My Most Imaginary Friend

by Brian on March 1, 2005

There is a philosophical tradition, most prominently associated with Quine, that includes among its core commitments the following two claims.

# The things that best scientific theory quantifies over exist
# Among the things that exist, there do not exist spooks or souls or certainly not _imaginary friends_

So it would be a little troubling if best scientific theory started quantifying over imaginary friends. But “some say that’s what will happen”:,3604,1427987,00.html?gusrc=rss. The Quineans will have to find some way to paraphrase away the imaginary friends without paraphrasing away the benefits, should the benefits be genuine.



Des von Bladet 03.01.05 at 5:54 pm

How do Quineians cope with phantom limbs, and, in particular, pain in them? Pain (presumably) has measurable physiological consequences.


tony 03.01.05 at 6:06 pm

Yes, these types of cases are what always bothered me about Quineans. Presumably they’ll want to refine the sense of “exist” so that they refuse to talk about imaginary friends qua separate existences, but will talk about them in terms of the behavior of peope who have them?


pierre 03.01.05 at 6:16 pm

1. The things that best scientific theory quantifies over exist

I hold that the things best scientific theory quantifies underexist. They are the hollow men, heads filled with straw etc. What? Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you said …

So it would be a little troubling if best scientific theory started quantifying over imaginary friends.

All product branding, and the concomitant implicit agency of the brand, is imaginary. But it has quite an impact. This is an observation of no small consequence to contemporary society. The philosophical issues are analogous to the trivial example of children’s fanciful playmates.


Chris 03.01.05 at 6:25 pm

Best line in that article:

She [the study director] conceded that imaginary friends might not be assets for a child in a confrontation with a bully.

“Might” not?


Steve LaBonne 03.01.05 at 6:39 pm

_Pace_ Quine and Quineans, science != physics. The best cognitive science has long since pretty much shed any inhibitions about recognizing the reality of intentional mental states like beliefs. And that kind of eliminates the problem here, no?


Kip Manley 03.01.05 at 6:43 pm


Jeremy Osner 03.01.05 at 6:44 pm

“All product branding… is imaginary”

That doesn’t seem quite right to me — a product’s brand is a (actual, physical) insignia on the product (or its packaging) which conveys a particular meaning, namely that the product is being sold by some particular company. This seems no more imaginary to me than language in general. Granted there is some kind of large imaginary structure built around many brands that I’m not sure how to describe — is that structure intrinsic to the branding itself? or am I missing your point?


Philip 03.01.05 at 7:12 pm

I don’t think there’d be anything terribly wrong with a Quinean holding that imaginary friends exist in the same ways that beliefs exist, as states of the minds of individuals. Quine himself seemed pretty open to all sorts of ontologies depending on what kind of compromises one wanted to make between simplicity of ontology and simplicity of explanation.

At least, that’s what I got from “Two Dogmas.” I’m not very familiar with his philosophical development after that.


Michael 03.01.05 at 8:39 pm

Jeremy, I think the best way to describe a brand—an Althusserian way, ultimately, though one that every brand marketer I know of practices, or aspires to—is exactly as an imaginary friend. (Consumers are interpellated by the brand, cf. Althusser in “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.”) In practice (as anyone who’s ever stuided a brand book will recognize), a brand is like nothing so much as a personality; brand assets (like logos, color palettes and such) are maintained in the service of that personality, which is far more “intrinsic” to the brand than any of its insignia might be.


agm 03.01.05 at 11:45 pm

Ah, Senor Labonne wishes to dispute with Senor Rutherford…


Blar 03.02.05 at 12:20 am

One way to deal with the problem of imaginary things is to not call them “imaginary things” but instead to use “imagine” as a verb. For instance, some experiments in cognitive psychology suggest that people can form a mental image of a 3-D geometric figure and rotate that mental image at a constant angular velocity. In order to be ontologically precise, instead of forming theories about how people rotate their mental images, which imply that mental images are things that are in some way undergoing rotational motion, scientists can say that people imagine rotations. Similarly, we could say that a child imagines a companion, not that she has an imaginary companion. This reduces our ontological commitments.

Psychologists who create our current scientific theories are more concerned about the effects of a phenomenon like “imaginary friends” than with the precise ontological status of the phenomenon, so their theories might not be the best guide to what things exist. The definition of “best scientific theory” can probably take this into account, possibly by demanding that different branches of science combine to form a coherent theory. For instance, considerations of the physics of imaginary friends could help refine psychologists’ views of their ontology.


Brock Sides 03.02.05 at 12:21 am

As a card-carrying neo-Quinean, allow me to suggest that the answer is to be found through Kendall Walton’s theory of fiction in Mimesis as Make-Believe. (Walton need not be right in all details, just right in the general outline.)

Roughly, we should paraphrase “Brock as a child had an imaginary friend, a pegasus named Peter” as something like “It is to be imagined that Brock as a child had a pegasus named Peter as a friend.”

The odd thing about the sentential operator “It is to be imagined that” is that it is only partially opaque, to use Quine’s terminology. We might call it “translucent.”

That is to say, I can quantify into some of the places, but not others. There was a boy for whom it is to be imagined that he had a pegasus named Peter for a friend. But there has never been a pegasus named Peter of whom it is to be imagined that Brock had him for a friend.

Unless there’s something deeply objectionable about translucent sentential operators (and I admit they are rather odd), this seems to be the sort of solution a Quinean should accept.


Cleve Blakemore 03.02.05 at 12:59 am

None of you guys have actual, real day jobs, do you?

You must definitely be academic parasites on some kind of tenure or grant system.

What do you call a bus of a hundred liberals going over a cliff with two seats empty? A crying shame.

How can you tell a dead dog from a dead liberal? Skid marks in front of the dog. Reverse marks after the liberal.

What do you say to a liberal who draws down a paycheck in the private sector? Fries and a coke, please.

When liberals die, why do they end up in limbo? Because even hell has standards.


beowulf888 03.02.05 at 2:12 am

My goodness! Why would you ever consider Quineans liberals? And why would you ever think that you’re intellectually capable of holding a job more challenging than pushing a broom?


Cleve Blakemore 03.02.05 at 3:01 am

Ha! You’re a funny guy.

I was independently wealthy by the time I was 34 from software development. No college education, in fact no formal education of any kind.

You keep studying obscure navel gazing metaphysics, dude, I just know that is going to pay off for you one of these days. There’s a huge demand for that stuff amongst other navel gazers, alas, who tend to be dead broke professors and other assorted uni losers and parasites. Remember, it’s all about figuring out how to never actually graduate. That way you’ll never have to become a man, abandon your hebephrenic and neurotic fixation on rubbish or stop collecting Pez dispensers and go to get a job.


Lindsay Beyerstein 03.02.05 at 3:35 am

Quineans have no trouble describing phantom limb pain.

A person with phantom limb pain would agree that she had one left arm before the accident and zero left arms afterwards.

If she were a Quinean amputee she would say “The following statement was true before my accident, but it is false now: ‘There is something, x, such that x=my left arm.'”

If she were asked about her phantom limb pain, she would say “I feel as if I had a painful left arm, even though my left arm no longer exists.”

It doesn’t make sense to ask whether the phantom limb she is experiencing now is the same phantom limb she experienced last week.

The phantom limb is a hallucination. If I hallucinate a dragon today and I have the same experience tomorrow, it doesn’t make sense to ask if I saw the same dragon on two different days. I didn’t see any dragons.


bob mcmanus 03.02.05 at 3:54 am

Why does Cleve Blakemore have vowels?


Brian Weatherson 03.02.05 at 4:41 am

I don’t have anything to add to the philosophy here, except to say that anyone who is interested in the topic should read both what Brock and Lindsay say carefully. That’s a better philosophical response than the post deserved. I just came by to make the point that if someone who was an active campaigner for Richard Nixon (i.e. Quine) could be a liberal then the term has pretty much lost all meaning.


peter ramus 03.02.05 at 7:58 am

Cleve Blakemore, toying with imaginary enemies since 1996.


john b 03.02.05 at 10:16 am

Kudos for getting a Lemonheads reference in the post title.


Cleve Blakemore 03.02.05 at 1:16 pm

rckn thr sn’t nythng n Gd’s grn rth mr wrtchd, mr hds r dsfgrd nsd nd t thn th lftst. Lstnng t ths knd f dbt vr mtphyscs rgmnt s dffrnt frm 14th cntry dscssn bt hw mny ngls cn dnc n th hd f pn – hw? Th tpc s dffrnt, sm chmp gbbrsh.

Th lbrl mnd s wht s lft bhnd whn gntc slctn nds nd th spcs bgns t drft nt nknwn trrtry – plc whr th btchd nd bngld srvv n sffcnt nmbrs t frm thr wn pltcl grps. lbrl sn’t hmn bng. t’s gntc trn wrck wth bck stry. t’s chrmsml cr crsh wth lng wndd “nrrtv.” t’s th gy sldg lft t th bttm f th tb whn th rtfcl nsmntn ffrt gs hrrbly wrng.

f ll th nfrr nd bdly dptd xtnct nmls frm th 99% spcs tht hv csd t xst n th rth cld ll b gvn n vc t spk n sngl bttr dnnctn f vrythng tht s sn nd hlthy, t wld cm t sndng xctly lk th dscssn bv. Th lft – t’s th ppst f gd. t’s wht hppns whn crttrs tht wld nrmlly crwl wy nt hl prvtly t xpr nstd cm t nt th snlght t hld gndr dntty smnrs. Th lft s wht rmns bhnd ftr vrythng sfl hs bn xcsd.

t’s th lngg f prsts nd tcks wh nd n plgst fr wht t s thy d.

Lbrls stl mny thrgh cnnng nd cll t thr vrt. T tht nd, thy nd vst lbyrnthn st f cnfsng bscrntst phlsphs whch thy thmslvs blv n frst, bfr thy cn sll th l t thrs. Th lbrls r th rgnl thrs f th l tslf.

Ths nclds th lbrls n th Wht Hs nd thr nblrs. Th whl lt f y rn’t wrth cp f pss t Mthr Ntr nd shmfl brgtn f hr bqthd dts nd rspnsblts. Lbrls r nt-mttr, thy r th xprssn f th drk sd f th nvrs whr vrythng nds t’s xstnc sckd dwn nt blck hl f mnnglssnss.

Th lft s dth klt, pln nd smpl. Th ncns r th mst prmnnt xprssn f th lft n pblc lf – t dsn’t mttr tht thy clm t b n “ppstn,” bcs th lft s n lngr n ppstn th scndd Strssn prfctn f th lft’s dth wsh s fnd n th rs f th ncn dmns.


AsYouKnow Bob 03.02.05 at 1:37 pm

Are trolls imaginary?


Delmore Macnamara 03.02.05 at 2:56 pm

“I was independently wealthy by the time I was 34 from software development”. Yes, writing dodgy games for the Commodore 64 certainly does give you a penetrating insight into analytic philosophy & its alleged political commitments. At least Matthew Smith is an amusing mentalist…


Delmore Macnamara 03.02.05 at 2:56 pm

“I was independently wealthy by the time I was 34 from software development”. Yes, writing dodgy games for the Commodore 64 certainly does give you a penetrating insight into analytic philosophy & its alleged political commitments. At least Matthew Smith is an amusing mentalist…


Nabakov 03.02.05 at 3:15 pm

Not to mention that anyone who now composes role playing games about wizards is not exactly in a strong position to dis a thread about the ontological status of imaginary friends.


Henry 03.02.05 at 3:38 pm

What’s the deal with Matthew Smith? A name that I haven’t heard or thought about in over a decade.


Matt Weiner 03.02.05 at 4:11 pm

Brock–you seem to be right about translucency–but it’s not obvious to me that the transaltion captures the intended meaning of what’s being translated.

If I say “Peter has an imaginary friend, a Pegasus,” I don’t so much want you to imagine that Peter has a friend. I say that Peter imagines that he has a friend.

That said maybe “Peter imagines that he has a friend, a Pegasus” would be an acceptable translation.


beowulf888 03.02.05 at 5:49 pm

Yo, Cleve, sorry to prick your little ego, dude. But why so hateful against navel gazing? Think of philosophy as being like masturbation. It’s an act that harms no one. It may not contribute to the bottom line. But so what? Why do you care?

Anyway, I’m Silicon Valley engineer myself. I read philosophy and history for recreation. I mean, you have to exercise the brain cells some how, right? Engineering is pretty boring, but it pays the bills and allows me to be entertained by Quine, et al.

Again, I have to ask you, why do you think that philosophy is — or is it just Quine? — is an inherently liberal occupation. Most of the philosophers I’ve met can’t stand anyone who disagrees with their positions. To me that’s an inherently Republican thought pattern. ;-)

Hey,have a good retirement. Try not to let you blood pressure get too high. Maybe you should play some more golf or something instead of getting hot and bothered by the blogs…



Cleve Blakemore 03.02.05 at 11:47 pm

I’d like to respond, but the moderator of this board feels the need to either delete my posts or else run them deliberately through a scrambler. Yes, that’s what you do when somebody presents an uncomfortable viewpoint that is false – you delete the post.

Actually, that is what liberals do when somebody posts uncomfortable truths. It’s classic, classic liberal behaviour. The reality is, liberals are weak and shallow men who cannot defend their own viewpoints. That’s why conservatives are always censored, anywhere you look on the web.

You should see what happened over on the “Black and White” thread when I wrote a long, patient post about why blacks produce no great or even good writers. The moderator was sweating bullets and insisted on deleting the post as well as the one that followed it.

I’m just jerking your chains, anyway. I browsed here for a long time for a laugh to see how the academic halfwits talk privately amongst themselves. It’s exactly the kind of childish, hebephrenic rubbish that conservatives are always saying it is.

The post above that got scrambled was just hitting a little too close to the bone for the moderator – it was just too penetrating of the liberal mind.

Remember, speech is free around liberals as long as you play into their basic premises, which are infantile rehashed failed ideas from previous socialist losers. Trying to force them to swallow the red pill and make them go through the looking glass only throws them into a tizzy and they run around shrieking and bawling like 8 year old girls crying out for a censor.

Last post. Yawn. You guys are not even interesting. Marry, get a job, become a man. You can’t remain a sophomoric Star Trek fan and postmodernist your entire friggin’ life. Star Trek and its entire paradigm, very pretentious Quine-style crap, is essentially about communists in their pajamas exploring outer space and spreading their weirdo bolshevist ideas to aliens who just wish they would stay away.


Kieran 03.03.05 at 12:28 am

Don’t like being disemvoweled, eh? Well, to paraphrase the great Ronald Reagan, we’re paying for this microphone.

You can’t remain a sophomoric Star Trek fan and postmodernist your entire friggin’ life.

True. You have to get out there and start writing computer “role playing”: “games”: eventually.


beowulf888 03.03.05 at 2:52 am

Somebody needs a cookie and nap!

Seems to me you’re the closed-minded “liberal” (i.e. in your worldview liberals try to suppress rational discourse, so your behaviour is very liberal indeed). You can’t just let people have a discussion without shitting on everyone (a discussion that obviously doesn’t interest you in the least, even if you are able to understand it). I don’t go on to right-wing intellectual blogs (are there any?) and behave like a shithead. In reality you’re just taking pleasure out of being obnoxious. So go away. We don’t want to play with you.


Nabakov 03.03.05 at 2:53 am

“Marry, get a job, become a man. ”

Or retreat to an underground bomb shelter, design adolescent male fantasy worlds, and stomp round the internets, preaching white supremacy and abusing complete strangers.


Nabakov 03.03.05 at 6:20 am

And speaking of quantifying over imaginary friends, according to computer gamehead friends of mine, ole’ Cleve has now spent ten years obessively working over his fantasy role playing game, announcing and backtracking on release dates so many times that’s he’s become a laughing stock on gaming groups – which is probably why he’s trolling new pastures.


g 03.03.05 at 10:37 am

Lbrls r nt-mttr, thy r th xprssn f th drk sd f th nvrs whr vrythng nds t’s [sic] exstnc sckd dwn nt blck hle f mnnglssnss.

Clearly Cleve has read, and taken a little too seriously, Ted’s piece from 2005-11-02.

Or is this some sort of obscurely-motivated parody?


hick 03.03.05 at 4:52 pm

It may be efficacious for someone to believe in as of yet unverifiable mystical or religious concepts, might advance him in society and so forth, but that does imply that what he believes in (immaterial souls) is not itself a product of physics or chemistry. At some point (already occuring–ie Changeux) the religious concepts and impulses will be fully mapped, genetically and neurologically.


hick 03.03.05 at 5:01 pm

oops, “does not imply”

Another thing to note–which many eloquent philosophical types forget– is that Quine was more an inductivist than analytical philosopher. His views ( given his attacks on analyticity and idealism) are closer to the bayesian model; and his office was across from BF Skinner’s


John Emerson 03.04.05 at 10:17 am

Cleve has imaginary enemies, it seems.

He’s surprised and angry that, after his charming introduction made up of hostile cliche jokes we’ve all heard before (what he calls “uncomfortable truths”), no one likes him. Hm, reality-sense problem?

“Postmodern Star Trek Communists?”

Retired with too much time on his hands. Perhaps craft work like macrame will help him channel his energies.

On topic: Something that would be unquantifiable might be potential imaginary friends that no one actually has. I think that does get into angel-dancing-on-the -head -of-a-pin territory.


John Emerson 03.04.05 at 10:24 am

Cleve may be a fictional character:

“Cleve Blakemore walked on, wondering why he always felt it at this time of
day, Hell any time of day, this wild rage without reason. No, he thought,
not without reason. It was those damn dingoes in Australia, and Canadians.
And that damned red, Steve Bauman. And estrogen.”

Cleve Blakemore story


Philip 03.07.05 at 12:10 am

Speaking of computer roleplaying games, one of the best ever made, Planescape: Torment, was designed by folks with degrees in such subjects as philosophy and literature.

Sadly, it didn’t do too well on the market and I don’t think we’ll see another like it anytime soon.


Philip 03.07.05 at 12:10 am

Speaking of computer roleplaying games, one of the best ever made, Planescape: Torment, was designed by folks with degrees in such subjects as philosophy and literature.

Sadly, it didn’t do too well on the market and I don’t think we’ll see another like it anytime soon.

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