Tuesday 27 April 2021

A Variety of Causes

In today's post Paul Noordhof presents his book, A Variety of Causes (OUP 2020).

A Variety of Causes
began life as an attempt to defend a counterfactual theory of causation that covered cases of indeterminism. Its basic tools were counterfactuals like ‘if e1 were not to occur, e2 would not occur’ (where e1 and e2 are token events) and appeals to probability in the consequent of the counterfactual (so p(e2) rather than e2) to characterise a notion of chance-raising. A successful defence requires a treatment of counterfactuals, identifying the conditions under which they are true and, for the enthusiast, that means I developed further Lewis’s similarity weighting for counterfactuals placing restrictions on the requirement for perfect match and clarifying the approximate match condition. 

More complex counterfactuals were needed to deal with cases of ‘redundant’ causation, like the situation in which one cause pre-empts another candidate cause. The book defends a particular way of doing this involving non-actual situations in which the competing cause is not present together with an analysis of when a causal process is complete and a developed notion of chance-raising. One consequence that falls out of the treatment is that causation is not transitive. But all of this somewhat technical stuff became at the service of something more.

At its most basic, the analysis characterises causes to be something that, independent of their competitors raises the chance of their effect, over its mean background chance, by a complete causal chain. That is not to deny that causes come in many varieties. Some involve transmission of energy; some enable an effect to be produced while others trigger the effect; and some prevent other events from preventing the effect. Nevertheless, in contrast to other approaches, this variety of causes requires no recognition of fundamentally different kinds of causation, given different analyses. The only distinct kinds of causation the book recognises are cases of particular causation which, I argue, is fundamentally between events, and property causation which is distinguished from causation holding between properties in virtue of laws.

The varieties of causation that the book recognises did not stop there. The proposed analysis is neutral between various metaphysical frameworks: those which deny necessary connections between distinct existences such as the Humean approach and those which often assert them like the powers ontology. The orthodoxy (most famously propounded by David Lewis) is to take a successful counterfactual analysis of causation to support Humean approaches because the analysis demonstrates that appeal to necessary connections between distinct existences is not required for causation. 

Paul Noordhof

By contrast, I argue that necessary connections between distinct existences are coherent and our experience may supply evidence of their existence, which is sometimes dismissed because our experience misrepresents them. On the other hand, anti-Humeans make the mistake of presuming that their appetite for a full-blooded metaphysics appealing to necessities represents a necessary condition for causation. There are legitimate grounds for recognising causation in Humean worlds (in which there are no necessary connections between distinct existences of the required kind). Indeed, I argue that it is more plausible to allow causation in Humean worlds than phenomenal consciousness in physical worlds. Good physicalists should not reject the possibility of causation in such worlds.

My neutrality is not a misguided attempt to win friends by alienating both camps. There was another aim. The analysis shows that causation is not fundamental in one sense. The truth of causal statements depends upon facts about chance, the pattern these facts display, and what is required for a causal process to be complete. Call this the vertical sense of fundamentality. However, causation is a common structure of dependences realised in different metaphysical frameworks in different possible worlds. It is plausible that it is a required feature of any world. Call this the horizontal sense of fundamentality. The diverse ways in which causation may be realised allows for possibilities that a Humean metaphysics cannot accommodate without implying that causation cannot be present in Humean worlds. 

The different ways in which causation may be realised also imply different bases for causal non-symmetry (rather than asymmetry). Some of these different bases provide an objective foundation for causal non-symmetry but another draws on a non-symmetry of agency. Causation may have a human ‘interventionist’ face but this is not essential to it and does not support rejection of causation from science, by those suspicious of such an everyday metaphysical notion cropping up there. The extent to which causation is connected to agency does nothing to impugn the fact that it is a horizontally fundamental feature of reality.

Tuesday 20 April 2021

Delusional Evidence-Responsiveness

This post is by Carolina Flores on evidence responsiveness in delusions. A paper on the same topic has been published open access in Synthese.

Carolina Flores

Delusions are deeply evidence-resistant. Patients with delusions are unmoved by evidence that is in direct conflict with the delusion, often responding to such evidence by offering obvious, and strange, confabulations. As a consequence, the standard view is that delusions are not evidence-responsive. This claim has been used as a key argumentative wedge in debates on the nature of delusions. Some have taken delusions to be beliefs and argued that this implies that belief is not constitutively evidence-responsive. Others hold fixed the evidence-responsiveness of belief and take this to show that delusions cannot be beliefs.

Against this common assumption, I argue that (for the most part) delusions are evidence-responsive—in the sense that subjects have the capacity to rationally respond to evidence on their delusion. This is compatible with the patient rarely successfully exercising that capacity in the actual world, and hence with routine delusional evidence-resistance. Analogously, I might have the capacity to run a sub-40 minute 10k, but rarely be well-rested, calm, and motivated enough to actually do so.

Looking closely, there are many behavioral signs of the capacity to rationally respond to counter-evidence to delusions. For example, patients put substantial effort into avoiding counter-evidence, suggesting that, if they were to acquire that evidence, it might force them to abandon the delusion, or require much effort to avoid revising it. If that evidence would have no effect, why avoid it? More decisively, in successful CBT, patients actually respond to counter-evidence to their delusion, and thereby come to abandon it. CBT’s relatively high success rate shows that many patients have the capacity to rationally respond to such evidence. Check out the paper for a much wider range of evidence, and more detailed discussion.

If patients have such capacities, how come they fail to revise their delusional beliefs in the face of counter-evidence? The reason is that internal factors—such as strange perceptual experiences, motivation to retain the delusion, and cognitive biases that require effort to override—mask these capacities. For example, many patients have persistent altered perceptual experiences which yield apparent evidence for their delusions. And patients are often highly motivated to maintain their delusion, either because it is a pleasant one, or because abandoning it would require the painful realization that something has gone seriously amiss with them. Delusions, then, result from the layering of capacities to respond to evidence and perceptual, motivational, and cognitive masks on those capacities—something, by the way, that is also true of ordinary beliefs.

As a result, we can hold both that belief is constitutively evidence-responsive and that delusions are beliefs. This does justice to the long-standing view that believing essentially involves tracking the way things are while acknowledging that real beliefs often fall drastically short of ideal rationality, and fitting the intuitive, and useful, classification of delusions as beliefs.

Perhaps most importantly, this view has significant implications for how we treat people with delusions. It entails that patients with delusions are not outside the space of reasons—even when it comes to their delusion. Delusions do not justify seeing the patient as only an object to be managed, controlled, and studied under an objective, coldly scientific glace. It can be appropriate to reason with the patient, work to understand the reasons for their delusion, and hold them to epistemic standards. Not only should we continue to invest in CBT for delusions, but we should also reconceive the social standing accorded to people with delusions.


Tuesday 13 April 2021

Imposter Syndrome and Self-Deception

Today's post is by Stephen Gadsby, from the Cognition and Philosophy Lab at Monash University, Melbourne.

Stephen Gadsby

It’s almost like the better I do, the more my feeling of inadequacy actually increases, because I’m just going, ‘Any moment, someone’s going to find out I’m a total fraud, and that I don’t deserve any of what I’ve achieved’ — Emma Watson

Emma Watson’s confession represents a characteristic feature of imposter syndrome, a condition suffered by many intelligent, driven, and successful individuals—Maya Angelou, Charles Darwin, and Albert Einstein, to name a few. People with imposter syndrome feel like frauds because they believe themselves to be less able (e.g., talented, knowledgeable, intelligent) than their peers. The truth of the matter is just the opposite: they are just as, if not more, able. They also have ample evidence in support of this, in the form of achievements, accolades, awards, and the like. A puzzling feature of the phenomenon is the way in which these individuals treat such evidence: dismissing, ignoring, and avoiding it at every turn. In my recent paper, Imposter Syndrome and Self-Deception, I offer an account of this behaviour.

It begins with the fact that humans are motivated reasoners: we reason in ways that not only track truth but advance other interests. One such interest is self-motivation. Think of the student who motivates herself to study by focusing on how unprepared she is for an upcoming exam, or the dieter who motivates himself by selectively focusing on the fatter parts of his body. These kinds of self-motivational strategies suggest a compelling hypothesis: that people with imposter syndrome shirk praise and discount their achievements in order to motivate themselves.


In my paper, I lay out a number of conditions that ensure negative beliefs about one’s own abilities bestow an appealing motivational benefit. One condition is a strong desire to succeed in a domain where considerable effort is required. This is a common feature of imposter syndrome, which frequently afflicts success-driven individuals in competitive and challenging environments (e.g., corporate management, academia, and professional sports). In such cases, considerable effort is required to succeed, making motivation a hot commodity.


Another condition is the belief that natural ability can be compensated for with hard work. There is good reason to assume that people with imposter syndrome believe such a thing. After all, they work exceptionally hard, despite believing that they lack natural ability. Indeed, many profess to working hard in order to compensate for this lack; as a self-motivational strategy, then, imposter syndrome seems to pay off.


For highly success driven individuals, the motivational benefit of negative self-appraisal may be precisely what is required to succeed in the environments in which they find themselves. Given the motivational benefits of imposter syndrome, perhaps we should rethink whether it necessarily ought to be eradicated; perhaps we should instead try to mitigate some of its more harmful features.


* Thanks to Dan Williams for useful comments.


Tuesday 6 April 2021

The Epistemology and Morality of Human Kinds

In today's post, Marion Godman (Aarhus University) presents her new book, The Epistemology and Morality of Human Kinds (Routledge 2021).

Marion Godman, photo by Tariq Mikkel Khan

I have written a book about human kinds, such as kinds of gender, religion and ethnicity. In the book I try to answer questions both about how these kinds come about and what their role in science and in policy is. Here I will focus on summarizing some of what I say about the positive role that human kinds can play in science and policy. I have come to think that people (including myself) must often be convinced that there is a point to talk about human kinds before they can take an interest in what they are and how they come about. 

If I were to write a book on natural kinds, I might not have needed to spend much time on this task. After all, few would deny that it is useful to gain knowledge about alleged natural kinds, like mineralogical kinds, chemical elements and different species of mammals. With knowledge about kinds like these we can, for example, make predictions about what unencountered instances will be like, we can begin to systematize and theorize about them, and we can then use our knowledge in everything from technological innovations to environmental conservation efforts. 

But when it comes to human kinds, we don’t think of knowledge so much as all sorts of imperfect cognition. We hold prejudice against individuals in terms of their belonging to a certain race or gender, we use unfitting stereotypes in psychiatric treatment, and we engage in in-group and out-group thinking on the basis of certain categories. Why on earth should science and policy engage with human kinds in the first place? Should it not focus on treating each person as a unique individual as far as possible? 

In the course of my book, I offer several answers in defence of human kinds. The first and most basic role for human kinds is that our knowledge of the human and social world must relies on some form of categorization of particular individuals into kinds just like knowledge of the natural world. True, the generalizations, which we base this knowledge upon, is less secure and less reliable than in the natural sciences. In fact, I suggest that often we are not interested in finding the strong generalisations at all; we are interested in finding reliable comparisons between different groups, say women and men, or comparisons between people with different sorts of professions. 

But not any grouping will do for such comparisons. In principle we could set out to investigate the differential mood of groups that organize their books alphabetically in comparison to the mood of those that organize their books by colour, but we tend to think that little will be learnt from this kind of exercise. Kinds of mental disorder, kinds of profession, and kinds of political affiliation seem much more relevant for generalisations and comparisons. (A good question to ask here is, “why so?” This is where theorizing about human kinds comes in.)

Sometimes, even quite often, individuals will be stereotyped by social and medical science in ways that are not true of them individually (though the link to harmful stereotyping is not well understood). This brings me to a second defence of human kinds. This is that as long as there is wrongful differential treatment in the world ranging from subtle forms of negative stereotyping to historical wrongs to practices of apartheid, then we need some way of detecting patterns of difference between certain groups. One dominant way to do this is precisely via the scientific use of comparative generalizations between different human kinds that I just described.

Say we want to find out if men and women in Denmark have the same risk of facing bankruptcy in their small businesses, or whether an indigenous group in Canada face the same risk of severe illness upon infection of COVID-19 as a non-indigenous population. This implies that we can use empirical, statistical and, if we are very lucky, experimental methods to study comparisons between the same features of different groups. Even then it is of course not sufficient to detect a difference to be able to uncover an injustice (both value judgements and explanations are typically often needed for this), my point is just that a necessary first step for change is to first discover or check for differences between human kinds.

The final defence I offer for the importance of human kinds builds on my specific account of them as historical kinds that come about through individuals learning or assimilating with past models (yes, I know that is very quick, but apart from my book I have some open access papers on historical kinds if you want to take a look). This account does some further things for motivating a scientific interest in human kinds. The first thing is that it corrects for misunderstanding about human kinds such as them typically being explained by fixed neurological or genetic differences. Human kinds are instead predominantly constrained by the available models and different pressures and needs to conform to these models.

Since they are very much part of our inherited cultural fabric, human kinds are not easy to change. In fact, it may not even desirable to change all aspects of human kinds. True, many kinds may be associated with domination and subordination (such as with gender and ethnicity in many places) and this is surely something to resist. But human kinds do also matter for learning how to navigate the world, for inhabiting a social identity that gives us both a sense of uniqueness as well as a sense of belonging.