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Michael Stuart (CPNSS): “A Dual Process Account of Scientific Imagination”

6 February 2017, 5:15 pm6:45 pm

Abstract: Scientists need imagination. They use it to generate hypotheses, create models, design experiments, interpret data and occasionally, invent demons, travel through time and ride on light waves. To investigate the role that imagination plays in these actions, we need an empirically tractable characterization of imagination that is also amenable to philosophical discussion. In this talk I reject existing characterizations of imagination and present a new one based on the dual-process theory of cognition. According to this characterization, we have two kinds of imagination that form the ends of a spectrum. On one side there is imagination that is fast, unconscious, automatic, evolutionarily old, conserved across species, and places a low demand on cognitive capacities. On the other is a kind of imagination that is conscious, controlled, evolutionarily recent, mostly unique to humans, and places high demands on cognitive capacities. I discuss the sense in which these are both properly called “imagination,” as well as the epistemological, historical and scientific import of the distinction. The most direct epistemological consequence is that we must evaluate the two kinds of imagination differently. We find that they have different strengths and limits, and can be combined in ways that amplify their strengths and compensate for their weaknesses. Historically, the framework helps us to make sense of many scientific cases where imagination was used, attacked or accepted. Scientifically, the framework can contribute to pedagogy by allowing educators to embrace a de-mystified notion of imagination that comes with specific methods for training.


Michael T. Stuart is a postdoctoral fellow at the London School of Economics, interested in the epistemological nature and function of the imagination in science.


6 February 2017
5:15 pm – 6:45 pm
Event Category:


Bryan W. Roberts


LAK 2.06
Lakatos Building
London, WC2A 2AE United Kingdom
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