Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Into the Abyss

This post is by Anthony S. David, Director of the Institute of Mental Health at University College London. Here he talks about his new book, Into the Abyss: a neuropsychiatrist’s notes on troubled minds (Oneworld Publications, 2020).

When I submitted a title for my first non-academic book I did so with some trepidation. Apart from sounding somewhat negative, wouldn’t people think it was something about mountaineering, a cautionary tale perhaps? As I explained to my concerned editor, the intended readership like those of this blog would be, “interested in themes at the intersection of philosophy, psychology, and psychiatry” and would instantly pick up the reference to Jaspers, the early 20th Century philosopher-psychiatrist. Somehow he wasn’t reassured. 

But the abyss metaphor is a powerful descriptor of the challenge of understanding the experience of the person who is mentally ill – to reach out across the abyss into what Jaspers called ‘an impenetrable country’, the mind of the disordered – especially where the disorder is in some sense extreme or severe, as in psychosis. Anyone of those interested in the 3 Ps mentioned above, and especially if they have a therapeutic role, will see this as the essence of our job description.

That job description, to put it grandly, to understand the human condition especially in extremis is always of course a challenge and perhaps an impossible one, yet one many of us find hard to resist. So whether it is a person suffering from nihilistic delusions following a brain injury, or someone with an unusual eating disorder, or, a functional neurological disorder so extreme that it renders the person comatose, there has to be, or so we believe, a way of comprehending and even explaining. And maybe, every so often, we may find jointly, a pathway, a bridge, reconnecting their world with ours. 

In writing these extended case histories it is clear that finding a narrative is not just novelist’s work as German psychiatrist Kurt Schneider once put it, but something mental health professionals and indeed every one of us tries to do to make sense of our lives – particularly when faced with adversity or loss. It cannot be a mere fiction, a gloss or a re-writing of history but there is a creative element which fills in gaps and which provides at least a framework for understanding what would otherwise be, in Jaspers words, un-understandable.

Anthony David

One of the most notorious counteractions to Jaspers’ un-understandability of psychosis claim came from R.D. Laing who in The Divided Self (1960/2010; Modern Classics. Penguin Books, London) sought to make psychosis ‘more socially intelligible’ than had hitherto be thought possible by delving into individuals’ ‘existential phenomenology’ and their family interactions. He did so with great sensitivity and skill but not always in ways which were transparent and replicable. It is the bio-psycho-social approach which is now our all-purpose methodology and explanatory model.

The model proposed in the 1970s by George Engel, a psychologically minded US physician, has come under fire from all sides as being, both too obvious (like motherhood and apple pie), and too vague and indefinable. Thankfully, we now have Derek Bolton and Grant Gillett’s exposition (The Biopsychosocial Model of Health and Disease: New Philosophical and Scientific Developments. Palgrave, 2019) and intellectual underpinning of the model to help us bolster our adherence to it. 

In some ways what I was trying to achieve in Into the Abyss was an illustration of the subtle power of the biopsychosocial approach. How all the constitutive elements must be considered in any presentation but each has to be weighted differently as appropriate. We can only do this by attempting an empathic understanding, by working collaboratively with the person in distress in front of us; by examining our own assumptions and being receptive to what’s going on in our brains, our minds and our society. When we do this we find that the abyss closes before our very eyes and that we are all part of the same world after all.

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

The Power of Stories

Today's post is by Lisa Bortolotti (Birmingham) who is summarising the main argument in a recent paper co-authored with Anneli Jefferson (Cardiff) on the power of stories in debates about mental health, published in Diametros open access.

Autobiographical stories do not merely offer insights into a person's experience but can be used as evidence for a controversial claim within a public debate. Although the function of stories is not typically to persuade your audience that something is the case, some engaging stories are likely to exercise a powerful influence on readers' thought and behaviour. One reason for their influence is that stories are vivid and concrete, more accessible than other forms of evidence which might require expertise or training to be fully understood or evaluated.

Our main message in the paper is that, if stories are used as evidence and are influential in changing hearts and minds, then we should treat stories as we treat other forms of evidence, acknowledging that stories can be good or bad evidence for the claim they allegedly support. Moreover, there will be epistemic and moral duties that will apply to the use of those stories in public debates. In our view, this is particularly important when stories are told to reaffirm or reconstruct people's identities, as in some mental health debates. 

In the paper we refer to examples from two very lively debates, one on the nature of distress ("Should it be medicalised or should we see it as an effect of trauma?") and one on the nature of autism ("Is it an instance of neurodiversity or a disability?"). Referring to recent stories (brief articles in newspapers, blog posts, or book-length memoirs) where authors reported their own experiences and reflected on them, we showed how stories were then presented as reasons to reject a certain model of distress or a certain conception of autism. They became part of an argument.

In the end, we argue that when we participate in a debate, in the pub, in the classroom, or on social media, we have a responsibility to assess a story as evidence when the story is used to support a given viewpoint. That does not entail silencing courageous people who offer valuable first-person accounts, but requires that we as 'consumers' of the story develop our own critical distance from it. We also make some preliminary suggestions about what can be done to ensure that the use of stories contributes to the variety of the resources available in a debate without compromising the quality of the argumentation or increasing polarisation.

Saturday, 21 March 2020

Great Minds Don't Think Alike

This post is the second in a series of posts featuring presentations that could not be delivered at Philosophy conferences due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Today Nick Byrd, PhD Candidate at Florida State University, summarises his paper, "Great Minds Do Not Think Alike: Individual Differences In Philosophers’ Trait Reflection, Education, & Philosophical Beliefs".

Many philosophers accept that relying on unreflective intuition is standard fare in philosophy (e.g., Chalmers, 2014; De Cruz, 2014; Kornblith, 1998; Mallon, 2016). Many philosophers also consider reflection to be crucial for philosophical inquiry (e.g., Goodman, 1983; Hursthouse, 1999; Korsgaard, 1996; Rawls, 1971; Sosa 1991). Fortunately, cognitive scientists have developed measures of peoples’ reliable on unreflective and reflective reasoning (e.g., Evans, Barston, and Pollard, 1983; Frederick, 2005; Sirota, et al., 2018).

In fact, among laypeople, individual differences in reflection often predicts differences in their philosophical judgment. For instance, more reflective people are often more likely to be atheists (Pennycook et al., 2016) and social conservatives (Deppe et al., 2015). However, some of those correlations could be explained by other factors such as numeracy (Byrd & Conway, 2019), training in philosophy (Livengood et al., 2010), culture (e.g., Gervais et al., 2018), and personality (e.g., Alper & Yilmaz, 2019). As I learned about this literature, I began asking some empirical questions.

  1. Will individual differences in philosophers’ reliance on reflection predict their beliefs about classic philosophical questions (i.e., the PhilPapers survey)? 
  2. If so, will the direction of these correlations match what we find among laypeople? 
  3. Will the correlations be detected when controlling for culture, numeracy, personality, etc.?
  4. Will the findings replicate in a larger, pre-registered study?

Two large studies (N > 1000), one pre-registered, investigate these questions. The result? Many correlations between reflection and philosophical beliefs among non-philosophers replicated among philosophers (Table 8). For example, less reflective philosophers preferred theism to atheism and the so-called deontological responses to the so-called utilitarian response on the trolley problem (Pennycook et al., 2016; Reynolds, Byrd, & Conway, under review).

Nonetheless, philosophical judgments were sometimes better predicted by factors like education, gender, and personality than by reflection. Also, the remaining relationships between reflection and philosophical views were partially mediated by having a Ph.D. in philosophy or by preferences for actively open-minded thinking (Baron, 2018). So although some relationships between reflection and philosophy remain robust among philosophers, there is more to the link between reflection and philosophical belief.

Consider a normative question about these data. Are the philosophical views that correlate with reflection betterviews (ceteris paribus)? Some dual process theorists employ this inference (e.g., Baron, 1994; Greene, 2013). However, I argue that the inference faces empirical and philosophical obstacles that have yet to be surmounted.

Now consider two reasons why a few of the present findings deviated from past findings. First, the PhilPapers survey is mostly a measure of agreement with general philosophical views or principles. It is not a measure of intuitions about particular thought experiments. Those familiar with conversational implicature research will be unsurprised that psychological factors can predict different responses to each measure (Cullen, 2010).

Second, academic philosophers are different than laypeople (Livengood et al., 2010). Whether this caused by philosophical education, academia’s selection mechanisms, or some combination of factors is not yet understood. Nonetheless, it is unsurprising that the present findings could vary by population.

Tuesday, 17 March 2020

A Manifesto for Mental Health

Today's post is by Peter Kinderman, Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Liverpool, who presents his recent book, A Manifesto for Mental Health  (Palgrave 2019).

Nobody really believes that our mental health system is fit for purpose, but too many people persist in reinforcing that failed system. It is no longer good enough to call for better funding; we need genuinely radical change.

My new book presents a new and distinctive perspective. One that challenges traditional approaches and vested interests of professionals, but one with surprisingly well-placed support.

I argue that we need to change our ideas about what mental health actually is.

Before setting out practically how our mental health system should change, A Manifesto for Mental Health critically examines the dominant ‘disease-model’ of mental health care. Using research into both biological neuroscience and the social determinants of psychological problems, the book offers a contemporary, genuinely biopsychosocial, alternative to the idea that our psychological distress is best thought of as symptoms of illnesses, and treated as such. The way we care for people with mental health problems at present is not only unscientific and ineffective, it is creating a hidden human rights emergency. We need a new approach.

It is clear that our mental health and wellbeing depend largely on the society in which we live, on the things happen to us, and on how we learn to make sense of and respond to those events. To move forwards, we need to recognise that distress is usually an understandable human response to life's challenges, especially experiences of abuse, neglect and inequity, and offer practical help rather than medication. We could start by rejecting invalid diagnostic labels, and instead pay attention to the circumstances of our lives (something understood by public health physicians) and record the emotional consequences in simple, straightforward, non-medical language.

Our mental health cannot simply be reduced to genetic vulnerability, and distress merely passed off as the symptom of an illness – it depends heavily on the society in which we live, on the major life events we face, and the ways in which we interpret and face them. It’s about collectively creating a more humane society and establishing healthier communities. It’s about recognising the human and psychological cost of failed societies, ensuring that people get the practical and emotional support they need... and it’s about reminding ourselves that social problems ultimately require social solutions.

Offering a serious critique of establishment thinking, A Manifesto for Mental Health explains how, with scientific rigour and empathy, a revolution in mental health care is not only highly desirable, it is also entirely achievable.

Saturday, 14 March 2020

Listening in Public: the Discourse Ecology Model

This post is the first in a series of posts featuring presentations that could not be delivered at Philosophy conferences due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Today Susan Notess, PhD Candidate at Durham University, tells us about the Discourse Ecology Model.

Susan Notess

In a healthy democracy all voices should have participation in public discourse. This does not happen if one part of the population does not listen to another part—for example, if white people do not listen to people of colour in a given democratic society. We can try to address this kind of problem with political solutions, such as targeted town hall meetings and encouraging voter turnout. We can also approach it as a problem of epistemic injustice, highlighting the need to resist prejudices and avoid silencing of vulnerable voices. I argue that while both these approaches are needed, we still have a problem if the listening habits of the society as a whole do not change.

What we need is a clear understanding of the interplay between individual habits and the habits of society, both of which contribute to and constrain each other. I propose a Discourse Ecology Model as a way to understand this dynamic and to explore how it might be possible for social habits of listening to change. For this model to work, it needs to be able to show us two things: how ‘private’ attitudes which structure individual listening behaviour can come to differ from the balance of public attitudes, and how those individual differences can put pressure on the public balance.

The controlling concept here is that of an ecosystem, the constituents of which both create and are constrained by the balance of the whole. The link to discursive systems is drawn from empirical work in historical linguistics which examines when, why, and how new usages become institutionalised across social networks and alter the norms of the system: new words get invented, old words change meaning. Dewey’s philosophy of habit change provides the substantive philosophical basis for joining these two notions—ecology and language change—as a coherent model for how individual and public discourse habits can change, and change each other.

What the Discourse Ecology Model offers us is a way to think critically about the individual’s pursuit of virtue in the face of civic vice. Can the individual become a more just listener if society is unjust, or does the stability of public listening habits constrain the individual’s development of virtues? If the latter, then how can anything change?

On my view, citizens’ pursuits of virtue in the face of civic vice are not meaningless. This claim is based in part on a wilful assumption, and in greater part on the Model of both social and individual habits as dynamic and mutually stabilizing. As with ecosystems, changes in individual habits can spread and, at least in principle, lead to changes in the habits of society. The spread of such habits is not predictable nor can it be engineered, for reasons that the historical linguistics literature makes clear. Nevertheless, the individual pursuit of virtuous social listening habits remains worthwhile, both for its own sake and for the sake of its potential to contribute to the institutionalisation of new listening habits across society.

Tuesday, 10 March 2020

Problems of Religious Luck

Today's post is by Guy Axtell, professor of philosophy at Radford University, who writes about his new book on religious luck. If, after reading the post, you want to know more, you can listen to the author’s recent podcast interview with Robert Talisse for the New Books in Philosophy.

Problems of Religious Luck: Assessing the Limits of Reasonable Religious Disagreement (Lexington Books, 2019) applies philosophy of luck and risk in critiquing religious fundamentalism, and in particular, the tendency towards ‘normalizing’ polarized and polemical religious apologetics. It may seem like quite a departure from the usual association of inductive risk with policy decisions regarding science and technology, but Axtell finds the concept of inductive risk portable, and indeed useful for discussion of ‘risky’ belief or acceptance more generally. Epistemic luck and risk are developed as closely connected concepts. 

The book sketches an account of well and ill-founded nurtured belief based upon doxastic strategies involve low to high degrees of inductive risk: the moral and epistemic risk of ‘getting it wrong’ in an inductive context of inquiry. Philosophy of luck and risk are presented in this book as aiding our understanding of what is going on, at least logically and psychologically, when persons, theologies, or purported revelations ascribe various kinds of religiously relevant traits to insiders and outsiders of a faith tradition in sharply asymmetric fashion. 

Our inductive risk account shows as epistemically significant not just the diversity of beliefs in a domain, but contrariety of those beliefs. inductive risk account argues for the claim that the epistemic status of belief is challenged not just by symmetrical contrariety, but more especially by polarized and polemical contrariety. The connections between “religious luck” and “inductive epistemic risk,” this book argues, allow researchers to cross disciplinary boundaries in new ways.

The book applies anti-risk epistemology by trying to show how the ascending degrees of inductive risk in an agent’s doxastic strategy contribute to a philosophical account of how to distinguish between benign luck and the malign modal luck. It develops an inductive risk-based account of what it means to motivate serious etiological challenges, and to support them empirically through markers of bias. The ethics of belief is also addressed in the book from a focus on responsible risk management.

Doxastic responsibility is understood in terms of the degree of riskiness of agents’ doxastic strategies, which is in turn most objectively measured through accordance or violation of inductive norms. Doxastic responsibility is attributable to agents on the basis of how epistemically risky was the process or strategies of inquiry salient in the etiology of their belief or in their maintenance of a belief already held. Highly fideistic conceptions of faith are some of the most problematic, and markers of inductive risk are developed to help provide a scale for distinguishing strong from moderate religious fideism. Some of the key concepts discussed include:

  • Inductive risk: the risk of ‘getting it wrong’ in an inductive context of inquiry.
  • Inductive context of inquiry: Any context of inquiry dependent upon reasoning by analogy, generalization or applied generalization, or cause-and-effect.
  • Counter-inductive thinking: Counter-induction is a strategy that whether self-consciously or not reverses the normal logic of induction. As such it should be distinguished from merely weak inductive reasoning and seen instead as thinking or belief uptake that carry especially high inductive risk.

Tuesday, 3 March 2020

Do Non-human Animals Have Episodic Memory?

Today's post is by Ali Boyle. Ali is a research associate in Kinds of Intelligence at the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence in Cambridge and the Center for Science and Thought in Bonn. Her research focusses on non-human minds and the methods used to study them. In this post, she is going to summarise her recent paper, The impure phenomenology of episodic memory, appeared in Mind & Language.

One question under investigation in comparative psychology is whether nonhuman animals have episodic memory – the kind of memory involved in recollecting past experiences. A problem for this research is that on many accounts, the defining feature of episodic memory is that it involves an experience of ‘mentally reliving’ past events. But if that’s right, then asking whether animals have episodic memory amounts to asking whether they have this distinctive experience. Many researchers think this renders the question unanswerable, since we have no experimental way of getting at animals’ experiences.

This puzzle motivates my paper. In it, I argue that even if we characterise episodic memory in terms of a distinctive experience of ‘mentally reliving’, or recollection, it remains an answerable empirical question whether animals have it. That’s because although episodic recollection is phenomenological, it’s not purely phenomenological. Although it is an experience, its experiential features are tied up with other functional and representational features – and those features are experimentally tractable.

For instance, recollection involves an experience of mental imagery. But mental imagery is not just experiential; it’s representational. When we have (visual) mental imagery, we have a representation with a certain content – some perceptible features, spatially arranged. Recollection is also often said to have a felt quality of ‘pastness’. But this feeling of pastness is not idle: it’s said to ground, or perhaps bottom out in, a judgment that what’s being represented is a past event. And so on.

These representational and functional features give us an empirical foothold for detecting episodic memory. We’d have grounds for thinking that ‘mental reliving’ was going on if we could detect its characteristic functional & representational footprint in nonhuman memory. In the paper, I sketch the kind of behavioural test one might use to detect this footprint. 

Of course, someone might object that a positive result in this kind of test wouldn’t guarantee that the subject was episodically remembering. That’s true! But, I argue, it’s not concerning. The most concerning alternative explanation of such results would be one that appealed to extant forms of memory – like ‘semantic memory’, the store of general knowledge. But other extant forms of memory don’t share episodic memory’s functional footprint, so they’d fit poorly with this sort of evidence. 

A better fitting alternative explanation would be that animals have ‘zombie memory’ – a form of memory with episodic memory’s functional footprint, but without its experiential qualities. This possibility is less troubling, though – because whilst zombie memory might be metaphysically possible, we have no reason to think that it actually exists. It is not the job of a scientific experiment to rule out merely metaphysical possibilities, but to discriminate between plausible, empirically motivated theories.

The paper is about episodic memory, but has a broader message. The puzzle about episodic memory rests on the thought that behavioural tests can’t tell us about nonhuman experience – a thought that casts doubt not just on the detectability of episodic memory, but of any experiential capacity. My response, similarly, generalises: behavioural tests may be unable to rule out that animals are zombies, but can nevertheless provide evidence about what nonhuman experience is like.

Tuesday, 25 February 2020

Resistance to Belief Change: Limits of Learning

Today's post is by Joseph Lao (Columbia University and CUNY) and Jason Young (CUNY) who introduce their new book, Resistance to Belief Change (Routledge 2019).

The general perspective of our book may best be described as doxastic psychology. We share with the doxastic philosophers and Jean Piaget’s genetic epistemology an interest in the genesis and transformation of our beliefs. We differ from both however, in our particular focus on issues of embeddedness and entrenchment, and in our careful examination of a broad range of psychological factors, including emotional, cognitive, social, and physical factors, that cause us to resist changing our beliefs and impede our achievement of epistemic sainthood.

We avoid the assumption that resistance to belief change in response to evidence that contradicts our beliefs is necessarily irrational. We note several examples of how such resistance may be “illogical” yet rational, such as when we lack a superior alternative to our existing beliefs, or when a false belief accrues positive consequences. An example of the latter occurs when one spouse convinces the other that he cannot cook and thereby gains freedom from the responsibility of cooking.

We construe our tendency to resist belief change as a general tendency that is manifested in many specific ways, across a broad array of human domains. We identify many, often unintentional, and even unconscious, “mechanisms” by which we preserve our beliefs intact. For example, we are biased to search for evidence that supports beliefs we wish to be true rather than evidence that contradicts our cherished beliefs. There is ample evidence to support the view that it is easier for us to form beliefs than to discard them, that is, the latter literally requires more cognitive effort.

In addition, the phenomenon known as “inattentional blindness” is mediated by our parietal lobe and may literally blind us to evidence that contradicts some of our beliefs. Socially, we associate with other people partly on the basis of shared beliefs. In some cases, the costs of discarding a shared social belief may include being ostracized by an important part of our social support network (such as our church or political party). But we are a social species, for which such ostracism may be at least unpleasant, and possibly fatal. Finally, we note that our beliefs are mediated by still poorly understood neural structures. Once a neural structure constituting a belief has been formed, it becomes more and more firmly embedded as it gets used and reused, thereby offering more and more physical resistance to change. 

Joseph Lao
In spite of our natural tendency to resist change, we do of course change. Change is the way we grow, and we definitely do grow. Therefore, in the last two chapters of our book we offer ideas for overcoming resistance, either as self-directed learners or as “teachers.” Drawing on psychological research, philosophy and the philosophy of science, we suggest that establishing clear, reasonable, epistemic standards, committing to an open mind, and epistemic integrity are effective ways to overcome resistance in ourselves, while having learners collaborate in social problem solving are effective ways to help others overcome resistance.

Tuesday, 18 February 2020

Persuasion and Self Persuasion

This post is by Joël van der Weele and Peter Schwardmann.

Joël (picture above) is an associate professor at the Center for Research in Experimental Economics and political Decision making (CREED) at the University of Amsterdam, and a fellow at the Tinbergen Institute and the Amsterdam Brain and Cognition center. His research is takes place on the intersection between economics and psychology, using the tools of experimental economics and game theory. Topics include motivated cognition in economic decisions, the interaction of laws and social norms and the measurement of beliefs.

Peter (picture above) is a behavioural economist at LMU Munich. He works on belief formation and the consequences of belief biases in markets.

As readers of this blog will probably know, belief formation does not always reflect a search for truth. According to an “interactionist view” of cognition, the production of arguments and the persuasion of others leads beliefs to become conveniently aligned with the position one represents. Two theories underpinning this view have received quite some attention, following back-to-back exposés in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences in 2011.

In the first, Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber argue that the way we reason is shaped by our desire to come up with arguments to persuade other people. A by-product of persuasion is that we end up persuading ourselves. In the second, evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers and psychologist Bill von Hippel expand on Trivers’ theory that we have evolved the capacity to self-deceive in order to better deceive others.

While philosophers and social scientists have debated these theories at length, their value will ultimately be determined by empirical tests. Conducting such tests is the aim of two of our recent papers. In the first, published in 2019 in Nature Human Behavior, we investigated whether Von Hippel and Trivers’ self-deception theory can explain the emergence of overconfidence, a ubiquitous cognitive bias. In the experiment, subjects performed an intelligence test. Later on, subjects could earn additional money by convincing independent evaluators of their superior performance.

To investigate self-deception, we compared the beliefs of two groups of subjects. One group was told beforehand about the upcoming opportunity for persuasion, while the other group (control) was not. This difference should not affect how subjects viewed their past performance, unless self-confidence is driven by the wish to persuade others. To measure “true” beliefs, we let subjects bet on their own performance on an intellectual test, thereby putting money at stake for reporting their accurate beliefs.

We found that being informed of the opportunity to make money from persuading others increases subjects’ confidence. Furthermore, we find causal evidence that confidence about performance, which we manipulated during the experiment, helps people to be more persuasive through both verbal and non-verbal channels. In the meantime, other papers (see here and here) show results going in the same direction.

In a novel preprint, we, together with our co-author Egon Tripodi, investigate Mercier and Sperber’s argument that our beliefs are driven by the need to argue. We do so in a field experiment at international debating competitions, where the persuasion motive is of central importance. During the competition, debating teams are randomly assigned to debate pro and contra positions. This allows us to identify the effect of having to argue for a position, and eliminates self-selection into positions - an issue in many datasets. In a large number of surveys, we elicit debaters’ opinions and attitudes, again putting money at stake to incentivize true reporting.

We find that having to defend a (randomly assigned!) position causes people to “self-persuade” along several dimensions: a) beliefs about factual statements become more conveniently aligned with the debater’s side of the motion, b) attitudes shift as well, reflected in an increased willingness to donate to goal-aligned charities, and c) both sides are overconfident in the strength of their position in the debate. We measure this self-persuasion right before the debate starts, but the subsequent exchange of arguments does not lead to significant convergence in beliefs and attitudes.

While more research is necessary to confirm these results, they show that the desire to argue and persuade is indeed an important driver of overconfidence and opinion formation. More generally, they support a view of cognition that assigns a central role to human interaction and the wish to persuade others.

Tuesday, 11 February 2020

Life, Death and Meaning

On 9th September 2019, Yujin Nagasawa organised and hosted a workshop on Life, Death and Meaning – Eastern and Western Perspectives in the Muirhead Tower at the University of Birmingham, in collaboration with researchers at the University of Tokyo and Waseda University.

Muirhead Tower

The first speaker, Norichika Horie (University of Tokyo), presented on Spirituality and Meaning of Life and addressed several themes in our philosophical understanding of meaning. He started from the meaning of meaning. In Chinese and Japanese “imi” (meaning) is about externalising and verbalising something internal and has important links with intention. “Imi” is an emotion that stays in the mouth and doesn’t turn into words, it is affective and preverbal. But is meaning something to be explored or something to be produced?

Norichika Horie

According to Norichika Horie, the relationship between life and death is crucial to what we think about meaning. The story of life ends with death: it stops changing and becomes meaningful as a whole (a bit like a book that needs to be deciphered). The role of trauma is also important to meaning in life. What is the meaning of evil? In some traditions (Buddhism), suffering can be avoided by detaching from the world and reaching Nirvana, a type of death. In other traditions (Christianity), suffering is a source of meaning and growth. In concentration camps, those who did not lose sight of their future goals did not lose the will to live. This suggests that meaning lies in the sense that we feel responsible for our future, not just our past. Death and trauma are opportunities to renew the meaning of life.

Yujin Nagasawa

Next speaker was Yujin Nagasawa (University of Birmingham), talking about Existential Optimism and Evil. He introduced the problem of evil in philosophy of religion—if God is all-powerful and good, why is there evil in the world? One answer is that evil is allowed to enable us to be free to choose: when we choose badly, evil is caused. So, evil is the price to pay for freedom. Another answer is that we do not know so many things about the world and it may be that God has good reasons to allow what seems to us to be evil to happen. Other solutions have been proposed too.

The problem of systemic evil is about the existence of pain and suffering in nature. Darwin thought that there seemed to be too much misery in the world. Nature is like a small cage where many animals are placed together and they desperately fight for the limited resources. Dawkins also described natural selection as a very unpleasant process, saying that he does not want to live in a kind of world where natural selection operates.

In theism, existential optimism is about thanking God for our existence, which is an undeserved personal favour. Atheists like Benatar argue that existing is always painful and it would always be better not to exist. Other atheists are optimists: they mention gratitude to be alive and a sense of wonder. That is why there can be a problem of evil for atheists too: why do we think that the world is good if nature is full of pain and suffering? How can we say that we are happy to be alive if horrible events led to our coming into existence? This version of the problem is more systemic, and cannot be explained by reference to freedom. Also, it concerns not just our existence, but the existence of the world and the existence of other animals.

Can we be happy about our existence while wishing that natural selection did not happen? The world we would like to live in would be too different from the world we live in, because if natural selection did not apply, then laws of nature would not apply either. For atheists the problem is unsurmountable because they identify the world with the material universe. But theists can say that there is something beyond nature that is positive and makes the world overall more positive than negative.

Tuesday, 4 February 2020

Ignorant Cognition

Today's post is by Selene Arfini, post doctoral researcher in the Computational Philosophy Laboratory at the Department of Humanities, Philosophy Section at the University of Pavia. She presents her recently published book, Ignorant Cognition: A Philosophical Investigation of the Cognitive Features of Not-Knowing (Springer 2019).

Ignorance, considered without further specifications, is a broad and strange concept. In a way, it is easy to analyze ignorance as something that does not really affect the agent's knowledge: we know A and we are ignorant of B, but the two things are not necessarily related. In another way, we need to face phenomena as misinformation, a highly recognizable form of ignorance that cannot be represented as unaffecting the knowledge of the agent since it has an impact on her/his belief system and understanding.

On the one hand, we instinctively frown upon ignorance if we believe it is purposefully cultivated. On the other hand, we know that we are bound to be ignorant of something: since we cannot know everything, we must rely on others for the expertise we are not able to get in our finite time. Ignorance traditionally bears a negative mark that makes us associate it with fake news, misinformation, and irrational beliefs. At the same time, it can also be associated with an investigative mindset: doubting, researching, and guessing are all ways to acknowledge and take advantage of one's ignorance.

To study ignorance, thus, one needs to choose either one of two strategies: to focus on one aspect or definition, or to approach ignorance as a broad concept, acknowledging its clashing traits and its wide theoretical range. The book Ignorant Cognition aims at following the second solution and at comprehending the fundamental characteristics of ignorance as a cognitively rich term. Indeed, by defying the need for one-line definitions (that necessarily exclude some facets of this concept), the book approaches ignorance as a broad notion that refers to a plurality of cognitively rich phenomena. In particular, the book focuses on three ways ignorance is impactful on the cognition of the human agent.

First, ignorance is taken as a critical element to consider when analyzing the metacognitive capabilities of the subject. So, the first question the book aimed at addressing was: what role does ignorance play when we measure the depth of our doubts, the validity of our knowledge, or the righteousness of our actions?

Second, the book also approaches ignorance as a necessary ground for knowledge. Heuristic reasoning, hypothetical thinking, model-making, and other fruitful cognitive activities need to make use of the agent's ignorance to produce data, learning, and understanding. Following these considerations, it is natural to ask: How these cognitive activities deal with ignorance? Do they eliminate, manage, or preserve it?

A third approach to understanding the cognitive impact of ignorance was highly related to its negative mark as a common-sense word. Ignorance is usually considered dangerous because it does not only affect isolated individuals, but it can also spread and circulate in communities and groups. How does this circulation happen? What are the rules of ignorance-spreading, and how does it affect the social dimensions and possibilities of one's cognition?

Of course, even after addressing these primary questions, the research around the concept of ignorance and its cognitive impact is far from complete. Nevertheless, I believe that by adopting a pragmatical and comprehensive approach to face its complexity, the epistemological study of ignorance will more easily develop new materials, hypotheses, and theories to understand and bridge its fascinating clashing traits.

Tuesday, 28 January 2020

Confabulation and Introspection

Today's post is by Adam Andreotta. He earned his PhD from the University of Western Australia in 2018. His research and teaching interests include: epistemology, self-knowledge, the philosophy of David Hume and the philosophy of artificial intelligence. Here, he introduces his article, "Confabulation does not undermine introspection for propositional attitudes", that has recently appeared in the journal Synthese. For more of his work, see his PhilPapers profile.

Most of us think there exists an asymmetry between the way we know our own minds, and the way we know the minds of others. For example, it seems that I can know that I intend to watch Back to the Future, or that I believe that Australia will win the Ashes, by introspection: a private and secure way of knowing my own mental states. If I want to know whether my friend intends to see Back to the Future or believes that Australia will win the Ashes, I need to ask them or observe their behaviour.

This common-sense way of thinking about the mind is accepted by many philosophers, who have sought to explain the nature of this asymmetry. Other philosophers, however, deny that there is an asymmetry at all. They argue that the way we know our own beliefs, intentions, and desires (mental states philosophers call ‘propositional attitudes’) is no different in principle from the way that we know the beliefs, intentions, and desires of other people.

In “Confabulation does not undermine introspection for propositional attitudes”, I consider such scepticism. Specifically, I consider the work of Peter Carruthers, who thinks that the confabulation data—the data from choice blindness experiments, priming experiments, and experiments on split-brain patients—show that we cannot introspect our propositional attitudes.

Why think that the confabulation data warrant such a radical conclusion? Carruthers thinks that the data reveal two key findings. First, he claims that the data show that we make mistakes from time to time in our self-ascriptions—that is, we say that we have a certain intention, or belief, when we don’t. And second, he claims these mistakes are not random—that is, there are specific patterns found in the errors we make. Carruthers thinks that these patterns show that we self-attribute our propositional attitudes by self-interpretation, just like we do when we attribute mental states to other people.

While I agree that the confabulation data show that we sometimes make false self-attributions, I disagree that they support the view that we lack introspective access to our propositional attitudes. I do so by challenging Carruthers’s interpretation of the confabulation data. I show that the patterns of error that Carruthers finds in the data do not exist.

Tuesday, 21 January 2020

The Philosophy Museum

This post is by Anna Ichino, University of Milan.

Have you ever visited a Philosophy Museum? I bet not. Apparently, indeed, there aren’t any Philosophy Museums in the world. Or better: there aren’t any yet… But together with my colleagues at the Philosophy Department of the University of Milan we have decided that it is time to build the first one. In this post, I’ll tell you about this exciting project.

What we had in mind was not an historically-minded museum collecting relics about the lives and works of important philosophers; but something more dynamic and interactive – built on the model of the best science museums – where philosophical problems and theories become intuitively accessible through a variety of games, activities, experiments, aesthetic experiences, and other such things.

Easier to say than to do, no doubt. It’s an ambitious project, and to put it into action we had to proceed gradually. We started with a temporary exhibition, which took place in our University from November 5th to 21st. There, we created the first two actual halls of what we hope will soon become a permanent museum, together with a third ‘programmatic’ hall where we presented the plan for what still needs to be done.

Thanks to a generous funding awarded to our Department as a part of a MIUR Excellence Scheme, we could rely on professional help from museum experts, graphic designers, and multimedia studios, in order to build an aesthetically appealing environment where complex ideas were communicated in fun and engaging ways.

The first hall was quite introductory– devoted to the nature of philosophical problems and methodologies.

We used images like Mary Midgely’s ‘conceptual plumbing’ or Wittgenstein’s ‘fly bottle’ to convey the idea according to which philosophical problems are in important respects conceptual problems, which amount to analysing concepts that we commonly use in unreflective ways. Visitors were led to realise the difficulties that arise as soon as we try define common concepts like ‘self’, ‘freedom’, ‘time’, ‘moral responsibility’, etc... We then introduced two important tools that philosophers use to analyse such concepts: the construction of thought experiments, on the one hand, and the formulation of paradoxes, on the other.

On this basis, visitors were ready to move to the second hall, where they could literally play with paradoxes and thought experiments in order to appreciate their heuristic role in philosophical inquiry.

In the ‘Personal Identity Goose Game’, for instance, different theories of personal identity were illustrated through a journey into the relevant thought experiments (figure 3). To begin, every player had to ‘adopt’ one theory – choosing between the psychological theory, the bodily theory, or the brain theory. Then, every square on the track corresponded to the scenario of a different thought experiment (scenarios like teletransportation, brain transplant, fission, metamorphoses, etc…); and when one landed on each of them, she had to guess whether or not, according to the theory she adopted, that was a scenario in which she’d have survived. If she guessed correctly, she could roll the die once again. She could also try to ‘kill’ her opponents (i.e. to make them miss a turn) by moving their pawns into squares-scenarios where, according to ‘their’ theories of personal identity, they wouldn’t have survived.

In the ‘paradox of fiction game’, the three mutually inconsistent propositions that give rise to the paradox corresponded to three different cards: players were asked to solve the paradox by discarding one of the three, and finding a suitable alternative from a deck of cards describing different philosophical theories. So, for instance, one who ‘discarded’ the proposition according to which we can feel genuine pity for Harry Potter, could pick the card describing Walton’s ‘quasi-emotions’ theory.

To further illustrate the complex relations between imagination, belief, and emotions, we did also replicate a series of famous experiments in which participants were asked to do such things as eating chocolates shaped as a cat’s excrements, signing a pact where they gave their soul away to the Devil, or wearing the (perfectly sterilized) pullover that (so they were told) previously belonged a serial-killer.

The second hall also included a ‘paradoxes of perception game’, a ‘trolley-problem game’, and several animation-videos devoted to other intriguing paradoxes and thought experiments.

To conclude the visit, the ‘School of Athens’ game’ – in which visitors had to decide whether to back Plato or Aristotle; then they could also take a souvenir-picture portraying themselves in the shoes (or better, in the face!) of one or the other.

Whilst building all this was a really hard work, it was definitely compensated by the enthusiastic response of the public. We had more than three thousand visitors in less than three weeks (including thirty-four high-school classes), who gave us very positive and stimulating feedbacks. We now hope to find soon a permanent home for our Philosophy Museum.

In the meanwhile, you can visit the project’s website and follow us on Facebook and Instagram. There is also a photo gallery published by La Repubblica

You can look at the Museum’s catalogue, and watch this short video presenting the project. (Unfortunately, all this material is currently in Italian only; but English translations are on their way!)

Tuesday, 14 January 2020

Phenomenological Psychopathology

Today's post is by Joseph Houlders, doctoral candidate at the University of Birmingham. In this post, he reports on the book launch for the new Oxford Handbook of Phenomenological Psychopathology. The event took place on 22 July 2019, and was chaired by one of the editors of the handbook, Professor Matthew Broome, Director of the Institute for Mental Health at the University of Birmingham.

Five contributors to the handbook spoke at the launch:

  • Professor Christoph Hoerl, Understanding, explaining and the concept of psychic illness 
  • Dr Clara Humpston, Thoughts without thinkers: The paradox of thought insertion 
  • Professor Femi Oyebode, Consciousness and its Disorders 
  • Dr Anthony Vincent Fernandez, Phenomenology and Psychiatric Classification
  • Dr Gareth Owen, Psychopathology and Law: what does phenomenology have to offer? 
The launch began with an apt question: to what extent can we understand and explain psychic illness? The central theme of the afternoon was how phenomenology may, or may not, shed light on issues in psychopathology – a field of research which studies ‘abnormal’ mental events. This involves asking what phenomenology is, to think about how best to put into dialogue with psychopathology. The answer to this is complicated, owing partially to a diversity of approaches and emphases amongst phenomenologists (and phenomenologically-inclined psychiatrists). Husserl’s phenomenology is different to Merleau-Ponty’s, and Merleau-Ponty’s is different to Heidegger’s, though there are of course many similarities too. To make matters more complicated, these figures differ not only with each other, but also with themselves: there are marked differences between their early and later writings.

Clara Humpston

There is a rich history of work in phenomenological psychopathology to help think about what the interaction between phenomenology and psychopathology can consist of, and when this interaction seems to work best. Many interesting examples were discussed during the presentations, for example: insights from the original phenomenological psychiatrist, Karl Jaspers; and ongoing interdisciplinary work carried out by Dan Zahavi and colleagues at the Centre for Subjectivity Research.

The talks and conversations that followed were often, at root, about the limits of communication and empathy. Mental disorder can include global alterations in experience of self and environment, and radical departures from ‘normal’ modes of experience, which can be very difficult to understand and to put into words. So, whilst we might agree that psychiatry should be about more than biological processes, there is still a worry about whether it is possible to conceive of and describe many of the subjective aspects of mental illness. Many argue that it is possible, and suggest that whilst there are, of course, limits to what we can describe (there is always a gap between the description of the phenomenon and the actual experienceof the phenomenon), this does not preclude improving our understanding of subjective experience of mental disorder to at least some degree.

The question of precisely what the phenomenological tradition offers to psychiatry was raised during the launch. For example, what does familiarity with the thought of Heidegger give a psychiatrist that they do not already have / would not eventually learn from their practice? Would they not already be aware of / would they eventually become aware of the importance of e.g. time, mood, and death in a patient’s experience? Do some of the concepts from phenomenology only serve to make conversations about a patient more abstract? Or are they, on the contrary, vital for the conceptualisation of certain symptoms reported by patients, which could otherwise seem mystifying? 

Femi Oyebode

One of the things that phenomenology appears to offer to psychiatry, or at least certain iterations of psychiatry, e.g. ‘operational’ psychiatry, known for its checklists of symptoms and tendency towards reductionism, is a reminder of the fundamental importance of the wider context of an individual’s experience. Whilst this reminder may seem like common-sense, the subjective, existential aspects of patients’ experience can be undervalued, forgotten, or ignored in psychiatric practice. By the lights of phenomenology at least, this appears to be a profound mistake.

The Oxford Handbook of Phenomenological Psychopathology is the result of a large and interdisciplinary collaboration: it took around 5 years to complete, and it has 98 chapters in total. It covers historical and contemporary work in the field and, of course, devotes a lot of analysis to first-person experience of a host of mental disorders, including schizophrenia and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Congratulations to all who have been involved in putting it together!

Tuesday, 7 January 2020

Self, Others and the State: Relations of Criminal Responsibility

Today's post is by Arlie Loughnan who is Professor of Criminal Law and Criminal Law Theory and Co-Director of the Institute of Criminology at the University of Sydney. She is the author of Manifest Madness: Mental Incapacity in Criminal Law (OUP 2012).

Criminal responsibility – the basis on which individuals are called to account for criminal conduct, and the form or structure of the criminal law – is now central to criminal law, but it is in need of re-examination. In the context of Australian criminal laws, my book, Self, Others and the State: Relations of Criminal Responsibility reassesses the general assumptions made about the rise to prominence of criminal responsibility in the period since around the turn of the twentieth century. In my account, I pay close and careful attention to the intricacies of developments in criminal responsibility, and reconsider the role and significance of criminal responsibility in criminal law. I argue that criminal responsibility is significant as it organises keys sets of relations – between self, others and the state – as relations of responsibility. Recognising this role for criminal responsibility shows that it is the means by which matters of subjectivity, relationality and power make themselves felt in the criminal law in particular ways. My analysis reveals the gradual and distinctive way in which criminal law came to be organised around criminal responsibility, and exposes the complexity and dynamism of the relations of responsibility that subtend criminal responsibility principles and practices.

My book comprises detailed studies of decisive moments and developments in criminal law since the turn of the twentieth century, and presents original explorations of relations of responsibility. For the readers of this blog, one of these three explorations of relations of responsibility may be of particular interest: relations of responsibility around the self. In my analysis of the self in relations of responsibility, I focus on the gendered self and examined women’s responsibility for crime. I argue that, on the level of legal form, women’s responsibility for crime is marked by particularity and specificity – as opposed to the generality and universalism claimed for criminal responsibility under the dominant legal-philosophical account. This particularity and specificity is evident in what I call atypical responsibility forms – those forms that are restricted to particular individuals committing particular offences in particular contexts, and in which elements, such as offence and defence, conduct and fault, that are usually separate, are mixed together. Together, two sets of atypical responsibility forms determine the contours of women’s responsibility for crime over the twentieth century.

These two sets of atypical responsibility forms governing women’s responsibility for crime correspond to different relations of responsibility between self, others and the state. In the first half of the twentieth century, legal accommodation of violence by women meant that relations of responsibility centred on the relations of the accused woman with herself, where this relation was oriented around a personalised and psychologised notion of individual integrity. In recent decades, legal accommodation of violence against women oriented the self in relation to others, encompassing an extended sense of women’s autonomy, and implicating other actors, including state actors such as the police, in fulfilling that autonomy. This has meant that women’s responsibility for crime now has an ameliorative tenor, with the atypical responsibility forms that now populate the criminal law constituting an admission of state failure to protect women from violence.