Imagination and machine intelligence

James Mensch
Charles University, Prague
The question of the imagination is rather like the question Augustine raised with regard to the nature of time. We all seem to know what it involves, yet find it difficult to define. For Descartes, the imagination was simply our faculty for producing a mental image. He distinguished it from the understanding by noting that while the notion of a thousand sided figure was comprehensible—that is, was sufficiently clear and distinct to be differentiated from a thousand and one sided figure—the figure could not be clearly pictured in our mind. The representation of its sides exceeded our powers of imagination.[i] This view of the imagination as our ability to produce a mental image fails, however, to distinguish it from remembering. Let us say that I see an object and then I close my eyes, maintaining the image of the object. Is this imagining or short term memory? What about the case when I recall this image an hour later? Am I imagining or remembering it? Such examples make it clear that imagination, as distinct from memory, implies something more than the ability to produce a mental image. It involves, as Sartre pointed out, a certain attitude towards this image. Engaging in it, we deny its reality. In Sartre’s words, imagination “carries within it a double negation; first, it is the nihilation of the world (since the world is not offering the imagined object as an actual object of perception), secondly, the nihilation of the object of the image (it is posited as not actual) ...” (BN, p. 62). Imagination, then, represents the imagined as nonactual
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