Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Authorship and Control over Thoughts

This post is by Gottfried Vosgerau (pictured above), Professor of Philosophy at the University of Dusseldorf. Gottfried's research interests are in the philosophy and metaphysics of mind, neurophilosophy, and cognitive science. Here he summarises his recent paper, co-authored with Martin Voss, 'Authorship and Control over Thoughts', published in Mind and Language. 

While there is a considerable consensus that ownership and agency should be sharply distinguished for motor actions, the according distinction for thoughts (thinking actions) is much less agreed on. In our paper we argue that a distinction is needed between the mere occurrence of a thought in my stream of consciousness (thought ownership) and my being the 'source' of a thought (authorship). While it is a conceptual truth that all of my thoughts are mine in the sense of ownership, there are already many examples from (non-pathological) everyday life that this is not the case for authorship. However, the main arguments in the paper concentrate on the question of how authorship can be understood. In particular, we argue that the often claimed parallel between authorship an agency is not close enough to provide any interesting inside. We will now sketch the basic argument for this point.

Agency (for motor actions) is usually defined as the sense of initiating and being in control of an action. Interestingly, there are pathological thoughts which the patient cannot control, namely intrusive thoughts in OCD patients. Nevertheless, these patients never deny authorship for such thoughts. Hence, unlike for agency, control over thoughts cannot be an integral part of authorship for thoughts. In contrast, both factors (control and authorship) are independent of each other. This implies that theories that equate thinking mechanisms with motor control mechanisms cannot succeed. Moreover, even the weaker assumption that missing control elicits a sense of not being the author is doomed to fail. Therefore, we need two different explanations for the lack of control over thoughts and for the lack of authorship over thoughts, both of which occur in thought insertion.

Both accounts are subject to further research. So far, the empirical literature on thought control focusses almost exclusively on thought suppression, which certainly is one powerful form of thought control but might not be the only control mechanism. With respect to authorship, we further discuss everyday cases of thoughts for which we do not claim authorship; we take 'communicated thoughts', i.e. thoughts that one has because he or she understood what another person said, to be the clearest example of such thoughts. We argue that thought authorship cannot be reduced to the production mechanisms or the thought contents. Neither can we assume that there is a basic 'feeling' of authorship, since information about authorship is just not present on the basic level. We thus conclude that authorship is a high-level, complex phenomenon which is based on an integration of multiple factors, including contextual and social factors. On this basis we reject so-called endorsement models of thought insertion.

However, in this paper we cannot provide a full positive account. This is mainly due to the fact that the phenomenology of thought insertion is still poorly investigated. We propose to systematically collect data about inserted and intrusive thoughts that assess factors such as the self-relatedness of content and the grammatical form of the thought. Such data could give us first hints for developing detailed accounts of aberrant authorship ascriptions in thought insertion. For example, if we could detected that all inserted thoughts are somehow self-related, a plausible hypothesis would be that the patients try to immunize their self-image from 'bad' or 'evil' thoughts about themselves.

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