Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Biased belief in the Bayesian brain

Today’s post comes from Ben Tappin, PhD candidate in the Morality and Beliefs Lab at Royal Holloway, University of London, and Stephen Gadsby, PhD Candidate in the Philosophy and Cognition Lab, Monash University, who discuss their paper recently published in Consciousness and Cognition, “Biased belief in the Bayesian brain: A deeper look at the evidence”.

Last year Dan Williams published a critique of recently popular hierarchical Bayesian models of delusion, which generated much debate on the pages of Imperfect Cognitions. In a recent article, we examined a particular aspect of Williams’ critique. Specifically, his argument that one cannot explain delusional beliefs as departures from approximate Bayesian inference, because belief formation in the neurotypical (healthy) mind is not Bayesian.

We are sympathetic to this critique. However, in our article we argue that canonical evidence of the phenomena discussed by Williams—in particular, evidence of the backfire effect, confirmation bias and motivated reasoning—does not convincingly demonstrate that neurotypical belief formation is not Bayesian.

The backfire effect describes the phenomenon where people become more confident in a belief after receiving information that contradicts that belief. As pointed out by Williams, this phenomenon is problematic for Bayesian models of belief formation insofar as new information should cause Bayesians to go towards the information in their belief updating, never away from it. (As an aside, this expectation is incorrect, e.g., see here or here).

We reviewed numerous recent studies where conditions for backfire were favourable (according to its theoretical basis), and found that observations of backfire were the rare exception—not the rule. Indeed, the results of these studies showed that by-and-large people updated their beliefs towards the new information, even if it was contrary to their prior beliefs and in a highly emotive domain. 

Thursday, 14 February 2019

Self-control, Decision Theory, and Rationality

This post is written by José Luis Bermúdez, who is Professor of Philosophy and Samuel Rhea Gammon Professor of Liberal Arts at Texas A&M University. Prof. Bermúdez has published seven single-author books and six edited volumes. His research interests are at the intersection of philosophy, psychology and neuroscience, focusing particularly on self-consciousness and rationality. 

In this post, he presents his new edited collection "Self-Control, Decision Theory, and Rationality" published by Cambridge University Press. 

Is it rational to exercise self-control? Is it rational to get out of bed to go for a run, even when staying in bed seems preferable at the time? To resist the temptation to have another drink? Or to forego a second slice of cake?

From a commonsense perspective, self-control is a way of avoiding weakness of will, and succumbing to weakness of will seems to be a paradigm of irrationality – something that involves a distinctive type of inconsistency and practical failure. This reflects a focus on rationality in choices over time – on keeping one’s commitments and following through on one’s plans.

But things can look very different when one narrows down to specific, individual choices. Then rational self-control seems hard to accommodate. After all, to exercise self-control is to go against your strongest desires at the moment of choice – and why should you not take what seems to be the most attractive option? From the perspective of orthodox decision theory, rationality requires you to maximize expected utility and (at the moment of choice) being weak-willed is what maximizes expected utility.

Tuesday, 12 February 2019

OCD and Epistemic Anxiety

This post is authored by Juliette Vazard, a PhD candidate at the Center for Affective Sciences at the University of Geneva, and at the Institut Jean Nicod at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. In this post she discusses her paper “Epistemic Anxiety, Adaptive Cognition, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder” recently published in Discipline Filosofiche.

I am curious about what certain types of dysfunctional epistemic reasoning present in affective disorders might reveal about the role that emotions play in guiding our epistemic activities. Recently, my interest was drawn to the emotion of anxiety. Anxiety has often been understood as belonging to the domain of psychopathology, and the role of this emotion in the everyday lives of healthy individuals has long remained understudied. In this article I argue that anxiety plays an important role in guiding our everyday epistemic activities, and that when it is ill-calibrated, this is likely to result in maladaptive epistemic activities.

Anxiety is felt towards dangers or threats which are not immediately present, but could materialize in nearby possible worlds or in the future. Like other emotions, anxiety plays a motivational role in preparing us to act in response to the type of evaluation it makes. Because anxiety functions to make “harmful possibilities” salient, it prompts a readiness to face potential threats, as well as attempts to gain information (regarding its chances of materializing, its magnitude, specific nature, etc.)

I believe analyzing the nature and role of anxiety can enlighten us on the dysfunctional mechanisms at work in obsessive-compulsive disorder. OCD is a psychiatric disorder that most often implies obsessions “which are intrusive, unwanted thoughts, ideas, images, or impulses” and compulsions, which are “behavioural or mental rituals according to specified ‘rules’ or in response to obsessions” (Abramowitz, McKay, Taylor 2008, p. 5). Most interestingly, persons with OCD experience the need to secure more evidence and demand more information before they can reach a decision and claim knowledge (that the stove is off, for instance) (Stern et al. 2013; Banca et al. 2015).

Thursday, 7 February 2019

Epistemic Innocence at ESPP

In September 2018, a team of Birmingham philosophers, comprising Kathy Puddifoot, Valeria Motta, Matilde Aliffi, EmaSullivan-Bissett and myself, were in sunny Rijeka, Croatia, to talk a whole lot of Epistemic Innocence at the European Society for Philosophy and Psychology.

Epistemic innocence is the idea at the heart of our research at Project PERFECT. A cognition is epistemically innocent if it is irrational or inaccurate and operates in ways that could increase the chance of acquiring knowledge or understanding, where alternative, less costly cognitions that bring the same benefits are unavailable. Over the last few years, researchers on the project and beyond have investigated the implications of epistemic innocence in a range of domains (see a list of relevant work here). Our epistemic innocence symposium at ESPP2018 was a mark of the relative maturity of the concept, and the opportunity for us to start expanding its applications.
I went first, exploring the phenomenon of confabulation, where a person gives an explanation that is not grounded in evidence, without any intention to deceive. Confabulatory explanations sometimes arise where there is cognitive decline, such as in dementia or brain injury, and also in a number of psychiatric conditions. But there are a range of studies which demonstrate that all of us, regardless of our cognitive function, regularly confabulate about all sorts of things from consumer choices to moral convictions and political decisions. 

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

The Epistemological Role of Recollective Memories

Today’s post is by Dorothea Debus, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Philosophy at the University of York.

Together with Kirk Michaelian and Denis Perrin I've recently edited a collection of newly commissioned papers in the philosophy of memory (New Directions in the Philosophy of Memory, Routledge 2018), and I've been invited to say something about my own contribution to that collection here.

My paper bears the title "Handle with Care: Activity, Passivity, and the Epistemological Role of Recollective Memories", and it is concerned with one particular type of memory, namely with memories that have experiential characteristics. The paper starts from the observation that such experiential or 'recollective' memories (here: 'R-memories') have characteristic features of activity as well as characteristic features of passivity

A subject who experiences an R-memory is characteristically passive with respect to the occurrence of the R-memory itself, but subjects nevertheless also can be, and often are, actively involved with respect to their R-memories in various ways. At the same time, R-memories also play an important epistemological role in our everyday mental lives: When making judgements about the past, we often do rely on our R-memories of relevant past events, and it also seems that compared to other kinds of memories, we take R-memories especially seriously and give them special weight and particular attention when making judgements about the past.

What is more, there are important links between the epistemological role which R-memories play on the one hand, and our R-memories' characteristic features of passivity and activity on the other, and in the paper at hand I suggest that we can understand both these aspects of R-memory better by setting out to understand them together.