’Anna 2021; Langland-Hassan forthcoming; Barner, manuscript), and focus on the attitudes involved in remembering and imagining.

Intentional states can be understood as involving content and a particular attitude taken towards that content. States that involve a cognitive attitude, such as beliefs, play an epistemic or guiding role, and have a mind-to-world direction of fit—they are correct if the intentional state matches the world. States that involve a conative attitude, such as desires, play a motivational role, and have a world-to-mind direction of fit—the world must be made to match the content of the mental state. What direction of fit do memory and imagination possess?

Memory, like belief, seems to have a mind-to-world direction of fit (Searle 1983). Our memory is successful or correct if it matches the (past) world. Yet characterising the precise direction of fit of episodic memory depends on how one understands the content of episodic memory. It is sometimes argued that there is a dual aspect to the content of episodic memory. Memory may track past events and/or our experiences of those events (Bernecker 2010). How one characterises the precise direction of fit of episodic memory depends on exactly what one thinks episodic memory represents: past experiences, objective events, or both (Bernecker 2015). Despite these potential nuances, however, there is a common thread related to the correctness or satisfaction conditions of episodic memory: the direction of fit of remembering ‘is not world-to-mind’ (Arango Muñoz & Bermúdez 2018, 84). In other words, the direction of fit of remembering mirrors that of other cognitive states (mind-to-world), rather than conative states (world-to-mind). The attitude of remembering is a cognitive attitude.

Yet is the same true of imaginings? What is the direction of fit of sensory imaginings? Here the answer is even more complex given that there may be varieties of sensory imaginings and different ways of characterising the direction of fit of imagination. Brushing over much of the complexity, we can see that on at least one way of thinking, sensory imaginings represent their content as belonging to a fictional world. Imaginings would possess a mind-to-world direction of fit, where the ‘relevant world in its mind to world direction of fit is best understood to be a make believe or fictional world rather than the actual world’ (Kind 2016a, 5). Imaginings, along with beliefs and other states like hypothesising, would involve cognitive attitudes (Velleman 1992). This characterisation would align imaginings quite closely with episodic memory, and I look more at this issue below. For now, there is a more pressing question: is this way of thinking of imagination’s direction of fit true of all imaginings?

What I want to suggest is that it is not. I agree with Peter Langland-Hassan’s rejection of the idea that ‘all imaginings must, in some sense, be “guiding” states with a “mind to world” direction of fit’ (2020, 86). In addition to imaginings that involve cognitive attitudes, there are imaginings that come in a conative variety too (Kind 2016b). These conative imaginings have a world-to-mind direction of fit and play a motivating rather than a guiding role. I suggest that such conative imaginings are involved in many instances of episodic future thinking. Such forms of episodic future thinking involve imaginings that do not aim to inform us of how the world is or might be, but rather to motivate us to achieve future goals or satisfy our desires.

In order to motivate this suggestion, consider a few ways in which the imaginative activity of episodic future thinking (prospection) is described in the literature:

Humans can vividly imagine possible future events. This faculty, episodic prospection, allows the simulation of distant outcomes and desires. (Benoit et al. 2011, 6771)

…an important function of episodic future thinking may be to provide a detailed (quasi-experiential) representation or simulation of what it would be like to be in a desired end-state. (D’Argembeau 2016, 201–202)

…imagining a desired outcome with many details constitutes a source of motivation for achieving this imagined state… (Rebetez et al. 2016)

Why would a large part of our future oriented imaginings be directed towards future rewards or long-term goals that we want to satisfy? Part of the answer lies in the idea that one of the proposed functions of episodic future thinking is that it enables us to navigate intertemporal choices—those choices whose consequences unfold over time (Boyer 2008). We often tend to want things now, seeking immediate gratification at the expense of long-term reward. A key idea is that by imagining future rewards, things that we want or desire in the future, we can overcome the tendency to succumb to temptation in the immediate present (Cosentino 2011). Imagining what we desire can help us delay gratification by making the future reward more salient. It would seem that at least one key aspect of episodic future thinking involves imagining desired future outcomes or long-term goals, which serves to motivate behaviour. If this is correct, then such imaginings will not have correctness conditions per se—they are neither accurate nor inaccurate—but they will involve satisfaction conditions. These imaginings are conative states that possess a world-to-mind direction of fit and are satisfied when the state obtains in the future.

This brings us back to the question of the (dis)continuism debate: are memory and imagination states of the same or different kinds? Perhaps the way to approach this issue is not to think of this as a closed question. There might be varieties of imaginings to consider. In remembering, and some forms of imagining, the direction of fit is (roughly) mind-to-world. Some forms of imagining relate to epistemic goals, aiming to accurately represent the (fictional) world. Remembering and some varieties of imagining involve cognitive attitudes, and hence belong to the same class of cognitive states. This is still not to demonstrate that they are states of the same kind, but only that they belong to a class of states that share certain (epistemic) properties. States can share epistemic properties without being states of the same kind.

We can see this in relation to the (dis)continuism debate. Thinking about imaginings that involve a cognitive attitude, Daniel Munro (2021) makes a distinction between episodic remembering and hypothetical imagining—imagining that involves sensorily imagining future and counterfactual events. On Munro’s view, remembering and hypothetical imagining are discontinuous because they involve deep epistemic asymmetries. Remembering plays an epistemically narrow role, and only involves making occurrent a belief that was formed during a past perception. Hypothetical imagining, in contrast, plays a broader epistemic role because it often generates new beliefs.

There is another form of imagination, however, that Munro thinks is continuous with remembering—actuality-oriented imagining. This form of imagining aims at informing us of how the actual world currently is. Importantly, both episodic remembering and actuality-oriented imagining play the same kind of (narrow) epistemic role and hence can be considered continuous states. If Munro is right, then there may be both similarities and differences in kind between remembering and imagining within the class of cognitive attitudes.

Munro’s focus is on the epistemic role of certain imaginings. Yet, if some forms of imagining involve conative attitudes, then this suggests that they belong to a different class of intentional states than episodic memory. This is not just a difference in epistemic role, but a difference between states that have an epistemic function and states that have a motivational function. This points to a deep discontinuity between episodic remembering and conative imagining. Conative imaginings are discontinuous with episodic remembering.

Of course, there are still questions to be answered. What is the best characterisation of the ontology of conative imaginings? Do they involve actual desires with imagistic content (Langland-Hassan 2020)? Or are they a species of i-desire (e.g., Currie 1997, Doggett & Egan 2007)? Or are they, perhaps, a complex state involving two attitudes—a desire plus a mental image as an attitude rather than a content (Arcangeli 2020)? Another important question relates to the issue of motivation in memory. If memory can play a motivating role (Pillemer 2003), what makes this distinct to the role played by conative imaginings? These are important questions, but ones that I will have to try and tackle elsewhere (McCarroll, forthcoming). For now, I’d like to conclude that episodic memory and at least some forms of imagination manifest very different fits between minds and worlds. Episodic memories and conative imaginings seem to be states of different kinds.



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