Friday, 23 January 2015

Imagination Is Not Just For Fakers: a Reply to Neil

Anna Ichino
Thank you, Neil, for your greatly interesting post. I am very sympathetic to the negative part of your view: I definitely agree that the attitude of most religious people is not best described in terms of what you call ‘factual belief’. I am less persuaded by the positive part of your suggestion, though. The same reasons (some of which I summarized in a previous post) why I think that religious attitudes are not beliefs, lead me to think that they are imaginings, instead. So I do not clearly see the need for the new category of ‘religious credence’ that you suggest.

You argue that to describe religious attitudes as imaginings would force us to see religious people as fakers, which is obviously an undesirable consequence. On the other hand, you note, if we described religious attitudes as factual beliefs, we would be forced to see most religious people as fanatics: also undesirable. In order to make room, between fakers and fanatics, for a category of ‘normal religious believers’ – we need to posit, between imagination and belief, a category of ‘religious credence’.

I have some doubts on this, though. In particular, on your conditional premise that if we recognize that most religious attitudes are imaginings, then we are forced to say that most religious people as fakers. Why should the claim that Sarah imagines that demons exist and torment people lead us to conclude that she is a faker?

I think you would reply: because Sarah does a number of things that (may reasonably be taken to) manifest her belief that demons exist and torment people. Notably, she is likely to assert that demons exist and torment people, and indeed even to assert that she believes so – as religious people typically do, publicly expressing their ‘beliefs’ with great conviction. If Sarah avows to believe something that in fact she does not believe but just imagine, then we should conclude that she is a faker, shouldn’t we?

Perhaps. But not necessarily. We could also conclude that she is mistaken about her beliefs. Or, alternatively, we could conclude that she is not talking literally – that her avowal is uttered with the intention to communicate something different from its literal meaning. Both of these conclusions would make sense of Sarah’s avowals of religious beliefs (beliefs that are in fact imaginings) without involving any insincerity/hypocrisy on her part. What I suggest is that they may be both plausible explanations of what goes on in cases of religious avowals.

Many such avowals may then be understood as expressions of imaginings, which typically take either of two forms. Sometimes, they are self-deceptive imaginings. More often, they are correctly identified as imaginings by religious people, who deliberately allow imagination to play an expanded role in their lives (this, of course, is possible insofar as such imaginings are not treated as mere fictions, but rather as serious hypotheses through which to look at - and make sense of - the world).

Now, I see that I should say much more about the origin, structure, and phenomenology of these two forms of religious imaginings in order to make my suggestion plausible. Even more importantly, I see that I have not articulated any positive argument to persuade you that religious attitudes are indeed imaginings in the first place.

All what I meant to do here, though, was to suggest that the view that they are imaginings does not necessarily lead to the undesirable consequence you say: it does not force us to say that religious people are 'fakers [who] typically experience a great deal of stress, because they are perpetually pretending'.

I just meant to give some plausibility to the idea that the same imaginative state that we invoke to explain pretence games and liars’ inventions may play the relevant explanatory role also in other ordinary cases/activities/experiences (including cases of self-deception and of sincere commitment to a given world-view). To the idea, in other words, that propositional imagination may have a larger role in our cognitive life than we often think: it does not only allow us to ‘escape’ from reality into fictional worlds, but it also crucially contributes to the construction of our representation of the real world itself.


  1. "The same reasons why I think that religious attitudes are not beliefs, lead me to think that they are imaginings, instead."

    "Imaginings", however well meant, implies the basic atheist position that religious beliefs are untrue, even though believers don't realise it. Is it so difficult to see a belief as a BEST GUESS? I believe in God, but I'm happy to clarify my belief in God's existence as my best guess, not as an assertion of factual knowledge.

    You can make the argument that religion is a special case, for which we need a new term such as 'religious credence'. But there are many areas, not all of them religious, where we need to adopt some kind of belief in order to continue with our reasoning. And many of them, like religion, are based on concepts that aren't falsifiable, so disproof is impossible. Clarifying 'belief' as --- at least in some circumstances --- a 'best guess' makes these matters easier to consider, don't you think?

  2. Many thanks for this comment. It makes me realize that I should have clarified this point better: as I have it, to say that many religious ‘beliefs’ are in fact imaginings does by no means imply that they are false. My claims do not concern the truth-value of religious propositions like GOD EXISTS; my claims only concern the kind of psychological attitude that people typically have towards such propositions. And we can imagine true propositions as well as false ones. I can imagine that now is snowing in London, or that there is life on Mars, irrespectively of whether these things are true or not. If it happened to be true that in London is now snowing, or that there is life on Mars, my imaginings would turn out to be true. Similarly, if it happened to be true that God exists (and I don't think I have arguments to disprove this), then religious people would turn out to have true imaginings.

    As to your other (related) point, I definitely agree that in many many circumstances in our lives we need the sort of ‘best guesses’ you suggest - if I correctly understand what you mean with that. What I may not agree with is, again, the idea that our attitude towards such ‘best guesses’ is a belief… It sounds as if categories like imagination (or, if you prefer, supposition, or acceptance) may be more appropriate. Though of course this will depend on the cases – my claims here were limited to the case of religion.


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