Thursday 28 December 2017

Head-to-Head public engagement workshop 2017

I am Tom Davies, a PhD student at the University of Birmingham, and my own research broadly concerns the metaphysics of mental causation. I assisted in the Head-to-Head public-engagement event this year.

Head-to-Head aimed to bring together philosophers and members of the public, for a series of accessible talks across three sessions. Primarily organised by Ema Sullivan-Bissett (University of Birmingham) and Alisa Mandrigin (University of Stirling), Head-to-Head was made possible by a British Academy grant, through the Early Career Mind Network.

The sessions followed a standard format; three talks in each, structured around a specific theme, before opening up to questions from the audience. The theme of the first session was “Making Sense of Our Senses”. Louise Richardson (York) kicked things off with an introduction to the contemporary scientific work on the senses, and the thought that this work might suggest there are more than the five “traditional” senses. Louise offered some reasons to be sceptical of this suggestion. This was followed by a talk from Alisa Mandrigin on interaction between senses, and a consequent challenge to the standard view of sensory perception. The first session was capped off by Laura Gow (Warwick), who introduced the audience to the debate around colour objectivity, before offering some novel thoughts on that debate. These talks were interesting and engaging for the audience of laypeople and philosophers alike.

Tuesday 26 December 2017

When is a Cognitive System Immune to Delusions?

Today's post is by Chenwei Nie who is a PhD student at the Department of Philosophy, University of Warwick. His research focuses on philosophical issues related to beliefs and delusions. You can read his previous work here.

Experiences and cognitive processes are two crucial elements in the formation and maintenance of delusions. Maher’s (1974) one-factor theory argues that delusions are reasonable responses to anomalous experiences. Motivated by the evidence that some people with anomalous experiences do not have delusions, the two-factor theory (e.g., Davies, Coltheart, Langdon, & Breen, 2001) argues that besides anomalous experiences, there is an impairment in the cognitive processes.

In my understanding, delusions arise not because of either anomalous experiences or impaired cognitive processes alone, but due to a mismatch between them so that the impaired cognitive processes are not able to account for the anomalous experiences in a normal way. Since a mismatch may also happen when either the experience is too anomalous for normal cognitive processes or the cognitive processes are too impaired for a normal experience, it invites us to wonder whether delusions may arise:

(1) when the anomalous experiences are so abnormal that even normal cognitive processes are not able to account for them;

(2) when the cognitive processes are so impaired that they cannot even account for normal experiences.

Here I shall argue for the idea that delusions may arise in scenario (1). Although it looks similar to Maher’s one-factor theory in the sense that they both agree that delusional people have a normal cognitive ability, they have two important differences. First, this idea relies on that our cognitive ability is limited. Second, the anomalous experiences here are something beyond a normal cognitive ability.

Thursday 21 December 2017

The European Network for the Philosophy of the Social Sciences (ENPOSS) 2017

This post is by Tomasz KwarciƄski, reporting from the sixth conference of the European Network for the Philosophy of the Social Sciences (ENPOSS) which took place from 20th-22nd of September at Cracow University of Economics (CUE). 

The event was co-organized by the Department of Philosophy CUE and the Copernicus Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, with support of the Polish Philosophy of Economics Network. Three days of the conference were divided between keynote lectures, parallel sessions, and books symposia (a novelty in the ENPOSS conferences). The conference was preceded by the Polish Philosophy of Economics Network’s symposium. Two of the keynote talks were recorded and can be watched by clicking on the links in this post.

The ENPOSS conference was officially inaugurated by Daniel Hausman’s speech (University of Wisconsin-Madison) “Social Scientific Naturalism Revisited”, during which he posed the fundamental question of whether the social sciences differ from the natural sciences in a way that the natural sciences do not differ from one another. He focused on economics and pointed out nine features which distinguish economics from natural sciences: a specific subject matter (human being), a character of an economic generalization (not universal), reflexivity (e.g. an object of economics can be influenced by what economists say about it), the fact that explanatory concepts of economics (preferences and believes) are subjective, intentional, and not directly observable, the importance of rationality in economics, and the possibility to influence economic findings by social norms and ideology.

The first parallel session on the first day addressed well-being issues, and problems of its measurement and interpersonal comparisons. The second session included issues such as production of scientific knowledge, relationships between social science and philosophy of action, and values in science. The first day of the conference was concluded by the book symposium devoted to Daniel Little’s (University of Michigan-Dearborn) “New Directions in the Philosophy of Social Science”. The author and panelists Gianluca Manzo (GEMASS & University of Paris-Sorbonne), and Federica Russo (University of Amsterdam) lead a discussion on the topics that Little addresses in the book.

Tuesday 19 December 2017

A Plea for Minimally Biased Naturalistic Philosophy

In this post, Andrea Polonioli (pictured below), MBA candidate at Strathclyde Business School, summarises his paper titled “A Plea for Minimally Biased Naturalistic Philosophy”,  forthcoming in Synthese.

My paper argues that there would be benefits for naturalistic philosophers if they expanded their methodological toolkit. The tools discussed here are the systematic methodologies for literature search and review that are widely employed in the natural, life and health sciences. 

More in detail, the paper presents and defends the following claims. First, naturalistic philosophers do not philosophise in a vacuum and, in fact, rely on literature search and review in a number of ways and for several purposes. A hot topic in metaphilosophy concerns how best to describe the methods used by philosophers and their practices. Many of the recent discussions on this topic have focused on whether, to what extent, and how analytic philosophy rests on the use of intuitions. Still, we should not underestimate the importance of literature search and review for the philosophical profession, at least in many areas of philosophical investigation. More precisely, if we asked what naturalistic philosophers actually do when they carry out philosophical research, a plausible answer could not help but mention their engagement with literature search and review as an important aspect of it.

Second, biases and cognitive limitations are likely to affect literature search and review in many critical ways. Over the past decades, psychologists have described numerous ways in which judgment formation and information search can be biased, and there are no reasons to doubt that also literature search and review should be biased in important ways, and even in the field of philosophy. For instance, Roy Baumeister and Leary (1997, 319) wrote that:

Although literature reviews are less subject than empirical investigations to capitalizing on chance, they are probably more susceptible to the danger of confirmation bias. Many good literature reviews involve seeing a theoretical pattern or principle in multiple spheres of behavior and evidence, and putting together such a paper undoubtedly involves an aggressive search for evidence that fits the hypothesized pattern. 

Thursday 14 December 2017

CfP: Philosophical Perspectives on Confabulation

Announcement: there will be a TOPOI Special Issue on Philosophical Perspectives on Confabulation. Here is the Call For Papers.


Numerous psychological studies establish that we are unaware of information that is relevant to the occurrence of an event, but we may nonetheless offer a sincere, often inaccurate, explanation for that event. This phenomenon is named confabulation, or broad/everyday confabulation to distinguish it from those cases of confabulation that are due to impaired memory or that emerge in clinical contexts. We confabulate about what one might think are trivial matters such as consumer choices, but we are also prone to confabulating in situations which, arguably, implicate our identity, such as when we explain our political beliefs and moral convictions.

Confabulation raises a number of important philosophical questions. For instance, it is an open question how exactly we should characterize the phenomenon. Does a single characterization unify all instances of confabulation? Or do we need a family of related cognitions and behaviors to best account for the phenomenon? Whether clinical and non-clinical cases constitute distinct phenomena, or whether these instances are related, and how, is also up for discussion.

Early philosophical work on confabulation identifies it as a threat to first person authority and characterizes it in terms of its epistemic faults. If these accounts are right, then there are wide-ranging consequences for theorizing in the philosophy of mind and epistemology: we are routinely mistaken about the nature and origin of our sensations, preferences and judgements, and develop theories about our motivations that can be wildly inaccurate.

Given the ubiquity of the phenomenon, clarity on the nature and implications of confabulation are important for the project of understanding the mind. But further to this, a better understanding of the phenomenon will facilitate interventions with both psychiatric patients and in everyday cases in order to improve cognition.

Contributions from philosophers working in the philosophy of mind, philosophy of psychology, and epistemology are most welcome.

Tuesday 12 December 2017

Stranger than Fiction: Costs and Benefits of Confabulation

In this post I present the main ideas in my recent paper on confabulation, "Stranger than Fiction", which appeared in Review of Philosophy and Psychology in October, open access.

Confabulation has a bad press in philosophy, often identified with the main obstacle to attaining self-knowledge and described as an obvious instance of epistemic irrationality. In earlier work I thought about the current definitions of confabulation, which focus on the surface features of the phenomenon, and can be divided into two broad categories: those who define confabulations as false beliefs, and those who define confabulations as ill-grounded beliefs.

In this paper though, after a brief introduction, I leave aside how confabulation should be defined, and focus instead on its costs and benefits. In particular, I ask what costs and benefits it has for the acquisition, retention, and use of information that is relevant to us. Are we epistemically worse or better off when we confabulate?

Does confabulation really compromise self-knowledge? Does it really count as an instance of epistemic irrationality? I argue that confabulatory explanations of one's attitudes and choices do not threaten self-knowledge as correct mental-state self-attribution (that is, we know what our attitudes and choices are); but they are an instance of epistemic irrationality in the sense that we "tell more than we can know", as Nisbett and Wilson (1977) famously put it. For instance, we put forward an explanation of our choice when we lack sufficient evidence relevant to the causal process behind that particular choice. As a result, our explanation is ill-grounded and, on the basis of it, we may adopt further ill-grounded beliefs.

But that is only one side of the story. Confabulation has also a wealth of benefits for our epistemic agency that are often neglected if we just focus on truth and justification as the primary epistemic goods. Primarily, the benefits of confabulation are psychological. First, offering explanations about our attitudes and choices makes us feel more competent and enables us to build links and connections between the different things we may value and choose. A sense of competence and coherence will enhance our perceived agency, that is, the sense that we do not do things randomly or under the influence of uncontrollable environmental cues, but act in accordance to our values striving to attain the goals we set for ourselves.

Another psychological benefit of confabulation is that by offering an answer to a request for an explanation we exchange information with other people, and socialisation might be enhanced as a result. Socialisation contributes to both wellbeing and cognitive performance, but also allows us to receive feedback on our explanations and, in some circumstances, build some critical distance from them. Our explanations are likely to be false, as they are not based on the relevant information, but by being "out there", as an object of conversation and discussion, they may become a source of reflection and bring knowledge eventually, either about our attitudes and choices or about other things.

This does not mean that confabulation is all things considered good for us or should be encouraged. Rather it means that, when we take steps to reduce confabulation, and tell stories that are better grounded, we should also think about how our new and improved stories support our sense of agency, so that we don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Thursday 7 December 2017

Interview with John Sutton on Distributed Cognition

In this post Alex Miller Tate (AMT) interviews John Sutton (JS), pictured below, about his views on a number of research topics, many of which were explored at the Distributed Cognitive Ecologies of Collaborative Embodied Skill workshop.

AMT: Hello John, and thank you very much for agreeing to be interviewed for the Imperfect Cognitions blog! Let’s start with quite a general question: could you please clarify for some of our readers the different research areas that came together at your workshop?

JS: Sure! The workshop investigated the intersection of three broad research topics that have interested myself and others for some time. The first is the notion of Collaborative or Joint Action, the second is the Psychology and Philosophy of Skill, and the third is the Embodied and Distributed Cognition paradigm.

Lab studies of Joint Action have tended to focus on various kinds of synchrony amongst actors – such as situations where two people who have just met up will walk off ‘in step’ with each other, having previously been walking out of synch with each other, or where two or more people’s eye-gaze falls upon the same object relevant to the achievement of some collaborative task. On this topic, we have evidence both that joint motives enhance certain kinds of bodily synchrony, and that bodily synchrony promotes the achievement of jointly held goals.

But many cases of intuitively joint action – or, perhaps better, collaborative action – necessarily involve non-synchronous behaviour in the achievement of some jointly held goal. Examples include members of sports teams and bands. Individual actions, in these cases, ideally complement each other, so that the group may achieve some collective end, but they may not be at all alike – a bass guitar player’s movements will be nothing like a trombonist’s, even (perhaps especially) when they are collaborating to produce, say, some improvised jazz.

In such cases, it seems like individuals are exercising skills collaboratively, but non-synchronously. But the skill literature is generally quite individualistic. While we have much discussion of the relative merits of automatic vs cognitively controlled accounts of skill and expert action, we have little insight into how collaboration in the realm of skill works, or how the need to collaborate may affect the deployment or acquisition of individual skill, or even how skills may be rightly attributed to joint agents (plausible cases include phenomena such as swarm intelligence).

Finally, we were interested in investigating at this workshop how features of our natural and social environments may act as cues or supports to our collaborative activities, or to our acquisition or deployment of skills in collaborative contexts. This is where the notions of embodied and distributed cognition enter into the picture.

AMT: I imagine many of our readers might be thinking about the connection between the substantial literature on Collective Intentionality, and some of the topics you have discussed above. Do you think that they are interestingly connected?

JS: I suspect that paradigm cases of Collective Intentionality (CI), discussed primarily in the world of analytic philosophy, and paradigm cases of Joint Action (JA), may be aspects of the same phenomenon. They certainly share many features, and many cases of the latter intuitively depend on basic cases of the former; some sort of shared goal for instance. But they do have some obvious differences too. Not only do some paradigm cases of CI tend toward something more like synchrony (in belief, attention, and so on) than non-synchronous complementarity of behaviour and intention, they also tend to discuss phenomena that are introspectively, or at least interpersonally, accessible. That is, they refer to kinds of joint behaviour that are relatively articulable. The Joint Action literature often concerns itself with relatively small, complementary, and non-articulable adjustments to behaviour in response to that of another (though some cases probably allow for significantly more articulability than theorists like Hubert Dreyfus might want to allow).

Resolving the question of the kind and limit of connection between these topics is likely to require talking about the interaction between automaticity and explicit cognitive control in skill more generally, as this clearly has ramifications for degrees of articulability in different forms of active coordination. We don’t want to end up in a position where we ascribe too much explicit control to humans, where computationally expensive, representation-heavy, and biologically questionable models dominate our theorising. 

But neither do we wish to describe agents as if they were more plant than human. We should look for a continuous and complex ‘meshing’ of cognition and automaticity in Joint Action. In this respect, we can learn a lot from Distributed Cognition. This paradigm shows us how features of our social and natural environments can allow for the human brain to adopt relatively computationally frugal solutions to problems (including, it seems likely, problems of coordination in Joint Action). Moreover, we will learn a lot about these issues by examining cases where expertise and fluidity in Collaborative Action break down.

AMT: How does your understanding of Distributed Cognition relate to notions of The Extended Mind?

JS: I am not primarily concerned with defending strong metaphysical claims about The Extended Mind (though this is not to disagree with them, necessarily). There are a couple of reasons for this. The first is that much discussion of The Extended Mind, at least in its canonical formulation by Andy Clark and David Chalmers, tends to prioritise similarity between external and internal mental resources or functions, in order to argue that many such things are of a (cognitive) kind, metaphysically speaking. 

I am more interested in cases where external resources complement the internal neural resources, and where such external resources developed and were deliberately shaped together for us as agents to become better adapted for everyday cognition. Many such cognitive scaffolds bear no resemblance to internal cognitive resources, either structurally or functionally, but nevertheless play an important role in ordinary mental life. Focus on functional similarity risks ignoring certain indispensable contributions to everyday cognition (specifically, those that depend on or are transformed by the environment performing functions that the brain does or cannot perform). In this respect, Kim Sterelny’s account of the scaffolded mind is usefully compatible with my interpretation of Clark. 

The second reason is that while Extended Mind theorists tend to be more interested in cognitive ontology (where is the mind, what can count as a part of it, and so on), I am more interested in studying how human beings actually think, solve day-to-day problems, and control action. In doing this, I make the bet that many different kinds of environmental resources will be indispensable to our explanations. I further suspect, in Quinean fashion, that modelling such distributed cognition well, might give us our ontology ‘for free’.

AMT: One final question. Do you see any interesting points of convergence, or opportunities for collaboration, between those of us working on these non-traditional, explicitly social, projects in Cognitive Science, and those working on critical projects in Social and Political Philosophy?

JS: I think the answer to that is ‘yes’. Cognitive Science that is sensitive to the social context of cognition cannot be blind to issues of social and political injustice for long, as it would mean avoiding important context that may be affecting everyday human cognition. Moreover, it would be irresponsible not to take stock of the moral, social, and political consequences of de-centering individual brains in Cognitive Science. 

In many ways, these sorts of projects involve the re-negotiation of scientific and philosophical boundaries, and these boundaries can often be as much ideological as they are academic and theoretical. James Williams has a critique of Andy Clark’s Extended Mind model that takes it up on exactly this kind of theoretical blindspot - a failure to recognise the potential harm of uninterrogated social and political assumptions built into the theory. He favourably contrasts Sterelny’s work in this respect. 

My view is not only that the thesis of Extended Mind or Distributed Cognition, when rightly interpreted, does have the resources to address these issues effectively. I think, further, that its focus on the incompleteness of our individual cognitive capacities, and on the ways we are intrinsically interdependent with artefacts and with other people in complex cognitive ecologies, actually offers more promising insights into our psychological vulnerability and resilience than any other approach in the philosophy of mind and cognition.

More generally, I think adopting a critical edge will help the development of both a sound and conscionable Cognitive Science, and progressive work in Social and Political Philosophy clearly has something to add here. Going further, there are similar moral as well as academic benefits to be had from interdisciplinarity, especially between Cognitive Science and the Humanities/Social Sciences. They offer us both a critical edge and very rich case studies. Better yet, these disciplines are fascinated by Distributed Cognition, and we have much to offer them theoretically, as well as vice versa.

Tuesday 5 December 2017

Is Autism a Disease?

This post is by Christopher Mole, Chair of the programme in Cognitive Systems at the University of British Columbia. He is the author of Attention is Cognitive Unison (OUP, 2010), and The Unexplained Intellect (Routledge, 2016). This post outlines the argument of his recent article, “Autism and ‘disease’: The semantics of an ill-posed question” (Philosophical Psychology, 8(3): 557-571).

Discussions of autism are often euphemistic: We speak of ‘service users’ rather than patients; and ‘atypicality’ rather than illness. By avoiding the rhetoric of disease we avoid the implication that the autistic point of view is a defective one, which would be gone from a world in which everything was operating correctly.

Those who do use the vocabulary of disease might reject such motivations, while congratulating themselves on their straight-talking, no-nonsense approach. This would, I think, be a mistake. According to one tradition, the mistake would be that of applying a ‘medical model’. Autism, on this view, is something other than a disease.

This too is an unappealing position. Autism has several effects, some disrupting the gastrointestinal system, others disrupting the processes of immune response and inflammation. It seems arbitrary to deny that those consequences that affect psychological functioning might also be understood medically. And to deny this would leave us without a full account of the autistic person’s entitlement to help.

Autistic people can seem inconsiderate. They are, as a result, prone to suffer from loneliness, unless allowances are made. Such suffering can be profound. It is appropriate that these allowances be made (and appropriate that healthcare budgets provide funding for them). Autism therefore differs from such non-medical conditions as the condition of being an arsehole. That condition is also prone to produce the suffering of loneliness, but — not being a disease — there is no reason why healthcare resources should be directed to its mitigation.

On these grounds (and others) we find ourselves wanting to avoid saying that autism is a disease, and also wanting to avoid saying that it is not one. We might try to have it both ways, by saying that the question is vague, or that the answer varies from case to case. I claim that we should instead reject both answers.

Michael Dummett’s theory of pejoratives opens up the logical space for this. Pejoratives (such as racist terms for ethnic groups) should be rejected whether their use is affirmative or negative. Such terms should even be rejected in contexts that are non-assertoric, as in the asking of questions.

Similarly, I claim, we should reject the vocabulary of disease in connection with autism, not because we should deny that autism is a disease, but because we should refuse even to ask the question.

It is a strength of Dummett’s theory that it applies to vocabulary whether or not that vocabulary is insulting, and so explains why vocabulary that applauds piety, machismo, or class loyalty, is no better than vocabulary that deplores racial diversity, effeminacy, or free-thinking. The problem with pejorative vocabulary is not the insult. The problem is that such vocabulary allows normative consequences to be inferred from the wrong descriptive basis.

The vocabulary of disease enables us to infer certain normative consequences on the basis of there being a condition that impairs human flourishing: from the presence of such a condition it allows us to infer that cure-seeking would be appropriate (and perhaps obligatory for those with a duty of care); and it allows us to infer that shortcomings attributable to this condition are mitigated.