Tuesday 30 November 2021

Stories as Evidence

This is part of one week series of posts on a new journal, Memory, Mind & Media. Today's post is by Kathleen Murphy-Hollies (PhD student at the University of Birmingham) who talks about the role of stories in public debates. She is summarising a paper co-authored with Lisa Bortolotti and recently published in the inaugural issue of Memory, Mind & Media. The paper is available open access here.

Kathleen Murphy-Hollies

We are all drawn to stories in their many forms, and the prevalence of them on digital media may be one reason why we have embraced those media so much. On social media we see lots of stories being told, often in support some general claim. For example, people have been sharing experiences of getting the COVID vaccine and of not getting the vaccine, often in the hopes of supporting general claims about whether people should get vaccinated. However, can personal stories be taken as evidence supporting general claims? 

People’s stories about what kind of things happened to them after having the COVID vaccine might not get at the truth about the potential side effects of the vaccine. They don’t capture the causal relationship between getting the vaccine and experiencing side effects. When we attend to a story, we tend to be drawn to its aesthetic features, we are moved by how it makes us feel, and are motivated to think and act in ways that are consistent with the morale of the story. Often, stories are edited so that they fulfil these purposes, being moving, engaging, and inspiring. This means that they may omit details that would be important to assessing the relevant causal relationships, or include details that would not. 

On digital media especially, stories have the power to reach a very large audience very quickly. Stories shared online can be co-constructed, in that multiple-storytellers engage with the story via liking, commenting, and sharing (Page et al. 2013). This means that people who are geographically and culturally separated can come together and contribute to stories which embody and reflect shared identities. In a way, stories can be very valuable ‘windows into other worlds’. By accessing stories, we learn about other people's first-person experiences and perspectives. For instance, members of disabled and marginalised groups sharing their experiences has been particularly valuable for raising awareness about problems of discrimination and stigma, and starting to tackle them. 

However, there may also be concerns about the reliability of stories. All of us have imperfect memories and tend to ‘fill in gaps’ in ways which support our conceptions of ourselves. Often, we confabulate. This happens when we offer an explanation for why we made a certain choice that doesn’t capture all the relevant causal factors and also misrepresents the circumstances of our choice. So, the explanation isn’t well supported by evidence. We don’t mean to lie or deceive when we do this, but we are motivated to give an answer to a question about why we chose as we did that allows us to share information that matters to us. As has been noticed in the literature, this enables us to interact with others (Stammers 2020) and signal to them that we are rational decision-makers (Ganapini 2020).

Here is an example. Some students start a protest against having to wear masks on campus. They are asked by the local press: “Why are you protesting? Why don’t you want to wear a mask?”. Students respond by saying: “They are our faces, we decide what to do with them”, “We’re fighting for freedom”, “We do not belong to the government or to the college”. They tell a story where the refusal to wear a mask is a point of principle, namely a defence of their individual freedom. They have seen these themes emerging in the speeches of political leaders in the previous weeks and upholding freedom sounds like a good, even noble reason to resist a mandate. However, the factors leading to their behaviour may be broader, and include also considerations about convenience, a desire for non-conformity, or a denial of COVID being a serious health threat, just to mention a few.

So, does the widespread phenomenon of confabulation mean that stories can never be used as evidence? We argue that what is required is a closer examination of what exactly stories can be evidence of. There is no doubt that presenting messages in the form of stories is very powerful; a teenager who got vaccinated against his mother’s wishes described the anti-vax movement as interacting with parents mainly “on an anecdotal level, sharing stories and experiences. That speaks volumes to people because it reaffirms, especially for my mom, that her position is correct” (Helmore 2019). At the same time, this attention-grabbing and persuasive nature of stories can be used to educate the public effectively about the science of vaccinations and provide solutions to issue of disengagement and misinformation (Rogers 2021). 

In considering which stories can be taken as evidence for a particular claim, we need to know what stories give us information about. We suggest that although stories might not tell us about the causal relationships between events, they tell us about how people want to be seen by others, what people value, and how people interpret their experiences. The students on campus wanted to be seen as defenders of freedom, a value which they have come to hold for themselves after consuming messages on social media which provide these compelling narratives for rejecting masks and failing to comply to other health and safety recommendations. These narratives are compelling because they give people a sense of agency over their choices, a sense that they can control what happens to them. 

Stories can be informative whether or not they involve confabulation, as learning about what people value and care about can inform future communication strategies. But, stories are not always by themselves sufficient evidence for the viewpoints they are used to support. Stories as evidence for general claims still need to be critically assessed, especially when they are shared online and can have significant influence on public opinion. This might enable us to enhance the quality of debates among citizens, whilst still valuing what is attractive and valuable about the stories people share.

To learn more, you can also watch a video where we introduce the paper in less than 4 minutes!

Stories as Evidence - an MMM introduction from Lisa Bortolotti and Kathleen Murphy Hollies from CUP Academic on Vimeo.

Monday 29 November 2021

At the Crossroads of 'Memory in the Head' and 'Memory in the Wild'

This is part of one week series of posts on a new journal, Memory, Mind & Media. Today's post is by Andrew Hoskins (University of Glasgow) and Amanda Barnier (Macquarie University), Founding Co-Editors-in-Chief of the journal.

Andrew Hoskins


In September 2018, Dr Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh appeared before the United States Judiciary Committee as part of Kavanaugh’s confirmation as a new US Supreme Court Justice. During the confirmation process, Blasey Ford alleged that in the summer of 1982 when she and Kavanaugh were in high school, he sexually assaulted her at a party. Blasey Ford recalled the assault in detail, describing the events as “seared” into her memory. But when given his opportunity before the Committee, Kavanaugh unequivocally and angrily denied this accusation.

We, Andrew and Amanda, were in the same place at the same time – in Glasgow – when Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh gave their testimony. Together, we watched the questions and reactions of the Senators and other people in the Senate room. And we followed on mainstream news, social media and blogs the evolving reactions to their competing claims. We noticed how much Blasey Ford’s and Kavanaugh’s conflicting memories spilled out into the world, offering a fascinating case study of the collision of memory in the head (the study of the human world of remembering) and memory in the wild (the study of the social/cultural world of remembering). We also noticed what each of us noticed about the case, which often was quite different.

Amanda Barnier

What we saw were multiple, colliding “ecologies” of memory; reporting and discussion of personal memories in many different settings. Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh’s memories were described and then challenged in the Senate Judiciary Hearing Room, dissected as a live televised “event”, and spread and interpreted in real-time across social and other media.

As Andrew has argued, such memories are not “something purely personal to be treated in terms of accuracy and error”. Rather, they illustrate “a new memory ecology, a new twenty-first century (re)ordering of the past by and through multiple connectivities of times, actors, events and so on”.

Social media enables new ways for memories to “travel”. One Australian journalist, reacting to Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh’s memory disclosures on the other side of the world, wrote:


I am sixteen-and-a-half thousand kilometres away from the rooms in which these events have transpired, yet late at night and in moments of quietude, I am in all of them – rendered something supernatural and out of space and time by a rage that’s as hot and thick as lava. And I’m not alone.

These memories also “travelled” via misinformation and conspiracies; strange claims shared and reshared thousands of times on the internet.

And yet, in terms of scholarly responses and analyses of this event, commentary and published contributions overwhelmingly came from psychologists. The hearings and testimony were reported as mostly in the head issues by experts on cognition, trauma and individual remembering and forgetting. There didn’t seem to be much, if any, coverage devoted to memory in the wild perspectives. There was almost no focus on the evolving contexts in which memories were formed, expressed, changed and of course, lost.

Is it that psychologists are wary about making claims about memory in the wild, or what Daniel Schacter in our Inaugural Essay calls ‘domain-general’ effects? Are social and cultural worlds seen as beyond the scope of traditional psychological experimentation because they are not easily replicable or testable? And why didn’t non psychologists – sociologists, historians, cultural studies or media scholars – see this case as within their scope?


Perhaps because the memory phenomena at play in the case of Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh are not reduceable to head or wild. Instead, to invoke Schacter’s essay again, they are always multi-domain. To accept this we must combine our disciplinary perspectives to navigate complex collisions of individual and social/cultural memory; of intersecting “memory ecologies”. This seems especially so when environments for reporting and interpreting memories are far from neutral; when memory can become “radicalised” and expertise about memory and its impacts questioned.

Our journal, Memory, Mind & Media published by Cambridge University Press, offers a unique new venue for these complex cases and interdisciplinary conversations as we explore the impact of media and technology on individual, social and cultural remembering and forgetting.

Our journal is situated at a juncture of transformational digital change. Today, the “connective turn” – the abundance, scale and immediacy of digital media, communication networks and archives – forces a view unprecedented in history. It has re-engineered memory, liberating it from traditional bounds of the spatial archive, the organization, the institution, and distributed it on a continuous basis via connectivity across minds, bodies, and personal and public lives. This opening up of new ways of finding, sorting, sifting, using, seeing, losing and abusing the past, both imprisons and liberates active (intentional, conscious, purposive) human remembering and forgetting.


Another rationale for Memory, Mind & Media is a persistent question we have asked one another and others in our more than decade long collaboration: is it possible to journey from individual, disciplinary, separate perspectives about memory, mind and media to find common, transformative language, questions and approaches? We think yes!

So, we welcome your contributions. We want the journal to be a home for scholars working within, across and beyond history, philosophy, media, communication and cultural studies, law, literature, anthropology, political science, sociology, neuroscience, psychology, computational science and more.

We seek high-quality, interdisciplinary conversations that combine scientific and humanistic approaches to the study of memory in the digital era. And we will preference jargon-free contributions that encourage cross-disciplinary dialogue and debate as well as engagement by non-experts and student readers. 

All this week on the Imperfect Cognitions blog, authors of the agenda-setting papers from our Inaugural Collection will describe their work, including:
Please visit us at Memory, Mind & Media, follow us on Twitter and send us your work!

Tuesday 23 November 2021

Epistemic Decolonisation

This post is by Veli Mitova (University of Johannesburg), who guest-edited a special issue of Philosophical Papers on Epistemic Decolonisation and here introduces the topic to us and presents the seven essays contributing to the special issue. 

Veli Mitova

We live in an epistemically colonial world; that’s no secret. Although the Global North physically left as colonial ‘master’ long ago, it still gets to tell the Global South what counts as genuine knowledge and real science. The call to epistemic decolonisation – which is gaining increasing traction in both academia and everyday life – is the dual call to dismantle the North’s self-arrogated epistemic superiority, and to re-centre the South’s knowledge enterprise onto our geo-historical here and now. 

Decolonising Knowledge Here and Now

Veli Mitova, the guest editor of the special issue and the author of this post, models epistemic decolonisation on Kwasi Wiredu’s conceptual decolonisation: it involves the dual imperative to get rid of undue colonial conceptual influences and to draw on indigenous epistemic resources in our knowledge-production. She argues that this conception gets fresh light from the literature on epistemic injustice. Key concepts here are those of hermeneutical injustice, epistemic oppression, as well as the South American concept of ‘epistemic disobedience’ and its African equivalent of ‘epistemic freedom’.

Veli is Professor in Philosophy and Director of the African Centre for Epistemology and Philosophy of Science, at the University of Johannesburg.


Whither Epistemic Decolonization?

Bernard Matolino issues a serious challenge to those working on epistemic decolonisation in Africa. Show why we should continue this work, the challenge goes, given that it has never benefited the victims of coloniality. On the contrary, it has instead distracted us from the political and material disempowerment of these victims, and has made them overly preoccupied with defining themselves in opposition to the coloniser. The paper, thus, sets important constraints on epistemic decolonisation: it should not be pursued at the cost either of political and economic flourishing, or of neglecting one’s rich African identity.

Bernard is Associate Professor of Philosophy, at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.


Epistemic Agency Under Oppression

Gaile Pohlhaus offers a related moral for epistemic decolonisation, through considerations of epistemic oppression. Drawing on Maria Lugones’s notion of a ‘horizontal practice of resistance’, Pohlhaus argues that epistemic decolonisation should be likewise horizontal. That is, marginalised knowers should resist spending all their epistemic energy on the oppressor, as Matolino similarly urges. Instead, they should spend more energy reflecting on each other’s experiences and marginalised knowledge systems.

Gaile is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Miami University.


Towards A Plausible Account of Epistemic Decolonisation

Abraham Tobi echoes the need for horizontal exchange, and diagnoses one of the epistemic ills of colonialism as the epistemic distrust of dominant knowers. Such distrust, he argues, is an epistemic vice that makes coloniality a form of epistemic injustice. This suggestion arguably sets another constraint on epistemic decolonisation: however it proceeds, it should not undermine trust amongst differently situated knowers.

Abraham is a PhD candidate in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Johannesburg.

Epistemic decolonization as overcoming the hermeneutical injustice of Eurocentrism

Lerato Posholi argues that the main motivation for epistemic decolonisation is that Eurocentric conceptual resources are inadequate for theorising global problems and hence infelicitous for finding solutions to them. The need for epistemic decolonisation is, thus, grounded in the (hermeneutical) injustice of imposing on the marginalised epistemic resources that are inadequate for theorising their experiences. Epistemic decolonisation emerges as the only therapy for this injustice.

Lerato is a SNSF Fellow at the Centre for European Studies, University of Basel.


‘Civility,’ the Civilizing Project, and Epistemic Decolonization

Nora Berenstain adds yet another dimension to epistemic decolonisation by unmasking the hidden axiology of colonial epistemologies, which place the value of civility above that of justice. Such justice would require the restoration of Indigenous lands to their rightful owners, something obscured by the rhetoric of civility and the epistemic machinery that goes with it. This not only enriches the imperative to epistemic decolonisation, but neatly links it to other forms of resistance to systematic violence against the marginalised.

Nora is Associate Professor of Philosophy and co-director of the Intersectionality Community of Scholars at the University of Tennessee.


Cognitive confinement, embodied sense-making, and the (de)colonization of knowledge

Konrad Werner construes quite literally the need for grounding knowledge production in our geo-historical here and now, by taking seriously the idea that knowers are embodied creatures in an environment that can be congenial or not to cognition. Drawing on cognitive science tools, he uses the notion of ‘cognitive confinement’ to model the central epistemic ills of colonisation as a situation in which one’s epistemic environment transforms in ways that are inimical to one’s sense-making and practical projects.

Konrad is a lecturer at the Institute of Philosophy, University of Warsaw.

This is no more than a taste for rich and subtle essays on a complex and important topic. But it at least gives an idea of the ways in which the special issue makes an important contribution to scholarship on epistemic decolonisation.

Tuesday 16 November 2021

Models and Idealizations in Science

This post is by Alejandro Cassini (University of Buenos Aires) and Juan Redmond (University of Valparaiso) who recently edited Models and Idealizations in Science: Artifactual and Fictional Approaches (Springer, 2021). Here they present the book.

This book is intended both as an introduction to the philosophy of scientific modeling and as a contribution to the discussion and clarification of two recent philosophical conceptions of models: the artifactual and the fictional views. 

The first chapter provides a rather elementary but fairly complete and extensive introduction to the present state of the philosophy of scientific models. It also offers a brief historical narrative of the rise and the early development of the philosophy of scientific models since the middle of the 20th century. 

Juan Redmond

The commented bibliography at end of the book complements this narrative by offering a classified list of the main relevant books on models and idealizations in science preceded by short commentaries intended to guide the search for further readings on the different topics. 

The rest of the book is a collection of ten previously unpublished articles by different philosophers of science, who deal with a wealth of topics concerning models and idealizations in science. Among the many issues they address, it can be mentioned the artifactual view of idealization, the use of information theory to elucidate the concepts of abstraction and idealization, the deidealization of models, the nature of scientific fictions, the fiction view of models defended from its critics, the structural account of representation and the ontological status of structures, the role of surrogative reasoning with models, and the use of models for predicting and explaining physical phenomena. 

Alejandro Cassini

The pervasive use of models and idealizations in all sciences was slowly, and lately, acknowledged by philosophers of science since the last two decades of the twentieth century. By contrast, during the first two decades of the twenty-first century, there was an explosion of different kinds of philosophical studies regarding scientific modeling. 

However, philosophers of science have not yet reached an agreement concerning the precise terminology to be used in dealing with scientific models and, for that reason, the vagueness and ambiguity of some key terms, such as “model system”, “target”, “abstraction”, and “idealization”, among many others, are still a hindrance for the communication between philosophers of different persuasions. 

In turn, the ubiquitous concept of representation, one of the most elusive in Modern philosophy, has defied the many attempts at elucidation in the many philosophical disciplines in which it was employed, such as the philosophies of language, mind, and art. 

This book also aims at contributing to the clarification of these and other concepts that belong to the toolkit with which philosophers of science address such questions as what models are, what they are used for, and how they represent -if they do it- the phenomena we encounter in the real world.

Tuesday 9 November 2021

What is Hagioptasia?

Today's post is by Dan Laidler, who introduces the notion of hagioptasia and explains why it points to something interesting about how humans interact with their environment.

Hagioptasia (meaning 'holy vision') is our natural tendency to imagine an otherworldly quality of 'specialness' in certain places, people or things. It is an evolved, adaptive psychological mechanism, which evokes in us a deep sense of longing.
“That unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of Kubla Khan, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.”
C.S. Lewis, The Pilgrim's Regress

Like Lewis, I had also wondered a great deal on these deep, enigmatic feelings, which everyone appeared to share in a very similar manner from early childhood onwards. Although, rather than strengthen my notions of spirituality, this inquiry led me to a naturalistic explanation, culminating in my theory of hagioptasia as an evolved instinct, inspiring emotional feelings of attraction, admiration and competition.

In 2015 I made a video explaining my ideas, and with great good fortune it was seen by psychologist John A. Johnson. John was keen to test the theory, and his consequent findings were published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences

Daniel Laidler

While hagioptasia is a new concept, and this research is the first attempt at assessing it, John's work in showing that such an instinct exists is significant for enabling us to see how hagioptasic experiences have previously been misinterpreted, both on a personal and a cultural level. As is commonly the case, C.S. Lewis believed that these profound feelings of specialness were glimpses of the divine, and they gave his notions of spirituality and religion a reassuring sense of authenticity.

The ambiguous, illusory qualities of hagioptasia have clearly played major role in the development of religion, and other areas of human culture which employ the powers of mystique, glory and ‘glamour’. Likewise, our appreciation of the 'sublime' in celebrated works of art may owe far more to our evolved animal nature than any contributory intellectual prowess. 

But while most of us may not be expecting the wonderment of heavenly glory to materialize any time soon, other more everyday expectations to satisfy the promises of hagioptasia inevitably lead to disappointment and frustration. The dream car, house or holiday, career success, status and celebrity may all eventually be achieved, yet the 'specialness' we yearn for exists only as a fleeting, intangible notion.

Undoubtedly the desire to attain the illusory aspirations of hagioptasia continues to be a major source of trouble for our species. However, it seems evident to me that an understanding of this instinctive drive – being aware of how and when it is influencing our thoughts and behaviours – can help us to alleviate these problems, and will enable people to use their hagioptasic experiences more constructively.

Tuesday 2 November 2021

Extreme Beliefs: An Interview with Rik Peels

Today I interview Rik Peels (Amsterdam) on a new exciting project he is leading, addressing extremism and fundamentalism. The project is funded by an ERC Starting Grant and is named, "Extreme Beliefs: The Epistemology and Ethics of Fundamentalism" (2020-2025). 

Rik Peels

LB: How did you become interested in fundamentalism?

RP: It was a combination of two things. On the one hand, ever since the start of my PhD in 2008, I’ve been working on the ethics of belief. In times of polarization and misinformation, I think the issue of how people form their beliefs and how they should form them has become even more important. On the other hand, especially since 9/11, the so-called new atheists have severely critiqued religious faith on both moral and epistemic grounds, but it has always struck me, as a religious person myself, that they seem to target only fundamentalist and other extreme versions of religion. I felt it was only natural to combine the two interests and the rise of terrorism, right-wing extremism, and conspiricism have only added to that. The public and academic conceptual conflation between, say, extremism, fundamentalism, terrorism, and fanaticism has been a final reason for me to engage in this topic.

LB: Your project deals with the epistemological and ethical issues raised by extreme beliefs. What are your research questions?

RP: The five main research questions are: 
  1. What turns a person’s extreme beliefs into fundamentalist beliefs and how do they relate to other epistemically detrimental phenomena like narrow-mindedness and belief in conspiracy theories? 
  2. How does the social environment affect the rationality and other epistemic statuses of fundamentalist beliefs of the individual and of the group? 
  3. What are people’s general and context-specific moral and epistemic obligations regarding fundamentalist beliefs? 
  4. Under which conditions are people excused for violating their moral and epistemic obligations regarding their fundamentalist beliefs? 
  5. And exactly how does an epistemology and ethics of individual and group fundamentalist belief help us to better understand, explain, and assess fundamentalism?

LB: What expertise is required to study fundamentalism? Does your project team involve experts in different disciplines? If so, how will they work together?

RP: The challenging thing about fundamentalism is that, in order to properly understand and explain it, one needs expertise in countless disciplines, at least: philosophy, theology, religious studies, law, history, psychology, sociology, criminology, and arguably even much more than that. My project team combines philosophical (particularly epistemological and ethical) expertise with empirical expertise.

LB: Some believe that philosophy has a role in helping tackle serious problems. Will your project inform societal responses to extreme beliefs?

RP: That is indeed also an aim, one that will become more important towards the end of the project, as the results are coming in. We are involved in public debates in newspapers, for instance, on how to respond to Covid-19 conspiricism. We provide input for policy documents by ministries and public safety agencies (the equivalents of the FBI). We are involved in other projects building resilience towards extreme beliefs among various groups in three Dutch cities. All our work, both academic and public, will be made freely available on our website.

LB: What is the final goal of the project?

RP: Since the start of the project in early 2020, I have come to see (I believe) that what is needed now is a new paradigm for studying fundamentalism, extremism, terrorism, conspiricism, and fanaticism that: 
  • combines insights into these movements rather than studying them in isolation;
  • takes the first-person perspective of, say, the extremist – her reasons, beliefs, narratives – seriously, something that has been neglected for years now; and 
  • synthesizes ideas and methods from the empirical sciences and more theoretical (conceptual, normative) approaches as developed in philosophy. 
The long-term and rather ambitious goal, then, is to develop this paradigm with numerous other philosophers as well as empirical and historical scholars, that is, to find the right terms and concepts needed to articulate it, back it up by empirical evidence and rigorous argumentation, and make it flourish.