Thursday, 29 June 2017

The Rationality of Perception

In this post, Susanna Siegel, Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University, introduces her book, The Rationality of Perception.

On a traditional conception of the human mind, reasoning can be rational or irrational, but perception cannot. Perception is simply a source of new information, and cannot be assessed for rationality. I argue that this conception is wrong. Drawing on examples involving racism, emotion, self-defense law, and scientific theories, The Rationality of Perception makes the case that perception itself can be rational or irrational.


The Rationality of Perception argues that reasoning and perception can be deeply intertwined. When unjustified beliefs, fears, desires, or prejudices influence what we perceive, we face a philosophical problem: is it reasonable to strengthen what one believes, fears, or suspects, on the basis of an experience that was generated, unbeknownst to the perceiver, by those very same beliefs, fears, or suspicions? I argue that it is not reasonable-even though it may seem that way to the perceiver. In these cases, a perceptual experience may itself be irrational, because it is brought about by irrational influences.



Here’s a simple example. Jill fears (without good reason) that Jack is angry with her. As a result of her fear, Jack’s face looks angry to her when she sees it. If you saw Jack, you’d see his neutral expression for what it is. There’s no need for Jill to jump to conclusions from what she sees. Her fear’s influence on perceptual experience makes it simpler for her: she can just believe her eyes.

Let’s suppose that Jill has no idea that her fear has influenced her perceptual experience. To her, she’s simply seeing Jack, and following common sense in believing her eyes - since as far as she can tell, she has no reason not to believe her eyes.

Is it reasonable for Jill to believe her eyes, when her visual experience is a projection from an unreasonable fear or presumption? It might seem that the answer is Yes. What else is Jill supposed to believe, given that she has no idea her fear has been projected onto her experience? In countless other situations, it’s reasonable to believe what you see. If you want to know whether there’s mustard in the fridge, for instance, then if you see some mustard (and have a visual experience of a sort that typically goes with seeing mustard), it’s clearly reasonable to believe that the fridge contains mustard.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Implicit Stereotypes and the Effortful Control of the Mind


This post is by Tillmann Vierkant (pictured above), who is a senior lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. He works on mental actions, conscious will, self control, mindreading, and lots of other stuff in the philosophy of cognitive science. Here, he summarises a paper written with Rosa Hardt (pictured below), who also works in philosophy of mind and cognitive science, and recently completed her PhD on the role of emotions in moral agency. 


Intuitively, we might want to say that what is special about our conscious beliefs is that they are conscious, because we can only use our rationality to deliberate about them if we are conscious of them. But this can’t be quite right by itself. We can obviously be conscious of other attitudes like gut feelings, phobias and implicit biases as well. However, as Levy argues, there is an important difference near by. While it is true that we can be aware e.g. of our spider phobia or our stereotypes about women this does not mean that we automatically thereby think that they accurately represent reality. On the contrary, we often notice phobias because they seem to force us to behave in ways that we think of as irrational and we are worried about implicit biases because we know that they make us behave in sexist ways we abhor without us even noticing. Conscious beliefs are special then not because we can be conscious of them, but because they express our view of the world as agents.

We argue, that unfortunately Levy’s argument does not work. We doubt that it is true that only conscious beliefs express our view of the world. There are cases like phobias where this seems convincing, but many similar attitudes are not like that. Famously, Huck Fin acts on a gut feeling against his moral judgment that he acquired growing up in a slave holder society, when he saves the runaway slave Jim. This is just one very prominent example of the general point. Gut feelings we cannot give reasons for even after deliberating might nevertheless express our view on the world.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Mental Capacity in Relationship

Camillia Kong is Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Kent and Research Associate at the Ethox Centre, University of Oxford. She researches and has published on moral and political philosophical issues around the medico-juridical concept of capacity, mental disorder, and intellectual impairment. Her recent work also examines ethical issues around psychiatric genomics.



What should medical and legal professionals do when a person with intellectual impairment chooses to remain within an abusive and disabling environment? Should these professionals even be considering the difference between relationships and care environments which promote or disable the autonomy of individuals with a learning disability or mental disorder? Or is this paternalism gone one step too far?



In my new book Mental Capacity in Relationship: Decision-making, dialogue, and autonomy I explore these complex issues through the prism of mental capacity legislation in England and Wales and human rights conventions. Legal developments have revealed a number internal and external criticisms around the concept of mental capacity: in England and Wales medico-juridical professionals protect the right of autonomy of those who pass a legal functional test of mental capacity, but how this test should be interpreted is subject to internal debate.

Some legal judgments suggest an intrapersonal focus of mental capacity, whilst others indicate that the promotion of autonomy amongst those with impairments should have an interpersonal focus, where mental capacity will depend on the relationships and communities around the individual in question. Moreover, with the advent of the UN Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), external critiques charge that the concept of mental capacity represents outdated, paternalistic, and discriminatory attitudes towards those with impairments, fundamentally designed to undermine their right of autonomy.

Both these internal and external critiques are addressed in my defense of a relational concept of mental capacity, where relationships and intersubjective dialogue have an important impact on the decisional capacity of individuals with impairments. In the book, I recommend caution against disposing with the concept of mental capacity as endorsed by the ‘will and preferences’ interpretation of Article 12 in the CRPD and further argue that mental capacity cannot be reducible to abilities ‘within one’s own head’, despite this pre-eminent understanding in both theory and practice. Core philosophical ideas that are operationalised within mental capacity law – such as rights, rationality, autonomy, and beneficence – need not presume an individualistic focus, but can be interpreted relationally.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

The Unencapsulated Nature of Episodic Memory



Johannes Mahr (pictured above) is a PhD student in the Department of Cognitive Science at Central European University in Budapest. His work centers on the question of how the capacity for complex forms of communication has shaped higher cognition in humans. During his PhD he developed a novel account of the nature and function of episodic memory, which focuses on its role in communication. You can read about it here.

We usually think that when we remember the past, we form beliefs based on whatever we remember. When you remember that you went to the supermarket and bought a bottle of champagne yesterday, you take yourself to believe that this is indeed what you did because you remember it. Similar to perception, it seems to us that remembering provides us with evidence on the basis of which we form our beliefs. In the case of perception it has been widely argued that the processes by which we perceive our environment are encapsulated from what we already believe. That is, just because you might believe that there is a bottle of champagne behind your computer screen, you will not suddenly perceive one when you walk around your desk. Rather, perceptual input will inform your higher-level beliefs so as to cause you to revise your mistaken belief about the location of the champagne.