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I’m Matthew J. Brown aka Matt Brown aka Mattbrown aka Matt. Known online since about 1994, or anyhow before I kept any records of such things, by the handle “the hanged man.”

I am an Associate Professor of Philosophy, which I teach at The University of Texas at Dallas in the School of Arts & Humanities. I am also the director of the Center for Values in Medicine, Science, and Technology, which organizes research projects, puts on public lectures and conferences, and advocates for understanding and improving the relation between human values and culture with science and tech. I also do a bit of work in cognitive science, history and philosophy of psychology, and comics and pop culture studies.

 

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Wishful Thinking and Moral Imagination

A bit of writing that I was doing for my book went on a tangent that I really cannot incorporate into the book. But I decided to follow it anyway, because it was fun and interesting and kind of weird, to see where it lead. Well, it led me into almost 2000 words of writing, below.

There is no life I know
To compare with pure imagination
Living there, you’ll be free
If you truly wish to be1

In a variety of contexts, “wishful thinking” is used as a pejorative. In politics, wishful thinking is a charge political realists levy against radical reformists who want more than gradual and piecemeal change, who do not subject their calls for reform to cost/benefit analysis and the like. In another area, those who defend an apolitical, value-free conception of science argue that feminist philosophies of science and other value-laden approaches give license to replace scientific evidence with wishful thinking. Much work in the literature on values in science lately has been devoted to refuting this claim, arguing that value-laden science need not engage in wishful thinking, that it remains objective (Longino, Harding, Douglas), that introducing values makes science more demanding, not less (Kourany). Of course, some values influencing some science in some ways will amount to wishful thinking, but these account seek to rule such science out of bounds, epistemically or even ethically.

What if we, instead, question the universality of the negative evaluation of wishful thinking. Isn’t wishful thinking, after all, connected with our capacity for imagination, which is important to the creativity that drives scientific discovery, as well as to the moral imagination that, I would argue, is central to our ethical decision-making and our moral life? I think so, and if so, there are reasons to mount a moderate defense of wishful thinking in some sense.2 Indeed, we can look to a wide variety of artistic works that hold up the power of wishful thinking.

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