Tuesday 30 June 2020

The Epistemic Innocence of Irrational Beliefs

Here I am briefly presenting my new book, The Epistemic Innocence of Irrational Beliefs, out today in the UK with Oxford University Press. Research culminating in this book was conducted for several projects that contributed to this blog, including project PERFECT, the Costs and Benefits of Optimism project, and the Epistemic Innocence of Imperfect Cognitions project.

Book cover

In an ideal world, our beliefs would satisfy norms of truth and rationality, as well as foster the acquisition, retention, and use of other relevant information. In reality, we have limited cognitive capacities and are subject to motivational biases on an everyday basis.

We may also experience impairments in perception, memory, learning, and reasoning in the course of our lives. Such limitations and impairments give rise to distorted memory beliefs, confabulated explanations, and beliefs that are delusional and optimistically biased.

In this book, I argue that some irrational beliefs qualify as epistemically innocent, where, in some contexts, the adoption, maintenance, or reporting of the beliefs delivers significant epistemic benefits that could not be easily attained otherwise. Epistemic innocence does not imply that the epistemic benefits of the irrational belief outweigh its epistemic costs, yet it clarifies the relationship between the epistemic and psychological effects of irrational beliefs on agency. 

It is misleading to assume that epistemic rationality and psychological adaptiveness always go hand-in-hand, but also that there is a straight-forward trade-off between them. Rather, epistemic irrationality can lead to psychological adaptiveness, which in turn can support the attainment of epistemic goals. Recognising the circumstances in which irrational beliefs enhance or restore epistemic performance informs our mutual interactions and enables us to take measures to reduce their irrationality without undermining the conditions for epistemic success.

Here is a brief explanation of epistemic innocence:

Six philosophers in the Imperfect Cognitions Research Network, all researching aspects of belief and rationality, have agreed to participate in a virtual book launch for this monograph with the following video presentations:

You are warmly encouraged to watch the videos, and then leave comments and ask questions about the book to them or to me here or on Twitter using the hashtag #EpistInnocence2020.

Tuesday 23 June 2020

The Insanity Defence without Mental Illness

Today's post is by Marko Jurjako, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at University of Rijeka, regarding the recent paper ‘The insanity defence without mental illness? Some considerations’ that he co-authored with Gerben Meynen, professor of Forensic Psychiatry (Utrecht University) and endowed professor of Ethics and Psychiatry (VU University Amsterdam) and Luca Malatesti, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Rijeka. Marko and Luca’s work on this paper is an outcome of the project Responding to antisocial personalities in a democratic society RAD, that is financed by the Croatian Science Foundation.

Luca Malatesti

In the last decade there has been a resurgence of interest in the insanity defence. One of the apparent moral truisms is that a person should not be blamed for actions they are not responsible for. As an instantiation of this principle, the moral rationale for the insanity defence is to prevent unjustly punishing offenders who are not responsible due to a mental illness.

Across the Western hemisphere, formulations of the insanity defence usually involve two components. One component, that we call the incapacity clause, states that a person is not accountable if, when committing the crime, she lacked some relevant psychological capacities, such as the cognitive ability to understand the nature of her action and the ability to control her behaviour in the light of that knowledge. For instance, if due to a delusion, someone kills a person thinking that he is helping her, he is unaccountable because he did not know the nature of his action. The other component of the insanity defence, that we call the mental illness clause, requires that these incapacities are caused by a mental illness.

Gerben Meynen

Despite the common-sense view that the insanity defence presupposes the mental illness clause, legal scholars and philosophers debate whether this is the case. Some argue that the mental illness clause is not important for determining criminal responsibility because mental illness is neither sufficient nor necessary for determining whether someone should be excused for a crime. A judgment on her mental incapacity should be enough. Moreover, in recent years the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability (CRPD) has sparked additional discussion. According to some interpretations of the convention, not only the mental illness clause, but the insanity defence as such should be abolished because it discriminates against disabled individuals.

Marko Jurjako

In the paper, we focus our discussion on the role that mental illness clause should play within legislations that adopt some form of the insanity defence. Thus, we do not directly discuss issues raised by the adoption of the CRPD. After providing a preliminary discussion of the rationale for having the insanity defence, we focus on the proper role of the mental illness clause in it.

We aim to offer a nuanced discussion whether the mental illness clause should be retained as a component of the insanity defence. In this regard, we discuss three principal reasons why the clause is important for adjudicating cases of criminal non-responsibility. 

The first reason relates to our exculpatory practices. In some cases, the presence of a mental illness indicates an internal impairment in decision-making capacities that undermines legal culpability in a way that cannot be attributed to any other cause outside the agent. In this sense, a mental illness can provide a particular cause that explains why the agent is not responsible for her crime.

The second reason pertains to our epistemological practices and practical limitations when trying to determine the accountability of a defendant. We argue that knowing whether a defendant is suffering from a specific mental illness can be especially helpful for establishing whether the agent at the time of the act had relevant incapacities. For instance, if the defendant suffers from schizophrenia, that gives us reason to examine whether she could have committed the crime while suffering from a paranoid delusion.

The third reason pertains to the general relation between legal practice and medical psychological and scientific advancements in the study of human behaviour. We maintain that the mental illness clause keeps a close tie between the relevant sciences of the mind and the law. Thus, it enables an interactive relationship that secures the conceptual and evidentiary relations between the clinical advancements and its scientific overlays with ethically justifiable legal practices. 

For instance, future studies might confirm that a certain subgroup of individuals with antisocial personality disorder suffer from such mental/brain incapacities that their criminal actions may be the result of dysfunctionalities in their neurophysiology. This scientific evidence would give us reason to conclude that despite the appearances of ill will, a subgroup of defendants with severe forms of antisocial personality might not be accountable for some of their crimes. 

The main outcome of our discussion is that an ethically justified formulation of the insanity defence need not necessarily include an explicitly stated mental illness clause. Nonetheless, we argue that the ethically justified formulations of the insanity defence should be able to accommodate the reasons underlying the adoption of this clause. 

Thus, our main conclusion is that different legislations might serve criminal justice solely based on the incapacity defence without a formal adoption of the mental illness clause. Depending on their other safeguards, these legislations should allow, however, that mental illness plays at least an evidentiary role in the incapacity defence.

Tuesday 16 June 2020

Mental Capacity: A Policy Brief

In this post I report on a recently launched brief, prepared by Sophie Stammers for policy makers and mental health and social care professionals, entitled "Mitigating the risk of assumptions and biases in assessments of mental capacity". The work on the brief was funded by the University of Birmingham and the actual brief was launched with a Webinar hosted by the Mental Elf on 26th March 2020.

Mark Brown introduced the presentations and moderated the discussion. I summarised the main findings of project PERFECT relevant to the brief, and Sophie explained our recommendations, based on her research but also on extensive consultations conducted in January to March 2020.

Sophie Stammers

The conversation continued on Twitter where people made comments and asked questions using the #MentalCapacity2020 hashtag. Alex Ruck Keene wrote a post on the brief which appeared on the Mental Elf blog. Alex is a barrister specialising in mental capacity and mental health law. He is also a Wellcome Research Fellow at King’s College London, and created a website on mental health capacity law and policy.

Alex Ruck Green

What was the rationale for consulting mental health providers, service users, organisations, and policy makers on mental capacity? Mental health and social care professionals routinely assess the capacity of people to make decisions about their lives, in accordance with the Mental Capacity Act 2005 (MCA). 

The briefing note outlines how the functional approach to testing capacity in the MCA underdetermines decisions, describing the risks for stereotypes and assumptions to affect outcomes. It advocates for the need for specific training for professionals using the MCA to enable them to recognise the role of value judgements in capacity decisions, to mitigate the effects of stereotyping and assumptions, and to improve decision making.

If you want to know more, you can watch the Webinar on YouTube, or read the full brief on the Project PERFECT website, easy to download in an accessible PDF. On the website, you also find some quotes with stakeholders' reactions to our recommendations.

For instance, Anneliese Dodds, Labour (Co-op) MP for Oxford East said:
"There is now quite widespread recognition of the biases which affect decision-making, such as negativity bias in our retention of information from the media. Yet our awareness of these biases does not seem to feed in to our understanding of mental health, which often categorises people as ‘irrational’ in an unspecified way. This can be a political issue; I’ve been urged previously not to engage with people with mental ill-health on the grounds that they ‘would not be interested’, yet people suffering from mental ill-health are often not only interested in politics but have a great deal of importance to say and are not less ‘rational’, depending on the type of illness they are suffering from. These issues surely need more consideration, which is why I was pleased to see the progress of the PERFECT research project."

Tuesday 9 June 2020

Nationalism and Rationality

Today I am reporting from the annual meeting of the Danish Philosophical Society in Odense (6-7 March), which was entitled Nationalism and Rationality, organised by Nikolaj Nottelmann. Unfortunately, I missed the first day of the meeting but here are summaries of some of the fascinating presentations on the second day relevant to themes in political epistemology. (This was my last pre-COVID19 conference!)

Gina Labovic (University of Copenhagen) talked about "Climate change denial and (un)reasonable disagreement". Within the public reason framework, we can justify privileging the warnings of the climate scientists over the views of those who deny climate change. According to Rawls, there can be reasonable disagreement between views (e.g. how to live out lives). To be a good citizen, we need to accept what scientists tell us as long as there is no controversy within the scientific community. So, there is no reasonable disagreement on well-communicated scientific consensus.

Gina Labovic

But the problem is that, because we have different experiences in life, we disagree both about facts and about methods. There is no wide acceptance of the methods (epistemic principles) by which we gain information about the world. So we need a further justification of the methods (e.g., of science). This characterises 'deep disagreements': how do we decide what to believe when we disagree about facts and methods?

Maybe we can identify practical, self-interested reasons for selecting epistemic principles (this is called the Method Game, Lynch 2010, something akin to the Veil of Ignorance). Three assumptions: epistemic ignorance; moral ignorance; and we are to live in Parallel Earth. Practical reasons need to be repeatable, adaptable, public, and widespread. For Lynch, under this epistemic veil of ignorance, we would converge on scientific methods of inquiry. But this is controversial.

Kappel (2012) has some objections: given that under the veil we know no facts, then there would be no reason to choose scientific methods of inquiry over other methods (underdetermination problem). But even if we could select scientific standards, there would still be the issue that citizens are epistemically irrational and would not be motivated to abide by those standards (epistemic irrationality problem). Is it democratic to impose rules on people who do not agree on them when they are epistemic rational?

Klemens Kappel (University of Copenhagen) presented a talk entitled "Science in Public Reason". In many cases (vaccine scepticism, GMO-scepticism, etc.) a part of the population rejects a scientific consensus. What is democratically legitimate in those cases? Can we defend the view that science is part of public reason? Dissenters may argue that the scientific community is corrupted by ideological forces and thus we cannot trust what scientists tell us.

One view, science as public reason, is to commit that there is an obligation to defer to scientific institutions when publicly justifying coercive fact-dependent policies (such as mandatory vaccination). This involves several obligations: for policy makers not to interfere with science in ways that affect policy making; for science to remain politically neutral.

Klemens Kappel

There are several arguments for the view of science as public reason but, according to Kappel, they all fail. One is the argument from extension: as we all commit to epistemic standards and scientific standards are an extension of epistemic standards, then we all commit to scientific standards. But reasonable individuals may not accept scientific standards because scientific standards depend on factual beliefs about the world and not just on epistemic standards.

Another argument is that from hypothetical acceptance. That's the idea that if we all committed to epistemic standards and were rational enough, then we would commit to scientific standards. This may be true, but it is important to appeal to the beliefs and desires people actually have.

In one argument from restraint, you are making a decision together with a friend. You accept p but your friend rejects p and p is relevant to the decision. What will you do? Maybe you should bracket your belief that p. For the purpose of public reason, we need standards that are accessible to everyone (not 'bracketed issues') and only scientific standards are accessible in that way. But sometimes scientific consensus relies on controversial metaphysical views.

On SDU campus

Kappel argued that we need to accept science as public reason even if we can't justify it (dogmatism). Imagine a reasonable citizen (agreeing that her fellow citizens are free and equal and willing to cooperate with them) who believe that the MMR vaccine causes autism. Would this citizen have grounds to complain if the state coerces her to vaccinate her children? Does the policy unduly restricts her freedom? This is for Kappel a difficult question to answer.

The presentation by Michael Jonathan Hannon (University of Nottingham) was called "Political Disagreement or Badmouthing?". Hannon started from the fact that there is a lot of disagreement in politics and the observation that disagreement has extended from ideological to factual issues. But is it true that there is disagreement about facts? The example used was the comparison between photos at the inauguration of Obama and Trump (see below). People were asked which picture had more people. Trump supporters were more likely to say that the photo on the right had more people.

How frequent are these phenomena of partisanship? Maybe people are not providing factual answers but expressing values (cheerleading or badmouthing). Expressive responding signals allegiance to an ideological community and people deliberately misrepresent their beliefs to express their attitudes. So, these cases are not cases of biased believing as some psychologists have suggested. Political supporters are like sports fans.

Elizabeth Anderson also argues that claims against Obama are like 'playground insults': they are not supposed to be accurate or even coherent with other things we believe, but they are ways of saying: "Obama is not one of us, is not a real American". Similarly, phrases such as "Build the wall!" or "Lock her up!" are not actual recommendations but expressions of dislike for people who are believed not to belong or who are disliked for other reasons. In line with this, it is not policy preferences that drives voting behaviour but social identity (see Lilliana Mason's work on politics and identity).

According to Hannon, this diagnosis of apparent political disagreement explains why debates are so unsatisfactory and disputes are intractable, not sensitive to reasons. It also explains why people seem to commit to inconsistent claims and why attempts to correct 'beliefs' backfire.

This was a very interesting meeting, offering plenty of food for thought to people interested in topics at the intersection of epistemology and political philosophy.

Tuesday 2 June 2020

Thinking, Believing, and Hallucinating Self in Schizophrenia

Today blog post is by Clara Humpston, a Research Fellow at the Institute for Mental Health, University of Birmingham. She summarises her most recent paper co-authored with Matthew Broome in The Lancet Psychiatry. This paper is freely accessible upon registration on the Lancet’s website.

Clara Humpston

We aimed to discuss the history and concepts of self-disturbance in relation to the pathophysiology and subjective experience of schizophrenia in terms of three approaches: 1. The perceptual anomalies approach of the Early Heidelberg School of Psychiatry (with the kind help from Professor Aaron Mishara); 2. The more recent ipseity model by Louis Sass and Josef Parnas; and 3. The predictive coding framework rooted in computational psychiatry.

Despite their importance, there has been a notable absence of efforts to compare them and to consider how they might indeed work together. Self-disturbances are transformations of basic self that form the inseparable background against which psychotic symptoms emerge. Integrating computational psychiatric approaches with those employed by phenomenologists, we understood delusions and hallucinations as inferences produced under ‘extraordinary’ conditions and would be both statistically and experientially as real for patients as other mental events. Such inferences still approximate Bayes-optimality given the circumstances and may be the only ones available to minimise prediction error.

Most people would never wonder, let alone doubt, whether the thoughts they think are indeed their own. However, in cases of self-disturbances found in schizophrenia and related psychoses, the ‘minimal self’ is damaged (but still never truly absent) and susceptible to anomalous experiences such as confusing internal mental events with external stimuli. The Early Heidelberg School of Psychiatry defined self-disturbances as something that did not arise from impaired conscious self-acquaintance (ipseity), but rather would involve unconscious processing. On the other hand, the ipseity model by Sass and Parnas proposes a heightened self-awareness leading to the alienation of mental events and places lessemphasis on unconscious processing. Nevertheless, there was common ground between these models, such as the convergence on the ‘Basic Symptom’ concept.

We previously argued that inserted, alien thoughts and auditory-verbal hallucinations are two sides of the same coin and both are rooted deeply in a fragmented self-consciousness. According to the predictive coding account, enhanced precision weighting of internal events such as thoughts makes the prediction error signal much more salient and calls for an update of the brain’s current hypothesis. In this case the ‘incoming’ thoughts would become akin to sensory data input (likelihood) as the Bayesian framework is not limited to ‘real-world’ sensory data only. This understanding could lead to real-life impacts on how clinicians talk to their patients about their psychotic experiences.

The priority for clinical intervention is misplaced if it focuses solely on the ‘correction’ of the patient’s thoughts and perceptions. Rather, the emphasis should be on how patients can lead a fulfilling life with their symptoms, and over time become better able to control and counteract their perceived influence on the patients. Clinical relationships are best supported when the clinician combines neuroscientific and phenomenological approaches. 

Even from a purely neuroscientific point of view, as shown by the Bayesian inference framework, delusions are still the best hypotheses the patient can generate and to a certain degree defend, given the unusual circumstances. It should be borne in mind that schizophrenia carries the heavy burden of stigma even in the clinic because some clinicians do not (and perhaps refuse to) understand the illness, and not that patients living with the illness cannot understand their clinicians. After all, there are intersects between the patients’ and the clinicians’ experiences of reality. By beginning to seek these intersects, a therapeutic dialogue would surely ensue.