Tuesday 25 January 2022

Good Guesses

This post is by Kevin Dorst and Matthew Mandelkern whose paper, "Good Guesses", is forthcoming in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. The authors have written another post on guessing and the conjunction fallacy which you can read here.

Matthew Mandelkern

Where do you think Latif will go to law school? He’s been accepted to Yale, Harvard, Stanford, and NYU. We don’t know his preferences, but here’s the proportion of applicants with the same choices who’ve gone to each:

Yale, 38%; Harvard, 30%; Stanford, 20%; NYU, 12%.

So take a guess: Where do you think he’ll go?

Some observations: One natural guess is ‘Yale’. Another is ‘Either Yale or Harvard’; meanwhile, it’s decidedly unnatural to guess ‘not Yale’, or ‘Yale, Stanford, or NYU’.

Though robust, these judgments are puzzling. ‘Yale’ is a fine guess, but its probability is below 50%, meaning that its negation is strictly more probable (38% vs. 62%); nevertheless, ‘not Yale’ is a weird guess. Moreover, ‘Yale or Harvard’ is a fine guess—meaning that it’s okay to guess something other than the single most likely school—yet ‘Yale, Stanford, or NYU’ is a weird guess (why leave out ‘Harvard’?). This is so despite the fact that ‘Yale or Harvard’ is less probable than ‘Yale, Stanford, or NYU’ (68% vs. 70%).

Kevin Dorst

In this paper we generalize these patterns (following HolguĂ­n 2020) and develop an account that explains them. The idea is that guessers aim to optimize a tradeoff between accuracy and informativity—between saying something that’s likely to be true, and saying something that’s specific.

As William James (1897) famously pointed out, these goals directly compete: the more informative an answer is, the less probable it will be. Some people will put more weight on informativity, guessing something specific like ‘Yale’. Others will put more weight on accuracy, guessing something probable like ‘Yale, Harvard, or Stanford’.

 Neither of these guesses are mistakes; they’re just different ways of weighing accuracy against informativity. But on the way we spell this out, every permissible way of making this tradeoff will lead ‘not Yale’ and ‘Yale, Stanford, or NYU’ to be bad guesses. Why? In each case, there is an equally-informative but more probable answer: ‘Not NYU’ and ‘Yale, Harvard, or Stanford’, respectively.

Now consider a different question.

Linda is 31 years old, single, and very bright. As an undergraduate she majored in philosophy and was highly active in social-justice movements. Which of the following do you think is more likely?

1) Linda is a bank teller.

2) Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

Famously, Tversky and Kahneman (1983) found that most people choose (2) over (1). However, every way of (2) being true is a way of (1) being true, therefore it can’t be more likely! This is known as the conjunction fallacy: ranking a specific claim as more probable than a broader claim.

But notice: by the exact same token, every way in which ‘Yale’ would be a true guess is also a way in which ‘Yale, Stanford, or NYU’ would be true. Yet—for the reasons mentioned above—the former is a good guess, the latter is a weird one: sometimes a drive for informativity can make it reasonable to give an answer that’s less probable than some of the alternatives. Thus, perhaps, a preference to choose the conjunction (2) can be explained by the fact that it’s more informative than (1).

In this paper, we argue that this is so. We make the case that much of our reasoning under uncertainty involves negotiating an accuracy-informativity tradeoff, and that this helps to explain a variety of patterns in the things people tend to guess, believe, and assert.  

We then bring this tradeoff to bear on the conjunction fallacy. We argue that it helps to explain—and partially rationalize—a variety of subtle empirical effects that have been found in people’s tendency to commit this fallacy.

Upshot: maybe we weren’t dumb for thinking (guessing) that Linda is a feminist bank teller, after all. 

Tuesday 18 January 2022

Finding True North: The healing power of place

In this post Linda Gask presents Finding True North: The healing power of place, a book published in April 2021 by Sandstone Press. 

What does it mean to ‘recover’ from depression? The answer you receive to this question will vary by the profession, training, experience, and ideological stance of the person you ask. Some will speak in terms of a reduction in the number of symptoms of depression you have ticked ‘yes’ to. Others will focus on regaining ability to function in the world, particularly in your relationships and ability to work. How do you ‘recover’? Is it simply about taking the tablets, going to therapy- or both? Or is there more to it? 

What about mindfulness, and exercise, and all the other suggestions people helpfully provide? There will also be a few who will admonish you for your choice of words to describe a shade of normal human unhappiness and add to the guilt you were feeling for being depressed in the first place. Personally, I’ve found the writing of Damien Ridge and David Karp very helpful in beginning to make sense of what recovery from depression entails. They draw from the real experiences of people who have suffered it, including Karp himself, and not from what can seem, to the depressed, as the disembodied theories of others.

During my career I delivered and received both pills and therapy. Medication was rarely sufficient on its own and doesn’t alone bring about the life changes we often need to make, even if it fuels the energy to be able to make them. An awareness of the tacit knowledge gained from both personal and professional experience of depression, along with wanting to challenge the stigma associated with being a professional with mental illness, informed my personal writing too, and memoir has seemed the most natural medium for my exploration of the phenomena of mind and mood.

Linda Gask

After taking early retirement from a stressful academic post, I found myself struggling with a new diagnosis of chronic kidney disease. Meanwhile my husband was trying to care for his elderly, dementing mother and it felt like the future we had planned for ourselves was slipping away. Feeling adrift, I began to disappear for long periods (with his blessing) to a cottage I found in Orkney and set about trying to ‘recover’ - documenting my attempts at understanding the process in my blog Patching the Soul. 

Gradually my second memoir Finding True North began to take shape and the process of writing it served not only as an opportunity to re-examine how previous treatment had or had not helped me, but to record the impact of, for example, trying to lead the kind of sensible lifestyle, I had for years been prescribing to my patients but failing to adhere to myself. Getting a good night’s sleep, taking more exercise, drinking less, eating healthily, and discovering how incredibly hard it is to be a ‘good’ patient- as if I didn’t really know it already. Giving myself time to explore and practice mindfulness meditation, trying to being kinder to myself, forgive others for the sins of the past, and, of course, forgive myself. Finding out how the lessons learned in therapy must be revisited repeatedly throughout a life.

As time passed, not only did the realisation come to me that I had spent so much of my life travelling because I had been searching for a place that I could call home, but that I had found it on an island, Mainland Orkney, in the far North of Scotland. Yet, even then it was apparent that what mattered even more was the need to nurture the sense of an island of calm and safety inside myself. Recovery is as much about re-discovery as anything else – locating the sense of who you were before depression, and what it is still possible for you to become. Re-discovering those values that matter to you so much and define you. Your own personal True North.

Now I am remarkably well in spirits despite continued problems with my physical health; and still taking the tablets. The book, which benefited so much by shaping in collaboration with an editor, who understood the story I was trying to write, perhaps sooner than I did, is out in the world. I hope it helps others as much as writing it helped me to rediscover my life.

Bring on the next Act.

Tuesday 11 January 2022

The Mismeasure of the Self

Today's post is by Alessandra Tanesini (University of Cardiff) and it is a presentation of Tanesini's latest book, The Mismeasure of the Self: A Study in Vice Epistemology (Oxford University Press 2021).

The book is dedicated to the study of eight epistemic vices: four vices of superiority and four of inferiority. The vices of superiority are characteristic of people who feel superior, entitled, and have an inflated opinion of themselves. Those of inferiority are typical of individuals who feel inferior, undeserving and are full of self-doubt. 

The book focuses on superbia, arrogance, vanity and narcissism as examples of vices of superiority, and on servility, self-abasement, timidity and fatalism as illustrations of those of inferiority. Each of these vices is shown to be rooted in faulty self-evaluations. People who suffer from these vices do not have the measure of their own strengths and limitations. Because their self-assessments are motivated by needs that are at variance with the desire to be accurate, they result in evaluations that are disconnected from reality.

The philosophical analyses of these vices developed in the book are informed by findings in the social psychology of attitudes. Virtue theorists have usually looked at personality psychology and especially at theories of the so-called cognitive-affective personality system to individuate the empirical bases of virtuous (and vicious) dispositions. In the book I take a different approach to argue that the epistemic vices with which I am concerned are underpinned by what psychologists call ‘attitudes’. 

An attitude is a summary evaluation of an object; it consists in associations of varying strengths between one or more positive or negative valences and a representation of the object of the attitude. Hence, for example, superbia of the intellect comprises a bundle of dispositions that are based on clusters of attitudes that are summary evaluations of aspects of the self, such as mathematical ability, reasoning prowess, and so forth. These attitudes, however, are not motivated by the need to know the self, but by the desire to self-enhance. Hence, the person who suffers from superbia fails to have the measure of their true abilities.

Having developed accounts of each of the eight vices listed above, the book offers a detailed examination of their negative epistemic and moral consequences. It shows that these vices cause numerous harms to their possessors, to other epistemic agents, and to epistemic communities as a whole. Given the impact of epistemic vices on the lives of individuals and on the functioning of the societies to which they belong, ameliorative interventions are of paramount importance. 

Alessandra Tanesini

In order to develop a positive proposal for improvement, the book first argues that individuals are responsible for their vices only in some limited sense. Since these vices are aspects of their character, they are attributable to those who have them who are, therefore, rightly disesteemed. However, people are not answerable for their vices since these impair their judgment. Nevertheless, since vices reflect the poor quality of individuals’ concerns, it can be appropriate to hold people accountable for their vices.

That said, although individuals are blameworthy for their vices, others often lack the required standing to blame them. In addition, there are reasons to believe that blaming people for their vices is often counterproductive. Instead, the book proposes that value affirmation techniques, also developed in social psychology, can be efficacious in ameliorating vicious dispositions. These techniques are instrumental to rendering individuals’ self-esteem more secure and to reduce the defensiveness and the tendencies to excessive self-doubt characteristic of many of the vices of superiority and inferiority discussed in the book.

Tuesday 4 January 2022

Fabrication in Cognitive Penetration

Today's post is by Lu Teng at NYU Shanghai on her recent paper “Cognitive Penetration: Inference or Fabrication?” (2021, Australasian Journal of Philosophy).

Lu Teng

The cognitive penetrability of perception brings some new problems to the discussion of perceptual justification in epistemology. In the above case, if the subjects were cognitively penetrated to see an entirely grey banana as yellowish-grey, did this experience give them the same amount of justification for believing that the banana was yellowish-grey as an ordinary, non-penetrated yellowish-grey experience would normally give? Many philosophers maintain that the penetrated experience has less justificatory power, although it remains hotly debated why cognitive penetration makes the experience epistemically downgraded. 

In my article “Cognitive Penetration: Inference or Fabrication?” I critically examine a prominent approach to the epistemology of cognitive penetration, according to which some cognitively penetrated experiences result from bad inferences. One version of inferentialism takes the relevant inferences as between two sequential/simultaneous experiences (McGrath 2013), whereas another version allows there to be inferences from subpersonal mental states to personal-level experiences (Siegel 2017). I argue that the former theory fails to account for the banana case because the relevant inference would be between two color experiences, but evidence does not support the occurrence of such a transition. Moreover, the second theory, when combined with Bayesian theories of perception, implausibly implies that a large amount of our perceptual experiences lack justificatory power.  

My alternative approach to the epistemology of cognitive penetration first offers more empirical evidence for a psychological mechanism, according to which cognitive penetration can occur through imagining-perception interaction (Macpherson 2012). One set of evidence comes from the cross-modal effects of sensory imaginings on perceptions, and another body of evidence is from neuroimaging. If such a mechanism of cognitive penetration is plausible, then what was involved in the banana case might be: the subjects’ background cognition that bananas are normally yellow initiated an imaginative process that would give rise to a yellow-banana experience, and this interacted with the perceptual process that would lead to a grey-banana experience, resulting in the subjects’ experiencing the banana as yellowish-grey. I also suggest that the priming effects of sensory imaginings on perceptions could be incorporated into the mechanism. 

I offer an epistemological theory of cognitive penetration that draws inspiration from the epistemology of imagining. In particular, I propose that when a mental state results from a personal-level mental process, it needs a good evidential basis in order to have justificatory power; however, when a mental state results from a merely subpersonal-level mental process, it does not need a good evidential basis in order to have justificatory power. An experience is “fabricated” when it results from a personal-level mental process, but lacks a good evidential basis. Suppose that you hope that a blizzard will arrive, and your hope causes you to imagine seeing snow when looking out of the window. Your imagining is a fabricated experience, and fails to give you justification for believing that it is snowing. Fabricationism, I argue, explains the epistemic downgrade of cognitively penetrated experiences in various cases satisfactorily, and also leaves room for epistemically innocent/good cognitive penetration.