Counterfactualities?

Remember Plato’s Cave allegory? In his Republic he describes a scenario in which some people have spent their lives chained in a cave so they can only see the wall in front of them. There is a fire behind them that casts shadows on the wall that they have no way of knowing are only shadows. For these people, the shadows are their reality. There seem to be many versions of what happens next, but the variation I prefer is that one of the people escapes from the cave and discovers the sun outside for the first time; he realizes that what he had assumed was real -the shadows- were just that: merely the shadows cast by the actual objects themselves.

Sometimes we become so accustomed to seeing things a certain way, we find it difficult, if not impossible, to believe there could be an alternative view. Or assume that, even if there were another version, it must be wrong. But can we be sure that we are evaluating the alternative fairly and without prejudice? Can we assess it with sufficient objectivity to allow a critical analysis? Or are we unavoidably trapped in the prevailing contemporary Weltanschauung? It’s an interesting question to be sure, and one that begs for examination, if only to explore the world behind the mirror.

I stumbled upon an essay by Julie Reshe, a psychoanalyst and philosopher, who, after recovering from a bout of depression, began to wonder whether depression itself was actually the baseline state, and one that allowed a more accurate view of how things actually are: https://aeon.co/essays/the-voice-of-sadness-is-censored-as-sick-what-if-its-sane

I have to admit that I had to temporarily divorce myself from my usually optimistic worldview to be able to fathom her argument, and I found it rather uncomfortable. But sometimes it’s instructive -even valuable- to look under a rock.

As a philosopher, Reshe felt the need to examine both sides of an argument critically, putting aside preconceptions and biases. ‘Depressogenic thoughts are unpleasant and even unbearable,’ she writes, ‘but this doesn’t necessarily mean that they are distorted representations of reality. What if reality truly sucks and, while depressed, we lose the very illusions that help us to not realise this? What if, to the contrary, positive thinking represents a biased grasp of reality? … What if it was a collapse of illusions – the collapse of unrealistic thinking – and the glimpse of a reality that actually caused my anxiety? What if, when depressed, we actually perceive reality more accurately? What if both my need to be happy and the demand of psychotherapy to heal depression are based on the same illusion?’ In other words, what if I am actually not a nice person? What if there’s a reason people don’t like me?

Whoa! Suppose this is not a counterfactual? After all, other philosophers have wondered about this. For example, Arthur Schopenhauer whose deeply pessimistic writings about the lack of meaning and purpose of existence I have never understood, or the equally famous German philosopher Martin Heidegger who felt that anxiety was the basic mode of human existence. ‘We mostly live inauthentically in our everyday lives, where we are immersed in everyday tasks, troubles and worries, so that our awareness of the futility and meaninglessness of our existence is silenced by everyday noise… But the authentic life is disclosed only in anxiety.’ My god, where’s my knife?

And even Freud wasn’t optimistic about the outcome of psychotherapeutic treatment, and was ‘reluctant to promise happiness as a result.’ He felt that ‘psychoanalysis could transform hysterical misery into ‘common unhappiness’. Great…

And then, of course, there’s the philosophical tradition called ‘depressive realism’ which holds that ‘reality is always more transparent through a depressed person’s lens.’ And just to add more poison to the cake, ‘the Australian social psychologist Joseph Forgas and colleagues showed that sadness reinforces critical thinking: it helps people reduce judgmental bias, improve attention, increase perseverance, and generally promotes a more skeptical, detailed and attentive thinking style.’

All of which is to say, I suppose, ‘The evolutionary function of depression is to develop analytical thinking mechanisms and to assist in solving complex mental problems. Depressive rumination helps us to concentrate and solve the problems we are ruminating about… depressive rumination is a problemsolving mechanism that draws attention to and promotes analysis of certain problems.’

I have presented these deeply troubling ideas merely as an exercise in perspective, I hasten to add. Sometimes it is valuable to try to grasp the Umwelt of the stranger on the other side of the door before we open it. We can only help if we are willing to understand why they are there.

Part of the solution may lie in puzzling out Reshe’s counterfactuals. She seems to want to assign meaning to her former depression, as have many of the other people she mentions, to buttress her point. She also seems to feel that there was a time when that point of view might have seemed more mainstream. That nowadays there is just too much expectation of happiness -unrealistic expectations by and large, which presents a problem in and of itself. If we constantly expect to achieve a goal, but, like a prairie horizon, it remains temptingly close and yet just out of reach, we are doomed to frustration -a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And yet, it seems to me that resigning oneself to unhappiness, or its cousin depression, doesn’t represent a paradigm shift, but rather a rationalization that it must be the default position -and therefore must serve some useful evolutionary purpose; a position benighted and stigmatized because it advertises the owner’s failure to achieve the goal that others seem to have realized.

I’m certainly not disparaging depression, but neither am I willing to accept that it serves any evolutionary strategy except that of a temporary, albeit necessary harbour until the storm passes. And to suggest that positive emotions -happiness, contentment, joy, or pleasure, to name just a few- however short-lived, are illusory, and unrealistic expectations, is merely to excuse and perhaps justify an approach to depression that isn’t working. A trail that only wanders further into the woods.

I’m certainly cognizant of the fact that there is a spectrum of depressions, from ennui to psychotic and that some are more refractory to resolution than others, but that very fact argues against leaving them to strengthen, lest they progress to an even more untenable and dangerous state.

Perhaps we need to comfort ourselves with the ever-changing, ever-contrasting nature of emotions, and not expect of them a permanence they were likely never evolved to achieve.

Goldilocks, it seems to me, realized something rather profound when she chose the baby bear’s porridge after finding papa bear’s porridge too hot, and mamma bear’s too cold: it was just right…

Imagination bodies forth the forms of things unknown

The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination.                                                                                                                   
Theseus, in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Shakespeare had a keen appreciation of the value of imagination, as that quote from A Midsummer Night’s Dream suggests. But what is imagination? Is it a luxury -a chance evolutionary exaptation of some otherwise less essential neural circuit- or a purpose-made system to analyse novel features in the environment? A mechanism for evaluating counterfactuals -the what-ifs?

A quirkier question, perhaps, would be to ask if it might predate language itself -be the framework, the scaffolding upon which words and thoughts are draped. Or is that merely another chicken versus egg conundrum drummed up by an overactive imagination?

I suppose what I’m really asking is why it exists at all. Does poetry or its ilk serve an evolutionary purpose? Do dreams? Does one’s Muse…? All interesting questions for sure, but perhaps the wrong ones with which to begin the quest to understand.

I doubt that there is a specific gene for imagination; it seems to me it may be far more global than could be encompassed by one set of genetic instructions. In what we would consider proto-humans it may have involved more primitive components: such non-linguistic features as emotion -fear, elation, confusion- but also encompassed bodily responses to external stimuli: a moving tickle in that interregnum between sleep and wakefulness might have been interpreted as spider and generated a muscular reaction whether or not there was an actual creature crawling on the skin.

Imagination, in other words, may not be an all-or-nothing feature unique to Homo sapiens. It may be a series of  adaptations to the exigencies of life that eventuated in what we would currently recognize as our human creativity.

I have to say, it’s interesting what you can find if you keep your mind, as well as your eyes, open. I wasn’t actively searching for an essay on imagination -although perhaps on some level, I was… At any rate, on whatever level, I happened upon an essay by Stephen T Asma, a professor of philosophy at Columbia College in Chicago and his approach fascinated me. https://aeon.co/essays/imagination-is-such-an-ancient-ability-it-might-precede-language

‘Imagination is intrinsic to our inner lives. You could even say that it makes up a ‘second universe’ inside our heads. We invent animals and events that don’t exist, we rerun history with alternative outcomes, we envision social and moral utopias, we revel in fantasy art, and we meditate both on what we could have been and on what we might become… We should think of the imagination as an archaeologist might think about a rich dig site, with layers of capacities, overlaid with one another. It emerges slowly over vast stretches of time, a punctuated equilibrium process that builds upon our shared animal inheritance.’

Interestingly, many archaeologists seem to conflate the emergence of imagination with the appearance of artistic endeavours –‘premised on the relatively late appearance of cave art in the Upper Paleolithic period (c38,000 years ago)… [and] that imagination evolves late, after language, and the cave paintings are a sign of modern minds at work.’

Asma, sees the sequence rather differently, however: ‘Thinking and communicating are vastly improved by language, it is true. But ‘thinking with imagery’ and even ‘thinking with the body’ must have preceded language by hundreds of thousands of years. It is part of our mammalian inheritance to read, store and retrieve emotionally coded representations of the world, and we do this via conditioned associations, not propositional coding.’

Further, Asma supposes that ‘Animals appear to use images (visual, auditory, olfactory memories) to navigate novel territories and problems. For early humans, a kind of cognitive gap opened up between stimulus and response – a gap that created the possibility of having multiple responses to a perception, rather than one immediate response. This gap was crucial for the imagination: it created an inner space in our minds. The next step was that early human brains began to generate information, rather than merely record and process it – we began to create representations of things that never were but might be.’ I love his idea of a ‘cognitive gap’. It imagines (sorry) a cognitive area where something novel could be developed and improved over time.

I’m not sure that I totally understand all of the evidence he cites to bolster his contention, though- for example, the view of philosopher Mark Johnson at the University of Oregon that there are ‘deep embodied metaphorical structures within language itself, and meaning is rooted in the body (not the head).’ Although, ‘Rather than being based in words, meaning stems from the actions associated with a perception or image. Even when seemingly neutral lexical terms are processed by our brains, we find a deeper simulation system of images.’ But at any rate, Asma summarizes his own thoughts more concisely, I think: ‘The imagination, then, is a layer of mind above purely behaviourist stimulus-and-response, but below linguistic metaphors and propositional meaning.’

In other words, you don’t need to have language for imagination. But the discipline of biosemantics tries to envisage how it might have developed in other animals. ‘[Primates] have a kind of task grammar for doing complex series of actions, such as processing inedible plants into edible food. Gorillas, for example, eat stinging nettles only after an elaborate harvesting and leave-folding [sic] sequence, otherwise their mouths will be lacerated by the many barbs. This is a level of problem-solving that seeks smarter moves (and ‘banks’ successes and failures) between the body and the environment. This kind of motor sequencing might be the first level of improvisational and imaginative grammar. Images and behaviour sequences could be rearranged in the mind via the task grammar, long before language emerged. Only much later did we start thinking with linguistic symbols. While increasingly abstract symbols – such as words – intensified the decoupling of representations and simulations from immediate experience, they created and carried meaning by triggering ancient embodied systems (such as emotions) in the storytellers and story audiences.’ So, as a result, ‘The imaginative musician, dancer, athlete or engineer is drawing directly on the prelinguistic reservoir of meaning.’

Imagination has been lauded as a generator of progress, and derided as idle speculation throughout our tumultuous history, but there’s no denying its power: ‘The imagination – whether pictorial or later linguistic – is especially good at emotional communication, and this might have evolved because emotional information drives action and shapes adaptive behaviour. We have to remember that the imagination itself started as an adaptation in a hostile world, among social primates, so perhaps it is not surprising that a good storyteller, painter or singer can manipulate my internal second universe by triggering counterfactual images and events in my mind that carry an intense emotional charge.’

Without imagination, we cannot hope to appreciate the Shakespeare who also wrote, in his play Richard III:

Princes have but their titles for their glories,                                                                                                      An outward honor for an inward toil,                                                                                                                And, for unfelt imaginations,                                                                                                                                They often feel a world of restless cares.

Personally, I cannot even imagine a world where imagination doesn’t play such a crucial role… Or can I…?