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.