Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Agency and Ownership in the Case of Thought Insertion and Delusions of Control

This post is by Shaun Gallagher (pictured above). He is Lillian and Morrie Moss Professor of Philosophy at the University of Memphis. In this post he summarizes his recent article 'Relations between Agency and Ownership in the Case of Schizophrenic Thought Insertion', published in the Review of Philosophy and Psychology.

In a recent paper I offer a response to some philosophers who have raised objections to the idea that in schizophrenic delusions of control and thought insertion the problem is primarily with the sense of agency. Instead, they argue, it concerns the sense of ownership. Let me start by clarifying the distinction, because in fact it is a double distinction, or a distinction made on two levels. On the level of first-order, pre-reflective experience the distinction between sense of agency (SA) and sense of ownership (SO) can be seen in the contrast between voluntary and involuntary movement. In the latter case, for example, if some one pushes me from behind, I can say that I am moving – that it is my body that is moving (I have SO for the movement, meaning simply that I have the experience that I am the one moving); but for that initial movement I was not the initiator, and thus I do not have SA for it. 

On top of that distinction, so to speak, there is another distinction made at the level of second-order reflective consciousness. Retrospectively I can report that I was the one who moved. This is what Stephens and Graham (2000) call the attribution of subjectivity, or attribution of ownership (call it AO to distinguish it from SO). Likewise, I can say whether I was the agent of that movement. This is the attribution of agency (AA). SA and SO are experiential, whereas AA and AO are judgments made about movement or action.

Prereflective experience
Reflective judgment

There are various debates about the subpersonal mechanisms (e.g., comparator models) that underlie the phenomenology of agency and ownership. There are even more basic questions about whether there are such experiences of SA and SO. I think there are ways to address these concerns, but here let me just say that whatever the best way to explain the mechanisms that underpin SA or SO, to say that there are no such experiences suggests that we only discover what we have done after we have done it, and in fact it implies that the best we can do make inferences about what we have done based on something like the sensory (proprioceptive) evidence. This would apply to thinking and deliberation as well, if we consider thinking and deliberation to be actions engaged in by a subject.

As I deliberate and form an intention, or as I engage in an action or set of actions, if there is no SA, for example, then, in making a judgment about what I have done or about the fact that I have acted (AA), on what do I base my judgment? Stephens and Graham (2000) suggest that I base it on whether the action that I am considering is consistent with my self-narrative, or with the theory that I have about myself. If somehow I judge the action to be inconsistent with my self-narrative, then I would conclude that I did not do the action. And if in fact it had been my action, then, on their account, my mistaken conclusion would be delusional. Accordingly, on that view, delusions of control and thought insertion are simply the result of mistaken inference.

The alternative is to think that when I deliberate, form prior intentions, and then go on to act on those intentions, I do not do so unconsciously. Rather I have some first-order awareness that I am the one who is engaged in these actions. In that case, my retrospective self-attribution (AA) may simply be a report on my SA for the action. On this bottom-up account, delusions of control and thought insertion involve something going wrong with SA, or with the mechanisms that generate SA. This may also involve a feeling (a first-order experience) of the action or the thought as something alien. This first-order feeling of alienation is not the result of a mistaken inference; it is the result of something going wrong with SA.

Not everyone agrees with the idea that the problem is with SA or AA. Bortolotti and Broome (2009), as well as Alexandre Billon (2013), propose that such delusions involve problems with AO, attributions of ownership. In my article I defend the idea that problems with AO may in fact be initiated by more basic problems with SA. The subject may reflectively disown the action or thought because it actually feels or is experienced as alien—a first-order lack of SA that may have initially motivated the second-order reflection.

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