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.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) is a complicated film, based on the Roald Dahl book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. You might remember it for Gene Wilder’s creepy and quirky portrayal of Willy Wonka, or the psychedelic visuals, or the problematic Oompa Loompas. You may also remember it as a morality tale, focused on the misbehavior of the various children that disqualifies them from what turns out to be a contest for heir to Wonka’s fortune. But at least as memorable, to me, is the movie’s celebration of imagination, creativity, and believing in oneself.

As Wonka sings in “Pure Imagination,” the song that accompanies the children’s first look at the wonderland of Wonka’s chocolate factory:

If you want to view paradise
Simply look around and view it
Anything you want to, do it
Wanna change the world?
There’s nothing to it

Throughout the film, Wonka presents fantastical, science-fictional wonders, and argues that anything is possible, that the limit is one’s imagination. Indeed, Charlie’s own virtue, one could argue is tied up with his imagination, his ability to imagine a life beyond his family’s poverty, his wide-eyed acceptance of the world that Wonka presents.

The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking (1988) played frequently on our television for several formative years of our young life. Pippi (in this and all other portrayals of her) is a fantasy of unconstrained childhood—exceptionally strong and capable, living on her own, with enormous financial resources at her disposal. She is thus independent and irreverent in the extreme, much to the (sometimes anxious) delight of the children who live next door, and the horror and irritation of all of the adults in town. Pippi teaches her friends (and her readers / viewers) to believe in themselves and the power of their imagination, the source of Pippi’s own abilities.

Another genre of film that celebrates a different wishful thinking: the story of the mental patient whose delusion is so compelling that the psychologist and even the audience come to doubt that it is a delusion, to identify more with the reality projected by the patient than the normative order enforced by the doctors and the institution. Two examples that come to mind are Don Juan DeMarco, where Johnny Depp’s character is convinced that he is the legendary Don Juan, and K-PAX, where Kevin Spacey’s character claims to be an alien visitor from 1,000 light-years away. Films of this genre challenge the authority of our consensual reality and the limited imagination we bring to judgments of “sanity.” They question our right to impose our sense of normality on others, in a more extreme way but similar way as the contemporary movement opposing the medicalization of children’s behavior such as ADHD. (The case of Pippi Longstocking is relevant here as well.)

Much of my leisure time from 2005-2008 was spent traveling around Southern California, attending shows by the L.A. band Lavender Diamond, fronted by Becky Stark. Although many of their songs tend towards the whimsically maudlin (“You Broke My Heart,” “Everyone’s Heart’s Breaking Now,” “Emptiness is a Conductor”), the stage persona of Becky Stark and the tenor of the band’s music was one of relentless optimism. Indeed, despite the fact that these shows took place during the second term of George W. Bush, in liberal enclaves of Southern California, every show began with Stark jubilantly decreeing something like, “We would like to congratulate everyone for peace coming to planet Earth.” Stark explains this as follows:

I always say: ‘Congratulations, everyone, for peace coming to planet Earth.’ And we clap and go, ‘Woooooo!’ And then we say, ‘In honor of peace coming to planet Earth, we are really excited to play this show—congratulations, we knew it was going to happen!’ It is kind of a spell—the idea is that we are transforming the space. Everyone saying ‘peace is here’ makes peace BE here—makes it real. If everyone agrees that peace is there, thought becomes language becomes matter. (Interview with L.A. Record)

That last bit, about it being a “kind of spell,” kindles a number of important connections. First, of course, a particularly horrible kind of wishful thinking, from the point of view here being critiqued, is called “magical thinking.” Magical thinking, according to these critics, involves the attribution of causal efficacy to (mere) thoughts, beliefs, rituals, symbols, or other things that are supposed to be the wrong sort of things to figure in causal relations. But simple definitions (or valuations) of magical thinking lead to absurdity. They rule out the kind of absolutely reasonable causal chains like the one Stark describes (if literally everyone believes that peace is real, then they act accordingly, and then peace is real). We also know that speech acts and performative utterances really do cause things to happen, like marriages and namings and bequeathings.

Damien Williams, the only serious philosopher I know of who thinks carefully and non-dismissively about magic, describes magic in similar terms. Language, for Williams, is not only the tool of tools; “Language is, at a fundamental level, the oldest magic we have” (Williams, “On Adaptable Modes of Thought”). Today we call magic by different names: political strategy, marketing, etc., but,

The concept structures of sympathy and contagion are still at play, here, the ritual formulae of word and tone and emotion and gesture all still work… They’re all still ritual constructions designed to make you think and behave differently… If I can make you perceive what I want you to perceive, believe what I want you to believe, move how I want you to move, then you’ll remake the world, for me, if I get it right. (ibid)

When it comes to the world of human interactions and experiences, then, and the associated speech acts, performative utterance, systems of meaning, etc., there is a since in which the “magic” of the causal efficacy of believes, desires, wishes, imaginings is very much real, and actually mundanely so. When it comes to the natural world, the issue is more complicated, but certainly it is the case that wishing or believing something to be the case makes possible the discovery that it is the case. It his thesis, Williams describes a more thorough incorporation of the “natural” world into the realm of meaning,3 though we need not concern ourselves with that extension here.

Let’s return to the problem of wishful thinking in science. Heather Douglas’s most interesting complaint against wishful thinking is, I take it, as follows:

Our preferences for the world have no direct bearing on the way it actually is, a point reinforced by the continual surprises experience throws at us. If our empirical reasoning were guided by such wishful thinking, we would have little chance of allowing the world to surprise us.4

The point is fair enough; an important aspect of the distinctive value of science is the ability of new evidence to surprise us and change our thinking. And yet, in working too hard to allow the world to surprise us, we may reduce our changes of surprising ourselves. That is, without a little wishful thinking, we may underestimate our own abilities and range of possibilities, and we may overestimate our certainty about how things “really are.”

The problem comes, I think, when science starts to foreclose on possibilities in a way that narrows our imagination. Imagination can easily be stifled by the pressure of “What everyone knows.” Everyone knows the world doesn’t work that way. Everyone knows the things are done that way. These words have the power to kill the imagination and passion that are important to both science and ethics. One can read Feyerabend’s most powerful arguments as explaining and defending scientific creativity against the “rationalism” that would snuff it out, and thus snuff out science in the process of trying to defend it. Feyerabend shows that creative thinking in science requires not only contradicting putatively well-established theories, but also contradicting the (putative) evidence itself, inferring counter-inductively (though, in the end, one must thereby produce better evidence).

Likewise, the moral life requires the exercise of our imagination, as Fesmire and Johnson argue, and Weston puts into practice. We must be able to empathetically project how our actions affect others. We must be able to imaginatively explore the possibilities inherent in any morally perplexing situation. We must creatively explore ways of resolving moral problems by tapping those possibilities, finding ways to harmonize and integrate them where possible, and revaluating them where not. We must be able to believe in ourselves, and not be too hastily constrained in our consideration of options. Too much wishful thinking may redirect our action into unproductive and hopeless channels. But a little bit of wishful thinking is what makes moral action possible.

  1. “Pure Imagination,” Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (song by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley) 
  2. Boaz Miller has recently given talks on “An epistemic defence of moderate wishful thinking.” As of this time, I do not have access to his arguments, though I’ve heard him describe them very briefly. 
  3. Williams, Damien P., “A Description of the Natural Place of Magic in Philosophy and Religious Studies.” Thesis, Georgia State University, 2008. <http://scholarworks.gsu.edu/philosophy_theses/37> 
  4. Heather Douglas (2008), “The Role of Values in Expert Reasoning,” Public Affairs Quarterly 22(1): 9‐10. <https://www.jstor.org/stable/40441475> (There are many similar statements in a variety of Douglas’s works.) 

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