Tuesday 29 March 2022

Philosophy of Psychedelics

Today's post is by Chris Letheby (Western Australia/Adelaide) on his new book Philosophy of Psychedelics (OUP 2021).

We are in the midst of a psychedelic renaissance. “Classic” psychedelic drugs such as LSD and psilocybin are the objects of renewed scientific interest. Despite the chequered reputation of these substances, recent clinical trials have shown that psychedelics can be administered safely in controlled conditions, and may have a role in the treatment of various psychological maladies. There is even talk of a “new paradigm” in psychiatric treatment. 

But psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy (“psychedelic therapy”) has several unusual features that distinguish it from standard psychiatric treatments and raise intriguing questions. In my book Philosophy of Psychedelics (OUP 2021) I tackle some of these questions.

The most striking feature of psychedelic therapy is that it involves the induction of a dramatically altered state of consciousness. Patients with anxiety, depression, or addiction are screened, prepared, and typically given psychotherapeutic sessions before and after drug administration. But the centrepiece of the treatment is one to three supervised sessions in which the patient receives a moderate-to-high dose of a psychedelic.

Psychedelics’ experiential effects are highly variable, being affected strongly by the user’s psychological state and the surrounding environment. But under conducive conditions, a high proportion of patients report a complete mystical-type experience, as defined by psychometric questionnaires. 

The construct comes from the work of William James and Walter Stace, and refers to a transcendent experience in which space, time, and the sense of self fade away, replaced by apparent unity with “another Reality that puts this one in the shade” (Smith 2000, p. 133). One of the most robust findings in psychedelic science, across multiple studies and populations, is that good clinical outcomes are strongly predicted by the occurrence of this specific type of experience.

What should we make of this? If, like Michael Pollan, we are sympathetic to philosophical naturalism, which holds that there is no other Reality, then we might wonder whether psychedelic therapy is “simply foisting a comforting delusion on the sick and dying” (Pollan 2015). 

This possibility is especially salient when we consider the best-studied application of psychedelic therapy: the reduction of existential distress in terminally ill patients. It is easy to imagine that psychedelics might benefit such patients by instilling a deep, experientially-backed conviction in the existence of another, transcendent Reality.

In my book I respond to this concern, which I call the Comforting Delusion Objection to psychedelic therapy. The Objection alleges that (1) naturalism is true; (2) if naturalism is true, then the epistemic (knowledge-related) status of psychedelic therapy is poor; (3) if the epistemic status of psychedelic therapy is poor, then we should hesitate to prescribe this treatment; therefore (4) we should hesitate to prescribe this treatment. 

Existing responses involve (a) denying premise 1 and asserting the existence of another Reality; (b) denying premise 3 and holding that the epistemic status of psychedelic therapy is relatively unimportant; and (c) accepting the conclusion.

I take the relatively untrodden path of arguing against premise (2). I assume the truth of a naturalistic worldview and set out to show, within these confines, that the epistemic status of psychedelic therapy is better than one might suppose. First, its epistemic risks are smaller than they appear: psychedelic therapy does not, after all, work mainly by inducing comforting metaphysical beliefs, but by facilitating the revision of dysfunctional self-related mental representations. Second, this process involves the acquisition of genuine insights—significant epistemic benefits compatible with a naturalistic worldview. 

The ultimate conclusion is that the Comforting Delusion Objection fails. Psychedelic therapy is a defensible and seriously promising treatment, even given naturalistic assumptions and a strong commitment to the importance of truth and knowledge.

Tuesday 22 March 2022

The Puzzle of Akratic Belief

This post is by Eugene Chislenko who is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Temple University. His main interests are in moral philosophy and moral psychology, and in related topics in the philosophy of mind, philosophy of action, and the history of philosophy. He founded Philosophers for Sustainability with Rebecca Millsop in 2019.

Eugene Chislenko

We all know that we do things against our own better judgment: snap at friends, overeat or overdiet, or ignore climate change. Do we also believe things against our own better judgment? Do we believe that we are fat or unliked, that black cats bring bad luck, or that other minds exist, while believing we shouldn’t believe it? 

Some philosophers think such ‘akratic’ beliefs are impossible; as Susan Hurley puts it, “the unavailability of the akratic structure is… constitutive of belief.” Many debate whether such beliefs can be rational, while assuming that they are possible. I think akratic belief is both possible and widespread, but I think it takes argument to establish this possibility. Akratic belief is puzzling to many people in a way akratic action is not.

In an earlier paper, “Moore’s Paradox and Akratic Belief” (Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, May 2016), I considered parallels between akratic belief and Moorean beliefs such as ‘I believe it’s raining, but it isn’t’. I argued that appeals to Moore’s Paradox in denying the possibility of akratic belief offer only an illustration of an underlying puzzlement about akratic belief, rather than an independently compelling argument. 

In “How Can Belief be Akratic?” (Synthese, 2021, available here), I explain and address that puzzlement. Rather than appealing to a theory of belief, as some discussions do, I argue that akratic belief should, like akratic action, be treated as a pre-theoretical datum: a recognizable phenomenon that theories of belief should be able to accommodate.

I distinguish four ways of arguing for this view: intuitive arguments from plausible examples; defensive arguments that respond to arguments against the possibility; systematic arguments that appeal to more general considerations about belief; and diagnostic arguments that explain why akratic belief might seem puzzling and even impossible. I think these are stronger together, and I offer an argument that combines all four. 

Its crux is an Argument from Belief Attribution, which looks to typical marks of belief such as sensitivity to evidence, recall in relevant circumstances, felt conviction, reporting or assertion, and use in further reasoning. An anorexic in treatment might insist that he is fat, while acknowledging that he should not believe it, given the overwhelming evidence of his malnutrition. In some cases, I argue, both component beliefs in an akratic state manifest these marks to an extent we can recognize as belief, while nevertheless conflicting with and partly undermining each other. 

Akratic believers are still puzzling in several ways. They do not have a single, unified point of view, or at least not one that makes sense. They are difficult to understand and frustrating to interact with. What is the point of trying to convince them they should not believe they are fat, if they already agree? But like climate change denial, this puzzling phenomenon is nevertheless real. 

Recognizing these cases leads to a more lifelike picture of ordinary cognition, more compassionate and resolute interaction with akratic believers, and an increased ability to recognize one’s own akrasia. And it prevents us from drawing a misleading disanalogy between theoretical and practical reasoning. In both, the conclusions we believe we should reach can differ starkly from the ones we actually come to.

Tuesday 15 March 2022

Prejudice: A Study in Non-ideal Epistemology

This post is by Endre Begby (Simon Fraser University). Here Begby presents his new book, Prejudice: A Study in Non-Ideal Epistemology (OUP 2021).

Are prejudiced beliefs “imperfect cognitions”? In several ways, it would seem natural to classify them as such. After all, they tend to be false, they are formed in light of incomplete information, and they can cause significant harm at both social and individual levels. Accordingly, it is common to think about prejudiced belief as a problem to be overcome, and, in particular, as a manifestation of epistemic irrationality. To overcome the problem, we must presumably become better, more rational, cognizers.

But we could also start by critically probing what an ideal of “perfect cognition” might look like here. That prejudiced beliefs tend to be false and are formed in light of incomplete information does not, for instance, obviously distinguish them from most scientific theories throughout history. That they are peculiarly harmful certainly should count against them, but doesn’t yet tell us why we’d be epistemically at fault for holding them (even taking into account recent arguments from “moral encroachment”).


In my recently published book, Prejudice: A Study in Non-Ideal Epistemology, I aim to provide an account of epistemic normativity starting from the recognition that human beings are required to exercise their epistemic agency under significant cognitive and situational constraints.

Consider, first, the dimension of “endogenous non-ideality.” It is tempting to think that there’s something intrinsically sub-optimal about the form of prejudiced belief, even before we get around to consider its content. But this is too quick. Prejudiced beliefs are recognizably a kind of negative stereotype, and reliance on stereotype reasoning is arguably fundamental in human social cognition. We could no more get along without it than we could get along without categorization in object cognition more generally. Moreover, it’s not clear why the polarity of the stereotype – its being negative rather than positive – should matter to the question of epistemic rationality.

Second, consider the dimension of “exogenous non-ideality.” Human beings are constitutionally dependent on information garnered from their social environment. Some of these social environments will be deeply prejudiced, and we have very little say in which environment we are brought up in. It is naïve to think that we all form our prejudiced beliefs idiosyncratically, by reflecting on our limited individual experience with people of the relevant sort. Instead, we draw, as we must (even in the good cases) on testimonial resources available to us from our peer groups, often reinforced in institutional and para-institutional structures such as laws, school curricula, and patterns of social interaction. In the bad cases, it’s hard to deny that subjects may have strong testimonial evidence for what are recognizably prejudiced beliefs.


Endre Begby

I think of epistemic norms as attaching primarily to the process of belief formation, and only indirectly to its product. This approach resonates with typical complaints lodged against prejudiced beliefs, namely that they are formed on insufficient evidence or could be maintained only by neglecting significant contrary evidence. Serious consideration of non-ideal epistemology makes it significantly more difficult to say exactly where prejudiced believers must have gone wrong, epistemically speaking, without simultaneously impugning a host of routine belief forming processes that we must all rely on in our everyday lives.


Of course, none of this forecloses the thought that prejudiced beliefs remain “imperfect cognitions” in important ways: they are still harmful, and we can only wish they weren’t as prevalent as they are. But wishing does not make it so. In my book, I devote significant attention to the question of how we should nonetheless approach the moral consequences of prejudice, in particular, how we should think about victims’ standing to demand restitution for discriminatory treatment arising from epistemically blameless prejudice. 

These are important questions. But I maintain that we cannot, in general, hope to come to rid our world of prejudice simply by enforcing greater compliance with relevant epistemic norms. Nor do we help victims of prejudice by insisting that anyone who harbours such beliefs must always be epistemically at fault for doing so.

Tuesday 8 March 2022

Framing Effects and Default Implicatures

On International Women's Day we are delighted to host a research post by María Caamaño-Alegre (University of Valladolid). Today she is presenting her new paper, "On Glasses Half Full or Half Empty: Understanding Framing Effects in Terms of Default Implicatures", published in Synthese in 2021.

María Caamaño-Alegre

Do we prefer our glasses half full to half empty? If so, is it rational that we have such preference? It's an empirically well-established fact that subjects’ preferences change depending on whether the described options are framed either positively or negatively. The variations in how subjects respond to positively or negatively framed descriptions of the same issue are called “framing effects”, and they have traditionally been understood as signs of irrationality.

Framing effects seem to be in conflict with the normative principle usually known as the “principle of extensionality” or the “invariance principle”, which is a common assumption in rational choice theory. According to this principle, different ways of presenting the same set of possible options should not change the subjects’ choices with respect to those options. 

The pioneering studies by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman shed light on the way individuals process information, by emphasizing the connection between positive/negative framing and the interpretation of the framed options in terms of gains or losses. However, the underlying semantic-pragmatic nature of this phenomenon is not analyzed by them and, with few exceptions, remains unexplored. 

My paper examines the semantic-pragmatic features of framing effects, thereby offering a unifying explanation of them in terms of default implicatures, which are interpretations adding information to that literally conveyed by a sentence. The shared cultural background regarding standard uses of frames triggers a default interpretation in the following terms: for negative frames, negative means improbable and negative, which in turn means worse than usual; for positive frames, positive means improbable and positive, which in turn means better than usual.

This view of framing effects has important implications for the rationality/irrationality debate, since it shows that the different default implicatures conveyed by alternative frames seem relevant for judgement on the described options. It thus strengthens the arguments opposing the traditional understanding of the principle of invariance. 

Moreover, additional reasons are also provided to support the rationality of framing effects, since once the normative principle of invariance is reformulated to be sensitive to the implicit information conveyed by frames, framing effects can no longer be considered as violations of such principle. As a consequence, my account shifts the focus of the controversy, from rationality or irrationality of judgement (or choice) to that of interpretation, for the central question to pursue is: when is it rational to interpret on the basis of defaults?

Ultimately, my analysis paves the way for a unified account of framing effects, showing the connection between previously unrelated explanations invoking different cognitive heuristics and biases. It also shows the significance of supplementing economical-psychological approaches with linguistic-philosophical ones, encouraging further work in this area.

Tuesday 1 March 2022

Failures of Introspective Belief Formation

This post is by Chiara Caporuscio (Berlin School of Mind and Brain). Here Chiara discussed some ideas from her paper Introspection and Belief, published in Review of Philosophy and Psychology (2021).

Chiara Caporuscio

Are beliefs about the external world psychologically and epistemically different from beliefs about what is going on in our own mind? The belief that it’s a rainy day outside is formed by weighing different sources of evidence, such as the view from my window or the weather forecast. It might be influenced by motivational factors, such as my desire to have a picnic later in the day. It is prone to error - for example, my upstairs neighbour watering the plants on their balcony might have caused me to jump to conclusions - and it can be revised and updated when new evidence comes in. My belief that I’m feeling happy, on the other hand, has been regarded by a long philosophical tradition as being fundamentally different: direct, incorrigible, and protected from error. In my recent paper, I argue that the way we form most beliefs about our inner world is often not so different from the way we form beliefs about the external world - and, like the latter, it can go astray.


Some introspective beliefs can be plausibly defended as being highly protected from error because they are exclusive, i.e. they are only determined by their target mental state and nothing else. Judgements of this kind are “I am feeling this” (Gertler, 2012) or “This is R”, where R is a phenomenal concept purely constituted by the experience (Chalmers, 2003). However, this also makes them uninformative: their infallibility is not helpful for our everyday goals of communicating our mental states to others, guiding action or learning something about ourselves. The informative beliefs that better capture daily instances of introspection in practical use, like “I am feeling a throbbing pain” cannot be infallible in this way, as they require relating the phenomenal character of our mental state to other concepts and experiences.


In my paper, I compare informative introspection with regular belief formation. To do so, I employ a 5-stage cognitive account of belief formation put forward by Connors and Halligan (2015; 2020), according to which beliefs arise in response to a distal trigger, namely, a precursor (stage 1). Then, different hypotheses to explain the precursor are formulated in a search for meaning (stage 2) and evaluated (stage 3). The hypothesis that better explains the precursor given the rest of our beliefs becomes accepted as a new belief (stage 4) and affects new beliefs and lower-level processes (stage 5). In this process, non-pathological errors and delusions can arise when something goes wrong in stages 2 and 3: for example, when we lack the background knowledge that would help us formulate the right hypothesis, when our background beliefs are false and lead us astray, or when our biases or motivational factors lead us to favour the wrong hypothesis.

I argue that the same five stages are likely to be needed for the formation of informative introspective beliefs, meaning that false or missing background beliefs, biases or motivational factors can mess with stages 2 and 3 and lead them astray. For example, a psychiatric patient lacking the notion of intrusive thoughts might be unable to formulate the right hypothesis about their mental state, and thus mistake them for desires; someone angry at a friend for petty reasons might decide to favour the hypothesis that they are perfectly calm because they don’t want to be the kind of person that holds unmotivated grudges. Informative introspective beliefs have similar failure conditions as beliefs about the external world.

So far, I have referred to false introspective beliefs outside of the context of psychiatry. But what about pathological errors in introspective belief formation? According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a delusion is a pathological failure in belief formation “based on incorrect inference about external reality [...]”. A prima facie reason to maintain the external reality condition is the presumed infallibility of introspection. However, if my account is on the right track, we could be as dramatically wrong about our internal world as we are about our external world: our beliefs about our own experience could be not only false but delusional. The possibility of introspective delusion raises questions about the relationship between experience and belief in delusional belief formation and deserves further investigation.