Tuesday 28 February 2017

A Political Justification of Nudges

This post is by Francesco Guala (pictured above), Professor of Economics at the University of Milan. In this post, he presents a paper he wrote with Luigi Mittone, Professor of Economics at the University of Trento, and which was published in the journal Review of Philosophy and Psychology. A reply to their article by Cass Sunstein is also available in the same journal.

‘Behavioural economics’ is a research programme that aims at making economic models psychologically more realistic. After many years ‘in the wild’, behavioural economists are now part of the mainstream and have succeeded at bringing microeconomics in line with the developments of cognitive psychology.

Up until recently, however, behavioural economists had been rather shy regarding the normative (i.e. policy) implications of their research. All of this has changed in 2008 with the publication of Nudge, the best-selling book by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler. Nudge is not only an impressive showcase for the best social policies inspired by behavioural economists. It also offers a philosophical framework to justify the use of behavioural interventions. The framework is called ‘Libertarian Paternalism’: nudges are libertarian because they influence people’s behaviour without limiting the range of options available to them; they are paternalistic because they help people choose the options that are good for them.

Thursday 23 February 2017

What Love Is

Today's post is by Carrie Jenkins, Canada Research Chair and Professor of Philosophy at the University of British Columbia, where she is heading up a multi-year interdisciplinary research project on the Metaphysics of Romantic Love. She lives in Vancouver, and she is @carriejenkins on Twitter. Her new book is What Love Is And What It Could Be (2017, Basic Books).

The book takes off from a dilemma facing anyone who wants to know what romantic love is. One promising approach treats love as a biological phenomenon: a bundle, perhaps, of evolved neurochemical responses (chapter 1). Another promising approach locates it as a social construct: a creature of norms, institutions, and practices (chapter 2). These approaches appear inconsistent—evolved neurochemistry is not a social construct—yet choosing one to the exclusion of the other feels like discarding half our hard-won wisdom.

After a brief detour through some “canonical” (and often deeply problematic) philosophers of love (chapter 3), I propose a new approach. Drawing on broadly functionalist traditions in other areas of philosophy, I sketch a “dual-nature” theory of romantic love as ancient biological machinery embodying a modern social role (chapter 4). It is at the interface between love’s twin natures that I identify many of the most pressing philosophical questions about love, and I use these as a way to understand more deeply the reasons why love changes over time (chapter 5) and in what ways love is currently broken and in need of change (chapter 6).

Tuesday 21 February 2017

Moral Exemplars

Hyemin Han (pictured above) is Assistant Professor in Educational Psychology and Educational Neuroscience at The University of Alabama. In this post, he summarises his paper "Attainable and relevant moral exemplars are more effective than extraordinary exemplars in promoting voluntary service engagement", recently published in Frontiers in Psychology.

Did your parent or teacher tell you the stories of morally great people, moral exemplars, e.g., Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King Jr., when you were young? Your parents and teachers perhaps told you such stories at least once, and you were asked to learn how to live a good life from them. Do you think that the stories have made you a morally better person, who is trying his/her best to emulate such exemplars’ moral behavior?

Let’s make this question more general. Can such (seemingly) morally perfect people’s stories really promote motivation to engage in moral behavior? On the one hand, prior social and developmental psychological studies examining the motivational effects of moral modeling have demonstrated that it is possible (Bandura & McDonald, 1963). On the other hand, some other studies have shown that the mere presentation of moral stories, particularly the stories of extraordinary moral exemplars, might produce negative side effects, such as extreme envy and decrease in motivation for emulation (Monin, 2007). Then, how can we maximize the positive effects of the stories of moral exemplars while preventing possible negative side effects? 

Thursday 16 February 2017

Addiction and Choice

Today's post is by Nick Heather and Gabriel Segal on their new edited collection Addiction and Choice: Rethinking the Relationship.

Nick Heather (pictured below) is a clinical psychologist by training and is now Emeritus Professor of Alcohol and Other Drug Studies at Northumbria University. He has over 500 publications, mostly in the area of addictions, with an emphasis on treatment and brief intervention for alcohol problems.

Gabriel Segal (pictured below) is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at King’s College, London. He has published extensively in philosophy of psychology, cognitive science and philosophy of language.

In 1997, Nick Heather, together with Ian Robertson, published the 3rd edition of a book called ‘Problem Drinking’. It argued that there is no such thing as ‘alcoholism’ in the sense of a discontinuous form of drinking problem and that it was not helpful to see problem drinking as a disease. Rather, people drink in problematic ways for a variety of reasons that can be understood from the point of view of social learning theory.

Tuesday 14 February 2017

Neil Levy on "Do religious beliefs respond to evidence?"

Neil Levy (pictured above) is Professor of Philosophy at Macquarie University (Sydney) and Senior Research Fellow at the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, University of Oxford. Here, he replies to last week's post by Neil Van Leeuwen. Neil Levy's post draws on themes from his paper recently published in Cognition.

There are two central strands to Neil Van Leeuwen’s post (hereafter NVL). One is the claim that there is a class of representational state (in the post he focuses on religious belief, but in his paper in Cognition he suggests that ideological beliefs belong to this class too) which fail to be evidentially vulnerable in the same way as more mundane beliefs. The second strand is the one developed in his paper in Philosophical Explorations, arguing that we best understand the limited signs of evidence responsiveness exhibited by these beliefs in terms of a kind of imaginative play. People who respond to evidence with regard to their religious beliefs typically do so because the apparent evidence is assigned a role within a circumscribed Evidence Game.

The suggestion that we sometimes engage in a game of make believe unbeknownst to ourselves in the way NVL suggests is fascinating and deserves exploration. It may even be true. As he mentions, Tanya Luhrmann’s subjects seem to take such an attitude toward their religious beliefs, and some people who profess belief in UFOs or ghosts may be only half serious in their beliefs. It is noteworthy, though, that Luhrmann’s subjects were at least half aware that their attitude to their religious beliefs had an element of playfulness; we should be careful about generalizing from this sample of charismatic Christians to other believers. Luhrmann’s sample is whiter, better educated and more affluent than most religious believers worldwide, and WEIRD people differ in important and relevant ways from other people. In particular, being educated correlates with a higher capacity to detect contradiction. It may be that WEIRD people can maintain their religious beliefs only by taking a semi-serious attitude toward them, but this attitude is not typical of religious believers.

Thursday 9 February 2017

The Virtue of Defiance

In this post, Nancy Nyquist Potter introduces her new book, The Virtue of Defiance and Psychiatric Engagement.

I am a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Louisville, an Associate with the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and a core faculty member of the Interdisciplinary Master’s Program in Bioethics and Medical Humanities. My main area of focus is in the intersection of philosophy and psychiatry, where I’ve published on topics on Borderline Personality Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, self-injury, trauma, and related nosological, epistemic, and ethical issues.

Because I have spent over 10 years working in the university’s Emergency Psychiatric Services and the Mood Disorders Clinic, I also write on therapeutic issues that are implicated in diagnosis and treatment. I always examine issues through a feminist lens and am increasingly including critical race theory in my work. I am a board member of the Association for the Advancement of Philosophy and Psychiatry, an organization that fosters interdisciplinary work and provides invaluable scholarly support for this field.

Tuesday 7 February 2017

Do religious “beliefs” respond to evidence?

This post is by Neil Van Leeuwen (pictured above), Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Associate of the Neuroscience Institute at Georgia State University. What follows is a synopsis of his new paper, which is forthcoming in a special issue of Philosophical Explorations on false but useful beliefs. The special issue is guest edited by Lisa Bortolotti and Ema Sullivan-Bissett and is inspired by project PERFECT's interests in belief.

One might argue that the answer to my title question is just blindingly obvious. Religious “beliefs” don’t respond to evidence, because no beliefs do! After all, human belief formation processes are a motley crew, including such ignobles as confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance, wishful thinking, the availability heuristic, post hoc ergo propter hoc, the base rate fallacy, the genetic fallacy, ad hominems, prestige bias, framing effects, and many, many…many more.

This cynical view, however, grows out of a diet of focusing on the bad and ignoring the good. In short, I agree with Donald Davidson’s view that irrationality is only possible against a large background of rationality. So I think, at least when it comes to the mundane, that the vast majority of factual beliefs (like my factual belief that there’s a tree in my backyard or my factual belief that my bank balance is such-and-such) in fact do respond to evidence quite well (though not perfectly).

The situation, in any case, looks far different when we turn from factual belief to the mental state that I call religious credence. 

Monday 6 February 2017

Optimistic Update Bias Holds Firm

Neil Garrett

This post is by Neil Garrett who recently wrote a paper with Tali Sharot, entitled Optimistic Update Bias Holds Firm: Three Tests of Robustness Following Shah et al.. The paper is to appear in a special issue of Consciousness and Cognition on unrealistic optimism, guest edited by Anneli Jefferson, Lisa Bortolotti, and Bojana Kuzmanovic.

Much of the recent research on optimism has centred around the phenomenon of optimistic belief updating. A well established finding is that healthy individuals are reluctant to revise beliefs when in receipt of “bad news” compared to “good news”. One of the tasks that has been devised to show this in the lab, examines how beliefs about life events (such as being burgled or involved in a car accident) change when individuals find out the events are more or less likely to occur than they initially thought. For example, how much does someone alter their beliefs when provided with evidence that they are more likely to have a car accident than they thought (an instance of bad news) versus when provided with evidence that they are less likely to have a car accident than they thought (an example of good news)? This is referred to as the belief update task. In a recent paper, we set out to examine whether optimistic updating continued to be observed when variations to the belief update task were made.

One aspect we examined asked whether the type of life events individuals are asked to consider makes a difference. A lot of past research on optimistic belief updating has focused on beliefs about unpleasant life events. Individuals can also receive good and bad news about pleasant life events however. For example, finding out that one is more (good) or less (bad) likely to earn a high salary in the future than thought. An obvious tweak to the belief update task therefore was to examine whether an optimistic update bias also existed for pleasant life events. Alongside this, another alteration we made was to test whether updating remained optimistically biased when the events examined were everyday events; events that could plausibly happen in the next few weeks (e.g., being invited to a party). Previously, the events under consideration tended to be grave, significant life events that could occur once or twice in someone’s lifetime, but were unlikely to occur over shorter timescales such as the forthcoming month.

Thursday 2 February 2017

Memory and the Self

This post is by Mark Rowlands (pictured below) who is a professor of philosophy at the University of Miami. He has written eighteen books, and a hundred or so journal papers, book chapters and reviews. His most recent book is Memory and the Self: Phenomenology,Science, and Autobiography (New York: Oxford University Press).

Intuitively, it is not unreasonable to suppose that our episodic memories play a significant – but not necessarily exhaustive – role in making us who we are. After all, what could make us the people we are if not the episodes we have encountered on these tracks through space and time that we call lives? And how could these things we have encountered be retained, and so play a role in shaping us, if not through episodic memory? As an intuition this is amenable to several quite different theoretical articulations.

Perhaps the most familiar to analytic philosophers is what I refer to as the metaphysical project. This project is made up of several, related, strands or questions, but includes, centrally, questions of distinctness (what conditions are necessary and/or sufficient for a person p1 to be distinct from another person ≠ p1?) and persistence (what conditions are necessary and/or sufficient for a person at time t1 to be the same person as a person at time t2?). The conception of the self that is implicated in this project I called the metaphysical self. The metaphysical self is not the concern of my book.

Suppose, in contrast, you are asked to write the book of you: to tell the story of who you are: the story of your life. It seems relatively safe to conclude that this autobiography is about something. Of course, many things are actually captured in these pages: a multiplicity of events and processes. But there is something that these events and processes events all seem to involve: something around which they all seem to revolve. And that something is you.

Your autobiography – unless it is a very peculiar one – would be free of the sorts of concerns that define the metaphysical project. What are the identity and persistence conditions of persons? It is not simply that your book will not answer that question. It won’t even ask it. You might think of your as a kind of epoché – in roughly Husserl’s sense. To write an autobiography is, precisely, to bracket these sorts of metaphysical questions.

Therefore, if we assume that (1) the book is about something, specifically you, (2) you are a person, (3) the book brackets the sorts of questions asked in the metaphysical project, then it seems we are inevitably led to the conclusion that (4) there is an understanding of the person that is not captured by the sorts of investigations pursued in the metaphysical project. The autobiographical self, as I use this expression, is whatever self is captured in your book of you. The autobiographical self is what this book is about.