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Philosophical Ideas About Mental Images

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Surely, you are very excited to know more about creative visualization. But first, let’s backtrack a little to the past so that you will gain additional insight on what prominent philosophers have declared to be true regarding mental images – those sometimes vague, sometimes distinct representations of ideas in a person’s mind. After all, as the only species in the whole animal kingdom to have this rare gift, the responsibility for developing and putting it to altruistic use lies squarely on our shoulders.

In the fascinating field of philosophy, mental images play an important role in the classical and modern viewpoints because they figure prominently in the study of knowledge.

Plato (428-328 B.C.)

The great scholar Plato, in his Republic (book VII,) used the metaphor of a prisoner in a cave, bound and powerless to budge. The prisoner sits with his back to the fire and gloomily watches the eerie shadows cast on the wall in front of him by people carrying objects behind his back. Supposedly, these objects that the people are carrying are representations of real things in the world. Plato’s esteemed teacher, Socrates, taught that the analogy is similar to a human being consolidating mental images from the sensory data he gathers.

Dr. George Berkeley (1685-1783)

Much later, leading Irish philosopher Dr. George Berkeley came up with an idea related to the theory of idealism. According to him, man’s perception of reality is equivalent to his mental images; the mental images are not just copies of reality, but reality itself. However, he strongly emphasized that there is a huge difference between the images that constitute the external world, and the images of an individual’s imagination. Only the latter are considered “mental images” in the contemporary sense of the term.

Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1787)

One of England’s greatest literary figures, Dr. Samuel Johnson, however, strongly argued against Berkeley’s point of view. One sunny day, while strolling along a tree-lined road in Scotland, Johnson was queried on his thoughts about idealism. He is said to have responded by saying “I refute it thus!” and kicked a rock so large that his leg rebounded. What he was trying to say was, the rock was much more than just an ordinary mental image with no material existence of its own. Though it was a pitiful elucidation of the agonizing data sense he experienced, Johnson got his point across.

David Deutsch (born 1953)

A contempory view about the nature of mental images can be found in the works of quantum computer pioneer David Deutsch. Deutsch tackled Johnson’s opposition to idealism in his 1997 book The Fabric of Reality, when he said that if a man is to judge the worth of mental images in this world by the quality and quantity of the sensory data that he can explain, then the most significant mental image would be that the world has a real independent existence, with human beings having effectively evolved by building up patterns of mental images to explain it. This is in line with the widely accepted scientific thought known by ordinary men.

Experimental psychologists also have their assessment of the brain and its formation of mental images, which we shall see in the following chapter.