I would expect "unreal" concepts to be part of the basis for "real" ones. To put it simply, here's a sketch of the synchronic "story-of-WHAT" in which I believe (cos I also have a diachronic one, that helps explain the HOW):
Throughout our ontogenesis (even before birth, that is), we are subsystems immersed in a world of change. Some of these changes are accessible to us through our senses (and I don't limit the concept of senses to the receptors that anatomy is currently describing as such -- I like to keep an open mind :)
Our nervous system, as it evolved to allow us to make use of these changes, separates signals (consistently patterned change), from the rest of the environment. Change in the environment on the same channel with a signal is of course, noise. All animals make use of signals, since the environment-signal conversion is biologically automated at the level of the receptors or in neural circuits very close to the receptors (e.g. the retinal structures, the tactile or auditory fields, etc.)
But there are so many signals that storing all dependencies observed, while impossible in itself due to the infinite nature of the environment, leads to a continuous reshaping and specialization of parts of the nervous system.
Now here is the gap in actual knowledge: how signals or data become information; aka. concept aquisition or [probably] belief-formation [since belief-formation has been philosophized totally out of joint]. Shamans like Fodor are trying to breach this gap with voodoo terminology like the Language of Thought (just as his predecessors have warped the approximation philosophers called soul).
But back to what we do know (if psychology is to be trusted as science): we are wired to observe events and store them in multimodal abstract structures to which some refer as imagery. But that's not all, we are also wired to pick up correlations in imagery and to store these second-level correlations in structures similar to those that handle imagery [cos nervous tissue ain't too diverse functionally]. This leads to a jolly recursive process from which most [if not all] high-level cognitive processes emerge. With a twist: that biological recording ain't mechanical. Some of the correlations made, have a chance to be wrong. The higher the level of abstraction from reality, the higher the probability of erroneous correlation. Whence we get erroneous or irrational behavior, inconsistent knowledge, creativity, insight and other effects, some of which we like, some of which we don't.
And back to our muttons, if I didn't bore you already. For many of our cognitive processes we use hypotheses. That is, we are wired to project some correlations over others, using what we know [in the not-very-reliable way we know, for which a better term would be belief if that term would have stayed clean from the folk-psychology debate], about the world in order to predict the outcomes of our behavior. All animals can do that to a certain degree, but humans exapted it to a strong survival trait.
And here we are. Hypothetical creatures. What would happen if we cross ideal concepts (like symmetry and light), with deer? We may well get white horses with only one spiralling-conical horn (unicorns). What happens after we die? Since we don't like the idea of completely disappearing, we may wishful-think that we stay around in incorporeal manifestations (ghosts). And so on.
You never know how many hundreds of thousands of unreal concepts had to "die" in the interaction with reality for a single "real" concept to "survive". If the history of Science taught us something, it is that *all* our concepts may be "unreal".
I talked with Thomas Ward five years ago at a conference and he accepted this as a possibility for the lack of "creativity" his [untrained] subjects demonstrated. When asked to draw aliens, people simply put together things they already know about; since their culture teaches them that the human is the only creature with reason, they simply warp the human frame to generate the alien frame.
I'm not saying that the ability to represent the unreal is somehow prior to the ability to represent the real, as Sam read my diatribe above. What I'm saying is that the ability to represent is loosely coupled with reality. We simply *agree* to call representations that we share in common as "real". That's the point where concept creation, just like language creation, becomes a matter of convention.
According to Perner (says Sam), we are born as "primary representational systems". We can represent, but we can't detatch those representations from reality. The ability to represent the unreal appears at about 18 months, when according to Perner, we gain the ability to form secondary representations.
I don't recall right now reading Perner, but I did read similar accounts, and I think it's merely a problem of emphasis. Our culture does make a sharp distinction between the real and the unreal and that may bring bias to the observations. When the infant is surprised not to find the ball in the box where s/he saw it placed, s/he is not (in my interpretation) handling either real or unreal concepts. It's simply the capacity to hypothesize that's not fueled yet by enough prior experience to generate an alternative route for the ball. After all, the ball is really somewhere at every point in its path. There's nothing unreal in the action that changes its path either.
I don't know how the unreal part follows in Perner's account, but the absolute age-limit tradition that Piaget started is bugging me tremendously :) Everybody develops differently with the opportunities offered by our environment (body included), otherwise we would not have different opinions. But no, they have to make statistics and label people as underdeveloped or geniuses... It's all feeding back into unreasonable normativity.
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