Tuesday, 30 April 2019

Gaslighting, Confabulation, and Epistemic Innocence

Our series of posts on confabulation continues, featuring papers that appear in a special issue of Topoi on the topic, guest edited by Sophie Stammers and Lisa Bortolotti. Today's post, on gaslighting, confabulation, and epistemic innocence, is by Andrew Spear, Philosophy Faculty at Grand Valley State University near Grand Rapids, Michigan.

In Gaslighting, Confabulation, and Epistemic Innocence, I suggest that confabulation plays a central role in many paradigm examples of gaslighting, and that appreciating this sheds some light on what it takes for a defective cognition (such as confabulation) to be epistemically innocent.

The central feature of gaslighting is the attempt by one agent to undermine another’s epistemic self-trust, her conception of herself as an independent locus of experience, thought, and judgment.

I model gaslighting on the phenomenon of epistemic peer-disagreement (the gaslighter and his victim disagree specifically about whether or not the victim’s cognitive faculties and grasp of her own situation are reliable). It is this epistemic dimension that connects gaslighting to confabulation.

Confabulation plays a role in many central cases of gaslighting. I argue that both the perpetrator and the victim of gaslighting will, as a result of the perpetrator’s gaslighting behavior, often confront cognitive dissonance that they are motivated to resolve in ill-grounded ways, amounting to confabulation.

Confabulation has been argued to be sometimes epistemically innocent because subjects who engage in it may be more likely to achieve rational or true beliefs in the future; and because confabulation can assist a subject in maintaining a coherent sense of her own epistemic agency, which is at the very least a pre-condition for future epistemic improvement. The role of confabulation in typical cases of gaslighting fails both of these conditions in instructive ways.


Thursday, 25 April 2019

The Emotional Mind

This post is written by Tom Cochrane, who is a British philosopher working at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia. One of his main aims is to draw on facts about psychology to develop insights about the good life. 

Tom has worked a lot on emotions and aesthetics. He also has specific interests in mental disorders- including a co-authored article on Obsessive Compulsive Disorder at Mind &Language that readers of this blog may find interesting.



My new book The Emotional Mind (2018) is mostly focused on how the various phenomena we associate with the emotions—feelings, behaviours, moods, pain and pleasure, rational cognition, character traits and so on—all fit together.

The overall picture I propose is of fundamental concern-regulating routines that get steadily elaborated as new ways to represent information come along. Thus the book starts by outlining the fundamental routines, and then builds on this layer and layer until we reach a pretty complete description of person-level emotional experience.

Although I do not say much about mental disorders in the book, given the major role that emotions play in mental health it is not hard to draw connections. For instance, one relevant connection comes in Chapter Six where I argue that the rational regulation of our emotions is itself a kind of meta-emotional process. However, since it is particularly in line with the interests of this blog, I want to focus here on my model of personality traits (presented in chapter 7), specifically those personality traits that could be considered unhealthy, such as neuroticism.

My main claim about personality traits is that they are long-term strategies for regulating concerns. Every personality trait combines a heightened sensitivity towards a certain concern with an enhanced capacity to protect that concern. For example, agreeableness can be understood as a strategy in which the individual is relatively oriented towards supportive social relationships and is relatively skilled in serving this concern (e.g. due to good empathic skills). Similarly, neuroticism is best understood as a heightened orientation towards sources of danger or loss and an enhanced capacity to notice when these things may occur.

Tuesday, 23 April 2019

Confabulating Reasons

Our series on new research on confabulation continues, featuring summaries of the papers contributing to the special issue of Topoi guest-edited by Sophie Stammers and Lisa Bortolotti.

Today's post, the third in the series, is by Marianna Bergamaschi Ganapini. Since September 2017, she is an assistant professor of Philosophy at Union College (NY), specialized in philosophy of mind and epistemology. She received her PhD from Johns Hopkins University in 2017.



My paper “Confabulating Reasons” focuses on the confabulatory episodes connected to those mental attitudes (e.g. belief, emotion, intention) whose causes we cannot introspectively access. In the literature, the predominant view is that these confabulations track – or at least attempt to do so – the psychological causes of mental attitudes. 

A related hypothesis is that these confabulations are either the result of a general cognitive mechanism that pushes us to understand the world in terms of causal relations (Coltheart, 2017), or the result of a self-directed mindreading mechanism (Carruthers, 2013).

I believe this psychological tack is insufficient to explain the nature of confabulations and the mechanism behind it. In the paper, I show that the best way to make sense of the typical cases of confabulations is to see them as statements that try to justify one’s pre-existing mental attitudes. More specifically, my main claim is that confabulations are primarily offered as normative reasons to justify our attitudes, and they are psychological explanations for those attitudes only as a result of this normative function. 


Thursday, 18 April 2019

Psychiatric Neuroethics

The author of the post is Walter Glannon, who is a professor of philosophy at the University of Calgary in Canada. He has held other academic appointments at McGill University and the University of British Columbia. 

Walter grew up and received all of his education in the US. Following a fellowship in clinical medical ethics at the University of Chicago, for 5 years (2000-2005) he was clinical ethicist at 3 hospitals in Montreal and Vancouver. This is largely how he developed his interest in research and clinical aspects of psychiatry.




Advances in psychiatric research and clinical psychiatry in the last 30 years have given rise to a host of new questions that lie at the intersection of psychiatry, neuroscience, philosophy and law. Such questions include:

  • Are psychiatric disorders diseases of the brain, caused by dysfunctional neural circuits and neurotransmitters?
  • What role do genes, neuro-endocrine, neuro-immune interactions and the environment play in the development of these disorders?
  • How do different explanations of the etiology and pathophysiology of mental illness influence diagnosis, prognosis and decisions about treatment?
  • Would it be rational for a person with a chronic treatment-resistant disorder to request euthanasia or assisted suicide to end their suffering?
  • Could psychiatric disorders be predicted and prevented?

Psychiatric Neuroethics explores these questions in a comprehensive and systematic way, discussing the medical and philosophical implications of neuroscience and the Research Domain Criteria (RDoc) in the fields of psychiatry and mental health. It examines the extent to which circuit-based criteria can offer a satisfactory explanation of psychiatric disorders and how they compare with the symptom-based criteria of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSMV).

Tuesday, 16 April 2019

Confabulation as Unreliable Imagining

This is the second in a series of posts featuring new research on confabulation. Today's contribution is by Kirk Michaelian (Centre for Philosophy of Memory) who summarises his paper, "Confabulation as Unreliable Imagining", for the special issue of Topoi on confabulation guest edited by Sophie Stammers and Lisa Bortolotti.




The context for my contribution to the special issue is a debate over the nature of confabulation that has been unfolding for several years now within the philosophy of memory community.

In my 2016 book, Mental Time Travel: Episodic Memory and Our Knowledge of the Personal Past, I developed and defended a simulation theory of memory. In opposition to the causal theory, the simulation theory denies that remembering an event presupposes the existence of an "appropriate" causal connection between the subject's present representation of the event and his past experience of it, maintaining, instead, that the difference between genuine and merely apparent remembering is a matter of reliability: genuine remembering is carried out by a properly functioning -- and hence reliable -- episodic construction system.

The simulation theory naturally suggests an account of confabulation according to which confabulation is distinguished from remembering by its unreliability: in remembering, the process that produces the apparent memory is reliable; in confabulation, it is not. While the book briefly sketches this account of confabulation, however, it doesn't develop it in any detail, and I hadn't thought carefully about confabulation until I was prompted to do so by a pair of stimulating articles by Sarah Robins on confabulation and misremembering.

Opposing the simulationist account sketched in the book, Robins develops a causalist account according to which confabulation is distinguished from successful remembering by its falsity and by the absence of appropriate causal connection, whereas misremembering -- seen, for example, in the DRM effect, in which subjects who study a list of thematically-related words tend to "remember" non-presented but thematically-consistent lure words -- is distinguished from successful remembering by its falsity and by the presence of appropriate causal connection.

Unconvinced by Robins' argument, I wrote an article devoted to critiquing the causalist account, in part on the ground that it failed to acknowledge the possibility of veridical confabulation, and to refining the simulationist account. According to the refined version of the simulationist account developed in this article, falsidical confabulation is characterized by falsity and unreliability, veridical confabulation is characterized by truth and unreliability, and misremembering is characterized by falsity and reliability; successful remembering, in line with the simulation theory, is characterized by truth and reliability.

This refined simulationist account was then attacked in an article by Bernecker, who argued that it could accommodate neither the possibility of unjustified memory nor that of justified confabulation.

My contribution to the special issue argues that, unlike the epistemic accounts with which Bernecker groups it, the simulationist account can indeed accommodate unjustified memory and that, since justified confabulation is not a genuine possibility, it need not accommodate justified confabulation.

It also further refines the simulationist account by taking into account the role of failures of metacognitive monitoring in unsuccessful remembering. Earlier versions of the simulationist account emphasized that reliability and accuracy can come apart at the level of apparent remembering; this happens in misremembering (in which a reliable process produces an inaccurate representation) and in veridical confabulation (in which an unreliable process produces an accurate representation). The current version of the simulationist account points out that this can happen at the metacognitive level as well. A form of luck thus plays a role at two distinct levels in the production of memory errors.

The result is a more complex but (I believe) more precise taxonomy of memory errors. In order to tame the complexity of the taxonomy, the article distinguishes among four groups of subjects -- those with no malfunction, those with malfunction at the level of remembering only, those with malfunction at the level of metacognition only, and those with malfunction at both levels -- and sorts the errors characteristic of each group according to whether they involve no luck, luck at one or the other level, or luck at both levels.

Table: A new simulationist classification, second attempt; alternative presentation


The obvious next step is to consider which of the errors acknowledged by the account have been or should be subjected to empirical investigation. And there will -- the conciliatory tone of Robins' contribution to the special issue notwithstanding -- no doubt be further attacks from the causalist camp. So, while the current version of the simulationist account is an improvement over previous versions, more work remains to be done.

Thursday, 11 April 2019

ASPP 2018


The Australasian Society for Philosophy and Psychology formed in 2017, with the aim to “promote interaction in Australasia among philosophers and psychologists, broadly construed to include anyone interested in scientific study of the mind”. The ASPP held their inaugural conference at Macquarie University in December 2018, and I was lucky enough to go along. Here’s a little of what I learned there...


If you’ve ever been perplexed by the prevalence of a viewpoint or political stance that you don’t share, then you might be wondering: how do we step outside of the epistemic echo chambers in which we find ourselves in our increasingly online world? Kate Devitt and her team at Queensland University of Technology are on the case. 

Inspired by the finding that increasing the number and diversity of hypotheses considered can improve decision making, particularly in an organisational and strategic setting, Kate and her team have built an interactive platform which encourages people to increase the number and diversity of ideas they considered before adopting a stance on an issue. The platform BetterBeliefs (which you can - and should – try out right after you’ve finished reading this…) links hypotheses to evidence (e.g. news articles or technical updates), which users can vote up or down producing a ‘Degree of Belief’ metric that indicates the likelihood a hypothesis is true given user belief in it.


Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Confabulation, Rationalisation, and Morality

Our series of blog posts on new research on confabulation continues.

In this blog post Anneli Jefferson summarises her contribution to the special issue of Topoi on Confabulation guest edited by Sophie Stammers and Lisa Bortolotti. In her paper (available open access), she shows the costs and benefits of everyday confabulation and rationalisation for moral conduct and judgment. Anneli focuses on everyday-confabulations and rationalisations that give explanations and justifications in terms of moral motivations.



I understand everyday confabulations as a response to ignorance of our motives for actions, when we confabulate, we aim to explain to ourselves and to others why we did what we did. Rationalisations, on the other hand, aim to give justifications for our actions, showing that what we did was morally permissible or even morally required.

We can justify actions without explaining them, for example by saying that what we did was morally desirable, without claiming that moral desirability was the motive out of which we did what we did. However, in some cases confabulation and justification coincide, when we give an inaccurate but sincere explanation for our action that also provides a moral justification. The reasons our actual motives are inaccessible to us may be cognitive or motivational.

One example of a confabulation which also counts as a justification is a case where I ascribe the fact that I did not give money to a beggar to the belief that they would just use it to feed a drug habit. For this to be a case of confabulation, it needs to be the case that I believe my own explanation, even if the actual reason for my action was a different one, for example that it was raining and I didn’t want to get any wetter than I already was by stopping.

As has been pointed out by Summers (2017) some such inaccurate explanations of past behaviour can have positive effects, despite being inaccurate. If an agent does something morally desirable and wrongly ascribes their action to a moral motive, they may nevertheless reinforce that moral motive and make it more likely that they will act on it in future. 

Drawing on work by Velleman and social psychology, I show that self-consistency and self-enhancement effects can reinforce moral behaviour, even when the initial self-ascription of moral motives is erroneous. Seeing ourselves as generous may lead us to behave generously in future, even if the initial motivation to give to someone did not, in fact, stem from generosity.

Thursday, 4 April 2019

The Anxious Mind

Today's post is written by Charlie Kurth, who is an Associate Professor in the Philosophy Department at Western Michigan University. His research interests focus on issues in ethics, moral and philosophical psychology and emotion theory. 

A unifying theme of his work is that research in ethical theory, moral psychology and the philosophy of emotion can be productively informed by empirical inquiry in the cognitive and social sciences. In this post, he discusses his book The Anxious Mind: An Investigation into the Varieties and Virtues of Anxiety published by MIT Press. 



My book aims to enrich our understanding of anxiety by exploring two questions—What is anxiety? And is anxiety valuable? While I take these questions to be independently interesting, I also see them as intimately intertwined: understanding what anxiety is helps us understand the ways in which it can be valuable.

Consider the first project—investigating what anxiety is. We talk of ‘anxiety’ as if the label picks out something distinct. But does it? There is reason for doubt. We use ‘anxiety’ in a variety of ways: as a label for both social worries and hardwired responses to potential threats—not to mention existential angst and clinical disorders.

To make sense of this, I develop an empirically informed account of anxiety—what I call the ‘biocognitive model’. By providing a framework that identifies different varieties of anxiety, the biocognitive model helps explain the diversity in our talk of anxiety. It also demonstrates, contra sceptics, that we can reconcile empirical work indicating that anxiety is an automatic, hardwired feature of our psychology with our ordinary experiences of it as a cognitive, socially-driven phenomenon.

Tuesday, 2 April 2019

Philosophical Perspectives on Confabulation

Have you ever explained something that you believe or that you've done in a way that felt appropriate and meaningful at the time, but which, on reflection, you might have realized was a little…well…made up? You’re not alone! 'Confabulation', first studied in the context of psychiatric disorders featuring severe memory impairments (known as narrow confabulation) can also be seen as a more general tendency people have to provide explanations for their choices and attitudes (broad confabulation). Common to the two notions of confabulation is that whilst the teller does not intend to deceive their audience, the explanation given is not grounded in reality, and is usually false.


This week marks the first in a series of Tuesday research posts covering our forthcoming special issue “Philosophical Perspectives on Confabulation” in the journal Topoi. Last year, we had the pleasure of hosting and co-organising a series of workshops dedicated to the topic, its relation to the notion of epistemic innocence, and interdisciplinary investigations in clinical and non-clinical contexts (read more here and here).

From these, we noticed a number of newly emerging research themes, and so Lisa and I seized the opportunity to put together an open-call special issue dedicated to new philosophical perspectives on confabulation which attracted high quality submissions from authors who had participated in our workshops, as well as those who hadn’t, but who are also working in the area.

Over the next few weeks, we'll be introducing each paper in the issue with a short research post every Tuesday. Here's a little taster of what you can expect...