Tuesday, 23 May 2023

Explanation and Values

This post is by Matteo Colombo. When we asked our readers to vote for their favourite post among the five most popular posts we ever published, Matteo's "Explanatory Judgment, Moral Offense and Value-Free Science" (27 September 2016) won by a large margin. So, on the occasion of our 10th birthday, we invited him to write for us again and update us on his research.

Matteo Colombo

Seven years ago I wrote a piece for Imperfect Cognitions, where I described a study aimed at investigating the relationship between explanatory judgement, moral offense and the value-free ideal of science. Conducted in collaboration with psychologists Leandra Bucher and Yoel Inbar, our study showed that the more you perceive the conclusion of a scientific study as morally offensive, the more likely you are to reject it as bad science. For instance, to the extent you find the conclusion that males are naturally promiscuous while females are coy and choosy to be morally offensive, you’ll dismiss scientific reports supporting it as non-trustworthy, regardless of the prior credibility of this hypothesis and the relevant evidence.

In the intervening years, many occasions occurred to chat with friends, students, and acquaintances, about conspicuous scientific endeavours, including advances in our understanding of anthropogenic climate change, the development of sophisticated techniques for gene editing and cultured meat, the expansive influence of AI in our lives, the robustness of psychological research on implicit bias, the causes of police brutality, the rapid design of effective vaccines against COVID‑19. 

Often, I was confidently told things like “the climate has always changed”, “gene editing is immoral”, “AI is stealing our jobs and makes us dumber”, “it is morally problematic to claim that implicit bias is not a thing”, “vaccines against COVID‑19 are good just for big pharma.” While these judgements are imbued with value, and seemingly neglect or distort actual evidence, are they symptomatic of imperfect cognitions? In what ways? Do the people making them understand key concepts involved in value-laden science? Could their judgements about “offensive science” be ameliorated? How?

With developmental economist and philosopher Alexander Krauss, I explored some of these questions with a large experimental survey with about one thousand participants across different continents. Focusing on the concepts of climate change, healthy nutrition, poverty, and effective medical drug, we found that public understanding of these notions is limited, with older age and liberal political values being the strongest predictors of correctly understanding them. 

In particular, thick concepts like poverty and health are more accurately understood than descriptive concepts like anthropogenic climate change. Thus, the fact that many scientific concepts are evaluatively loaded doesn’t fully explain how explanatory judgements about “offensive science” might exhibit imperfect cognitions. Although different people in different contexts might use different concepts of explanation to make sense of scientific findings and their bearing on natural phenomena, our results also indicated an illusion of explanatory depth and a better-than-average effect in public understanding of value-laden science. Would then puncturing the illusion of explanatory depth ameliorate people’s imperfect cognitions?

I explored this question with psychologists Jan Voelkel and Mark Brandt in a study specifically aimed to test whether reducing people’s (over-)confidence in their own understanding of social and economic policies by puncturing their illusion of explanatory depth reduced their prejudice toward groups they perceive as having a worldview dissimilar from their own. We did not find support for this hypothesis, but exploratory analyses indicated that the hypothesized effect occurred for political moderates, but not for people who identified as strong liberals/conservatives.

So, maybe, cultivating intellectual humility is key for overcoming one’s prejudice and ameliorating “imperfect” explanatory judgements. Zhasmina Kostadinova, Kevin Strangmann and Lieke Houkes collaborated with Mark Brand and me to find out. Our study revealed that intellectually humble people exhibit lower levels of prejudice towards members of groups they perceive as dissimilar; surprisingly, however, it also showed that more intellectual humility was associated with more prejudice overall, which need not be symptomatic of imperfect cognition and is consistent with the role of cultivating intellectual humility for promoting responsible inquiry in the face of diversity and morally offensive science.

To clarify, broaden, and probe these findings, I am now collaborating with linguist Giovanni Cassani and philosopher Silvia Ivani to investigate how explanatory judgements about offensive science relate to differences in the way people process thick concepts compared to purely descriptive concepts, and to differences in their sensitivity to the potential consequences of scientific error. Stay tuned…

Let me conclude by expressing my gratitude to the readers and editors of Imperfect Cognitions for allowing this generous and undeserved spotlight on my on-going research on explanation and values, and my best wishes to Imperfect Cognitions for its 10th b-day. Ad maiora!

Tuesday, 16 May 2023

The Resilient Beliefs Project

Today's post is an interview with Paolo Costa, who is a researcher at the Center for Religious Studies of the Bruno Kessler Foundation and leads the Resilient Beliefs project, and Eugenia Lancellotta, who is a postdoctoral researcher on the project. We talked about the Resilient Beliefs project. 

Paolo Costa

KMH: What is the 'Resilient Beliefs' project all about?

PC & EL: It is a collaborative program involving 9 researchers in philosophy and theology and three different institutions: the Fondazione Bruno Kessler in Trento, in Italy, and the Universities of Innsbruck and Brixen in Austria. It is about hyper-robust beliefs, so to speak. By “hyper-robust beliefs” I mean beliefs that are especially resistant to criticism and change induced by counterargument and counterevidence. Now, these beliefs are often seen as irrational, because we tend to link rationality with revisability, flexibility, adaptability, etc. 

But, of course, people who change their mind too easily may also be regarded as feeble-minded and we generally appreciate people who hold onto their epistemically and morally reasonable beliefs when faced with adverse or dreadful circumstances. Since at least Plato’s time, skepticism is known to have both a constructive and a destructive side. So, the question arises as to what distinguishes a “good” resilient belief from a “bad” resilient belief. In order to satisfactorily answer this question, the first thing you need to investigate is of course the source of such robustness, whether it is psychological, epistemological, ethical, educational, or whatever. We are especially interested in shedding light on these aspects of the overall issue. 

Eugenia Lancellotta

KMH: How did you become interested in this topic?

PC & EL: It all began with a concern about the seemingly distinctive nature of religious disagreement. Most of us tend to think that arguing about religion is an especially delicate matter. Religious beliefs seem to delimit an area where it is best to proceed with great caution so as not to stir up conflicts, which may occasionally become violent or socially disruptive. 

Now, if this is the case, what is it about religious beliefs that makes them so difficult to handle cognitively? Is it because they are basically delusional beliefs, as most non-believers think? Or is it because they belong to that deeper set of beliefs which shape people’s identity and frame their relationship to reality? Or is it just a matter of telling good beliefs apart from bad beliefs? 

From these questions the more general issue took shape, of belief resilience and of a possible theory thereof. Are we always dealing here with biased beliefs? And when we say “biased beliefs”, do we necessarily mean “bad beliefs”? 

KMH: What is important about the topic and what do you hope it will contribute to ongoing work/debates?

PC & EL: Let us give you an obvious example. If a democratic form of life is premised on the ability to strike the right balance between firm principles and sincere acceptance of the irreducible pluralism of beliefs and opinions in a modern society, then understanding more about the resilience of beliefs may indeed be crucial to our future. 

In our multidisciplinary project, we would like to take some steps toward this goal by bringing together epistemology, religious studies, theology – in short, we want to move from religious belief to understand something more about strongly valued beliefs in general. 

The areas in which we hope to make some significant scientific contributions are the nature of conspiracy theories, the function of dogma in Christianity, and affinities and differences between peer disagreement and religious disagreement or between religious beliefs and pathological delusions.

KMH: The project seems quite interdisciplinary, particularly with theology and religion. What do you think that brings to the project?

PC & EL: Yes, it is a deeply interdisciplinary science project. Not only in the sense that it tries to bring different scientific disciplines into dialogue, but that it also tries to exploit and enhance contrastive points of view on the same phenomenon. We might call these stances subjective and objective, personal and impersonal, or, more appropriately, emic and etic. 

This is the focus of the panel we have organized for the next edition of the EuARe annual conference, which will be devoted precisely to the dialectic between insider’s and outsider’s perspective in the study of religion. You need this kind of bifocal gaze to understand what lies behind our most resilient beliefs.

KMH: What are your future plans for the project?

PC & EL: The project is taking off in these very months. The first articulated contributions are beginning to take shape and, in some cases, see print. We are also already planning events, including the big final conference. To be updated on our activities and all the results of our research just visit our website

Tuesday, 9 May 2023

Agent-Regret, Accidents, and Respect

Today`s post is by Jake Wojtowicz on recent paper "Agent-Regret, Accidents, and Respect" (The Journal of Ethics, 2023). Jake Wojtowicz earned his PhD from King's College London in 2019. He lives in Rochester, NY where he writes about the ethics and the philosophy of sport.

Jake Wojtowicz

Writing in The New Yorker, Alice Gregory talks about accidental killers and introduces a motorist, Patricia, who - temporarily blinded by the sunlight in her eyes - hit and killed a cyclist. It wasn’t her fault, but she spent time in the suicide unit and this has ruined her life. She even wrote to the state attorney asking to be criminally punished. 

Bernard Williams suggested someone in Patricia’s situation should feel “agent-regret”. This isn’t the guilt of the intentional or reckless wrongdoer, and it isn’t the regret of the bystander. In “Agent-regret, accidents, and respect”, I reflect on Patricia’s case to shed light on how we should think about someone who accidentally harms others. 

One way of understanding agent-regret is that it’s the regret that attaches to accidents. But Patricia was angered by friends who described what happened as an accident: “Yes, it was an accident… but, at the end of the day, I hit him, I took his life…No matter how much you want to dismiss it as an accident, I still feel responsible for it, and I am… I hit him! Why does nobody understand this?”

Yet it certainly was an accident, and why should anyone go to prison for an accident? Well, I think there is something revealing in Patricia’s desire to be punished, and it links to her annoyance at describing what happened as an accident. Prison is for agents

Being reminded that something was an accident can bring a deal of comfort - and it is important to make sure people like Patricia don’t blame themselves in the way they would if they had done something intentionally evil. But I think when we describe things as accidents we can unintentionally diminish the fact that somebody has done something. 

Thomas Nagel - in his Moral Luck, written alongside Williams’s piece - argues that there are two ways we can see our role in the world. On one hand, as mere things in the world; on the other hand as responsible agents. If we see what happened to Patricia as an accident, we run the risk of seeing her role as “swallowed up by the order of mere events”. We take her agency out of it. But this isn’t something that just happened to or through Patricia, rather it is something she did. Through no fault of her own, for sure, but it is nonetheless true that Patricia killed the motorcyclist. 

Paying heed to this does two things. Firstly, it lets us properly understand Patricia’s position, and it lets us help her in moving on - if she sees herself as an agent and we see her as an accident, we can’t do that. Secondly, it properly respects Patricia as an agent. Being an agent is central to our self-respect. If we downplay that in Patricia’s case, we run the risk of downplaying a central part of being human. 

Paying heed to the agency in agent-regret should help us better understand Patricia. She wants to be punished because she needs to be recognized as an agent. And in working out how she should move forward, and how we - as bystanders, friends, even victims - should treat her, we need to find a way to respond to her that respects her as an agent without lumping her in with the evildoers in the world. 

Tuesday, 2 May 2023

Epistemic Coverage and Fake News

Today's post is by Shane Ryan at Singapore Management University, on his recent paper “Fake News, Epistemic Coverage and Trust”  (The Political Quarterly. 2021).

Shane Ryan

Is there any relationship between low levels of trust in mainstream media and belief in fake news? I argue that there is such a link. Before we get to why I think so, it’s important to clarify some of the important terms in the question.

What is fake news? There is lots of disagreement about how to analyse the term and even some, such as Habgood-Coote, who suggest we shouldn’t try to analyse the term in the first place. Mindful of the difficult discussion, I don’t propose a full analysis of fake news but instead I propose that fake news requires that Information is presented as news that falls short of the (procedural) standards for news.

What do I mean by trust? I argue trust requires that the trusting agent believes that the trusted agent has the competence to do whatever the trusting agent trusts the trusted agent to do and that the trusting agent believes that the trusted agent has goodwill with regard to whatever the trusting agent trusts them to do.

I argue that a lack of trust in media sources to report on newsworthy items, whether because of a lack of belief in their competence or goodwill, facilitates acceptance of fake news. This is because of how something called epistemic coverage works.

You might believe that President Joe Biden didn’t die a week ago, because you believe that had he died a week ago, then you would have already heard about it. In other words, you believe that your epistemic environment is such that if certain things happen, then you will be exposed to the information that they’ve happened, say on the basis that you believe that a US president dying is the kind of information that would be reported on mainstream news sites, and you regularly access such news sites. As a result, if someone posts on social media, or links to an unfamiliar site presented as a news site, that Biden died last week, then you’ll have a reason to dismiss the claim.

On the other hand, however, you might believe that your epistemic coverage is such that if certain other things happened, perhaps even things you regard as very newsworthy, you wouldn’t hear about it from the mainstream media. This opens the way for fake news in a way that wouldn’t be open if you trusted the mainstream media – this is not to suggest that you should always trust the mainstream media. In such a case, you lack the reason, based on your perception of your epistemic coverage, to dismiss the post from someone on social media or story from an unfamiliar site presented as a news site. 

This of course doesn’t entail that one will believe the story. It means, rather, that one is more susceptible to believing as a result of lacking trust in mainstream media. This consequence raises questions about how mainstream media might become more trustworthy and be perceived as such by diverse audiences.

Tuesday, 25 April 2023

What is special about addictive desires?

Today's post is by Federico Burdman, based in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina, who summarises his paper entitled "Recalcitrant Desires in Addiction", forthcoming in volume 8 of the Oxford Studies in Agency and Responsibility.

Federico Burdman

This piece of research is on the psychology of addiction. Being addicted to something —say, psychoactive drugs, including alcohol— is not just about enjoying drugs and using them frequently. It is also more than just wanting to use drugs very much. Plainly, not all forms of wanting something very much and doing it a lot amount to addiction. Consider the analogy: a student may be determined and highly motivated to graduate from school, spend long hours studying and training for that purpose, even neglect other activities on that account, and still not be ‘addicted’ to studying in any sensible sense.

One key difference between addiction and other forms of behavior issuing from powerful motivation is given by the particular way in which people suffering from addiction are drawn to use drugs. On most definitions of ‘addiction’, this includes an element of impairment of behavioral control —the sort of thing that is sometimes called a ‘compulsion’. Of course, using drugs is not like experiencing a spasm: it is not something that simply happens to you without you having any say about it. But people suffering from addiction experience a very real difficulty when it comes to controlling their inclination to use drugs.

If we look behind the scenes and turn to the psychology of addictive behavior, there are many different possible explanations about how exactly this difficulty with behavioral control comes about. In this paper, I focus on one particular bit of that story: the one concerning addictive desires —i.e., desires to use drugs in the context of addiction.

Addictive desires are in some ways different from ordinary sorts of desires. One traditional way to picture this difference focuses on desire strength: addictive desires are often assumed to be much stronger than other desires. Roughly put, the story is supposed to go like this: an ordinary sort of desire (say, wanting to have some ice cream right now) may be strong but still leave you enough elbow room to make a deliberate choice concerning whether you should pursue that desire or not. Addictive desires, on the contrary, are often pictured as pushing the person towards some action so strongly that they rob them of the power to make a different choice. On this picture, addictive desires’ strength overwhelms the person’s ability to resist, leading to compulsive behavior.

I argue that this picture is wrong in some ways, and I propose to replace it with an alternative account of what makes addictive desires different from other sorts of desires. On my view, the key feature of addictive desires is that they are much more impervious to the kinds of things that could potentially make you change your mind about what you want —a feature I call recalcitrance. 

There are two main sorts of things that are usually able to exert some degree of influence over desires: what your thoughts and judgements on the matter are, and how good or bad your experiences actually were when satisfying similar desires in the past. Addictive desires, I argue, are relatively impervious to being influenced by such things, much more so than ordinary sorts of desires. Many addicted people happen to be of the opinion that continuing to use drugs is very bad for them, and they may be suffering from serious or even dramatic negative consequences of continuing drug use, and yet this often fails to make any discernible difference on their on-going motivation to use drugs.

Importantly, this is different from the traditional picture of addictive desires which focuses on desire strength. Individual episodes of wanting to use drugs may not be so strong as to overwhelm the capacity for self-control at any particular point in time. But as the tendency to experience these desires is unresponsive to the relevant sorts of influences, these desires keep coming up recurrently and persistently in a way that has a cumulative effect over decision-making capacities. This feature of addictive desires, I argue, contributes to explaining what the ‘compulsion’ to use drugs is all about, even if it only gives us a piece of a broader and more complex puzzle.

Tuesday, 18 April 2023

The Relationship between Free Will and Consciousness

Today's post is by Lieke Asma at Munich School of Philosophy, on her recent paper “The relationship between free will and consciousness” (Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 2022). 

Lieke Asma

Even though Benjamin Libet’s experiments on voluntary action have been criticized extensively by both neuroscientists and philosophers, his ground-breaking research did put one topic firmly on the agenda: what exactly is the relationship between free will and consciousness?

Most philosophers agree that if all our conscious intentions would be epiphenomena, we would not decide for ourselves what to do. Self-determination, a crucial condition for free will, would be an illusion. Relatedly, many scholars have argued that Libet did not study those intentions relevant for free will proper

Real choice is not about moving your wrist at a certain moment, but making plans for the future, for example to buy a house or to plan a trip. These intentions typically are the result of conscious deliberation. In this picture, the relationship between self-determination and consciousness is captured in terms of conscious formation of intentions.

In my recent paper The relationship between free will and consciousness, I argue that conscious formation intentions is neither sufficient nor necessary for self-determination. Firstly, it overlooks the problem of deviant causal chains. To use an example from Donald Davidson: a climber may consciously form the intention to loosen his hold of the rope in order to rid himself of the weight of another climber, but the intention may unnerve him so that he loosens the hold accidentally. Even though loosening his hold was caused by a consciously formed intention, what happened was still an accident. 

Secondly, many philosophers have recently convincingly argued that in order to act for reasons, which is taken to be crucial for self-determination, we do not need to consciously deliberate. Often, we simply already know what the right course of action is. Conscious deliberation does not add anything to the quality of the action.

How, then, if at all, are self-determination and consciousness related? In my view, the answer lies in the character of the action itself. I adopt the view that reasons for action are not mental states or facts, but actions at a higher level of description. For example, the reason for which I choose to buy a house in a particular city is living in that city. 

From that perspective, real choice, or free will proper, is not about whether I have consciously deliberated about what to do, but whether my decision amounts to a genuinely different action at a higher level of description. It matters whether I buy a house in that city or in a village close by, but it doesn’t matter whether I buy the fifth or sixth house in the same street. That is, to the extent that both houses fit my action at a higher level of description equally well; if one house has a larger garden and I enjoy gardening, I should choose that house. 

In this proposal, more consciousness does amount to more self-determination: the better I understand what I am doing at a higher level of description, i.e., what a good life amounts to, the better I know which specific actions I need to perform in a particular situation. A person who can form the intention at a high level, for example to be compassionate, to be a good partner, or to take care of their health, and knows how to translate this into concrete, specific actions, is most free.

Tuesday, 11 April 2023

Happiness Workshop: Emotion, Mood, or Character Trait?

On 5th and 6th January 2023, Alex Grzankowski hosted a hybrid two-day workshop at the University of Birkbeck entitled, Happiness: Emotion, Mood, or Character Trait. 


In the first talk, “Can we be delusional and happy?”, I (Lisa Bortolotti, University of Birmingham) focused on the relationship between being happy and having delusional beliefs. We tend to assume that living in a delusional world is bad epistemically because we lack contact with reality. And it is bad psychologically because believing the delusions can make us feel disconnected and excluded, and depending on the content of the delusion, also stressed and anxious.

But things are more complicated than this: delusions can be a response to a crisis that bring about a paralysis of agency, and can help us overcome overwhelming negative emotions, so believing a delusion may lead to temporary happiness. However, the temporary happiness is a stepping stone towards a more permanent state of happiness where connection with the world resumes.

The second talk, “Affective experiences of higher values”, was by Jonathan Mitchell (Cardiff University) and addressed Scheler’s understanding of happiness as having affective experiences that are of higher value. Higher values: (1) endure (we expect emotions to be lasting and make a demand on the future); (2) afford satisfaction (that’s about the depth of contentment we feel); and (3) apply to everyone or at least not be relative to the person having the experience. Happiness seems to have a structure that corresponds to persistent, blissful contentment that is not just a subjective feeling but something more objective. So, happiness can be occasioned in reception to affective experiences with positive higher values.

Jonathan Mitchell

Alex Grzankowski (Birkbeck) and Mark Textor (King’s College London) presented the last talk of the first day, on “Happiness is a Mood”, where they discuss what it means to be happy at a time (different from being a happy person or from having a happy life). The talk was inspired by the poem “The Orange” by Wendy Cope and the view defended was that happiness at a time is a mood, a disposition to enjoy things.

Alex Grzankowski

Being happy at a time does not require being happy about anything in particular: although we may be happy of something (Argentina winning the World Cup), sometimes we just feel happy with no object or no cause. Moods are dispositions to act in a certain way and are defused and they have a universal content (“everything is cheerful”). So, for me to be happy at a time t, I need to have a property P at t, and having that property makes it possible for me at t to take pleasure in things I am aware of and having that property feels good to me.

Kicking off the second day of the Happiness workshop, MM McCabe (King’s College London) presented a talk entitled “Choosing Lives”, focusing on eudaimonia. The first question is what eudaimonia is: Is it living well? Is it flourishing? Is it doing well? Another question is how eudaimonia is achieved. One important aspect of eudaimonia is the association of happiness with virtue. What are we to do if we want to be happy? We need to do what the virtuous person would do. As a maxim, though, this answer seems empty. We need to do what works for us, and thus choose the best life we can live. 

MM McCabe

But what are lives? Are they merely larger in scope than acts, series of acts considered together? Not really. Can we evaluate the goodness of a life while the life is being lived? Do we have to wait until death before making a judgement? After a very interesting discussion of what it is to try things out and learn from mistakes, and a detailed analysis of Greek philosophers’ views (especially Plato and Aristotle), McCabe argues that a life to be chosen, a meaningful life, involves both emotional and cognitive components. Eudaimonia consists in a complex of emotion and cognition.

Dan Haybron

Dan Haybron (St Louis University) was the second speaker, presenting on "Happiness and Human Agency". He argued that moods and emotions are person-level control mechanisms: they help us direct out lives independent of reason. Haybron used a notion of happiness that is compatible with how the term is used on contemporary psychology, something that matters but does not necessarily relate to values. There are three dominant philosophical theories of happiness: life satisfaction, hedonism, and emotional state theory. Haybron develops an emotional state theory of happiness where emotional states are not fully rational states but engage with rational processes.

As part of an account of happiness as an emotional state theory, Haybron argues that happiness is not one thing. Haybron mentioned three key dimensions of wellbeing relevant information: security, opportunity, success. There are also three dimensions of emotional wellbeing: attunement (tranquillity), engagement (vitality), endorsement (feeling happy). On the basis of this, Haybron formulated and is testing a new scale  of emotional wellbeing with six main factors (cheerfulness, vitality, serenity, sadness, lethargy, stress) which tracks positive and negative aspects.

Ultimately, on Haybron's view, happiness is not a choice so we are not responsible for it and should not be praised or blamed for it, but it is strongly tied to agency, being something that we do and reflects who we are.

Tuesday, 4 April 2023

Theoretical Perspectives on Smell

In this blog post, Benjamin Young presents a new collection of papers entitled Theoretical Perspectives on Smell (Routledge 2023), edited with Andreas Keller.

Our vision-centric daily lives and research agendas often place little emphasis on smells. Smell until recently was a largely neglected area of research within philosophy such that putting together a collection with this focus would have not been possible ten years ago. 

Yet, since the start of the millennia the chemosciences and olfactory philosophy has seen a surge in research on a wide range of debates and central issues across philosophy. Theoretical Perspective on Smell is the first collection of its kind devoted exclusively to philosophical research on olfaction. The collection both address the attentional neglect of olfaction by philosophers and shows how studying smell provides a means of making lateral progress within entrenched philosophical debates within perception, consciousness studies, philosophy of mind, metaphysics, epistemology, and most recently aesthetic and philosophy of art.

The collection is divided into four broad areas of interest: 

The first section is devoted to the importance and beauty of smell. Smell is often described as the neglected sense and compared to sound and vision, the arts and sciences have engaged only sparingly with it. This limited engagement with the sense of smell reflects most people’s dismissive attitude toward their fifth sense. The first two chapters by Barry C. Smith and Ophelia Deroy address the neglect of smell, while Chiara Brozzo’s and Michael A. Lindquist’s chapters focus on the newest area of olfactory philosophy concerning the aesthetics of smell. 

Section two is comprised by chapters by Clare Batty and Keith A. Wilson that progresses recent debates regarding smell in time and space. Compared to the other senses, the temporal and spatial structure of olfaction is impoverished. However, like all perception, smelling occurs in space and time and therefore has at least some spatiotemporal structure. 

The third section encompasses the largest area of debate within olfactory philosophy concerning the still open question of what we smell. A central question of olfactory philosophy has been what we perceive through smell. Two possible answers are that we perceive the source objects, for example a banana, or the odor, for example the volatile molecules emitted by the banana. 

Because neither of these answers is completely satisfying, there are several attempts to modify or combine them as well as alternative proposals. Chapters by Ann-Sophie Barwich, Andreas Keller, Benjamin D. Young, Harry Sherwood, and William G. Lycan all provide a state of the art engagement with this central debate with each building upon previously published theories, developing new avenues of research, as well as constructively criticizing each other’s published views. 

The final section, smell and the other senses, handles the perennial topic of individuating the senses that is particularly vexed for the chemical senses. Most discussions of olfaction focus on orthonasal olfaction, which most naturally occurs during inhalation through the front of the nose. The equally important retronasal olfaction, which occurs during eating and drinking when odors from the oral cavity reach the olfactory epithelium, is part of the multisensory perception of flavors. 

The complex relation of olfaction and gustation, and olfaction’s role in flavor perception have become increasingly more urgent research projects. Within this section Becky Millar’s and Błażej Skrzypulec’s chapters are devoted to the relation between smell and flavor perception, while Louise Richardson offers an argument that we can smell what many might consider to be proprietary gustatory properties such as sweetness or saltiness. 

Smells for All! 

The contributed essays bring together established and early-career philosophers working on smell in a format that allows for inclusive engagement with the emerging field and a starting point for philosophers new to olfaction with a resource to begin their journey. Additionally, the collection might be of interest to those in the chemosensory community with theoretical proclivities looking for an in-road into developing debates in olfactory philosophy. And while it is not written for a general audience the material is presented in a straightforward enough fashion that anyone with an interest in smell should be able to enjoy the collection. 

Call for papers

While great strides have been made in olfactory philosophy it remains a fecund research area with many under-explored topics: such as olfactory attention, memory, and emotions within philosophy of mind; olfactory reference and concepts within philosophy of language; a swath of issues within ethics concerning personal use of fragrances, the role of industry in developing and deploying synthetics within food and fragrance products, and a wide open area of smell within world philosophy. 

Since the collection emerged out of two previous international workshops, I would like to take this opportunity to invite you to consider working on any one of these topics or any other odorific topic and submit your work to our next workshop on Olfactory Philosophy to be held as part of the ESPP conference in Prague on September 1, 2023.

Tuesday, 28 March 2023

"A Philosophy Museum in Every City": an Interview with Anna Ichino

As part of a University of Birmingham Women in Philosophy initiative to promote inclusion and diversity in access to philosophical research, I interviewed Anna Ichino (University of Milan) on the creation of the very first Philosophy Museum. Anna originally blogged about the Museum for us and for the Daily Nous in 2020 and she is offering here an exciting update on the uptake of the initiative and on her future plans to further develop the idea into something bigger and permanent. 

Why do we need a Philosophy Museum? Can Philosophy be engaging and fun, as well as informative, for the wider public? 

The first hall of the museum


Lisa Bortolotti (LB): How did you and your collaborators develop this idea of creating a philosophy museum?

Anna Ichino (AI): The idea originally was of my colleague Paolo Spinicci who kept saying, there are in the world museums about almost everything. There are museums of art, science, cinema, sex, and toys. There are even a museum for socks and a museum for frogs. Is it possible that there aren't yet philosophy museums in the world? It seems to be an important topic, and there isn’t a museum devoted to it.


And, in fact, a quick Google search, then confirmed by a more careful inquiry, showed that apparently there are none. So, we felt it was time to fill the gap and create the very first Philosophy Museum. So that was the starting point, and it was at that point 2018, and our department got some generous extra funding from the Ministry of Research within an Excellence Award scheme, and part of this funding had to be used for activities of outreach and public engagement, so we decided to use this funding for this project. It was about €50,000, and, thanks to this funding, we could rely on the help of experts in this area. So, museum experts, graphic designers, multimedia studios, and all the sort of expertise that you need to create a proper museum.

We tried to build that like an aesthetically appealing and stimulating environment, where philosophical ideas can be communicated in fun and engaging ways. That was the idea. So our model was science museums: we didn't have in mind a historically minded museum where you just passively contemplate relics about the lives and works of philosophers but more dynamic and interactive environments where you have a number of games, activities, experiments, aesthetic and intuitive experiences that lead you into the nature of philosophical problems.

As it was quite an ambitious project, to put it into practice we had to proceed gradually. So, we started with the temporary exhibition which took place in our university in November 2019, and there we created the first two halls of what we would like to become a permanent museum plus a third programmatic hall where we presented the plan for what still needs to be done. That’s what we did, in short.

Anna Ichino

LB: A very good idea, I think, to have a Philosophy museum. You already said that you meant to fill a gap, the absence of a Philosophy Museum. But what were your other objectives in creating the Museum? What did you want to achieve?


AI: The main objective was to make philosophy widely accessible, accessible to people who are not, and probably will never be, into academic philosophy. So showing that philosophy is not just an abstract and perhaps boring discipline that can be addressed in libraries by reading long books and studying. Of course, that's a way an important way to access philosophy. But that's not the only way.


Philosophy can also be something understandable and fun and playful that can be accessed by people who are not academics, and are not interested in being academics. So the idea was that if you make the gateway to philosophy enjoyable and entertaining, then people maybe are willing to engage with the issue, becoming in general more curious, and open minded and willing to explore some important philosophical tools and methodologies.

The Philosophy Museum experience could be the first step into a pathway of fruitful interactions where people eventually become better thinkers, more critically minded, and better agents in the public debate. We thought this could, in the long run make a difference to the climate of a healthy public debate in a healthy democracy. So, that was the ambition.

LB: It is a very ambitious aim, but it's also very important, and very timely, because nowadays philosophers are getting really interested in our environment being epistemically polluted or not being conducive to us thinking clearly and rigorously. So the idea that there could be some fun and engaging ways to encourage people to think more critically sounds excellent. What were the main challenges that you encountered in this project? I imagine that many of you did not have experience in creating resources for a museum space.

AI: It was difficult, because we were not really trained for that. It's a bit like teaching experience, even if you know something very well, and you study the subject for a long time, then teaching it in a way that is understandable and engaging for students sometimes is hard.

In this case it was even harder, even for those of us who were already a bit into public philosophy. What we were used to do in public philosophy is to speak or to write in a fun and engaging way. But in the case of the museum you really had to build activities and games that must be accessible for someone who has no background whatsoever and must be able to use the resources independently. So, someone who walks into a room must find the resources, understand what they are for, finding it all interesting enough to spend maybe ten minutes there. So the challenge is to create resources that speak for themselves, and that can be enjoyed by visitors independently. It's pretty hard to create games. One of the things we did was to develop proper game like board games, and game to play in teams.

Another challenge was obtaining the funding. Running a museum is expensive. If you want to build something that lasts, you need beautiful materials that can be used by many people, and that can be appealing. In our case, with the Philosophy Museum being at that time a temporary exhibition, at least we didn't have to rent a location because the Museum took place in the University of Milan, in a very beautiful historical building. It was in the main courtyard, made of two beautiful rooms with a nice view. But of course the long-term aim is to make the museum permanent. So we will need money to rent spaces, and for the materials. Good quality materials that can be used by many people.

The third hall of the museum

LB: What does a philosophy museum look like?

AI: The museum entrance was like a big open book, shaped as a big open book to symbolize the fact that doing philosophy is not just passively reading books, but walking through them and getting into them and playing with their contents. The first hall was mostly an introductory hall devoted to the nature of philosophical problems and philosophical methodology. So, we used images of Mary Midgley’s conceptual plumbing and Wittgenstein’s fly bottle to convey the idea that philosophical problems are conceptual problems which amount to reflect on the concepts that we use. Visitors were led to appreciate the difficulties that arise as soon as we try to define common concepts like the self, freedom, time, and moral responsibility. In this first room we also introduced the philosophical tools that philosophers use to analyze concepts such as the construction of paradoxes and thought experiments. There were activities and small games to play.

Paradoxes and Imagination

In the second hall, visitors could play literally with paradoxes and thought experiments, in order to appreciate their heuristic role in philosophical inquiry. One very popular game among our visitors was "Guess: Who Are You?", a personal identity game. People start the game by adopting one among different theories of personal identity: the bodily continuity theory, the psychological continuity theory, or the brain theory. When you land on a square on the game board, you have to pick a card where a thought experiment is described. Scenarios include brain fission, brain transplant, teletransportation, metamorphosis, and so on.

Games in the second hall of the museum

If you pick teletransportation then you have to guess whether, according to the theory you adopted, teletransportation is a scenario where you would survive or not. If you guess correctly, you can roll the dice once again. Otherwise, you are stuck. And then there are a number of other possibilities and interactions you can have. You can try to kill your opponents, for instance, by putting them into scenarios in which, according to their theory, they would die. The point is to put the various theories of personal identities to the test and to understand which ones work in which scenario.

To illustrate the complex relations between imagination, emotion, and belief we replicated a series of famous experiments where visitors were asked to do things like eating chocolate shaped as dog feces, or signing a pac giving their soul away to the devil, or wearing a fully sterilized pullover which they were told belonged to a serial killer. Visitors appreciated how difficult it was to eat chocolate shaped as dog feces, even if they knew that it was safe.

The paradox of fiction card game,
the chocolate shaped as dog feces game,
and the pact with the devil.

LB: Do you think that initiatives like the Philosophy Museum can really enhance diversity and inclusion in the access to philosophical research?

AI: Our aim was making philosophy accessible to a really wide and diverse audience. So, you may think I'm not the most objective person, but I would say that to a reasonable extent we achieved this goal. The Museum opening times were organised as follows: in the morning the museum was open for high school students and classes, and then the afternoon for the general public, people of the city of Milan. Both students and general public responded very well. The museum was open for a bit less than 3 weeks, and we had more than 3,000 visitors, and a third of them were high school students. Almost every afternoon, we had long queues outside, because the rooms were quite small. We also had really large media coverage, most Italian newspapers and TV, but some media abroad too, talked about us in an enthusiastic way.

And we had very positive feedback from visitors via the satisfaction surveys, and the thing that was most pleasing for us was the follow up. Many people kept writing to us on the social media profile of the Museum. A lot of visitors kept asking questions and asking when the museum would open again. In some schools, students created their own Philosophy Museum, for instance a room about freedom and relevant philosophical issues. So, that part of the interaction was very fruitful. I think there is a diversity and inclusivity gain in experiences like this.

LB: One very last question, what's next for the Philosophy Museum? Have you got any plans?

AI: We applied to a public engagement award scheme, and we had some funding for a project on conspiracy theories and fake news, which basically consists in building another hall of the museum devoted to this topic. This exhibition will take place in February 2024.

Since the very beginning though our goal was the creation of a permanent museum, and the idea was to go ahead immediately. Then the pandemic started, and everything was frozen. Now we have resumed the project, and we are really determined to give it a future. In a permanent Philosophy Museum, we would like to have rooms devoted to many different problems and theories and traditions. We are working on this at the moment, and applying for funding and looking for partners.

We would like it if many philosophy museums flourished around the world. As there is a science museum in almost every city, we should have a Philosophy Museum in every city. If your blog readers are interested in collaborating, they can get in touch with us. We are on Facebook and InstagramWe already collaborate with some Italian universities, and also some institutions abroad.

LB: Thank you Anna. This is very, very inspiring for anybody who loves philosophy, and is interested in bringing philosophy to as many people as possible. Thank you so much for telling us about the Philosophy Museum. And best of luck for the future steps. I hope what what you have envisaged will soon become a reality, a philosophy museum in every city.

Here is the full version of the interview on YouTube:

Tuesday, 21 March 2023

An Intersectional Approach to Phenomenological Psychopathology

Today's post is by Lucienne Spencer, currently working on the Renewing Phenomenological Psychopathology project. In this post, she argues for the importance of an intersectional approach.

Lucienne Spencer

In the search for alternative approaches to psychiatry, there has been a reignited interest in phenomenological psychopathology: an approach that uses the phenomenological method to highlight the lived experience of the person with mental ill-health and invites a person-centred approach to diagnosis and treatment. Phenomenological psychopathology has its roots in Karl Jaspers’ seminal work General Psychopathology (1913), which surpassed the limited scope of pre-structured interviews and diagnostic criteria by examining the patient's life-world. After a long period during which phenomenological psychopathology fell into obscurity, new work in the field and amplification of the patient’s voice through mad-pride activism have led to a resurgence of the approach, giving it a valued place amongst once more dominant methodologies.

Promising as phenomenological psychopathology might be when it comes to liberating our understanding of psychiatric illness, the methodology remains rooted in the philosophy and social science of the mid-20th century. As such, it risks falling into siloed thinking and, in turn, falling back into obscurity. I argue that one meaningful way to revise the methodology of phenomenological psychopathology is by employing an intersectional approach.

Intersectionality has deep roots in Black feminist literature, championed by the likes of Audre Lorde (1977), bell hooks (1981) and Patricia Hill Collins (1990), however, this methodology is used to examine not only the intersections between sex and race but other intersecting social identities such as disability, age, sexuality and psychiatric illness. 

Turning to the realm of psychiatry, Frantz Fanon (1952) argued that it was impossible to truly understand a Black person’s psychiatric illness outside their colonised situation. For Fanon, the colonised situation saturates every aspect of one’s existence. Consequently, he observes that the attempts of his fellow psychiatrists to examine a patient in abstraction from their colonised situation end in failure. Fanon is aware that one’s social situation permeates the meaning structures of one’s world. It gives one’s entire life-world a particular hue. 

Despite the work of Fanon, phenomenological psychopathology in its current form is insufficiently sensitive to the intersectional character of lived experiences. The patient's life-world is structured by gender, race, ethnicity, age, sexuality and other characteristics that give their illness a unique meaning. Therefore, I argue that we should consider how these structural factors intersect at a primordial level of the illness experience. Ignoring these aspects of the patient’s identity gives us only a partial view of the patient’s life-world, thus obstructing psychiatric knowledge. 

Moreover, without an intersectional understanding of psychopathology, we risk committing what Miranda Fricker calls hermeneutical injustice. Hermeneutical injustice occurs when a person cannot make sense of their experiences as their marginalised perspective is excluded from the interpretive framework. For example, if the unique experience of being a woman with psychosis is not examined, we fall back on a gender-neutral understanding of psychosis, and the female experience of psychosis is obscured.

In my forthcoming work, co-authored with Matthew Broome, I introduce an intersectional framework to phenomenological psychopathology to develop a more hermeneutically just interpretive framework and provide a richer understanding of the lived experience of psychiatric illness.

Tuesday, 14 March 2023

The Puzzle of Addiction and Knowledge of the Good as an Achievement

Today's post is by Reinier Schuur, who is a PhD candidate in philosophy in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Birmingham. His primary research interest is in philosophy of medicine. Reinier won the 2022 Peter Sowerby Prize for his essay ‘The Puzzle of Addiction: Knowledge of the Good as an Achievement’. This is a short version of his essay for a wider audience. 

Reinier Schuur

The puzzle of addiction refers to the problem of explaining how addictive behaviour appears to be both voluntary and destructive. This puzzle arises when we assume that people will stop engaging in a voluntary behaviour if the costs outweigh the benefits, all else being equal. The main solution to the puzzle had been to argue that addictive behaviour is in fact involuntary. This solution, however, has come under criticism over the last few decades, with both empirical data and theoretical analysis arguing that addictive behaviour is voluntary in some significant sense. But this raises again the puzzle of why addicts keep using despite negative consequences.

While specific voluntary explanations have been proposed, others have argued that the puzzle of addiction can only be solved by rethinking our fundamental assumptions about the nature of voluntary behaviour as such. Gene Heyman in particular has argued that the view that addictive behaviour is involuntary is based on a wider view of voluntary behaviour as necessarily rational with respect to acting in our best interest. Heyman has argued that we should reject this assumption and instead adopt an alternative vision of voluntary behaviour as being biased towards irrationality with respect to acting in our best interest.

The purpose of my essay was not to refute Heyman’s view of voluntary behaviour. Rather, it was to argue that such a view is unnecessary once we realise that knowing what is in our best interest is an achievement and therefore that failures to act in our best interest need not necessarily be explained by voluntary behaviour being irrationally biased with respect to acting in our best interest. I drew on Hanna Pickard’s work on denial as an explanation for the puzzle of addiction, which rests on the view that addicts can fail to know what is bad for them. I build on that view and argue that people in general can also fail to know what is good for them.

In particular, Pickard’s work on denial in addiction argues that the puzzle of addiction only follows if we assume that the severe negative consequences for continued drug use are known. However, there are many cases when such knowledge is either unattainable and hard to achieve. Pickard makes this clear with the example of addicted rats, who cannot possibly know the long term negative consequences of continued drug use. 

There is therefore no puzzle of addiction with rats because they cannot know that what they are engaged in is overall bad for them. Human beings are also sometimes in a state where they cannot know the long-term negative consequences of their actions, such as when such knowledge has not yet been discovered. The causal link between smoking and cancer, for example, does not pose a puzzle for why nicotine addicts keep smoking prior to the modern scientific discovery of this causal link. Knowing when generalisable causal knowledge applies to you as an individual can also be difficult to ascertain.

Because gaining knowledge of the causal relation between one’s actions and their negative consequences can be difficult to attain, gaining such knowledge is therefore also vulnerable to forms of motivated reasoning to not gain such knowledge, such as denial. Pickard argues that denial can therefore explain the puzzle of why addicts keep using despite the severe negative consequence. Addicts may keep using not despite the negative consequences but because they keep themselves from gaining knowledge of those consequences to begin with.

Pickard’s basic insight is that while the severe negative consequences for continued drug use may appear to be obvious to the external observer, this may not be the case for the addict, and that the puzzle of addiction may in part be due to assuming that knowledge of the bad is obvious. I take this basic insight and expand it to offer an alternative framework for thinking about the puzzle of addiction in general. 

In particular, I argue that just as knowledge of the severe negative consequences of drug use is not obvious, neither are the positive non-drug alternatives that the negative consequences are an obstacle to attaining. Put simply, the puzzle of addiction arises when we assume that the costs of drug use outweigh the benefits. Pickard has argued that the overall costs are not always obvious. I argue that the benefits of drug-free alternatives are not always obvious either, these too are products of knowledge that are an achievement to attain.

Tuesday, 7 March 2023

Social Media and its Negative Impacts on Autonomy

Today's post is by Paul Formosa (Macquarie University) on his recent paper (co-authored with Siavosh Sahebi at Macquarie University) "Social Media and its Negative Impacts on Autonomy" (Philosophy and Technology, 2022).

Paul Formosa

Social media plays a crucial role in the lives of many people. It can entertain, inform, influence, and even transform who we are and what we believe and care about. This can include both more extreme cases of radicalisation, where a person is led down rabbit holes of misinformation that can fundamentally rewrite who they are as a person, to more mundane cases of being pushed by an influencer to buy a new pair of shoes you didn’t really need. 

But whenever technology has the potential to change who we are, what we do, and what we care about, it raises important questions about our autonomy. When technology changes us or leads us to act or believe in a certain way, does that technology and its use constitute an authentic expression or extension of our autonomy, or does it override, constrain, or disrespect our autonomy? There is, of course, no single answer to these questions. 

To try to partly answer them, in a recent paper written with Siavosh Sahebi and published in Philosophy and Technology, we set out to explore the negative impacts of social media on autonomy. This is not to deny that social media can also have positive impacts on autonomy, such as helping us to build authentic social connections with others or realise our ends, but only that we wanted to focus on the more important negative aspects. 

After reviewing various accounts of autonomy, we take autonomy to be broadly a matter of: 1) developing autonomy competencies (e.g., having the ability to reason and imagine different possibilities, and being able to maintain appropriate self-attitudes such as self-respect; 2) having authentic ends (i.e. ends that upon critical refection you would endorse, acknowledge, or take responsibility for) and some control over important aspects of your own life (e.g. who your friends are); and 3) not being manipulated, coerced, and controlled by others. 

Social media can impact negatively on all three aspects of autonomy through the control it can have over its users’ data, attention, and behaviour, since these platforms are (mostly) designed to generate enormous amounts of data, and use that data to fuel algorithms that direct our attention, which in turn can impact our behaviours and beliefs in ways that we are often not aware of and would not endorse if we did. The excessive extraction of data from us by social media platforms can constitute a form of exploitation and an expression of disrespect for our autonomy as we typically do not, and cannot, offer informed consent for all the data that is captured about us, and which is combined with the data of others to drive the platform’s algorithms. 

These algorithms in turn are used to focus our attention on content that will keep us on, and engaged with, the platform. This can end up pushing us toward various political extremes without our knowing it, expose us to false views we can come to accept as reliable, and erode our autonomy competencies, such as self-esteem, through exposure to unrealistic or harmful norms and standards. 

Finally, social media can manipulate and control us and our emotions by exploiting our vulnerabilities, such as our FOMO (fear of missing out), towards the achievement of its own ends for us (i.e., our continued engagement with the platform and its advertisers) at the expense of our own authentically endorsed ends for ourselves. 

Whether the benefits of social media use justify any autonomy harms that it may inflict on individuals is a personal issue, and one that can be partly addressed through the cultivation of relevant digital virtues. However, these autonomy harms also raise broader political questions about the impact of social media on the health of our democracies that demand collective solutions, and various forms of proposed regulation of social media, such as rating the reliability of information, better privacy protections, banning targeted advertising, and stopping the infinite scroll of new content, are all steps in the right direction.

Tuesday, 28 February 2023

What is The Tinkering Mind about?

Today's post is by Tillmann Vierkant (University of Edinburgh) who presents his recent book The Tinkering Mind (Oxford University Press, 2022).

The Tinkering Mind has at its heart a puzzle about epistemic agency and cognitive control. I was always puzzled by the notion of cognitive control, because to me it seemed to combine features that are clearly incompatible. The puzzle in question is as follows: cognitive control is often said to be voluntary, and is a form of cognition. 

But cognitive control is also supposed to lead to the acquisition of new beliefs. I have always found it strange that cognitive control is supposed to have all three of these features because if it does, then that seems to indicate that the acquisition of a belief can be a voluntary action when we acquire it by means of cognitive control. This would imply doxastic voluntarism which, like most philosophers nowadays, I find unpalatable.

Very many people have pointed out to me that this initial worry is just a terminological confusion. The obvious solution to my puzzle is to say that it equivocates on the idea that cognitive control leads to the acquisition of new beliefs. This is ambiguous, because this idea could either be spelled out as the thought that cognitive control is the belief acquisition event, or as the idea that cognitive control is the process that leads up to that event. Put like that, the puzzle seems to go away, because the whole debate around doxastic voluntarism is concerned with the event, while cognitive control intuitively is about the cognitive process leading up to it.

Tillmann Vierkant

This is where the last of the themes of the book comes in. I agree that it is possible to solve the puzzle this way, but I hold that going for that solution has a consequence that is at least surprising, but for many people presumably also rather unappealing. I argue that if cognitive control can be voluntary and cognition at the same time, then that entails that extended cognition must be true. 

To see why this is so, I turn to an argument by Yair Levy. Levy has recently rightly pointed out that there is no relevant functional difference between voluntary epistemic actions inside the head and voluntary epistemic actions that involve the environment, like calculating on paper. If this is right (and it seems right to me) then it forces a surprising choice. 

Given Levy’s argument, if cognitive control consists in voluntary epistemic actions and if cognitive control is supposed to be cognition then this must be so, whether or not the cognitive control action includes the environment. If on the other hand one wants to deny that extended cognition is true, then this implies that voluntary cognitive control is not cognition.

Once the epistemic agency in cognitive control has been clarified in this way many surprising things follow, and this is what the rest of the book is for. It explores the surprising consequences for topics from dual processing (where it suggests that judgements cannot be system two if extended cognition is not true) to moral psychology where it provides an argument for extended willpower. 

More generally, the book uses the distinction between the two ways to connect epistemic agency and cognition to make some progress on the age old question of what distinctly human cognition might consist in.