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Images and Thinking

(Critique of arguments against images as a medium of thought)

David Cole

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The Way of Ideas died an ignoble death, committed to the flames by behaviorist empiricists. Ideas, pictures in the head, perished with the Way. By the time those empiricists were supplanted at the helm by functionalists and causal theorists, a revolution had taken place in linguistics and the last thing anyone wanted to do was revive images as the medium of thought. Currently, some but not all cognitive scientists think that there probably are mental images - experiments in cognitive psychology (e.g. Shepard and Metzler 1971) have shown it to be plausible to posit mental images. Even so, the phenomenon of mental imagery has been largely regarded as peripheral in cognition, perhaps even epiphenomenal. Images cannot fix the content of thought (intentions, rules), the Wittgenstein story went. The central processes of thought, so the post-Wittgenstein story goes, require a propositional representation system, a language of thought, universal and modeled on the machine languages of computers. The language of thought is compositional, productive, and, leading advocates argue, has a causal semantics. Images lack all of these essential qualities and so are hopeless as key players in thinking.

Throughout the history of thinking about the role of images in thought, the focus has been almost entirely on visual imagery. Even in recent work in cognitive psychology, those who prominently have been interested in images (e.g. Shepard and Metzler, Steven Kosslyn, Steven Pinker) have focussed almost exclusively on visual images [notable exceptions - Reisberg, Gathercole, Baddeley.]. However, visual images are not the only form of mental image, and may not be the most important type for human cognition. In addition, focussing on visual images and their peculiar pictorial and perspectival properties leads to denying a proper place for images in thinking. So I shall argue.

Most of what follows attempts to reply to what appear to be the main arguments against the view that images play a central role in thought. Thus I'll indirectly defend the possibility that mental images play a very important role in human cognition, including inference. The arguments I reply to come from Zenon Pylyshyn, Michael Tye, Jerry Fodor and especially Steven Pinker. Other arguments, from Gilbert Ryle, have, in my view, been adequately responded to by Tye 1991. I'll divide the arguments into four groups: psychological arguments (including regress and simplicity arguments), syntactic arguments (concerning the structural form mental representations must take to be suitable for thought), semantic arguments (concerning the semantic properties of images), and finally a Big Picture argument from the history of views about the role of images in philosophy and psychology.

I. Psychological arguments

1. Regress of image viewers argument. Mental images would require an inner homunculus to view them (this was Pylyshyn's first argument against mental images, as reported by S. Kosslyn 1994 p. 6).

So let us begin with a regress. I suppose that many now regard this as a poor objection. Clearly it appears to be based on a particular, narrow, view as to what an image must be -- it appears an image must have an appearance, in the form of a light emitting or reflecting surface. I myself am of two minds about the merits of the argument. On the one hand, a mental image is not optical, and so cannot literally be viewed. In that way, the objection, at least in this bald form, is misguided. Images can be latent, as on exposed but undeveloped photographic film, or they can exist in digital form in an electrical or magnetic medium. So there appears to be an established (and reasonable) current use of "image" in which some images at least need not be visible. But it is also true that an image, mental or otherwise, must be interpreted to play a mental role. An image in the brain that has no causal role in producing thought and behavior is of no more psychological interest than an optical image projected on the skull. Both are in the head, but neither is mental. Indeed, this thought, the thought that images require interpretation, especially propositional interpretation, is central to several objections to images as a medium of thought. These objections are independent of the regress argument, but share with it the basic intuition that thought must involve more than images.



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