Thursday 31 March 2016

Cognitive Irrationality: Interview with Anne Meylan

In this post I interview Anne Meylan (pictured below) who is currently leading a project on Cognitive Irrationality at the University of Basel.

Melanie Sarzano and Marie van Loon (pictured below) also work on the Cognitive Irrationality project as PhD students.


LB: What interests you about irrationality? Why do you think it is an important theme?

AM: When philosophers consider the rationality-irrationality pair, rationality is very often taken to be the primary concept: irrationality is simply the absence of rationality (the latter being the key component of the duo). Approaching this pair the other way round —as we intend to do— will shed new light not only on irrationality itself but also on certain existing debates in contemporary epistemology. We will be, for instance, looking at how this change of focus impacts on the on-going discussions regarding the normativity of belief and the reasons we have for them. Of course, irrationality is also an important theme because it is closely intertwined with problems pertaining to our responsibility as agents and to the nature of mental illness.

LB: What are the main research questions in your project? What do you hope to achieve by the end of it?

AM: The Cognitive Irrationality Project is structured around three subprojects. These three subprojects respectively concern:

1. The conceptual content of irrationality. Questions that are at the heart of this subproject are for instance: what distinguishes irrationality from similar but presumably distinct normative properties such as the property of being “un-justified” or the property of being “un-reasonable”?;

2. The intuitive “wrongness” characterizing the formation and the holding of irrational beliefs. What, after all, makes an irrational belief something wrong to hold?

3. The attribution of blame and responsibility for irrational beliefs. How is cognitive irrationality related to our being responsible for our beliefs? Does this relation substantially differ from the one at work in “normal” cases of doxastic responsibility, viz. cases in which we are responsible for beliefs that are perfectly rational?

Tuesday 29 March 2016

Collective Amnesia and Epistemic Injustice

This post is by Alessandra Tanesini. Alessandra is a Professor of Philosophy at Cardiff University working on epistemology and philosophy of language. In this post she summarises some of her recent work on collective amnesia and epistemic injustice.

Thanks to Ema for inviting me to contribute this snapshot of my current research for the readers of the blog. Epistemologists, unlike psychologists, have in the past focused on notions such as knowledge, truth, justification, belief or virtue that have positive epistemic status. Instead, I want to develop accounts of those things whose epistemic status is negative. These include: vices, bias and ignorance. I have written a paper on intellectual arrogance which I shall deliver at the Joint Session of the Aristotelian Society and Mind Association in July. A pre-proofs draft is already available here. I have also given talks on the epistemology of implicit bias. A podcast can be heard here.

More recently I have written and given talks about a special form of ignorance, that I have labelled ‘collective amnesia’, which is responsible for a pernicious kind of epistemic injustice. Collective amnesia happens when collective memories are shaped by processes that strongly promote ignorance. Consider British collective memories. These are enduring memories (including of events that current members of society have not directly witnessed) which are constitutive parts of a group’s identity (Hirst and Manier 2008). In the UK these memories are often representations of white, male Britain. They may include portrayals of heroism during wars, narratives of colonial invasions presented as adventurous expeditions, warm beer, green lawns, and the sound of leather on willow. These memories mostly fail to represent Black Britons at all. Those memories which portray them tend to focus on (male) Black British people as either victims of crime (e.g. Stephen Lawrence) or as criminals (e.g. rioters or gang members). Either way, they are depicted as a problem.

In my work I discuss the mechanisms that lead to the formation of these deeply misleading (because they result from biased selections) collective memories and analyse their ethical and epistemic consequences.

Some of the processes that lead to the development of highly selective collective memories are deliberate distortions and deceptions. Others, however, are less conscious but equally pernicious. These are mechanisms that promote mnemonic convergence where different individual memories eventually merge into a common account of the past by means of the systematic forgetting of some memories and the implantation of new ones. Interestingly, mnemonic convergence is mediated by perceived authority and expertise so that the resulting shared memories will be closer to the initial memories of people who are thought to possess these qualities than to those of other members of the community. Given the connection between social power and perceived authority and expertise, collective memories bear the mark of the most powerful in society.

Among the mechanisms that promote convergence are the gamut of phenomena known as the social contagion of memory where fabricated or partially false memories are implanted into unsuspecting listeners who may even have personally witnessed the event in question (Loftus 2005). This phenomenon is not rare; it is made worse when one individual is able to arrogate the role of 'official' narrator of the event. Mnemonic convergence is also facilitated by retrieval effects (the more often a memory is recalled the more accessible it becomes) and by socially-shared retrieval-induced forgetting (Stone et al. 2012). The latter occurs when one recalls some things but not others (as one inevitably must). Those things which are not explicitly recalled but are semantically related to retrieved memories will become as a result more inaccessible for speakers and for their listeners than other, equally un-retrieved but semantically unrelated, representations.

In these ways, even in the absence of a deliberate intention to mislead, shared memories will converge in the direction of the memories of those who have social power. Since memories serve to strengthen social bonds, collective memories have the function of nurturing a sense of belonging to an in-group which they represent in a positive light. However, they can only serve this purpose for those who are represented by them as members of the group.

One effect of this systematic, although not fully conscious, exclusion from collective memories of the positive contributions of Black Britons to Britain is the erosion of intellectual self-trust. Intellectual self-trust is an optimistic stance toward one’s own cognitive abilities which is manifested in assertiveness, confidence, and a belief in the reliability of one’s intellectual capacities. Self-trust is formed and sustained in a social setting so that children learn to trust themselves by calibrating their views with those of authoritative others and by being trusted (Jones 2012). Those people who are portrayed negatively in the shared memories of a group are prevented from becoming fully self-trusting since they are likely to believe the negative depiction, and others treat them in a manner that accords with it. Given that possessing self-trust is essential to the exercise of any other aspect of one’s cognitive agency, harms to self-trust when they constitute a wrong are examples of a deep form of epistemic injustice. Podcasts of talks based on these ideas can be found here and here.

A paper on these themes entitled ‘Collective Amnesia and Epistemic Injustice’ is forthcoming in Socially Extended Epistemology, edited by J. Adam Carter, Andy Clark, Jesper Kallestrup, S. Orestis Palermos and Duncan Pritchard, and published by Oxford University Press.

Thursday 24 March 2016

12th Mind Network Meeting

On 4th March the twelfth Mind Network Meeting was held at Peterhouse College (pictured above), at the University of Cambridge. The meeting was organized by Chris Meyns and Tim Crane, with sponsorship from the New Directions Project (funded by the John Templeton Foundation). In this post I give an overview of the three talks given at the meeting.

Opening the meeting was Raamy Majeed (Cambridge) (pictured above, left) and Alex Grzankowski (Texas Tech/Cambridge) (pictured above, right) each giving a short paper under the heading ‘The Theory-ladenness of Recalcitrant Emotions’. Raamy was interested in what makes cases of recalcitrant emotions recalcitrant, and Alex was interested in what makes such cases normatively problematic. 

Raamy wanted to give a theory-neutral explanation of what is recalcitrant about recalcitrant emotions. He started by introducing the following case (call it the case of Fido): a subject knows that Fido the dog is harmless, but nevertheless fears him. He then outlined two positions and their treatment of such a case.

Judgmentalism has it that judgements individuate emotions. According to this view, in the case of Fido the subject has conflicting judgements: the judgement that Fido is harmless and the judgement that Fido is harmful. Raamy suggested that this result is to attribute too much irrationality to the subject. Neo-judgmentalism on the other hand replaces the evaluative judgement of the emotion with something else: evaluative thoughts, feelings, perceptions, or construals. In the case of Fido, the subject judges that Fido is harmless, but it seems to her that Fido is harmful. Raamy suggested that this account does not attribute enough irrationality to the subject.

Tuesday 22 March 2016

Conscience as the Rational Deficit of People with Psychopathy

This post is by Marijana Vujošević (pictured above), who is working on a project on Immanuel Kant’s moral psychology at the University of Groningen (The Netherlands). In this post Marijana summarises her approach in a new paper 'Conscience as the Rational Deficit of Psychopaths'. 

While writing my paper on Kant’s theory of conscience ('Kant on Conscience: The Judge in the Mirror'), I had become very interested in issues regarding lack of conscience and immorality in psychopathy.

Psychopaths are commonly described as individuals without conscience. Even if we weaken this claim by stating that they possess an underdeveloped conscience (which I propose we do), we still need to explain whether this impairment affects their competence in judging moral issues and in being motivated to act morally, and if so how. In spite of the usual portrayal of psychopaths, moral psychologists do not find the link between psychopaths’ impaired conscience and their moral dysfunction worthy of examination; conscience is hardly ever mentioned in the current debate between rationalists and sentimentalists as to whether the immorality of psychopaths presents a case in favour of sentimentalism.

Drawing on a conception of conscience found in the work of Kant, I develop a theoretical framework in order to examine whether the moral flaws of psychopaths are traceable to their dysfunctional conscience. According to my Kantian account, conscience is the capacity of moral self-appraisal that triggers certain emotional responses. It is to be identified neither with our moral intuitions about right and wrong, nor with certain self-evaluative feelings.

Kant holds that we are incapable of knowing through our feelings whether a particular action is morally right or wrong, and he does not identify conscience with guilt and relief. When understood as the reflective capacity for moral self-assessment that triggers certain feelings, conscience proves to be a fruitful tool for explaining psychopathic moral incompetence. The explanation based on this understanding of conscience finds its evidence in related empirical studies.

Thursday 17 March 2016

Delusions in Schizophrenia: a Bigger Picture?

In this post I summarise my talk at the Royal College of Psychiatrists Annual Congress in July 2015, where with Richard Bentall and Phil Corlett I participated in a symposium on "the function of delusions" sponsored by project PERFECT. The main argument I defended in the symposium has now appeared in an open access paper in the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science.

Can elaborated and systematized delusions emerging in the context of schizophrenia have a useful function? This is a provocative question, of course, as we know how disruptive delusions can be in the context of schizophrenia. But a serious consideration of the circumstances in which delusional beliefs are adopted can reveal that the delusion is playing a role, admittedly one that has beneficial effects only in a critical situation and whose beneficial effects are short-lived.

As philosophers have long recognised, elaborated and systematized delusions in schizophrenia are typically false and exemplify failures of rationality (e.g., the delusion is not responsive to counter-evidence) and self-knowledge (e.g., the delusion may reveal inconsistencies in the person's commitments, or be associated with inaccurate personal reports). 

But some empirical studies suggest that delusions may have psychological benefits by relieving anxiety (Roberts 1992) and enhancing the sense that one's life is meaningful (Bergstein et al. 2008). Delusions in schizophrenia have also been considered as adaptive in virtue of the fact that they enable automated learning to resume after a significant disruption caused by incorrect prediction-error signalling (Mishara and Corlett 2009).

I argued that such psychological benefits and adaptive features also have positive epistemic consequences. More precisely, delusions can be a means of restoring epistemic functionality in agents who are overwhelmed by hypersalient experiences in the prodromal stage of psychosis and cannot make sense of the changing world around them. 

Tuesday 15 March 2016

Respect for People with (Permanently) Imperfect Cognitions

This post is by Oliver Sensen (pictured above), Associate Professor in Philosophy at Tulane University in New Orleans. Oliver is interested in the question of how one should treat others, and, more particularly, in the notion of respect for persons. Much of his work is on Kant – since he is the one who thought most deeply about these issues – including his notions of dignityautonomy, and respect. In this post Oliver summarises his recent article 'Respect Towards Elderly Demented Patients', published in Diametros.

As part of a more systematic project on respect, I have started to think about the regard that is owed to people with imperfect cognitions. The paper I summarise in this post focuses on respect for elderly demented patients. Imagine that you are a caregiver for a patient who does not remember what happened yesterday. If, for instance, her husband died years ago, she still might ask you when he will come back to see her. Telling her the truth might deeply upset her. Would you be disrespectful in withholding the husband’s death, because in that case you are not treating her as a normal human adult, or would you be disrespecting her condition by telling the truth (see also Lisa Bortolotti's post on Dementia and the Truth).

Thursday 10 March 2016

Emotions: Do they control us?

On 18th January Beth Hannon at the Forum for European Philosophy organised a public event at the London School of Economics, "Emotions: Do they control us?". The event featured Tali Sharot (University College London) as chair and Giovanna Colombetti, Benedetto De Martino and myself as speakers. I am reporting some of the discussion we had here. If you want to listen to the whole event, there is a podcast free to download as well.

I was the first speaker, and I talked about how emotions did get a bad press among philosophers embracing rationalism. Starting with Plato, who thought that the soul could be in harmony only when reason was in charge of drives and appetites, through to Descartes who studied emotions in depth and concluded that it was easy for them to lead us astray. To challenge the idea that emotions only have a disruptive role to play, I relied on two milestones of the recent thought on emotions, Damasio's somatic marker theory according to which emotional reactions to remembered and imagined events are crucial to our capacity to make decisions, and De Waal's emphasis on the importance of empathy in driving moral behaviour in primates and humans. I ended by saying that in some contexts following intuitions and emotions leads to better outcomes than following reason.

Next, Benedetto de Martino, neuroscientist at the University of Cambridge, gave a most entertaining presentation, comparing two extremes: Spock from Star Trek, whose rationality is undisturbed by emotions; and Tony Soprano, whose behaviour is dictated by emotions. Although human agents believe that they can be like Spock (and economists treat them as if they were ideally rational agents), often they are like Tony Soprano. Psychology and neuroscience can help us understand why. Benedetto focused on fear, an emotion associated with great evolutionary advantages and with the fight-or-flight response to danger. When we identify a threat, we run away from the source of the threat. This helps us survive. An emotion is a pre-programmed physical and psychological response to certain situations that will affect action and cognition. Most effects are positive, but in some situations emotions lead us astray. Benedetto offered the example of framing effects as an illustration.

Tuesday 8 March 2016

Constructing and Reconstructing Observer Perspectives in Personal Memory

This post is by Chris McCarroll (pictured above), who has just finished his PhD under the supervision of John Sutton at the ARC Centre of Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders, Macquarie University. Here he summarises a paper currently in progress entitled 'Constructing and Reconstructing Observer Perspectives in Personal Memory'.

In a previous post I discussed a puzzling aspect of memory imagery: when remembering events from one’s life one often sees the remembered scene as one originally experienced it, from one’s original point of view (field perspective). Sometimes, however, one sees oneself in the memory, as if one were an observer of the remembered scene (observer perspective). Memory imagery often involves visual points of view.

Here, I summarise a recent paper I gave on this topic at the Australasian Association of Philosophy Conference, held at Macquarie University. My paper was entitled ‘Constructing and Reconstructing Observer Perspectives in Personal Memory’.

I outline two related arguments against observer perspective memories: the argument from perceptual impossibility and the argument from perceptual preservation. On these ways of thinking, there simply cannot be genuine personal or episodic memories in which one adopts an observer perspective.

According to the argument from perceptual impossibility, given that one did not (indeed cannot) see oneself from-the-outside at the time of the original experience, one cannot have a memory in which one sees oneself from-the-outside: one cannot recall from an observer perspective. Further, even if one grants that it is unrealistic to think that memory perfectly preserves past perceptions, the argument from perceptual preservation states that nothing can be added to the content of genuine memory: forgetting is a natural aspect of memory and content may be lost, but genuine memory will involve no additional content other than that available at the time of encoding. Observer perspectives are said to involve an additional representation of the self and hence cannot be genuine memories.

Most people who recall an event from an observer perspective simply take themselves to be remembering. But if one takes oneself to be remembering, and one is accurately representing some past event in all aspects other than occupying the original point of view, what motivates the claim that such representations are not genuine memories? The answer seems to lie in the idea that memory should preserve the content of perception. In perception one sees an event unfold from a particular point of view. Therefore memory, involving reproductions of perception, should be recalled from the same point of view as one had on the original scene. In other words, genuine memories should be recalled from a field perspective.

Monday 7 March 2016

Are People with Depression more Realistic?

I’m Neil Garrett, a PhD student at the Affective Brain Lab, University College London. I investigate biases in human decision making using a combination of approaches from psychology, economics and neuroscience.

The term “depressive realism” was born out of a study conducted by the psychologists Alloy and Abramson in 1979. In this study they examined how people judged contingency between their actions (pressing a button, in this instance) and outcomes that subsequently materialized (a light flickering on). The crucial aspect was that there was often little or no contingency between actions and outcome; a light would flicker on sporadically and independently of any button pressing by the participant. Their results revealed however that whilst depressed patients were wise to this fact, non-depressed individuals displayed a tendency to overestimate how instrumental they were in causing the light to illuminate. Hence depressed individuals were seemingly more “realistic” than their non-depressed counterparts.

The study and term itself are somewhat controversial. I won’t revisit the debates on each side here. However, some of my research investigating how depressed and non-depressed individuals integrate information suggests there might be another perspective from which depressed patients could be conceived of as the more realistic group.

Imagine you hold the belief that you have a low chance of something unpleasant happening to you in the future. This could be getting burgled, being involved in a car accident, or contracting a disease such as Alzheimer’s. I now provide you with some well-sourced information that suggests the average likelihood is actually higher than you’ve been thinking is the case. This ought to constitute bad news; an unpleasant event is more likely to occur to you than you thought. Do you revise your beliefs in light of this information?

Thursday 3 March 2016

PERFECT 2016: False but Useful Beliefs

On 4th and 5th February project PERFECT hosted their first major event, PERFECT 2016, a two day workshop on False but Useful Beliefs. The workshop was held in the Herringham Hall at Regent’s Conferences and Events (pictured above) in London. In this post I give a brief overview of the ten papers presented at the workshop. 

Anandi Hattiangadi (Stockholm), pictured above, opened the workshop with a paper entitled: ‘Radical Interpretation and Implicit Cognition’. Anandi considered the prospects for the possibility of Lewisian radical interpretation which requires an entailment from the physical truths about some subject to intentional truths about her. In light of recent work in experimental psychology, in particular, work on heuristics which lead to irrational actions from the point of view of decision theory, she concluded that radical interpretation is impossible. In discussion time, there was an opportunity for Anandi to clarify the nature of intentional realism, and to explain whether all forms of irrationality are criticisable.

Next was Lubomira Radoilska (Kent) who asked whether false and epistemically unwarranted beliefs can be non-accidentally conducive to agential success. Lubomira was interested in beliefs which contribute to the overall success of an agent (for example, unrealistic optimism about one's prospect of success). She argued that such beliefs are not conducive to success in virtue of their falsity, but in virtue of their being practical, that is, of their self-fulfilling dimension. In her Q&A, Lubomira was asked whether her view could account for degrees of credence and was asked to consider different cases of false and unwarranted beliefs that are conducive to success.

Tuesday 1 March 2016

Conjunction Errors: Mistakes in Assembling Autobiographical Memories

This post is by Aleea Devitt (pictured above), a recent PhD student in the School of Psychology at the University of Aukland. In this post Aleea summarises her paper 'Factors That Influence the Generation of Autobiographical Memory Conjunction Errors', co-written with Edwin Monk-Fromont, Daniel L. Schacter, and Donna Rose Addis, published in Memory.

When remembering a past event, we typically cannot pluck a whole memory neatly from our brains, as we would a folder from a filing cabinet. The individual features comprising a memory are distributed throughout our brains, so remembering a past experience is more similar to assembling a jigsaw puzzle; all the pieces must be located and assembled correctly to construct a coherent memory.

This constructive memory system provides a flexibility that is generally adaptive (Schacter, Guerin, and St Jacques 2011), in that we can update memories with new information (Lee 2009), and assemble memory fragments in novel ways to imagine events that have not yet taken place (Schacter and Addis 2007). Yet the downside to this system is that it is prone to mistakes. Pieces can go missing, resulting in blank spaces in the memory (which may be filled in with schematic knowledge). Another mistake occurs when a piece of one memory trace is erroneously incorporated into another (Burt, Kemp, and Conway 2004), forming a memory conjunction error (Odegard and Lampinen 2004).

In our recent study we were interested in illuminating the factors that contribute to the formation of these conjunction errors in autobiographical memory (that is, memory for personal life experiences). Inducing enough errors in autobiographical memory to allow empirical study is challenging, due to the complex and deeply personal nature of the memories. We used a novel recombination paradigm to generate autobiographical memory conjunction errors in a laboratory environment, so that we might shed some light on the conditions under which these errors come to be accepted as authentic memories.