Thursday, 12 July 2018

Political Epistemology

On 10th and 11th May in Senate House London Michael Hannon and Robin McKenna hosted a two-day conference on Political Epistemology, supported by the Mind Association, the Institute of Philosophy, and the Aristotelian Society. In this report I focus on two talks that addressed themes relevant to project PERFECT.

Robert Talisse

On day 1, Robert Talisse explained what is troubling with polarisation. In the past Talisse developed an account of the epistemic value of democracy in terms of epistemic aspirations (rather than democratic outcomes). In a slogan, "the ethics of belief lends support to the ethos of democracy". We can see this when we think about polarisation.

There are two senses of polarisation: (1) political polarisation and (2) belief (or group) polarisation. Political polarisation is the dropping out of the middle ground between opposed ideological stances. That means that opposed stances have fewer opportunities to engage in productive conversations. Belief polarisation instead is something that happens in like-minded political groups and concerns the doxastic content of people's beliefs. People tend to adopt a more extreme version of the belief they originally have when they discuss the content with like-minded people.

The problem is that the radicalisation of one's views does not depend on acquiring more or better reasons for one's original views, but on the social dynamics that is relevant to group discussion. Should people then discuss their views only with their opponents? Not really, as empirical evidence suggests that heterogeneous deliberation inhibits political participation.

What is wrong about belief polarisation and how can we address the problem? Belief polarisation impacts not only the content of the belief or the confidence about the belief, but one's estimation of the people who have opposed beliefs. So the belief-polarised person becomes increasingly unable to see nuances in the opposing view. Moreover, more and more of the behaviours of the opponents are seen in the light of their political views, and the opponents are seen as diseased or corrupted.

Finally, once the belief-polarised person knows that an expert has a different political view, then the opinion of the expert is rejected, even if the expert advice does not concern their political stance. Almost as if a sense of ideological purity compromises people's capacity to trust experts with different political views.

How can we overcome such challenges? Preventing belief polarisation is different from depolarising beliefs. More democracy may be good for prevention of belief polarisation. But once people are belief-polarised then more democracy does not seem to help. Maybe we sometimes need less democracy! Exposure to the other side entrenches polarisation.

A range of non-political behaviours and social spaces (consumer behaviours, community centres, workplaces, religious affiliations) become expressions of ideological stances which means that people are less and less likely to mix with people who have opposed political views. Humanising interactions across political divides are increasingly less likely to happen. This is due to the political saturation of social space.

So one possible solution is to carve out social spaces that are not already politically saturated. There must be activities where political affiliations do not matter.

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Developing Conceptual Skills for Hermeneutical Justice

Benjamin Elzinga recently completed his PhD at Georgetown University with a dissertation on epistemic agency. His research interests include epistemology, the problems of free will, and the philosophy of mind. In this post, he presents work he recently published under the title "Hermeneutical Injustice and Liberatory Education".

In the 50s and 60s, women joining the U.S. workforce and members of the broader society in some sense lacked the conceptual skills for making sense of sexual harassment. Through the practices of the U.S. women’s liberation movement, especially through the organization of consciousness raising groups and speak-outs in the early 70s, feminists developed these resources and encoded them into the legal system. According to Miranda Fricker this is an instance of recognizing and to some extent addressing a problem of hermeneutical injustice, which occurs when members of a certain group are unjustly prevented from developing and distributing important conceptual skills. But what does it mean to lack conceptual skill of this kind and how do we develop new skills and overcome the hermeneutical injustice?

Suppose that John and Javier witness the inappropriate behavior of a fellow colleague toward another, but only Javier has the relevant conceptual skills for making sense of sexual harassment. This means he will be reliably and resiliently able to arrive at correct judgements about what occurred and make further judgements about its significance. The latter allows him to engage in personally and politically important projects like connecting sexual harassment with workplace discrimination and gender-based oppression and so on.

In a community full of individuals like John, however, these skills will not be readily available, and that will not only prevent the problem from being addressed but also in some cases even prevent victims from fully understanding their own experience. In order to transform a world full of Johns into a world full of Javiers, marginalized individuals need to come together to develop and then distribute new conceptual skills. In the present case, women who were victims accomplished this by giving a name to their shared experience and using it as a tool for developing and then marketing the concept.

To develop a skill in general is to engage in practices of self-regulating one’s performances within a task domain, and this is to engage in intelligently guided practices of trial and error. By settling on the term “sexual harassment”, women first of all simplify this practice by creating a perceptual cue that primes categorization by activating top-down expectations about the perceptual environment.

Secondly, by encoding the experience in a public linguistic format they aid metacognition by providing a stable resource for further reflection and experimentation. In marketing the concept, however, marginalized individuals will often face resistant perspectives and an unequal distribution of epistemic power, and this is where the problem of what Gaile Pohlhaus calls willful hermeneutical ignorance shows up. Dominantly situated knowers may lack the incentive and conceptual background required to engage in the learning process that leads to reliable and resilient seeing. Moreover, by refusing to gain the relevant conceptual skills, the dominantly situated individual assures that they will continue to lack evidence of their cognitive deficiency, which they can then use to further justify their refusal to learn the skills. Further research might expand on the work of Jóse Medina to develop strategies for overcoming this specific form of meta-ignorance.  

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Varieties of Confabulation

On 28th May, Elisabetta Lalumera organised a workshop on Confabulation and Epistemic Innocence at the Department of Psychology, University of Milan Bicocca.

First speakers of the day were Lisa Bortolotti and Sophie Stammers from project PERFECT who presented a picture of confabulation where clinical and non-clinical cases are continuous and have a similar structure.

Bortolotti talked about epistemic costs and benefits of confabulation. She argued that we should distinguish between innocent and guilty instances of confabulation depending on whether the person confabulating has access to the information that ground an epistemically less problematic explanation and on whether the ill-groundedness of the explanation spreads to the person's further beliefs.

Stammers focused on the question why we confabulate. Do we aim to provide a causal theory about what is going on—as recently was argued by Max Coltheart? Or are we imposing meaning and attempt to develop a narrative understanding of the relevant events—as suggested by Örulv and Hydén? She argues that both accounts get something right about confabulation.

Sophie Stammers

Andrew Spear (Grand Valley State University) discussed the phenomenon of gaslighting as an instance of confabulation which is not epistemically innocent because (1) it does not make the acquisition of true beliefs more likely and (2) it does not enhance the coherence of the self-concept.

In gaslighting both the perpetrator (gaslighter) and the victim confabulate. The core feature of the phenomenon is that the gaslighter undermines the victim’s self-trust. Such a goal is pursued by manipulating and deceiving. The motive of the gaslighting is to destroy the possibility of disagreement in order to challenge the victim’s perception of herself as a locus of autonomy.

Spear argued that all gaslighting has an epistemic dimension. The method of the gaslighter involves providing false but compelling evidence for the victim's lack of understanding. The victim needs to decide whether the gaslighter is more trustworhty than her own cognitive faculties.

The gaslighter tells himself and the victim a story to cover up his real motivations: “This is really the best thing for her”. The victim tells herself a story about the gaslighter having her best interests at heart. This creates an epistemically poisonous feedback loop. In this case, then, Spear argued, the confabulatory explanations victims and perpetrators engage in are not epistemically innocent because they do not deliver any epistemic benefit.

Andrew Spear

Anna Ichino (Bar Ilan University) focused on the form of confabulation that occurs in superstitious or magical thinking and in conspiracy theories. Superstitious thinking departs from scientific thinking (e.g. does not rule out action at a distance) and sees meanings, reasons, and agency where there is none. Core features of confabulation are falsity or ill-groundedness, lack of decitful intentions, motivational elements, gap-filling role. Superstitious thinking shares these four core features: beliefs or practices are ill-grounded, but there is no intention to deceive.

People have motivational reasons to confabulate: (a) they are motivated to confabulate rather than saying “I don’t know”, and (b) they are motivate to form a confabulation with a specific content (e.g. explanation that implies that one is competent). Motivation of type ‘a’ is related to gap filling.

Superstitions and confabulations are equally characterised by the search for coherence beyond the evidence available to us. The gaps we want to fill in confabulation and superstition are explanatory gaps, and the explanations we tend towards are those that feature reasons. So the causal explanations we prefer are those that are psychological and mentalistic.

Ichino argued that superstitious thoughts are better interpreted as imaginings rather than beliefs—based on the view that they are not constrained by evidence and are responsive to our will; they are locally coherent and selectively integrated; and they can motivate action.

Finally, Ichino considered whether we can still talk about epistemic innocence if we think of superstitious thoughts as imaginings. She concluded that we can do that, as long as either we characterise the epistemic faults of superstitious thoughts as metacognitive errors (we do not realise that they are imaginings) or we come up with epistemic norms that apply to imaginings and identify where the faults might be (not all stories are equally good).

Anna Ichino

Tuesday, 3 July 2018

Monothematic Delusion: A case of innocence from experience

Today’s post is written by Ema Sullivan-Bissett, who is a Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Birmingham. Here she overviews her paper ‘Monothematic Delusion: A case of innocence from experience'.

Before taking up my current post as Lecturer in Philosophy, I was a Postdoc on Lisa Bortolotti’s AHRC project on the Epistemic Innocence of Imperfect Cognitions (2013-14). In that year we worked together in developing the notion of epistemic innocence, which we thought could be of use in thinking about the epistemic status of faulty cognitions. We understood a cognition as epistemically innocent when it (1) endows some significant epistemic benefit onto the subject (Epistemic Benefit Condition), which could not otherwise be had, because (2) alternative, less epistemically faulty cognitions are in some sense unavailable to her at that time (No Alternatives Condition).

As part of that project, we wrote two papers in which we put that notion to use in discussion of explanations of actions guided by implicit bias (Sullivan-Bissett 2015) and motivated delusions (Bortolotti 2015). Since then, a lot of work has been published which appeals to this notion, in particular, in discussions of delusions in schizophrenia (Bortolotti 2015), psychedelic states (Letheby 2015), social cognition (Puddifoot 2017), clinical memory distortions (Bortolotti and Sullivan-Bissett forthcoming), and false memory beliefs (Puddifoot and Bortolotti forthcoming).

In my paper I take a slightly different approach. I do not seek to extend the concept of epistemic innocence to monothematic delusions, I rather ask to whom would it matter if such states were epistemically innocent. In particular, if we find that monothematic delusions are (at least sometimes) good candidates for the status of epistemic innocence, to which theorists of monothematic delusion would this claim be open to? I focus on the debate on monothematic delusion formation, in particular, that between one- and two-factor empiricists. I argue for the rather surprising conclusion that a judgement of epistemic innocence is licensed by both of these types of theory (albeit via different routes). Thus we find in the notion of epistemic innocence a unifying feature of monothematic delusions.

Thursday, 28 June 2018

Confabulation workshop

In this post, I report on our third annual workshop, this year with a focus on confabulation, which took place last month at St Anne’s College, Oxford. We had an international programme of talks from both philosophers and psychologists, and talks addressed a range of topics, including exploration of both the varieties and boundaries of the phenomenon of confabulation; application of the notion to new areas of study; and how developments in conceptual models of confabulation influence new therapeutic interventions.

Sarah Robins addressed the phenomenon of mnemonic confabulation, or confabulation in memory. In her talk, she demonstrated that although discussions of confabulation began with aspects of memory, mnemonic confabulation is importantly dissimilar from other confabulatory phenomena. In mnemonic confabulation, there is no relationship between the remembered event and an occurrence in the rememberer’s past. However, claiming to remember an event is generally considered to be well grounded if it seems to the person that she remembers that event, and so the sense in which mnemonic confabulation is ill-grounded is not as straight-forward as in non-mnemonic confabulation. And unlike other forms of confabulation, in which people can learn about the reasons or causes of the episode about which they have confabulated through other means, it is not clear how mnemonic confabulations might be replaced with better grounded memories, and so our expectations on mnemonic confabulators might be different.

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

A Reply to Dan Williams on Hierarchical Bayesian Models of Delusions

This post is a reply by Phil Corlett (Yale) (pictured below) to Dan Williams's recent post on Hierarchical Bayesian Models of Delusions.

Dan Williams has put forward a lucid and compelling critique of hierarchical Bayesian models of cognition and perception and, in particular, their application to delusions. I want to take the opportunity to respond to Dan’s two criticisms outlined so concisely on the blog (and in his excellent paper) and then comment on the paper more broadly.

Dan is “sceptical that beliefs—delusional or otherwise—exist at the higher levels of a unified inferential hierarchy in the neocortex.” He says, “every way of characterising this proposed hierarchy... is inadequate.”

Stating that “it can’t be true both that beliefs exist at the higher levels of the inferential hierarchy and that higher levels of the hierarchy represent phenomena at large spatiotemporal scales. There are no such content restrictions on beliefs, whether delusional or not. (Delusional parasitosis concerns tiny parasites).

I agree that ‘the’ hierarchy is thus far poorly specified, to the extent that it may even seem nebulous. The notion of hierarchy has to some extent been invoked as a sort of get out of jail free card when – for example - some priors appear to be weak in patients with delusions and others strong (e.g. the very elegant work from Philipp Sterzer, Katarina Schmaak and others in Schmaak et al. 2013, Stuke et al. 2018, and Stuke et al. 2017) and both effects correlate with delusions.

One way, within a hierarchical model, for this to make sense would be for the weak priors (often evinced as failures to perceive certain perceptual illusions) to generate prediction errors that must be reconciled. Such prediction errors create a state of perceptual hunger for priors (As Steve Dakin and Jerzy Konorski before him have speculated), which is only satisfied by imposing stronger (and perhaps inaccurate) higher level priors.

Hence the shift toward prior knowledge observed by Teufel, Fletcher and colleagues. This is what we mean by a hierarchy of prior beliefs. And it seems to relate importantly to psychotic symptoms and in particular delusions (although see their more recent work for data consistent with as well as a challenge for this idea of a hierarchy of priors and psychosis). What I don’t think we mean is that if delusions involve high-level prior beliefs, they necessarily have to entail only high-level concepts (or even large rather than small things as Dan suggests – this would indeed make parasitosis impossible).

I agree, we could be clearer. We will be in future publications. We are trying to characterize neural and psychological hierarchies in ongoing experiments in healthy and delusional subjects. One approach that seems to be bearing fruit is hierarchical computational modeling of behavior (Mathys et al. 2014), with which we have implicated priors and hierarchical organization in the genesis of hallucinations (Powers et al. 2017) – watch this space for similar with delusions.

Second, Dan is “sceptical that belief fixation is Bayesian”. I think Dan alludes to a solution to his skepticism in his own piece. None of these models demand optimally Bayesian inference. As Dan says, they involve “(approximate) Bayesian inference”. They entail inferences to the best explanation for a particular subject given their prior experiences and current sensory evidence. 

They explicitly allow for deviations from optimality. Those deviations can be different for different inferences and different people and those differences allow opportunities for the theory to applied to the myriad conditions to which it has been applied theoretically and empirically (with some success).

Thursday, 21 June 2018

Rationality, Time, and Self

This post is by Olley Pearson who is currently a teaching fellow in the Department of Philosophy, Durham University. Olley focuses on metaphysics, though he considers a number of topics from this perspective including the nature of rationality, the self, the emotions, time, and ontological fundamentality. In the post Olley describes some of the core themes of his recent book Rationality, Time, and Self.

In this book I provide a new argument for the tensed theory of time and the emergence of the self: there is more to time and ourselves than some philosophers suggest. The basis of this argument is a concern that peculiarities of meaning alone are not enough to account for the special role that is played in our lives by tensed and first-personal utterances and the beliefs they express (here known as tensed and first-personal beliefs).

Perry style cases in which a specific individual must perform an action at a specific time have made it clear that we sometimes need tensed and first-personal beliefs. For example, if I am going to get this blog post finished on time, I need to have some idea what the date is now and that I am the author of the book being discussed. What has been less clear, however, is the nature of this necessity, or, to put it more precisely, what these beliefs are necessary for. In this book I argue that they are not merely needed for specific movements of my body.

My neighbour could have drugged me and pressed my fingers to my keyboard in my unconscious state. They are also not necessary for me to act irrationally. My neighbour could have drugged me and in a state of irrationality I could have thought 2 + 2 = 4, therefore I must send the article on that laptop. (It is possible for irrationally motivated acts to be productive.)

Tensed and first-personal beliefs are specifically required for rational actions. I need tensed and first-personal beliefs to act rationally in submitting this blog post. Tensed and first-personal beliefs have a rational import not met by tenseless and non-first-personal beliefs.

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Hierarchical Bayesian Models of Delusion

Today's post is by Dan Williams, a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Philosophy, at the University of Cambridge.

If you had to bet on it, what’s the probability that your loved ones have been replaced by visually indistinguishable imposters? That your body is overrun with tiny parasites? That you’re dead? As strange as these possibilities are, each of them captures the content of well-known delusional beliefs: Capgras delusion, delusional parasitosis, and Cotard delusion respectively.

Delusional beliefs come in a wide variety of forms and arise from a comparably diverse range of underlying causes. One of the deepest challenges in the contemporary mind sciences is to explain them. Why do people form such delusions? And why on earth do they retain them in the face of seemingly overwhelming evidence against them?

My new paper “Hierarchical Bayesian Models of Delusion” presents a review and critique of a fascinating body of research in computational psychiatry that attempts to tackle these questions. To cut a long story short, that research suggests that delusions arise from dysfunctions in a process of hierarchical Bayesian inference.

To understand what this means, you have to grasp three ideas.

The first is the idea that information processing in the brain is hierarchical. It’s not always clear exactly how this claim should be understood (see below). The core idea, however, draws inspiration from the structure of sensory and motor areas of the neocortex, as well as the extraordinary success of deep (i.e. hierarchical) neural networks in machine learning.

For example, the ventral pathway of the visual cortex contains a cascade of functional areas (e.g. LGN-V1-V2-V4-IT) where low levels represent simple stimulus features such as edge-segments and basic colour and contrast information and higher levels process information at increasingly greater levels of spatiotemporal scale and abstraction, eventually reaching representations of things like faces and houses. Many neuroscientists extrapolate from such findings that all information processing in the neocortex is hierarchical, with perceptual experiences existing at lower hierarchical levels and beliefs existing at higher levels.

The second is the idea that information flow in this hierarchy is bi-directional: information flows up the hierarchy to higher levels, but it also flows back down from higher levels to primary sensory areas.

The third idea is that this process of bi-directional information processing implements a form of (approximate) Bayesian inference, combining prior expectations about the state and structure of the world carried via top-down connections with incoming sensory evidence in a statistically optimal way.

When all is going well, this process of hierarchical Bayesian inference is alleged to leverage the noisy and ambiguous sensory signals the brain receives to put us into contact with their worldly causes at multiple spatiotemporal scales. When the process malfunctions, however, the very properties that make this information processing regime effective at creating that contact with reality imbue it with the capacity to remove that contact in especially sinister ways.

That—in an extremely schematic nutshell—is the basic story of the emergence of psychosis in conditions such as schizophrenia advanced by the work in computational psychiatry that I criticise in my recent paper. The details are of course much more complex and nuanced than I can do justice to here. (See my article and the references therein for a review of those details and some compelling evidence in favour of this story).

In any case, the two challenges that I put forward for hierarchical Bayesian models of delusion are relatively straightforward.

First, I am sceptical that beliefs—delusional or otherwise—exist at the higher levels of a unified inferential hierarchy in the neocortex. Specifically, I think that every way of characterising this proposed hierarchy that I have seen in the literature is inadequate. For example, it can’t be true both that beliefs exist at the higher levels of the inferential hierarchy and that higher levels of the hierarchy represent phenomena at large spatiotemporal scales. There are no such content restrictions on beliefs, whether delusional or not. (Delusional parasitosis concerns tiny parasites). As far as I can tell, however, available ways of avoiding this problem are either inadequate or rely on an appeal to an understanding of “the” hierarchy so nebulous that it ceases to be interestingly hierarchical at all.

Second, I am sceptical that belief fixation is Bayesian. Hierarchical Bayesian models of delusion—and indeed similar models of conditions such as autism—model the brain as an approximately optimal statistical inference machine. I think that this story is plausible for our broadly perceptual and sensorimotor capacities, where most of the evidence for such models exists. I think that it is much less plausible for beliefs, however, which—in my reading of the empirical literature, at least—emerge from a complex stew of bias, suboptimality, motivated reasoning, self-deception, and social signalling. If ordinary belief fixation is not Bayesian, however, we shouldn’t try to explain delusions in terms of dysfunctions in a process of Bayesian inference.

*Thanks to Marcella Montagnese for helpful comments.

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Shadows of the Soul: Philosophical Perspectives on Negative Emotions

This post is by Fabrice Teroni, Associate Professor in philosophy at the University of Geneva, and Christine Tappolet, Full Professor in philosophy at the University of Montreal.

Try to name as many types of positive emotions as you can. Now do the same for negative emotions. You will probably agree with the often-heard claim that the vocabulary we have at our disposal is especially rich for negative emotions: we distinguish between sadness, fear, disgust, regret, remorse, despair, resentment, indignation, contempt, jealousy, hatred, etc. Many of our everyday discussions turn around these negative emotions, aiming at a better understanding of their causes and moderation of their sometimes devastating effects.

That being said, we harbor ambivalent attitudes towards negative emotions; we do not always undergo them reluctantly, for instance. Not only do we think that some situations or objects merit negative emotions, but we also actively pursue them—the aim of many recreational and artistic activities is to elicit fear, and we sometimes enjoy undergoing emotions such as anger and disgust. So, if we do often try to get rid of negative emotions, we certainly do not aim at a purely positive affective life, a life whose interest and coherence can itself be questioned. Indeed, the interest and depth of episodes of satisfaction and joy often appear to be enhanced by the negative emotions to which we are prone.

Moreover, is it not difficult, perhaps even incoherent, to attribute the sorts of attachments to values (justice, generosity, friendship), persons and institutions that prove so central in our self-conception to an individual deprived of negative affect? What would remain of a sense of justice if we lacked the disposition to be outraged when confronted with a blatant injustice?

Shadows of the Soul is the first volume to consider negative emotions as a topic of philosophical study in its own right. It gathers fourteen original contributions (approx. 5000 words each) written by experts in the field and aimed at a non-specialist audience. These articles allow the reader to explore the diversity and complexity of negative emotions, as well as some of the fascinating philosophical issues they raise. The book opens with the exploration of the most fundamental amongst these issues: what makes an emotion negative, and how does the existence of negative emotions affect philosophical approaches to the emotions?

Next, it explores the role of negative emotions in imaginative resistance – the fact that we have a hard time imagining evaluative contents that contradict our convictions (e.g., that killing girls at birth is a good thing) – and in emotional ambivalence – how should we explain the fact that we often have negative and positive attitudes towards a given event? Is this irrational? Beyond these broad theoretical issues, the study of any negative emotion raises a variety of more specific but no less important questions.

The remainder of the contributions allow the reader to explore a fair share of them: the nature of being moved, negative existential feelings, nausea and its relation to aesthetic properties, the distinctive relation between disgust and stench, the value of anxiety, the rationality of grief, the moral standing of shame and contempt, the role of negative emotions in racism, and the irrationality of jealously.  Our hope is that the volume showcases both the intrinsic interest of exploring negative emotions as well  as its potential impact on theorizing about the emotions, which must give due attention to the richness and complexity of our affective lives.

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Poetry, Philosophy and Mental Health

Lynn-Marie Harper participated in the Philosophy of Mind workshop series for people with various interests in, and experiences of, mental health that Project PERFECT ran in partnership with Mind in Camden in the autumn of 2017. 

Here, she shares some of her poetry. She has always written but started to share her poetry when taking workshops with the poet, novelist and confidence inspiring tutor Aoife Mannix in 2010. Some of the poems below are a direct response to the philosophy workshops, and some address life-experience more generally.

The two poems I presented at Conway Hall at the conference on our last meeting of the Philosophy of Mind course were both written during the workshop series. The first, ‘Rocking the Foundations” was written initially as a response to an assignment on metaphor set by a poetry class tutor, Poet Philosopher Alan Murray.

It served a purpose beyond the assignment though in that I could express my feelings and reactions to a longstanding and ongoing situation involving the house I live in, in what sounds like an exaggerated form, however there was truth lingering within it and hence I could present it as it uses the language of mental distress to describe feelings elicited by movement and deficiencies in building structure.

Rocking the Foundations

The overwhelm elicited by cracking walls
coving covering not only fissures but fear

Doorjambs jamming against doors
hearing voices telling truths and lies in split partitions

Mania in moments of discovery
of uneven floors, ill fitting windows

Party walls suffering from personality disorders
reflecting back onto the experiencing entity’s sanity

In anxious episodes, ceilings and skirtings
intact, subsidence heaving with panic

Gaping crevasses only imagined in manic hysteria
paranoia of costs and sectioning, in both senses

Looking to each in despair, depression
creeping along fault lines, foundations undermined

November 2017

The second poem, Or Should I say……… was written immediately I returned home from the last session of the course in response to the question Sophie asked about what impact the course had and I answered in an image ridden poem, which is that it became increasingly evident that we are all on a continuum between mental illness and wellness, both individually and as a greater society of seeming parts, the communal I, we, in fact, all of us, together. It’s a very relieving recognition…

Or should I say……………

Across a broad continuum I float on the sea of dreams
Or should I say I paddle in a round boat of my own seeming making
which I realise is not my own at all but part of that big picture of oneness
or should I say we float, we paddle, we live, we are,
and that we ness, we we weness is all we are waiting for
for the ship to re arrest us as we glide motionless on the sea of expectation

dreams have turned, become some other some else, something nightmarish,
coated in overwhelm sweetened with saccharinous jargon and vicious labelling
overladen with yellow light and electrical voltage, imaged accordingly

Its so simple really. We are all on this continuum, we and all, on and are
arranged in an order that tells of despair and easy reckoning
we look at each other and say we, we talk of how it has been, what we’ve done

thought, felt and name it I. It is the one I, we, and we move along the conveyor belt
at different speeds and in varied configurations but none is left out of this vast continuum
we are all more or less ill, more or less well and at last it is recognised for what it is.

December 14th 2017

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Political Emotions. The Role of Affect in Social Movements

This post is by Katja May, PhD candidate at the University of Kent.

Emotional Politics – The Role of Affect in Social Movements and Organizing took place on 31 May 2018 at the University of Kent in Canterbury. The conference aimed to bring together academics, activists, policy-makers and practitioners to share current concerns and developments in the research and practice surrounding emotion, organizing and social movements. It was co-hosted by the Gender, Sexuality and Culture Research Cluster in the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research at Kent and kindly sponsored by the Centre for Colonial and Postcolonial Studies, the School of English and the Centre for Gender, Sexuality and Writing. The organizers Katja May and Angela Matthews, are both PhD students at Kent, and their joint interest in affect, emotion and social transformation was the driving force behind this conference.

Veteran activist and scholar Angela Y. Davis (2016) claims that in order for a movement to be effective it needs to mobilize the masses. As such, this conference asked:  How does one reach the masses? What motivates people to join a movement, especially if they are not directly affected by the campaign’s agenda and the successful implementation of its goals? How can organizers and campaigners make use of emotion, feeling and affect as these circulate between subjects and objects? What problems may arise in the concrete experience of organizing? Speakers approached these questions from a variety of ways and their various disciplinary backgrounds ranging from sociology, geography and politics to literature, arts and journalism provided an interesting mix of different methodologies and critical arguments.

The morning panels engaged with the topic of collective and distributed emotion as well as with affective media representations of social movements and protests. Afterwards, Carolyn Pedwell, Reader in Cultural Studies at the University of Kent, delivered her brilliant keynote “Digital Tendencies: Intuition, Algorithmic Thought and New Social Movements”. Pedwell drew on a number of different recent examples such as Occupy and Black Lives Matter to flesh out the role of the digital in contemporary organizing.

While conscious of the, at times, certainly problematic connection between social media, affect and neoliberalism, she tried to move away from a narrow analysis of the digital as either negative or positive. Instead, Pedwell argued that the digital can be useful in the development of social movements and ultimately in the adoption of social change. As a medium for communication and continuous engagement it can be used by people to react to that which is in process and may enable movements to “combine a tendency to oppose oppression with a capacity to sense change as it is happening”.

The afternoon included panels on organizing and the ethics of care, the scholar-activist, affective sites of communication and the affective struggles of those who sometimes find themselves on the far side of social change and activism. Jennifer Chisholm from the University of Cambridge, presented findings from her PhD research on women leaders in the Favela Housing Rights Movement in Rio de Janeiro. She argued that the women employ what she terms “vulnerability talk” as a form of “patriarchal bargaining” to justify their position of leadership among male community members. Only by presenting themselves as “leaders-cum-caregivers” appear these women to be able to secure their active position within the movement. A different perspective was offered by Audrey Reeves, from Cardiff University who examined “the importance of affective connections to material objects” in a series of American war heritage sites.

Marked by a dynamic atmosphere and lots of engaging discussion, the day then concluded with inspiring poetry performances by Kat Peddie and Betsy Porritt (both Kent) whose creative work addressed the conference theme in different but equally insightful ways. To find out more about what happened during the conference in this Twitter story.

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Do Folk Actually Hold "Folk Economic Beliefs"?

Today's post is by Ben Tappin, graduate student in psychology at Royal Holloway at the University of London. In the post he introduces the paper "Do the folk actually hold folk-economic beliefs?" that he has co-authored with Robert Ross and Ryan McKay.

  Ben Tappin (above)

Robert Ross (above)

 Ryan McKay (above)

How do individuals arrive at their beliefs about the economic impact of immigration? More specifically, what are the psychological processes that underpin seemingly widespread beliefs like “immigrants steal jobs” or “immigrants abuse the welfare system?” Just how typical are these (and related) beliefs, and does their prevalence have implications for theorizing about the psychological processes that give rise to them? In the current political climate of Western Europe and the US, these questions seem as relevant now as any time before.

Recently, psychologists Pascal Boyer and Michael Bang Petersen suggested that negative beliefs about the economic impact of immigration – such as those cited above – are widespread; and they theorized that this prevalence is due to the operation of certain evolved cognitive systems. In a commentary on their theory, forthcoming in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, my co-authors and I question whether negative beliefs about the economic impact of immigration are as typical and as widespread as they perhaps appear. To that end, we discuss evidence of substantial variation in individuals’ beliefs about the economic impact of immigration, and, moreover, that positive beliefs about the economic impact of immigration are often as prevalent, if not more so, than their negative counterparts.

Data from the 2015 British Social Attitudes survey, for example, indicate that a large minority of Britons believe immigration is “good” or “very good” for the British economy (roughly 42%). In that survey, a similar proportion reported that it is “bad” or “very bad” (37%). These figures parallel responses to the 2014 European Social Survey, where approximately 40% of Britons said they believed immigration to be good for the economy, while 36% believed it to be bad. Across the Atlantic, more recent evidence paints a similar picture.

A Pew survey conducted in 2017 suggests that a majority (65%) of US adults believe immigrants “strengthen the US with their hard work and talents,” whereas only a minority (26%) consider immigrants a “burden.” These data undermine the notion that beliefs about the economic impact of immigration are typically negative in content; on the contrary, positive beliefs may be as prevalent—if not more so. At the same time, however, this evidence does reveal substantial variation in beliefs about the economic impact of immigration. What might explain such variation?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, partisan identity is a strong predictor of beliefs in the US. A large majority (84%) of individuals who identify with the Democratic party report positive beliefs about the economic impact of immigration, compared to a minority of those who identify with the Republican party (42%) (these figures are also from Pew). In addition to political affiliation, educational attainment appears to be a reliable predictor of belief content; more educated individuals consistently report more positive beliefs about the economic impact of immigration.

Thursday, 31 May 2018

Affect in Relation. Families, Places, Technologies

This book is edited by Birgitt Röttger-Rössler,  Professor of Social and Cultural Anthropology and Director of the Collaborative Research Centre 1171 “Affective Societies: Dynamics of social coexistence in mobile worlds”at Freie Universität Berlin and Jan Slaby, Professor of Philosophy at Freie Universität Berlin. This post is by Jan Slaby.

Affect epitomizes a dimension of meaning within human sociality that is not a matter of established discourse, of stable identities, institutions, cultural norms or categories, but rather something that is lived, from moment to moment, at a level of sensuous bodily reality beyond codification, consolidation or capture. Affect unfolds dynamically and relationally between actors, artifacts and within spatial arrangements of various sorts. It incessantly transgresses individual perspectives and frames of reference, including that of the autonomous subject of the liberalist tradition.

As Spinoza, Nietzsche, Bergson, Deleuze and other dissenters from the Western intellectual canon knew well, affect is a matter of dynamic connection and transmission prior to – yet formative of – understanding, discourse and practice. While it might be impossible to grasp its sensuous immediacy directly, proponents of affect studies aim to cultivate a sensitivity for fleeting moments, for stirrings of the nascent, for the not-yet formed, the pre-reflective, the spectral presences prior to reflection and articulation. Such a sensitivity often deviates from disciplinary canons and from the strictures of theory.

Scholars of affect are thus inclined to explore poetic and personal styles, align with the arts more than with academia, or experiment with unusual modes of articulation. Yet, their orientation has political bearings as well, as their work responds to the current conjuncture and is a continuation, under novel conditions, of earlier projects of cultural articulation and critique. Powerful approaches to affect within feminist and critical race theory crystallize the political potency and critical impact of the turn to affect.

Our aim in compiling Affect in Relation is to outline a conceptually coherent perspective on relational affect responding to many lines of inquiry and areas of application that have proven fruitful. Conserving the motivating insights and perspectival plurality of the more radical strands of the turn to affect, the volume yet works towards a conceptually and methodologically more elaborated framework. The main focus is on subject formation. Against the individualist gist of 20th century mentalism we emphasize relational dynamics unfolding in situated practices and social settings. Affect is what dynamically and energetically binds human actors into shared environmental – social, material and technological – constellations. These in turn shape modalities of agency, habit and self-understanding.

Affective relations thereby coalesce into subject positions, which get subsequently policed, nudged, governed – and further stabilized – within the practices of paramount institutions and social domains. Based on this, relational affect enables insights into cultural transformation, since nascent changes in institutional routines and styles of interaction register affectively before they get recognized and articulated in discourse. Relational affect is both formative of and transformative for human actors and for the practices, institutions and collectives they are involved in. While philosophy is not the main focus, the book’s perspective resonates with enactivism, with embodied and extended mind theory, with the ‘situated affectivity’ movement, and even more so with key strands of continental thought from Spinoza to Deleuze & Guattari and Foucault.

 The volume combines empirical case studies from social- and cultural anthropology, sociology, cultural geography, culture and media studies with theoretical contributions from these and related fields, including social philosophy. The contributors showcase the potentials of affect studies in exemplary domains, such as child-rearing and education settings, sites and practices of religious devotion, political street protests, contemporary workplaces in the knowledge and information sector, and several arrangements of networked media.

The 13 chapters are connected through a set of assumptions and working concepts that are explained in the detailed introduction, written by the editors to ease readers into the field. In four thematic sections – Families, Places, Work and Media – authors then present case studies and medium-range theoretical perspectives. Among contributors are esteemed affect experts Marie-Luise Angerer, Lisa Blackman and Melissa Gregg, acclaimed cultural anthropologists Hans-Jörg Dilger, Maruska Svasek, Joana Pfaff-Czarnecka and up and coming junior scholars Gilbert Caluya, Omar Kasmani and Rainer Mühlhoff.

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

The Hypnagogia Hypothesis: Religious Experience at the Threshold of Consciousness

Adam Powell is a junior research fellow in theology and religion at Durham University and a core member of the 'Hearing the Voice' project, an interdisciplinary investigation of voice-hearing (auditory verbal hallucinations) funded by the Wellcome Trust. He is the author of Irenaeus, Joseph Smith, and God-Making Heresy; Hans Mol and the Sociology of Religion and numerous essays on 19th-century religious experience.

Did you have a dream last night? How do you know? Was it vivid or dull? Was it real? Was it really a dream? If it was not a dream, what was it?

For those who experience hypnagogic (between waking and sleeping) or hypnopompic (between sleeping and waking) hallucinations, the sense perceptions they experience in the middle of the night seem quite real. They report vivid images, felt presences, diffuse light, out-of-body experiences, and extreme emotional states like euphoria or dread. What is more, studies of prevalence estimate that 39% to 85% of the general population has such an experience at least once.

As part of my research for Hearing the Voice, I have analysed 65 different primary accounts of religious experience from 19th-century America. In these accounts - spanning personal correspondence to private journal entries to published pamphlets - a pattern emerged. The authors frequently noted that their unusual experiences occurred whilst in bed at night, some explicitly claiming that they were preparing to sleep but were not yet fully asleep. One asserted that he was 'fully awake and yet [he] was not.' Others concluded that their experiences were not dreams but ‘open visions’, whilst another expressed concern the following day that perhaps it was only a 'dream of vision’ before ultimately concluding that it was a genuine 'vision'.

That last observation was made by Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism in the aftermath of a formative supernatural experiences in which an Angel visited him in his bedroom and disclosed the location of the ancient scriptures that would become The Book of Mormon. Later, an early convert named Oliver Cowdery described the same event to friend, claiming that ‘although it was in the night, yet it was not a dream.’ Furthermore, Cowdery asserted, ‘There is no room for conjecture in this matter, and to talk of deception would be to sport with the common sense of every man who knows when he is awake, when he sees and when he does not see.’ But what, in 1835 rural America, comprised ‘common sense’?

In a new essay published by The Lancet Psychiatry – Mind and Spirit: hypnagogia and religious experience – I draw on this historical research to suggest that the key to understanding such nineteenth-century religious experiences may, indeed, be to ‘sport with common sense’. The understandings of consciousness at the time relied on lingering philosophical questions about the mind and its limitations posed by early modern thinkers. Yet, relatively recent studies have explored liminal states of consciousness that challenge those earlier systems. Hypnagogia, a state of consciousness that is somewhere between wakefulness and sleep, and in which unique sensory phenomena occur, may be the solution both to the phenomena recounted by these historical texts as well as to the apparent difficulty with which the individuals classified their experiences.

Indeed, the figures who experienced such extraordinary events often described them as ‘dreams’ or ‘visions’, seemingly using these terms interchangeably. Historians have taken this for granted, but what if the confused use of the terms reflects confused cognitions, or confused efforts to squeeze the experiences into inadequate categories of consciousness? What if these religious figures, like Joseph Smith, were experiencing mental states between waking ‘visions’ or sleeping ‘dreams’? And, what if ‘common sense’, here, is a product of culturally legitimated and perpetuated philosophies of mind that affect the very occurrence, classification, and interpretation of our sense experiences? These individuals, too, were asking ‘if it was not a dream, what was it?’ Hypnagogia may be the answer.

Thursday, 24 May 2018

Consciousness and Fundamental Reality

This blog post is by Philip A. Goff.

I am currently Associate Professor of Philosophy at Central European University in Budapest, although from next year I will take up a post at the University of Durham. My main area of interest is the problem of consciousness, the challenge of understanding how consciousness fits into our scientific picture of the world. In fact, I think that the problem has been already been solved.

I believe that Bertrand Russell’s 1927 book The Analysis of Matter did for consciousness studies what Darwin’s Origin of the Species did for the life sciences. Tragically, Russell’s novel contribution to philosophy of mind was pretty much forgotten about for much of the twentieth century, although it has recently been rediscovered leading to the view that has become known as ‘Russellian monism’.

The starting point of Russellian monism is that physical science tells you a lot less than you think about the nature of matter. In the public mind, physical science is on its way to giving us a complete account of the nature of space, time and matter. However, it turns out upon reflection – at least according to Russellian monism – that physical science is confined to telling us about how matter is disposed to behave and is silent on the features of matter that underlie its behavioural dispositions, generally referred to as its ‘categorical properties’.

To put it simply, physics tells us what matter does not what it is. Physicalists have spent a great deal of time and energy trying to explain consciousness in terms of the dispositional properties of physical science. But according to Russellian monism, consciousness is to be explained in terms of the categorical properties of the brain. In this way, Russellian monists can explain the perennial failure of physical science to explain consciousness, without turning to the dualist view that consciousness is beyond the physical realm. The result is an elegant middle way between physicalism and dualism, which retains the attractions of each whilst avoiding their problems.

In my recently published book Consciousness and Fundamental Reality, I bring together and critically evaluate much of the wealth of recent literature that has been published on Russellian monism, before defending a distinctive form of the view. Russellian monism is more of a general framework than a completed theory, and it will take decades of interdisciplinary work to fill in the details.

To set things in motion, I have, since finishing my academic book, spent a lot of time trying to reach out to a broader audience: scientists as well as the general public. I have published a number of popular articles and encyclopedia pieces on the topic, and I am currently writing a book aimed at a general audience, Galileo’s Error: A Manifesto for a New Science of Consciousness, which will be published in August 2019 (Rider in UK, Pantheon in US).

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

On the Power Threat Meaning Framework

birthday cake

Five years ago I started this blog with a post by Kengo Miyazono... 
Happy birthday Imperfect Cognitions! 
I am very grateful to all the people who have worked hard during this time to keep the blog active and engaging: Ema Sullivan-Bissett, Kathy Puddifoot, Andrea Polonioli, Sophie Stammers, Magdalena Antrobus, Valeria Motta, and Anneli Jefferson. 
And special thanks to our regular contributors and assiduous readers.

To the next five years!
Lisa 💛


On the 5th birthday of the Imperfect Cognitions blog Michael Larkin (Aston University) considers some conceptual propositions of the Power Threat Meaning framework, arguing that the framework is both a step towards a more humanising concept of mental health problems, and a missed opportunity to be more inclusive. Enjoy this very rich and thought-provoking celebratory post!

Often we are disappointed because we want the thing presented to us to be the thing we hoped to receive, and not the thing that someone else wanted to give to us. 
The Power Threat Meaning framework (PTM) is a manifesto for thinking differently about mental health. It has been produced by a relatively large working group, co-ordinated by two lead authors (Lucy Johnstone and Mary Boyle). The framework is described in two documents (a ‘short’ and a ‘long’ version). Both of them are actually very long.

To me, they have the feel of being unfinished: there are contradictions and omissions; there are claims which seem overstated or inflammatory. At the same time, the document has some aims, sources and insights which speak very directly to some of my own thoughts and priorities about mental health. It involves some contributors whose work I admire very much. It is a conundrum.

I’ve spent a bit of time thinking about this conundrum, and more specifically, what we might want to notice about it from a conceptual point of view, because this is a blog which is concerned with conceptual things. To get to that conceptual material, we need to first notice some context.

Something which anyone following mental health on social media will have noticed is that the PTM has been very effective as a means of generating... activity. I’m not sure that it is quite clear what that activity should be called. 

If we were feeling generous, we might call it a debate: an exchange of views, certainly, but rarely in the spirit of progress towards some sort of accommodation of positions. There is a lot of talk. It seems like there is some constructive debate within this talk, but also a lot of entrenchment. There are 'sides', sadly, and the entrenchment is evident on both of them.

From a conceptual point of view, I think we should treat the PTM as a proposition, and that what should follow is a series of conversations about the validity of that proposition, and whether it can be supported. If it can, what are the implications? If not, how should it be revised? To edge us towards that point, it may be useful to consider some of the areas of disagreement around the PTM, and the questions and claims which are raised about it.

Who is speaking?

It’s a policy.   
It’s representing the British Psychological Society. 
It’s representing the way that psychologists will work in future.
It isn’t a policy of the BPS; the framework has been produced by a working group; the working group have received some funding from the BPS. This doesn’t make it an official policy. The BPS funds a range of projects and activities.

Some psychologists have been very positive about the PTM; some have not. Many more will be completely unaware of it. It is difficult to see how it will shape practice (see below) in its current iteration.
It represents survivors/service-users.
It excludes survivors/service-users.
It excludes some service-users.
The two lead authors are psychologists. Several experts-by-experience have contributed to the development of the framework. Many experts-by-experience have since come forward to say that they feel very positive about the framework; many others have come forward to say the opposite. There is a substantive conceptual problem in the PTM which underpins this division in one of its core audiences, so let’s consider that next. 

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Exploring Culture and Experience

A workshop, entitled “Exploring Culture and Experience: choosing methodologies in qualitative research”, took place at Aston University on the 26th of April 2018. This brief report is written by two of the organisers, William Day (graduate teaching assistant/PhD student in Psychology at Aston) and Tiago Moutela (research assistant/PhD student at Aston). Most of the talks were recorded, and are linked to at the end this write-up.

This workshop was organised by members of the interdisciplinary, interuniversity, group Phenomenology of Health and Relationships (PHaR). PHaR meets bi-monthly at Aston University to read, discuss and share insights into any work which brings a phenomenological focus to the study of health and illness. We are especially interested in understanding the relational context of health and illness, and what we might call a 'health relationship.' Together, some members of PHaR successfully submitted an application to a workshop fund ran by the Psychology Postgraduate Affairs Group (PsyPAG).

We had hoped that the rather ‘broad’ scope of the workshop’s focus would enable both the speakers and workshop attendees the freedom and space to talk about their own research, and research interests; whilst exploring the possibilities offered by new and ‘innovative’ ways of collecting and presenting data. Although rooted in psychology, we intended to continue the interdisciplinary ethos of PHaR. As such, delegates from a variety of backgrounds attended including optometry, philosophy and the local police force.

Opening the day, in a talk titled “foregrounding context in qualitative research”, Dr Michael Larkin (Aston University) drew upon a wealth of examples (his son’s spatial explorations of a car being the, perhaps, most memorable) to explain how and why context in qualitative research is the topic of interest rather than a ‘thing’ to be excluded and controlled for. Instead, we should think creatively about how to access the relationship between an individual and their world; how different types of data can bring the different aspects of these relationships to the foreground.

The second talk of the day was by Dr Sarah Seymour-Smith (Nottingham Trent University): “a synthetic discursive approach: research towards the co-production of a prostate cancer mobile application for African Caribbean men”. Speaking candidly about her experiences of data collection, Sarah explored the affect of her status as an ‘outsider’ within a community involved project. Of particular interest were issues experienced around dissemination, where participants actively wanted to be named and credited for their involvement in the project, and responses to perceived positioning (concerns that African Caribbean men were understood as being “homophobic”).

Before lunch we embraced some disciplinary clichés and handed out post-it notes. Attendees were encouraged to briefly write about methodological issues they would like to discuss, before sticking the post-it notes to adjacent walls and finding likeminded individuals. Despite some passing logistical mysteries, the exercise worked well as an ‘ice breaker’: described by one of the delegates as “an academic speed dating event”.