What If… ? Knowing by Imagining (WIKI)

27 March 2024

'What if?'-counterfactual questions are of momentous importance for scientific explanations (Would we see that particle track if the atom was ionized?), to ascertain responsibilities (Would he have hit the brakes, had he not been distracted?), to choose what to do (Would I get to the other side if I jumped the stream?). We address them by imagining that a hypothetical situation obtains and wondering what would follow.

But how can imagination give us knowledge of reality, if it's free departure from reality? WIKI will apply in the philosophy of imagination tools from formal epistemology, in particular epistemic and probabilistic logic, to address this issue. If we start by taking counterfactual imagination as a kind of simulated belief revision, we can then analyse it using formal theories of belief revision, in qualitative (focusing on full, all-or-nothing belief) and quantitative clothing (focusing on credences/degrees of belief).

In three interrelated sub-projects funded by the Leverhulme Trust, WIKI will (1) develop a logic and formal epistemology of imagination as suppositional thinking, (2) apply them to analyse the workings of scientific thought experiments, and (3) compare them to empirical results from the psychology of reasoning, to provide an account of how we can become better hypothetical reasoners.

Download the full description of the WIKI project here.