Building Complex Knowledge with Language and Imagination
One of the great mysteries of the mind is how we are able to think about things we can never see or touch. How do we come to represent and reason about abstract domains like time, justice, or ideas? All of our experience of the world is physical, accomplished through sensory perception and motor action. We collect photons through our eyes, respond to physical pressure in our ears, and bend our knees and flex our toes in just the right amount to defy gravity. And yet our internal mental lives go far beyond what we can observe through physical experience; we invent sophisticated notions of number and time, we theorize about atoms and invisible forces, and we worry about love, justice, ideas, goals, and principles. The ability to cognitively transcend the physical is one of the very hallmarks of human intelligence. I will review some of the ways human minds reuse the basic machinery evolved for perception and motor action, for the purposes of imagining the invisible and the impossible.