Hankfox, who may well be a distant relative of mine, worries about referentless concepts taking up valuable space in the human mind. From what we seem to know about the human brain, I think he is barking up the wrong tree. The mind is not a finite bounded space, it’s a network. And a network gets more effective as it gets more complex, which happens every time it adds a new node. If some of those nodes lack concrete referents, so what? They give us more, and more interesting, ways to understand concrete realities. If all we know is what impacts our immediate senses, we are all prisoners in the solitary confinement of our own skulls. Perhaps because I have a client who is currently in jail, this gives me the squeams.
Limited to the input of our own senses, we have no way to make contact with other beings, human and otherwise. That way likes psychopathy. Imagination is the moral faculty.
Imagination has obvious evolutionary origins. I think it comes from the way predators teach their young to hunt. A mother cat shows her kittens, “make believe this vine, or that stick, or my tail, is your prey. Watch it. Follow it. Pounce on it. Subdue it.” She also shows them, quite vividly, the difference between imagination and reality—“but don’t bite my tail too hard or I will slap you upside the head and swat you into next Monday.”
From this they learn to chase their daily meals, and also how to behave with critters whom they do not regard as dinner—do as you would be done by. From this, we learn what was first taught to us in Deuteronomy: imagine that other people have insides, like yours. Imagine that they feel pain, and fear, and hunger, and pleasure, and joy, just like you. Imagine, that is, that your neighbor is like you. And then, love.