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.