Thursday, 23 May 2019

Growing Autonomy (2)

This cross-disciplinary symposium on the nature and implications of human and artificial autonomy was organised by Anastasia Christakou and held at the Henley Business School at the University of Reading on 8th May 2019. You can find a report on the first part of the workshop here.

First talk in the second half of the workshop was by Daniel Dennett (Tufts) and Keith Frankish (Sheffield), exploring how we can build up to consciousness and autonomy. They endorsed an "engineering approach" to solving hard philosophical problems, such as the problem of consciousness, and asked: How can we get a drone to do interesting things? For instance, recognise things? We can start by supposing that it has sensors for recognising and responding to stimuli.

There will also be a hierarchy of feature detectors and a suite of controllers who will take multiple inputs and vary outputs depending on their combination and strength. When it comes to action selection and conflict resolution, there will be outputs competing to control the effectors. This process will need tuning up but how can it be adapted to different training environments? The drone is sent out and its performance reviewed.

The drone will have a manifest image of the world because it can recognise a variety of things, and it will also have reasons for the things it does. Some of these reasons will have been designed by the engineers and other reasons will have evolved. But the architecture will be fixed (e.g., drones won't be able to acquire new recognition skills). So we need to design and build drones that develop new controllers and detectors.

The Recogniser Drone becomes a Regulator Drone. The key is to add detector and controller generators and construct a response monitor. And the process continues: the Regulator becomes the Reporter and the complexity increases. The Reporter becomes The Ruminator and interprets its self-generated signals: by representing its manifest image, it becomes conscious of its manifest image, making those representations salient, triggering associations, and carry information about its own reactions.

Next speaker was... me (Lisa Bortolotti, University of Birmingham). I brought a bit of project PERFECT to the workshop, arguing that some beliefs that are epistemically rational may be supportive of agency. I used the literature on broad confabulation and unrealistic optimism as the principal case studies.

If we want to understand human agency and build artificial agency, then we need to recognise not only the strengths and distinctiveness of human agency but also its limitations. We would assume that epistemically irrational beliefs compromise agency. However, there are some irrational beliefs, those that contribute to a view of ourselves as competent, coherent, and efficacious agents, which are instrumental to our pursuing our goals in the face of setbacks and also enhance our chances of attaining our goals.

Optimistic beliefs and confabulated explanation in some contexts play this role. The implication is that when we aim at reducing or eliminating irrationality then we need to (1) be able to distinguish irrational beliefs that are helpful from those that are unhelpful (as we are trying to do at project PERFECT with the notion of epistemic innocence) and (2) think about what will play the positive role of supporting our agency when we replace the irrational beliefs that helpful with less irrational ones.

The last talk was by Murray Shanahan (Imperial College) and addressed the relationship between intelligence and consciousness in artificial intelligence. We tend to think of AI systems as having specialist intelligence as they have specific applications, but we aim to build AI systems that are generally intelligent.

Three obstacles to general intelligence in AI systems include:

  • Common Sense - how do we give AI systems an understanding of the everyday world, of people and things?
  • Abstract Concepts - how do we give them the ability to think abstractedly?
  • Creativity - how do we get them to be creative?

To do that, we need deep reinforcement learning, virtual environments, curricula and lifelong learning as applied to machines. Cognitive integration is the ideal to pursue: this is when the full resources of the brain are brought to bear on a situation. Another thing that is needed is imagination which makes mental time travel, creativity and language possible. Further, reflexive cognition is required to ensure introspection and awareness of one's own beliefs and feelings.

What we may not need for general intelligence are awareness of self and the capacity for suffering. Shanahan argues that if we can build generally intelligent AI systems without self-awareness and the capacity for suffering, we should do so, to avoid ethical complications. But can we build generally intelligent AI without selfhood? Shanahan explored several options to avoid creating AI systems with selfhood, including creating them without a body.

The workshop ended with a panel discussion with the audience. This was a very informative and genuinely cross-disciplinary event encompassing many topical issues in the philosophy of mind and artificial intelligence.

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Superstitious Confabulations

In this post, Anna IchinoPostdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Milan, working primarily in the philosophy of mind and philosophical psychology, continues our series of research posts on the special issue in Topoi, introducing her paper "Superstitious confabulations". 

Confabulation is a heterogenous phenomenon, which varies across a number of dimensions – including content, mode of elicitation, aetiology, and more. While acknowledging this heterogeneity, recent philosophical discussions have focussed mostly on some particular kinds of confabulation: notably, confabulations that are about the self, and externally elicited – classic examples being cases of memory distortions and of ‘choice blindness’. With a few exceptions, such discussions highlight the epistemic faults of these confabulations, especially in relation to self-knowledge.

In my paper, I draw the attention to a different sort of confabulations, which are typically about the world (as opposed to the self), and spontaneous (as opposed to externally elicited). I call them ‘superstitious confabulations’, since they originate in the domain of superstitious thinking and practices. I argue that these sorts of confabulations are peculiar in that they are often entertained in a non-doxastic way – with positive consequences for the assessment of their epistemic rationality; and that they can teach us important lessons on the epistemic and normative status of confabulations more in general.

I start by introducing superstitious thinking, broadly construed so as to include not only traditional superstitions like those concerning broken mirrors or black cats, but also a variety of more idiosyncratic superstitious ideas concerning such things as lucky charms, propitiatory rituals, telepathic connections, hidden conspiracies, etc. – that are shown to be pervasive both in clinical and non-clinical populations (see e.g. Risen 2016; Vyse 2014).

I argue that this sort of thinking, characterised by a tendency to exaggerate the world’s meaningfulness and coherence, shares many key features with paradigmatic confabulations – including ill-groundedness, motivational origins, gap-filling function, and lack of deceitful intentions.

Thursday, 16 May 2019

Growing Autonomy (1)

This cross-disciplinary symposium on the nature and implications of human and artificial autonomy was organised by Anastasia Christakou and held at the Henley Business School at the University of Reading on 8th May 2019.

Josh Bongard (University of Vermont) opened the workshop presenting his research in robotics, where he and his team challenge the Cartesian assumption that body and brain are separate by simulating first, and creating then robots that have body plans adapting to changes in morphology.

Bongard also addressed important questions about AI safety and AI ethics. Based on a recent publication on Machine Behaviour in Nature, he argued that we should treat machine behaviour in the same way as we treat animal behaviour, as something that evolves.

Next Emma Borg (University of Reading) presented a paper on understanding agency in other people and in ourselves. She started comparing two accounts of how we explain and predict the agency of others, behaviour-reading and mind-reading, and argued for the latter.

In the second part of the talk, Borg asked about the plausibility of mind-reading account when applied to the explanation and prediction of first-person agency. Reflectivism says that we know what we are doing next because we consciously deliberate about it but Borg mentioned three challenges to the reflectivist model.

Borg moved on to Agency Skepticism which says that we are never responsible for what we do and we never choose on the basis of reasons. For Borg, this view is too extreme even considering the evidence for motivated cognition and fallibilism. So she settled for an intermediate position between Reflectivism and Agency Skepticism.

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Mnemonic Confabulation

We’re continuing our series of posts on “Philosophical Perspectives on Confabulation” - our special issue in the journal Topoi this week. In today’s post, Sarah Robins, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Kansas, introduces her paper “Mnemonic Confabulation”.

The motivation for this paper was the following question: How are discussions of confabulation in the philosophy of memory related to discussions of confabulation in empirical and clinical work? At first pass, it’s easy to suppose that they’re closely related. After all, both focus on confabulatory remembering. For philosophers of memory, confabulation is one of many memory errors (alongside misremembering, forgetting, relearning, etc.) that needs to be distinguished from successful remembering. 

In clinical work, interest in confabulation began with Korsakoff (1885) and Wernicke’s (1906) observations of bizarre false memory reports in patients with amnesia and dementia. Despite the shared focus on memory, the two have always struck me as distinct and difficult to put in direct conversation with one another. 

And so, in this paper, I am trying to articulate the differences I see between mnemonic confabulation on the one hand and broad confabulation on the other. Ultimately, I conclude that—as an error—mnemonic confabulation has more in common with perceptual hallucination than with the confabulatory phenomena included in standard accounts of broad confabulation.

Thursday, 9 May 2019

When Philosophy Meets Psychoanalysis

Today's post is written by Richard Gipps and Michael Lacewing, editors of the new 'Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Psychoanalysis’

Richard Gipps is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Oxford, UK. He’s also a philosopher and an associate of the Philosophy Faculty of the University of Oxford. He has co-edited the Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Psychiatry (OUP 2015), and is currently writing a book on the intelligibility of psychotic thought. His blog can be found at

Michael Lacewing is a former Vice-Principal Academic and Reader in Philosophy at Heythrop College, London, an Honorary Reader in Research Department of Clinical, Educational and Health Psychology at University College, London, and a teacher of philosophy and theology at Christ's Hospital School, Sussex. He edited, with Louise Braddock, The Academic Face of Psychoanalysis (Routledge 2007), and has published widely in philosophy of psychoanalysis, metaethics and moral psychology, alongside writing textbooks for A level philosophy and training in Philosophy for Children (P4C).

When we philosophers consider failures of reason, we’re apt to think in particular of failures or distortions of deductive or inductive inference. The imperfect cognitions which interest psychoanalysts, however, more often have to do with disturbances in making lively contact and staying in touch with internal (emotional) or external (interpersonal) reality. 

Someone labouring under defence mechanisms against intolerable emotion inadequately acknowledges the fact, character and significance of her inner experience. The meaning of a bereavement, the hurtfulness of a slight or thoughtless comment, the natural worry provoked by opening herself to the possibility of romantic rejection, the fact of her anger at being taken for granted - when connected to unbearable emotion, these are repressed and her requisite conscious emotions and adaptations not given a chance to develop. In their place are found such symptoms as at first glance may appear meaningless. Black holes form in the fabric of her psyche: her emotional experience becomes absent, muted, disguised, displaced and undeveloped. Her emotions, that is, remain or become unconscious.

The 8 sections of The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Psychoanalysis collate 34 philosophical essays exploring the history character of and responses to psychoanalytic thought both inside and outside the clinic. As such they provide by far the largest single resource of philosophical work on psychoanalysis, and we hope the book will serve as the essential reference work both for philosophers looking to think philosophically about psychoanalytic theory and practice, and for psychoanalysts, psychotherapists and psychologists looking to develop a reflective and critical perspective on the theoretical foundations of psychoanalysis. 

Questions discussed within the book include: What is it to labour under a mechanism of defence? What is psychoanalytic symbolism and what is wish-fulfilment? What is it for a mental state to be unconscious, and for it to become conscious? What kind of self-knowledge is therapeutic? How did pre-Freudian philosophers anticipate psychoanalytic ideas? What did central 20th century philosophers such as Merleau-Ponty, Ricoeur, Wittgenstein and those of the Frankfurt School make of psychoanalytic theory? In what ways may psychoanalysis be considered a successful or unsuccessful science? When is it better considered an art or an intrinsically philosophical enterprise? How can it have a fruitful dialogue with psychology and neuroscience? And what are the helpful, and what are the less promising, ways in which psychoanalytic theory may be brought to bear upon matters political, sociological, educational, religious, aesthetic and ethical?

Tuesday, 7 May 2019

An Excess of Meaning

Today’s post is by Joshua Bergamin, philosopher and performance artist based in Edinburgh, Scotland, who continues our series on our Topoi special issue on confabulation with a summary of his paper “An Excess of Meaning: Conceptual Over-Interpretation in Confabulation and Schizophrenia”.

Most of my academic work centres on the effects of language and conceptual capacities on human consciousness, particularly on what I suspect is the role of language in creating and maintaining a sense of (egoistic) self.

This was the subject of my doctoral thesis, in which I touched upon confabulation, since it presents an interesting tension between our feeling of being a unitary agent, and the underlying motivations of our actions, however they might be described.

Thus, although much of the literature on confabulation is concerned with the fascinating -- and often bizarre -- pathological cases that arise through brain injury, my interest has leaned more towards the kinds of everyday confabulation of which we are all guilty, to some degree.

When I saw the call for papers for this special issue of Topoi, my first thoughts were to explore this connection of confabulation to our spontaneous attempts to make sense of the world. The inspiration for this came from experiments with 'cut-up ' art, of the style practised by Brion Gysin and William Burroughs. Here, the artist or author splices together various pieces of art or text-- their own, or that of others-- in order to create a new text. 

The interesting result, from a philosophical point of view--is that the new text, despite having no reference to the world, makes a kind of sense; the reader/viewer experiences images and ideas that do not come directly from the author. We might say that the mind imposes a narrative onto the stimuli, primed as it is to make sense--any sense--of what's before it.

Thursday, 2 May 2019

Delusions and Beliefs

Today's post is by Kengo Miyazono, Hiroshima University, who talks about his latest book, Delusions and Beliefs (Routledge 2018).

This book addresses the following theoretical questions about delusions:

(1) The Nature Question: What is a delusion? In particular, what kind of mental state is it? The standard view in psychiatry is that delusions are beliefs. But, is this view (‘doxasticism about delusion’) really true? Delusions have a number of peculiar features that are not belief-like, such as the remarkable insensitivity to evidence. Are these peculiar features consistent with the doxastic conception of delusions?

(2) The Pathology Question: Delusions are pathological mental states. Delusions, together with other symptoms, warrant clinical diagnoses and treatments. Why are delusions pathological? What distinguishes pathological delusions from non-pathological irrational beliefs? Are delusions pathological because they are too irrational? Or, are they pathological because they are too strange?

(3) The Etiology Question: What is the cause of a delusion? How is it formed? It is widely believed that delusions (at least many of them) are formed in response to some abnormal experience. But does abnormal experience explain everything about the process of delusion formation? Is abnormal experience sufficient for someone to form a delusion? If not, what are the additional factors?