Tuesday 31 December 2019

Explaining Delusional Beliefs: a Hybrid Model

In this post Kengo Miyazono (Hiroshima) and Ryan McKay (Royal Holloway) summarise their new paper “Explaining delusional beliefs: a hybrid model”, in which they present and defend a hybrid theory of the development of delusions that incorporates the central ideas of two influential (yet sometimes bitterly opposing) theoretical approaches to delusions—the two-factor theory and the prediction error theory. 

There are at least two influential candidates for a global theory of delusions (i.e., a theory that explains many kinds of delusions, rather than particular kinds of delusions such as persecutory delusions) in the recent literature: the two-factor theory (Coltheart, 2007; Coltheart, Menzies, & Sutton, 2010; Coltheart, Langdon, & McKay, 2011), according to which delusions are explained by two distinct neurocognitive factors with different explanatory roles, and the prediction error theory (Corlett et al., 2010; Corlett, Honey, & Fletcher, 2016; Fletcher & Frith, 2009), according to which delusions are explained by the disrupted processing of prediction errors (i.e., mismatches between expectations and actual inputs).

Which one is correct; the two-factor theory or the prediction error theory? Recent years have seen vigorous debates between the two camps. A recent example was this paper, “Factor one, familiarity and frontal cortex: a challenge to the two-factor theory of delusions”, in which Phil Corlett, one of the main figures in the prediction error camp, challenged some basic assumptions of the two-factor theoretic account of the Capgras delusion. Some of the discussions between the two camps have been hosted on this blog:

Our view, however, is that we do not have to choose one theory at the complete expense of the other. In fact, there are good reasons to seek a rapprochement between the two theories. For instance, the two-factor theory (as a general framework) tends to be rather agnostic about mechanistic details. By adopting some ideas from the prediction error theory camp, we might achieve a better understanding of the nature (and neurophysiological cause) of the second factor. Conversely, by adopting some ideas from the two-factor theory camp, we might better understand how alleged abnormalities in processing prediction errors manifest themselves at the psychological level of description.

We have previously argued that the two theories might not be irreconcilable alternatives (McKay, 2012; Miyazono, 2018; Miyazono, Bortolotti, & Broome, 2014). In support of our position, our new paper advances a particular hybrid theory of delusion formation, arguing that key contributions of the two theories can be combined in a powerful way.

According to the hybrid theory, the first/second factor distinction in the two-factor framework corresponds to a crucial distinction in the prediction error framework, namely, the distinction between prediction errors and their estimated precision. More precisely, we contend that the first factor (at the psychological level) is physically grounded in an abnormal prediction error (at the neurophysiological level), and the second factor (at the psychological level) is physically grounded in the overestimation of the precision of this abnormal prediction error (at the neurophysiological level). (Note: The “physical grounding” is a placeholder for whatever it is that relates psychological and neurophysiological levels of explanation.)

Here is how this theory applies to the Capgras delusion.

First Factor & Prediction Error: We follow the standard account in the two-factor theory camp that the first factor in the Capgras delusion is the abnormal datum about a familiar face. This abnormal datum is physically grounded in an abnormal prediction error; i.e., a mismatch between the expected and actual autonomic response to a familiar face (cf. Coltheart, 2010).

Second Factor & Estimated Precision: We adopt the hypothesis that the second factor is a “bias towards observational (or explanatory) adequacy” (“OA bias”); i.e., the tendency to form beliefs that accommodate perceptions, even where this entails adjustments to the existing web of belief (Stone & Young, 1997; McKay, 2012). The OA bias, we contend, is physically grounded in the overestimation of the precision of abnormal prediction errors (in which the first factor is physically grounded). When the precision of an abnormal prediction error is overestimated, the abnormal prediction error is prioritised over prior beliefs, and it drives bottom-up belief updating processes (cf. Adams et al., 2013; Fletcher & Frith, 2009). In effect, this is the OA bias.

This hybrid account can be easily generalised to many other delusions. In fact, this theory, because of its hybrid nature, has a wide scope of application. The two-factor theory provides a plausible account of a range of monothematic delusions that can arise due to neuropsychological deficits. In contrast, the prediction error theory provides a plausible account of delusions in schizophrenia. Our hybrid theory provides a unified explanation of both types of delusions.

Of course, the hybrid theory as it stands does not answer all questions about the process of delusion formation. For example, it is not clear how the hybrid theory accommodates a role for motivational factors in delusion formation (McKay, Langdon, & Coltheart, 2005). Relatedly, although the hybrid theory has a wide scope of application, it might not explain all delusions. A particularly difficult example would be anosognosia, which we may need a separate account of (for more on the hybrid theory and delusion in anosognosia, see Miyazono, 2018).

Friday 27 December 2019

Autonoesis and Moral Agency

This post is by Phil Gerrans and Jeanette Kennett. It is a reply to the post we published on Tuesday on Metaethics and Mental Time Travel.

In Metaethics and Mental Time Travel, Fileva and Tresan (F&T) fairly and accurately reconstructed (improved?) and intricately dissected our paper. We cannot follow every twist and turn in a short blog post so concentrate on the key issue. They partially agree with us that semantic knowledge detached from diachronic self-awareness is insufficient for moral agency but disagree (i) whether that awareness needs to be "richly experiential" and (ii) the nature of diachronic deficits in the cases we discuss (see their discussion of these cases which is deeper than ours). As they say,

Representations with past- or future-oriented, autobiographical content, crucially, awareness of one’s past actions or future options as consistent or inconsistent with one’s principles do seem necessary: but MTT involves experiential representations of those sorts, and we seem able to conceive of agents motivated by principle without such experiential representations. Of course, in real humans those representations are often richly experiential. But if they’re required, perhaps it’s only by human nature.

We note that we would be happy to have made a claim about real humans and human nature but we take it that their disagreement is not that we haven’t covered possible worlds in which amnesics retain experiential diachronic self-awareness and hence agency! Indeed, see (ii) above, they interpret the neuropsychological cases differently than us arguing that a sufficient degree of diachronic self-awareness may be retained even if rich experiential diachronic self-awareness is lost (our italics).

Our point, which we took from the neuropsychological literature was that in these cases autonoetic awareness (and hence, we argued, agency) was missing. Autonoetic awareness is a term of art introduced by Tulving to refer the feeling that an experience is "mine". This aspect of subjective experience seems subtle and elusive rather than "rich". So much so that its nature comes into focus when it is lost in cases of neuropsychological damage. Rather as the experience of familiarity tends to be obscured in the normal flux of experience and becomes salient when lost in cases of defamiliarisation such as Capgras delusion or Jamais Vu. These cases contrast with rich perceptual experience in which structural detail which can be made the focus of attention yielding more information.

As an example consider RB a patient who lost the sense of autonoesis for his episodic memories (quoted in Klein 2012). He described his experience thus.
When I remember the scene with my friends, studying, I remember myself walking into the room... and... other things I did and felt... But it feels like something I didn’t experience... (something I) was told about by someone else. It’s all quite puzzling (Our italics).
He continued:
I can see the scene in my head... I’m studying with friends in the lounge in the residence hall. But it doesn’t feel like its mine... that I own it. It’s like imagining the experience, but it was described by someone else.
Whatever precisely R.B. is missing it seems quite a subtle feature of experience. Our idea was that people who cannot automatically experience representations, including of their prior moral principles, as their own will have compromised agency. And if agency is necessary for judgement, compromised moral judgement. The ways in which the experience of "mineness" can be affected differ in qualitatively and in degree so it is difficult to make a categorical judgement on the basis of cases like that of R.B., H.M. and E.V.R. If however self-knowledge is confined to the third personal and propositional we stand by the view that agency is compromised. R.B. is of course an interesting case since, if he is accurately describing his experience in theory-neutral terms then he is a case of intact episodic memory without autonoesis. A dissociation not contemplated in the earliest characterisations of the concept of autonoesis.

How to proceed without rehearsing interpretations of case evidence and the subtleties of metaethical arguments (e.g. whether and to what degree there is convergence between sophisticated/inclusive versions of rationalism and sentimentalism). Consider a judge with episodic amnesia and ex hypothesi a deficit in MTT and autonoesis. She has intact semantic memory, legal knowledge, reasoning and executive capacities so she is able to decide cases synchronically. She just cannot remember that she has done so, but if the matter or a similar one comes up before her again she can evaluate the arguments (again) and reach the correct decision. So her legal reasoning is consistent over time and across cases. Does such a judge have legal competence?

Many would say yes. This answer suggests that synchronic capacities absent diachronic awareness are sufficient for legal agency, understood as the ability to make the right decisions in context.

Now consider the judge deciding whether to get divorced, to retire to another country or to how invest her savings. The relevant information is accessible to her as propositional knowledge. And grant that when she wakes up one morning in Malaysia and asks why she is there and where her family are, she can understand the explanation. She decided previously to get divorced, give her money to her children and move overseas. But she lacks the sense that the decision was hers. It might as well have been made by someone else.

Is the judge a full moral agent?

One can answer this by consulting one's intuitions or by via a moral theory which produces the answer as output. E.g. For a moral externalist presumably yes. Our approach, which we think we share with F&T is a kind of reflective equilibrium, allowing the moral theory to be influenced by empirical evidence without ruling H.M. R.B. or E.V.R. in or out as moral agents a priori.

Tuesday 24 December 2019

Metaethics and Mental Time Travel

We are Iskra Fileva and Jonathan Tresan. Both of us teach philosophy, at the University of Colorado, Boulder and at the University of Rochester, respectively. We recently wrote a paper in response to "Neurosentimentalism and Moral Agency," by Philip Gerrans and Jeanette Kennett published in Mind in 2010. We summarize our paper "Metaethics and Mental Time Travel" here.

When we make moral judgments, we often experientially project ourselves into the past or the possible futures, a capacity dubbed “mental time travel” (MTT). For instance, in judging whether her mom was wrong to keep her away from her dad after the parents divorced, Sally may try to recall what it was like to be her father’s daughter. Was it a good experience or a bad one? Was the mother rightly protective or just trying to spite the dad? Sally’s evaluation will likely be informed not just by propositional memories (e.g., “My father was born in June”) but by richly detailed and vivid first-personal experiential memories (e.g., what it felt like to hike with Dad).

Similarly, in deliberating about what to do in the future, we don’t just contemplate future-oriented propositions (e.g., “My mother would get upset if I said that”) but entertain experientially rich scenarios, for instance, Sally might imagine her mother’s reactions when deliberating about what to do. When we do such things, we exercise our capacity for MTT.

MTT is in fact involved in moral judgment in myriad ways. That is uncontroversial. In their paper, however, Gerrans and Kennett argue that a capacity for MTT is essential to moral judgment, a requirement they label “diachronicity.” And this fact, they argue, cuts major metaethical ice, providing support for a Kantian metaethical view according to which moral judgments are intrinsically motivating exercises of a rational faculty.

They give three main reasons for this Diachronicity Constraint. First, they cite the behavior of subjects with impaired capacities for MTT such as amnesiacs and certain vmPFC patients. The difficulties these subjects have in making moral judgments, they say, evinces the need for MTT in moral judgment. Second, they argue that MTT deficits necessarily undermine moral agency, but moral agency in turn, they argue, is necessary for moral judgment. Third, they claim that the Diachronicity Constraint follows from the essential normativity of morality.

In our paper we rebut all three of their arguments. First, at least some of the people with impaired MTT capacities discussed by Gerrans and Kennett seem quite capable of making moral judgments. We focus on the case of E.V.R., described by Eslinger and Damasio (1985). E.V.R., we contend, has decision-making deficits but is quite capable of judging morally. Eslinger and Damasio report that he was quite capable of reasoning intelligently when presented with a version of the Heinz dilemma. Gerrans’ and Kennett’s case, we suggest, relies on a tendentious interpretation of the evidence.

Second, even if moral agency requires MTT as Gerrans and Kennett claim, it is implausible that moral agency is required for moral judgment. A person may be fully capable of judging morally without being a moral agent, say because her will is thoroughly impaired due to depression or addiction. 

Third, Gerrans’ and Kennett’s case that MTT is necessary in order for morality to be normative relies on an unsupported rationalist interpretation of what morality’s normativity consists in. On that interpretation, reasons are normative for a person only when they are independent of immediate stimulus bound responses. It is a short step from here to the conclusion that we must accept the Diachronicity Constraint. 

But the rationalist interpretation of normativity is not the only game in town. Accounts of moral normativity including accounts that omit MTT from the necessary conditions for normativity are abundant (for instance, sentimentalist Michael Slote derives an account (2007) of normativity from empathy and its role in moral reasoning). The metaethicists Gerrans and Kennett target with the Diachronicity Constraint can and do call upon alternative accounts. It would not do for Gerrans and Kennett to argue for Diachronicity by assuming the truth of an account of normativity that supports the Constraint.

Tuesday 17 December 2019

Frozen II and Youth Mental Health

In this post I reflect on what the Disney film Frozen can tell us about youth mental health. (This is a slightly expanded version of a post that appeared on the University of Birmingham website on 16th December 2019.)

When it was released in 2013, Frozen was praised for having a leading female character who was different: a guest at Elsa’s coronation calls her a monster when she loses control; Elsa isolates herself from the people she loves for fear of harming them; and she is distressed because she does not fully comprehend what is happening to her. Elsa does not ‘fit in’, and often makes those around her feel uncomfortable.

When Elsa celebrates her liberation from her stuffy conventional life with the song “Let it go”, some critics talked about Disney’s ‘gay agenda’ and Elsa was welcomed in some circles as a queer icon. Some were hoping that she would get a girlfriend in Frozen II. But there is another form of diversity that Elsa embodies just as convincingly, that of a young person who struggles with her mental health, attempts and fails to suppress those unusual experiences that make her different, and is (at first) neither fully understood nor supported by her immediate social circle.

At the end of the original Frozen film, the renewed love and understanding of her sister come to the rescue, and Elsa learns to control her 'power'. She agrees to play her role as queen, even showing that her quirkiness can have some unexpected benefits. However, the last scene where she turns the palace courtyard into an ice-rink leaves several questions hanging in the air. Now knowing that she is different, will her people trust her not to disrupt their ordinary lives again? Will she be able to adjust to a life that never felt like her own just because she is allowed to play with a little ice?

Those are the questions to be answered in the sequel. If the mental health angle might have been dismissed in Frozen as reading too much into the character (but see this and this), Frozen II confirms that Elsa has experiences that other people do not share and do not understand. Indeed, the whole premise of the film is that Elsa hears voices, not just any voice, but a voice that makes her doubt the nature of the reality she is supposed to accept and invites her to distance herself once again from a normality that she never found authentic. 

In the course of the film, Olaf and Anna keep referring to Elsa as someone who may lose credibility or need protection because of her difference, and as someone who takes unnecessary risks and is bound to lose control in critical situations. Elsa appears frustrated as she appreciates the concerns of her sister and friends, but does not want to be sensible—or she does not know how. In the end, Elsa’s difference is openly acknowledged, and as a result ‘normality’ is no longer imposed on her. She remains an outsider, one who has learnt to tame her demons by embracing her difference.

Young people who struggle with their mental health may not meet Hollywood beauty standards as Elsa does, enjoy the privileges of a queen’s wealth, or have crowd-pleasing superpowers such as the capacity to make stunning ice sculptures on a whim. Reality is still a world away from a Disney fairy tale. However, it is refreshing to see that a Christmas blockbuster for children invites us to reflect on how having unusual experiences can affect young people’s lives and the lives of those around them, for better or worse. 

In particular, the film addresses some key issues that we investigated as part of project PERFECT: the importance of supportive personal relationships for the capacity that young people have to manage difficult situations; and the risks of self-doubt and self-stigma, when young people come to think of themselves as unreliable or dangerous due to the influence of society’s prejudices, because they see themselves through the eyes of others. We cannot change popular culture overnight, but creating opportunities to talk and think about the effects of unusual experiences is important, and Frozen II is a good conversation starter.

Tuesday 10 December 2019

Epistemic Norms for the New Public Sphere

Today's post is by Natalie Ashton (University of Stirling). She is reporting on a workshop held at the University of Warwick on 19th of September as part of the AHRC-project Norms for the New Public Sphere. It was the first of a series of workshops planned to take place over the next two years. These workshops are designed to bring together academic philosophers with media scholars, professionals, and activists in order to investigate the opportunities and challenges that new social media pose for the public sphere. This first workshop focused on the epistemic norms that can foster a public sphere in which democracy can flourish.

Alessandra Tanesini kicked the event off with a talk titled “Bellicose Debates: Arrogant and Liberatory Anger On and Off-line”. Her main claims were that anger can be divided into different kinds: status anger, which is typically arrogant, and liberatory anger, which she says can offer distinctive motivational, epistemic and communicative benefits in the fight against oppression. She also argued that some calls for civility in online debates are complicit in claimant injustice, when liberatory anger is muted because it is mis-interpreted as mere ranting or venting.

The next two talks had a common theme: both cautioned against the misuse of inaccurate terms for problematic online phenomena on the grounds that this can disguise their pernicious effects. In her talk “Echo Chambers, Fake News, and Social Epistemology” Jennifer Lackey argued that the problem with Trump’s reliance on Fox news is not, as is often claimed, that it allows him to exist in an echo chamber. In fact, Lackey argues, echo chambers can be a good thing. Rather, Trump’s problem is that his favourite TV channel reports fake news (or lies) and that this is amplified online by fake news approvers (or bots). Lackey went on to make a distinction between criticising the structure of epistemic environments, and their content, and argued that social epistemologists should be less afraid of making the second kind of criticism.

Tuesday 3 December 2019

Norms for Political Debate: An Interview with Fabienne Peter

For today's post I interviewed Fabienne Peter, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick, specializing in political philosophy, moral philosophy, and social epistemology. She talks about her research interests, a new exciting project she is participating in, and the role of philosophers in public life.

LB: How did you become interested in the norms that govern political debate?

FP: I’ve been doing research on the question of what makes political decisions legitimate for some time now. This research has led me to see that an inclusive and fair political debate is an important condition for legitimate political decision-making.

Inclusive and fair political debate of political issues matters in a number of ways. It helps to gather relevant considerations that bear on the decision-making, for example in relation to the implications of possible political decisions for different people. It also helps to weigh the importance of those considerations. Political debate matters in the context of informed democratic decision-making, but also for decision-making by political representatives, e.g. by a prime minister.

It is a mistake to think that regular democratic elections or referenda are sufficient for the legitimacy of democratic decisions. The political debate in which elections or referenda are embedded helps with making sense of the decision-making process and with interpreting its results. For example, in relation to the recent Brexit referendum, it is important to see that this referendum did not give a mandate for no deal. No deal was explicitly ruled out as a viable option by all sides in the debate leading up to the referendum in March 2016.

If we accept that a well-ordered political debate is an important condition for legitimate political decision-making, the next question is, then, which norms a well-ordered political debate must satisfy. And I believe that we cannot answer this question by just focusing on moral norms. A well-ordered political debate must also effectively respond to our best knowledge about how different political decisions affect people, when such knowledge is available, and it must respond appropriately when political decision-making is affected by inconclusive evidence, uncertainty, and disagreement. In other words, a well-ordered political debate will also satisfy certain epistemic norms – norms about what to believe about our political circumstances and the best decisions in those circumstances.

LB: How do you think political debate has changed with the emerging of social media platforms? Can you see positive as well as negative consequences of the new media?

FP: When internet technology first reached a stage where it became possible to engage in political debate online, there was great optimism about the democratising potential of the internet. By reducing the cost of political participation and eliminating other barriers to access, the new technology was seen as having the potential to make political debate more inclusive and fair. While the democratising effects remain important, we are now becoming aware that there are potentially pernicious effects, too. Social media platforms have led to new forms of segregation in political debate and enabled targeted political influencing that is only accessible to some groups and not to others.

I can thus definitely see positive and negative consequences of the new media. On the one hand, there is potential for greater inclusivity and, through that, greater scrutiny of controversial political claims and proposals. On the other hand, more and more fine-grained virtual political segregation has become possible, which undermines inclusive political debate and facilitates bad faith manipulation of the political decision-making process.

LB: You are co-investigator in an exciting project, Norms for the New Public Sphere: Institutionalising Respect for Truth, Self-Government, and Privacy, funded by the AHRC. What do you and your team hope to achieve at the end of the project?

FP: It is an exciting project! This collaborative project aims to identify the set of norms – moral norms and epistemic norms – that can underpin regulatory frameworks for the new public sphere. By ‘new public sphere’ we mean the way in which political debate is now influenced by social media technology and related technology, for better or worse. Existing regulatory frameworks that influence political debate tend to focus on the press.

As political debate has now largely moved online, existing regulatory frameworks are no longer adequate to ensure a well-ordered political debate. And while there is currently quite a bit of interest in the question of how to regulate the social media sphere, there is more focus on online harms (cf. the recent Government White Paper) or other ways in which social media platforms might be used for criminal activity. Not enough attention has been paid to the question of how to regulate the way in which social media platforms influence political debate, a question that we believe is vital for a healthy democracy.

Our project is a philosophical project. We are thus focusing on the moral and epistemic norms that could underpin the regulation of the new public sphere, rather than on the question of what an adequate regulatory framework would look like. But our project is not purely philosophical and includes practitioners. The original idea for the project came out of discussions between Jonathan Heawood, CEO of Impress, a media regulation NGO, and Rowan Cruft, a philosopher. They then brought me on board because of my work on the epistemic norms that apply political deliberation. The project now also includes Natalie Ashton, a philosopher who works on political epistemology. And it has Doteveryone, a technology think tank, as a project partner and we are also involving other media professionals as well as representatives of government agencies involved in social media regulation.

LB: You have taken steps to engage the public in your work, and wrote for the Conversation and Philosopher’s Magazine. You also participated in panel discussions open to the public and podcasts. How do you see the role of the philosopher in public life?

FP: I believe in the value of specialisation. Philosophy, like other disciplines, too, continues to advance our understanding of important issues. In my area, for example, philosophers have achieved a sophisticated understanding of the nature of morality and, relatedly, the justification of moral and political claims. And in order to facilitate such advancements, philosophers must be able to narrow their focus and work on some highly abstract questions, questions that do not immediately seem relevant, or even make sense, to non-specialists. 

But I also believe that there can also be too much specialisation or, as economists call it, path-dependency. Specialisation can put researchers at risk of working on questions that only make sense derivatively – given the research tradition in which they stand – and that no longer relate back to important issues. Exploring how my research might be of interest and relevance to non-philosophers provides me with an important test for the overall value and significance of my research programme and a safeguard against excessive specialisation.

There is another reason why I believe that doing public philosophy matters in these turbulent political times. We can’t take our achievements for granted at the moment. Lessons that I thought the world had learned – often on the back of anti-slavery, anti-imperialist, and civil rights movements, for example, and of events such as the second world war – are now too often ignored and denigrated. I believe that as philosophers we have a responsibility to go public with our work in this context. We should add our voice to public debates, making vivid the important lessons already learned and testing new ideas.

Tuesday 26 November 2019

Conspiracy Theories

In today's post Quassim Cassam (Warwick) is presenting his new book, Conspiracy Theories (Polity, 2019). See also his post on the Polity Books blog on why we should not ignore conspiracy theories, and the interview on the New Books Network on conspiracy theories as a form of propaganda.

In my book, I address four questions: What is a conspiracy theory? Why do people believe them? What is the problem with conspiracy theories? How should we respond to them? The take home message of the book is that conspiracy theories are a form of political propaganda. This is, in a technical sense, their function, and also what makes them dangerous. The deeper meaning of conspiracy theories is political, and these theories are as pernicious as the political causes they promote. In practice, these causes have often been extremist causes. Anti-Semitism is part of the DNA of conspiracy theories, and even seemingly apolitical theories are a gateway to more overtly political theories.

Here is one popular but misguided way of thinking about conspiracy theories: a conspiracy theory is a theory that explains a significant happening by reference to the actions of a small group of people working in secret to do something harmful. Some conspiracy theories are true, others are false. We are justified in believing a conspiracy theory – say that theory that 9/11 was an inside job – when the evidence supports it. As philosophers we can argue about what counts as evidence, and what it would take for us to be justified in believing a particular conspiracy theory. However, there is no justification for thinking that we could never be justified in believing a conspiracy theory.

On this account, conspiracy theories can be adequately understood and assessed using the standard tools of the epistemologist or philosopher of science. To think of conspiracy theories in this way is to epistemologize them. In contrast, the propaganda model I defend in my book politicizes them, that is, recognises and focuses on their political or ideological function. I distinguish between well-documented theories about conspiracies – like the theory that Al Qaeda was responsible for 9/11 - and capital C, capital T Conspiracy Theories. As well as being politically motivated, the latter tend to be speculative, esoteric and amateurish. The theory that 9/11 was an inside job is not just a theory about a conspiracy but a Conspiracy Theory.

It is typical of a certain kind of philosopher not to see the politics of Conspiracy Theories but that doesn’t make it any less of a mistake. I contend that it is also a mistake to psychologize Conspiracy Theories, that is, to understand belief in them purely psychological terms. To take an obvious example, Hitler and Stalin were Conspiracy Theorists because Conspiracy Theories were integral to their political ideologies. To explain their conspiracy theorizing by reference to their cognitive biases or a psychological trait they had in common is not just implausible but also misses the ideological purpose of their theories. Conspiracy Theories are as pernicious as the ideologies they promote, and their social harms also need to be taken into account.

This shows the importance of combatting conspiracy theories by highlighting their politics. The philosophy of conspiracy theories is an increasingly popular research area, and a number of influential figures in this area are sympathetic to conspiracy theories. Such conspiracy apologists either miss the point of conspiracy theories altogether or misunderstand their real political significance. Either way, they risk associating themselves with repellent political ideologies.

Tuesday 19 November 2019

Revisiting the Irrationality of Delusions: a reply to Vaughan Bell

Today I want to share some thoughts on last week's interesting post on de-rationalising delusions.

In the pre-print of their thought provoking paper, Vaughan Bell has argued, with Nichola Raihani and Sam Wilkinson, for the view that models of delusions need to include "alterations to coalitional cognition" and to depart from the dominant views that characterise delusions primarily as irrational beliefs.

Here I am not going to discuss their positive proposal, which sounds plausible, but just comment on how the so-called 'dominant account' the authors object to in the paper groups together heterogeneous views of what makes delusions distinctive and pathological.

Some of the cognitive accounts Bell and colleagues have as their polemical target hold that: (1) the irrationality of delusions is distinctive from (more radical than) the irrationality of other beliefs; and (2) the irrationality of delusions is the main source (if not the only source) of their pathological nature. Although my view of delusions is cited as an example of the dominant cognitive account Bell and colleagues criticise, I reject both (1) and (2), for reasons that align with Bell and colleagues' focus on coalitional cognition.

Is the irrationality of delusions distinctive?

As argued in Delusions and Other Irrational Beliefs and more recently in Delusions in Context, my view is that the irrationality of delusions is not different in kind from the irrationality of many beliefs that we would characterise as neither delusional nor pathological, such as self-enhancing beliefs, prejudiced beliefs, and superstitious beliefs. 

Standard definitions of delusions account for delusions as beliefs that are epistemically irrational  (not well supported by evidence and not responsive to counter-evidence). As there are many beliefs that fit that description, such definitions fail to provide sufficient conditions for a belief to count as a delusion. Adding other clauses (that the delusion is idiosyncratic or that it is harmful in some way) may help provide sufficient conditions, but that means that it is not their irrationality that sets delusions apart from non-delusional beliefs. 

In a recent book chapter co-authored with Rachel Gunn and Ema Sullivan-Bissett, we observe how it is extremely challenging to distinguish delusions from non-delusional beliefs (such as alien-abduction beliefs and overly optimistic beliefs about one's own performance) on the basis of epistemic irrationality alone. One possibility is, of course, that what sets delusional beliefs apart is what Bell and colleagues call alterations to coalitional cognition.

Is the irrationality of delusions the source of their pathological nature?

Project PERFECT's aim was to argue for the often neglected fact that some epistemically irrational beliefs can be advantageous from a number of perspectives: psychological, pragmatic, even epistemic. One of the central case study was that of delusional beliefs. Despite delusions being characterised as the mark of madness, there are circumstances in which the adoption of a delusional belief turns out to be adaptive, albeit temporarily.

In two recent papers, I consider cases where adopting delusions can be beneficial. With Rachel Gunn, we notice that some delusions can be conceived as short-term protective responses to disruptive and traumatising life events, making some experiences more bearable for the person and providing a sense of purpose that keeps depression at bay in the short term. With Eugenia Lancellotta, we look at how delusional beliefs can count as psychologically adaptive in the context of diagnoses as diverse as schizophrenia, depression, and OCD. The delusion can support the person's agency at critical times.

That is why I applaud Bell and colleagues' attempt to move beyond the cognitive deficit models of delusions and I fail to recognise my view of delusions in the description of the 'dominant account' they provide. I do not have an account of what makes delusions pathological--and increasingly doubt the utility of the pathological vs. normal distinction when applied to beliefs--but I know that irrationality is not the answer.

I suspect that the reason why delusions are thought to be pathological where garden-variety irrational beliefs aren't lies in their being less widespread, in their not being shared in the same way in which optimistic beliefs about the self and, sadly, prejudiced beliefs are. This is not incompatible with the hypothesis about coalitional cognition: people with delusions do not 'fit in'.

Tuesday 12 November 2019

De-Rationalising Delusions

This is a post by Vaughan Bell and gives a summary of a new pre-printed paper called ‘De-Rationalising Delusions’ co-authored with Nichola Raihani and Sam Wilkinson

Vaughan is an Associate Professor in Clinical Psychology at University College London, and also works in the Psychological Interventions Clinic for outpatients with Psychosis (PICuP), in South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust. Nichola Raihani is a Professor in Evolution and Behaviour at University College London, and Sam Wilkinson is a Lecturer in Philosophy at Exeter University.


Historically, delusions have been understood as pathological beliefs that are characterised by their irrationality. Someone who believes, for example, that a camera has been implanted in their tooth and is taking pictures of their mind, would seem, on face value, to have problems in reasoning rationally about the world.

This has motivated researchers to look for problems in domain-general reasoning to explain delusions. The ‘jumping to conclusions’ bias is a notable example but most cognitive models suggest that a problem with reasoning in some form or other must be present.

But we argue in our new paper that this focus on ‘delusion as irrational belief’ has misdirected us. Specifically, it has led researchers to try and explain delusions in terms of dysfunction to individualistic domain-general reasoning processes, and has meant the role of social processes, except in explanations for very specific delusion types, has been ignored.

Specifically, we argue that explanations of delusions need to include the role of coalitional cognition (Boyer, Firat and van Leeuwen 2015) – which are processes involved in social influence, group affiliation, and the strategic management of relationships. These are important and highly likely to be shaped by evolution because they are present throughout social mammals and much of our cultural development rests on their presence.

We argue coalitional cognition is important for several reasons.

Firstly, the vast majority of delusions are socially themed. It is worth noting here that it is not just that they have social themes, it is that they most commonly have coalitional themes (danger from others, social status, relationships, communication with others, identity) and these themes are commonly found across time and cultures. It is unlikely that they are incidental to explaining delusions.

Additionally, belief and believing are inherently social processes and social context has a profound influence on belief. Lots of researchers now argue that conscious access to the contents of our own minds, of which belief would be a prime example, primarily exists to facilitate social coordination (Frith 2012; Mercier and Sperber 2011; Jost, Ledgerwood and Hardin 2007). It is also clear that most people are quite happy to believe wildly improbable things but typically only when it facilitates group affiliation

But delusions seem to represent a problem with these processes because, unusually for wildly improbable beliefs, they arise in spite of the social context and are remarkably resistant to social influence. In addition, the ability to strategically present them (or strategically hide them) seems to deteriorate as delusions become more intense.

The importance of coalitional cognition is also supported by a clear neurobiological link. The mesolimbic dopamine system has been convincingly implicated in both coalitional cognition and delusions. Boosting dopamine increases delusions and social motivation, blocking it does the reverse. Social position is reflected in the mesolimbic system and social stress impacts upon it (and raises the risk of delusions).

We think including coalitional cognition in explanations of delusions better accounts for both the content (social themes) and form (fixity) of delusions. It is already supported by a wealth of research that we review in our paper and we hope it will garner far more interest in the future.

Tuesday 5 November 2019

The Evolution of the Sensitive Soul

Today's post is by Eva Jablonka (right) and Simona Ginzburg (left). 

Ginsburg is a neurobiologist who retired from the Open University of Israel, where she headed the MA Program in Biological Thought. Her recent work focuses on the evolution of early nervous systems and the evolutionary transitions to consciousness in the animal world.

In this post they introduce their new book, The Evolution of the Sensitive Soul: Learning and the Origins of Consciousness (MIT Press, 2019).

The gap between third-person, scientific, publically shared investigations, such as the neuroscience of echolocation, and first-person subjective experiencing such as echolocation-based subjective perception, has been described as an explanatory gap. Although one may know about echolocation, one does not know what it is like to perceive the world through echolocation. It is commonly argued that the explanation of the subjective feel of echolocation through the third person science of echolocation is a “hard problem”, intractable by science as we know it.

We challenge this assumption. We believe that in theory, one can, through third-person scientific investigations, attain a deep understanding of the biological dynamics of perception through echolocation (for example), which can allow one to implement it in one’s brain by using sophisticated cognitive technologies, and experience what it is like. But how can one get to this deep, bridging, understanding? In our book, The Evolution of the Sensitive Soul, we try to uncover the biological nature of experiencing by using an evolutionary approach. We suggest that the nature of consciousness, like the nature of life, can be revealed by studying its evolutionary origins.

Tuesday 29 October 2019

Goodbye PERFECT (Michael and Valeria)

A month from the end of project PERFECT, Michael Larkin (Co-Investigator) and Valeria Motta (Doctoral Research Fellow) reflect on what the project meant for them.

One helpful way to think about being involved in a project as expansive as PERFECT is to reflect on where it is sending you next. In this post, we discuss some of the things they have learned from our interdisciplinary work together.

Michael Larkin

Michael: One of the most interesting aspects of PERFECT for me has arisen from the opportunity to work with you on your PhD. It’s going to be a really innovative combination of philosophical argument and phenomenological-psychological investigation. I’m aware that – coming into it – you were already very well-read on the phenomenological philosophy. I’m curious to know what has struck you most about getting to grips with qualitative methods in psychology?

Valeria Motta

Valeria: Thank you Michael. It was very interesting for me working with you too. I was surprised to find a variety of approaches within qualitative methods. And it was interesting to think about the epistemological implications of these different approaches. I am specifically referring to the difference between discursive and experiential qualitative methods. The discursive method focuses on the linguistic resources and conversational features that participants use to give accounts of their experience. The experiential method (such as IPA) aims to understand the connection between embodied experience, talk about the experience and a participant’s making sense and emotional reaction to that experience. 

From a philosophical perspective this is interesting. It talks about the relationship between language and experience. As I read it, an important difference between these methods is the role of language. For the experiential method, language is more than what we employ to describe an experience. It is a constitutive part of it. In other words, the experiential method is making ontological claims about the very nature of our experience: that it is embodied, that it involves emotions and the use of language. This is not so clearly the case for a discursive method. And here I wonder whether, in the discursive method, the linguistic resources are regarded solely as ways of expressing an experience or as constitutive parts of the experience.

M: Right – these are the two most well-established epistemological positions in qualitative psychology, so it helps to orient yourself if you can get a feel for them. I’m not sure the distinctions play out quite the same in other disciplinary domains. I think a discourse analyst would want to pick up on your last point too. They might be interested in ‘experience,’ but I think they’d say that they were interested in how ‘experience’ is constructed – through talk and action – and how it might act as a socially-meaningful form of knowledge. So there is a relationship to ‘experience-as-topic’ there, but it’s quite distinct from the phenomenological one. And they might add that a particular kind of authority or expertise is invoked when people talk about ‘their experience’ of something – which is where Lisa’s work on narrative seems to be headed as well. I think both the experiential and discursive approaches are interested in sense-making though – it’s just that they focus on different contexts and dimensions of this.

V: I guess what I was thinking is that when a methodology proposes to study talk and action (all external manifestations), one could say that the implications of this are that the psyche can be perceived directly via its external expressions (language, culture, history). This is liberating as well as problematic. We rid ourselves from having to presuppose the existence of mental representations. But, at the same time, we could argue that what this method investigates is what is historically built. In other words, narratives may tell us more about a group than about individual experiences. Perhaps this serves as a good ‘way into’ individual experiences.

But you mentioned that both approaches are interested in sense-making. What qualitative methods refer to when they talk about sense making was another crucial thing for me understand and I thought it is used quite distinctively in methods such as IPA. We read that IPA researchers analyze what participants say in order to learn about how they make sense of their experience. I remember asking you to clarify sense making for me in this context.

M: Yes, that phrase is doing quite a lot of work. It’s also used interchangeably with meaning-making, and we’ll have to defer for another time a discussion about whether sense and meaning are the same thing! A lot of what’s implied by the phrase is related to its historical role in clearing a space for a different kind of psychology. Jerome Bruner’s work – particularly Acts of Meaning - was very important for qualitative psychology. It set out the possibility of a variant of psychology which was less interested in the causes of behaviour, or the intrinsic qualities shared by ‘types’ of people, and more interested in the meaning of behaviour, or how we make sense of our relationships to self and others.

Effectively, this kind of work is asking, ‘How do people make sense of the world?’ A lot of the initial progress was made on the discursive front, and so there the focus was on linguistic, social and cultural aspects of meaning. It employed the idea that meaning is a resource (in the form of say a discourse, or narrative) that is ‘out there’ in the world, available to us, but also working upon us. That in turn opens out a relationship between meaning and power (how do power relationships affect the meanings that we can claim for ourselves in different contexts?), and another between meaning and embodiment (how do we make sense of how we feel?), and another between meaning and experience (how do we make sense of what has happened to us?).

Each of these loosely reflects a different subset of epistemological and methodological interests, but a couple of concerns are cross-cutting – one is context and the other is the idea that meaning or sense-making is an active, effortful human endeavour. In IPA, we’re asking, ‘How does this person in this context, make sense of this experience?’ – and then across cases, we’re doing analysis to identify patterns of meaning in those accounts. That’s what a theme is: a pattern of meaning, a way of capturing people’s relationship to something of significance in their world. The focus of those patterns can vary, though, in terms of the degree of abstraction that analysts might aim for.

Tuesday 22 October 2019

Goodbye PERFECT (Sophie)

Here is the second post in our series reflecting on the end of project PERFECT, this week from postdoc Sophie Stammers.

Whilst we’ve all focused on something slightly different, PERFECT researchers were united in using philosophical and psychological tools to dismantle the assumptions that give rise to mental health stigma, and to change the narrative on what counts as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cognition.

A big focus of my work on the project has been the issue of confabulation. We confabulate when we give an account of an event or an action that is not grounded in evidence, but which is given sincerely. Originally, researchers were interested in confabulation as it arose in cases of mental distress or cognitive disfunction, but it turns out that confabulation arises commonly and frequently in all of us, from explanations of mundane consumer choices, to accounting for our moral and political beliefs.

Maybe you’ll have been engaged in an explanation of an event, or an experience you’ve had, or something you did, and looked back to realise that you might have said something as part of the account that wasn’t strictly true. Perhaps, wrapped up in entertaining your audience, you added some details to embellish the story, and only later realised that something you said didn’t really happen. We don’t always recognise when we’ve done this (in fact, frequently we don’t!), and whilst there’s a sense in which it’s obviously bad to tell each other things which are false, we don’t think that assessment is the whole story.

As part of the project’s focus on confabulation, Lisa and I guest-edited a special issue of Topoi dedicated to new philosophical perspectives on confabulation (you can read blog posts on the papers in the issue here). Whilst recognising confabulation’s drawbacks, I think it has some important benefits because it allows us to imbue our explanations with the themes that resonate with our picture of ourselves (and that we want our friends have of us) which leads to important social and psychological advantages.

I’ve also continued my work on implicit bias, in which we can judge and act disfavourably toward members of marginalised groups even though we consider ourselves to be egalitarians. I have written about the metaphysics of the underlying cognitions, the issues surrounding their erasure through future technological means, and their epistemic benefits (better understanding of social injustice). I got to talk about some of this research on a BBC Radio 4 Analysis special and in a related BBC news article.

What has felt like some of the most important work I’ve done whilst here is my Philosophy of Mind workshop series, which incorporates research by all PERFECT team members, and was developed in partnership with Mind in Camden. The workshop series introduces participants to the philosophical tools which enable us to challenge mental health stigma. It gives participants an opportunity to reconstruct models of mental health that better support and include both insights from lived experience, and research findings showing how all brains use various tricks and shortcuts (some of which play a key role in supporting agency), regardless of whether we routinely experience mental distress.

I’m really proud of this work, and I talk in more depth about it in this summary on the blog, this interview on the Daily Nous, and on its relevance to meeting the challenge from epistemic injustice in this post with Lisa for Mental Elf.

I’ve felt honoured to have been able to learn from the participant perspective; firstly through co-production of a research paper written with a participant and expert-by-experience (under review); and through this wonderful podcast created by Bonny Astor from Mind in Camden (herself a workshop participant turned facilitator, who ran an adapted series of philosophy workshops for Pentonville Prison!) which features three other participants who discuss the merits of doing philosophy together.

I’ve run the workshop series in various formats with people with lived experience of mental distress and who have unusual experiences and beliefs; mental health professionals; and mental health advocates and campaigners; and have used materials developed there to run one off workshops and CPD training days with at medical institutions and NHS trusts. I’m still running iterations of the workshop series and training days, so get in touch if you’d like to know more.

On behalf of the rest of the PERFECT team it is my very great pleasure to thank everyone who’s been involved in the project in some way: our advisory board, our network members, our collaborators within academia and beyond, and you, of course, our dear readers! And whilst we’re turning the office lights off for now, the Imperfect Cognitions blog lives on - we just made too many interesting connections to stop sharing summaries of new research, books and conferences, so see you back here on Tuesdays!

Tuesday 15 October 2019

Phenomenology of Health and Relationships

Today's post is by Michael Larkin and William Day (both at the University of Aston). They are reporting on the Phenomenology of Health and Relationships conference, which was sponsored by project PERFECT and held at the University of Aston on 22-23 May 2019.

We're both participants in the Phenomenology of Health and Relationships group at Aston University. In planning our inaugural conference, the group initially considered a narrower focus on Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA). There is a regular (more-or-less annual) IPA Conference, and we had agreed to host it. Eventually we settled on a broader theme (Creativity and Affect). IPA is one approach which many of us use in our work, but it is not the only one, and methods are not the sole focus of our meetings. When we meet as a group, we do discuss creative innovations in methodology, but we also read phenomenology, and explore studies which offer experiential insights on health and relationships. We hoped that a broader theme would open up dialogue around these cross-cutting issues and provide a space for thinking about the development of IPA, but also its relationship to philosophy and to other approaches. 

In our Call for Papers, we encouraged presenters to think about these cross-cutting issues, and also to feel free to suggest creative ways of engaging the attendees with their work. We were delighted to see, when the responses to our Call For Papers began to arrive, that there was a considerable appetite for an event like this. 

We ran our event at Fazeley Studios in Digbeth. The venue was lovely - spacious and light - and we had the good fortune to be running over two warm and bright spring days.

Zoë Boden’s invited workshop opened the event, with a morning focused on analysing image-making data in phenomological research. Zoë kicked things off by asking delegates to introduce themselves through drawings representing how they were feeling. Here's the image that Will made, as he brightened the corners of the unfolding morning of May 22nd -

During the workshop, Zoë drew upon her work exploring young peoples’ experience of psychosis, and her analytic framework (Boden, 2013; Boden & Eatough, 2014) for multi-modal analysis. Her workshop made a compelling argument for considering images as distinct residuals of subjectivity in their own right, not just as a way to elicit narrative data. After the session, the coffee break was buzzing with people enthusing about how they were going to incorporate these ideas into their next research project.

The conference’s first keynote came from Virginia Eatough whose talk developed a phenomenological perspective on affect. Virginia began with the premise that people are “existential world disclosers.” She positioned affect as a distinct layer of experience which orients ourselves towards others; a concern-ful, relational mode of involvement in the world. Virginia focused then on the power of language to make this manifest. Language is “in the world”, a practical engagement that helps us get to understanding. She develop this point through reference to an insightful analysis: ‘“It’s like having an evil twin”: the lifeworld of a person with Parkinson’s disease’ (Eatough & Shaw, 2019). In this case study, ‘Barbara’ - 61 years old and living with a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease for four years – reflects on ‘losing her grip.’ The multiple meanings of ‘grip’ employed by Barbara, and expanded through Virginia’s analysis, illuminated the complex relationship between the loss of physical grip and encroaching psychological uncertainty.

Virginia Eatough

In the afternoon that followed, we had parallel sessions with fascinating papers on aspects of spiritual experience (David Wilde), parenting and health (Kristina Newman, Kat Slade, Lydia Aston) and coping with ongoing ill-being (Joanna Farr, Collette Beecher). Refreshed insights into the connections between method (from the morning), concepts (from the keynote) and research practice (in the afternoon papers) were already coming to the surface of our conversations in between the sessions.

In the call for papers, we had strongly encouraged submissions from presenters who wished to do something a little unusual with the format. We were fortunate enough to be able to end the first day with two really exciting and innovative examples of what conferences can do. In one session, William presented his multi-media reflections on the film “I, Daniel Blake”. He was too modest to mention it in his draft notes for this piece, of course, but this is a piece of work which foregrounds the way that the auditory and visual dimension of cultural narratives create experiential meaning for audiences. In the other session, Asztrik Kovacs and Daniel Kiss used music, song, narration and photographs to reflect on the experience of psychiatric hospitalisation in Hungary. The piece drew on family experience, archival images, and reflections on field research, and it was woven together into a single, unbroken flow of performance. This was a highlight of the conference for many of us, who loved the way that it evoked the intensity of connections that can still persist between people even when they are separated by time, place and experience.

Tuesday 8 October 2019

Glenside: Mental Health Museum

There’s a lovely little church in Blackberry Hill, Bristol, nestled in the grounds of what was once the old psychiatric hospital. Step inside, and you’ll find a curious assemblage of artefacts, writings, recordings, drawings, and sculptures, telling the stories of the many mental health patients and practitioners of Bristol’s past. Welcome to Glenside Hospital Museum, which I’ll tell you a bit about now, before encouraging you to take a look for yourself if you’re ever over that way. (In terms of the content, I do discuss patient accounts of treatments, some that are quite upsetting.)

At the start of the exhibition, we see the shift from dominant attitudes in 1600s Britain of seeing mental illness and distress as a punishment from the Christian god, or a mark of demonic possession, to the idea that the afflicted are sufferers for whom there might be a cure, and the birth of modern psychiatry as a medical field in the 1800s. You can peruse a detailed timeline developed by the museum’s volunteer researchers, chronicling treatments, philosophical theories of mental health, significant public events, and the attitudes of those in power across the ages.

The museum has quite an array of historical artefacts: anatomical models for teaching, such as the brain of wound cotton; old medicine bottles and records of treatment advice (for instance, for preventing a faint, you would once have been advised to imbibe a ‘tot’ of brandy – this author does not endorse this advice, not least because I am rather uncertain as to how many millimetres are in a ‘tot’… is it at the patient’s discretion?); early ECC scanners and ECT machines, as well as something called a ‘violet ray’, a device used to administer high frequency, low current blasts of electricity to the body, which was used in effort to relieve various symptoms of mental disquiet as well as physical ailments such as asthma…though it’s not clear that it was very successful…

I was particularly moved by the emphasis on the experiences of the individuals involved in the hospital over the years. I listened to a clip from a sound archive in which Mary Cox, a medical secretary in the 1970s, had no choice but to take her sick dog to work one day – the patients so enjoyed petting and spending time with the dog (which he enjoyed as well!) that he became a regular visitor. 

In an excerpt from the museum’s oral archive, Clive tells his story about undergoing a leucotomy (also known as a lobotomy, a barbaric procedure in which parts of the brain are physically destroyed) in the 1960s: “It was a horrible time for me because I couldn’t do anything after that operation. I had to learn how to do things all over again and I was ill for a long time.” Clive discussed how he didn’t blame his parents, who signed off on the procedure, as well as how he wished to meet others who had had the same operation to try to reach a better understanding of his experiences. We don’t know if that wish was ever granted.

I particularly enjoyed the exhibition of drawings by Denis Reed, former artist, lecturer, and patient of Bristol Mental Hospital in the 1950s. His sketches show a series of lively interactions, the savouring of cigarettes – an important currency for patients, as well as the listlessness of other aspects of life on the men’s ward.

Currently, you can also see “We Had Names: patients of The Bristol Lunatic Asylum” an exhibition by contemporary artist Anwyl Cooper-Willis. Among my favourite pieces was the wall of sketches of individuals, based on 1890s admission photographs, and drawn on ECG paper.

Glenside Hospital Museum is free to visit (a £2 donation is suggested), has full disabled access, and is open at 10am – 12:30pm on Wednesdays and Saturdays. You can find more access info here.