Wednesday 30 August 2023

Why Bounded Rationality (in Epistemology)?

Today's post is by David Thorstad on his recent paper “Why bounded rationality (in epistemology)?” published in 2023 in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research

David Thorstad

Bounded rationality gets a bad rap in epistemology. Critics argue that theories of bounded rationality are too context-sensitive, conventionalist, or reliant on ordinary language. My aim in this paper is to make sure that bounded rationality gets the rap sheet it deserves.

The first order of business is to lay out an approach to bounded rationality inspired by traditional theories of bounded rationality in cognitive science. I explain and defend this theory more fully in my book, Inquiry under Bounds, under contract with Oxford University Press. My approach has five core commitments.

First, bounds matter. Paradigmatic bounds such as limited cognitive abilities and the cost of computation bear on how it is rational for us to cognize. 

Second, rationality is procedural, moving upwards from the lower-order question of what an agent should believe to the higher-order question of which processes of inquiry she should use to form and revise beliefs.

Third, it is often rational for agents to form judgments using a particular kind of cognitive process: fast-and-frugal heuristics

Fourth, rational is ecological, or environment-relative. Because all heuristics perform well in some environments and badly in others, we cannot ask whether a heuristic is rational or irrational full-stop. We must always ask instead: in which environments would this process be rational to use?

Finally, the right approach should ground a program of vindicatory epistemology which aims to show how many seeming irrationalities are in fact instances of boundedly rational cognition.

The next order of business is to show how this approach answers some recent criticisms of bounded rationality by Jennifer Carr (2022). Carr argues that theories of bounded rationality are unacceptably conventionalist, relying on arbitrary epistemic conventions formed by communities of inquirers. But my approach is not conventionalist in any way.

Car also argues that theories of bounded rationality are unable to specify which bounds matter to rational cognition. Focusing on internal cognitive bounds, Carr offers several examples of bounds that matter and bounds that do not, but argues that no plausible theory of bounded rationality can distinguish them. I propose a traditional Bayesian understanding on which the bounds that matter are those determined by an agent’s fixed cognitive architecture. I argue that this approach correctly sorts the bounds that matter from those that don’t on Carr’s lists.

An enduring question about bounded rationality is whether and to what extent traditional approaches to bounded rationality are compatible with Bayesian theorizing. Recent work has suggested that bounded rationality may be not only compatible with, but essential to Bayesian theorizing: careful attention to cognitive bounds has led to innovations such as decisionmaking by sampling, probability heuristics, and resource-rational analysis that have improved the descriptive and normative plausibility of Bayesian theories. 

On this basis, I argue, bounded rationality should be viewed as a welcome addition to existing theories of Bayesian epistemology.

Wednesday 23 August 2023

Thought experiments in prison and in pubs: Interview with Bonny Astor

In this post, I interview Bonny Astor on her experience on bringing philosophy to prisons and pubs. To learn more about her initiative to discuss thought experiments in pubs, check this website. Her meet up group is here if you want to join!

Bonny Astor

Lisa Bortolotti: Do you want to tell us just a little bit about your background and how you got interested in philosophy.

Bonny Astor: My academic background is in psychology. Then I did a course in the philosophy of psychology, and I got so interested in that and I had a lot of questions.  I don't really know much philosophy besides what I've taught myself.

LB: But you brought philosophy to prison inmates. Do you want to tell us what you did?

BA: Sure. I was co-facilitating a hearing voices support group in Pentonville Prison and I got a job with that team as an occupational therapy assistant. I was asked what kind of groups I would facilitate, and I wanted to create opportunities for people to talk about their experiences of reality in a sort of open, safe space. That evolved based on the constraints of of the prison environment, and also with some input from Andy West, who teaches philosophy in prisons. So I talked to him, adapted the material to what the group wanted, and it became a regular, quite popular discussion group within the well-being center in Pentonville prison.

LB: Sounds amazing. What were the sessions like? 

BA: Sure. The well-being center is part of health care in Pentonville prison so the group of men that we were working with met some criteria for coming to the wellbeing center instead of potentially going to education or a job, but the but the criteria are very wide. So it was a real mixture of people. My group would run in one of the rooms, and then there might be a cooking group or a pottery group or a music groups that had to compete with the other groups and at first I was thinking of doing it in a progressive way, and then I realized that just wasn't going to work because there is a very high turn over in the prison, and some people wouldn't necessarily be unlocked and allowed there. So it was very unpredictable.

Andy West, who was working in the Education Department in Pentonville, teaching philosophy, recommended to me this book by Julian Baggini, which you might have seen. It's called The pig who wants to be eaten, and it's a series of thought experiments. So I used to pick a couple of thought experiments and we used to discuss them. I'd ask people to pick a number and then or a couple of numbers, and then we'd come up with a few experiments, and then they pick which ones they wanted to talk about. 

I guess my way of of holding the space was to give people as much ownership over what the group would be like and which topics we talk about. I didn't want to impose anything. I thought it would be more valuable if the men in the group picked what they wanted to talk about. Sometimes people would request particular topics, or they'd say, "I don't want to talk about that one today." The most interesting thing was how we all brought our different life experiences to these questions. There were great discussions. I had all sorts of people. I had a philosophy professor in one of my philosophy groups and some people who never heard the term philosophy in their life. So it was very varied.

LB: Did you learn anything from the experience of running this group in prison? Did you notice anything that was different from what you had done previously in the mental health context? 

BA: I think questions about freedom and responsibility came up a lot and had a sort of different feeling to them in that context. I found it quite moving a lot of the time. I also think what the thing that surprised me the most was the group's popularity. When I asked people why they liked coming to the group, they said: "It gives me something else to think about like the rest of the time. I'm just thinking about my case. The court date and prison life, and so to be able to think about these random thought experiments is good." 

And people's life experiences are very powerful. There were points of connection. That was the other thing that really struck me: people who might have kept a distance from each other, and not had a conversation, shared experiences in the group, which then meant that they felt some connection. The group discussion broke down some social barrier that might have been there for all sorts of reasons.

LB: That sounds really valuable in this context. Now you're doing something different. I mean, it may still involve thought experiments, but the context is quite different. Do you want to tell us about this new adventure of yours?

BA: I have a meet up group for doing things outside, and I've been doing that for a while and one of the things we do is watch the sunrise. So I did that with a group of people. And then we went and had coffee, and we got into this really good philosophical conversation, and I really missed the groups that I used to do in the prison. So I created a meet up group, called "Thought Experiments in Pubs" and we had 120 people signed up for the first meeting which is quite unusual.

Thought experiments in pubs

I initially thought we'd be on one table. Obviously we had to split into lots of different tables, and we had to rotate around. But since then we've done 4 meet ups. and I'd say the last one we had about 50% of people who'd already been there. So it feels like a community is forming around this desire to talk about more meaningful things with people from different backgrounds. 

I have a website, and I post four thought experiments on there on the day of the meet up. I want them to be things that people could start a conversation with, but I don't want people to feel like they have to stick to it. On the night of the meet up, I stand up on a chair and and invite people to start talking. Every 20 minutes I stand back up on the chair and say: "If you want to change table or change topic, go ahead." And so usually everyone moves around, and we do that three times. But people stay until the pub closes, still talking on that level which really surprises me. I thought that when the meetup ended, people would go back to small talk. But the conversations seem to just get richer and richer with time.

LB: How is the pub taking it?

BA: They love it, they were asking: "Can you come to our other pub? Can you come back weekly?" because at the moment it's monthly. But it's been very DYI and evolving. I've now got some of my friends to help me explain to people what to do, and people who've been there before. I've made these little badges for people who've been there before, so they can explain what's happening to everyone. Last time we had 3 standing groups, and 5 tables and it was pretty loud.

LB: Is there anything that you find challenging about these sessions? 

BA: I think what has made it successful is asking people what they want and being open to changing the format and the layout. I would say I don't think I haven't actually found it challenging really. Doing these meet ups has been really like a very good thing to do, because I feel like this community are supportive and familiar, and I've made lots of new friends. I think it is because people are talking about meaningful topics. It's possible to share what's going on in your life, and that's what I like doing.

This beautiful illustration of thought experiments in pub is by
Pamela Naidoo, Architecture Masters Student at Central St. Martins

LB: Any advice for people who would be interested in bringing philosophy to new audiences?

BA: I think potentially not calling it philosophy and having ways of explaining what you're doing. Someone once explained to me the difference between like learning philosophy and doing philosophy, and I think for me, feeling a bit intimidated about learning philosophy, it was much easier to think about doing philosophy, sharing my thoughts, hearing other people testing out my beliefs and finding out about people's beliefs. 

Also, thinking about the purpose. Why is this a valuable thing to do? That was clear to me from the initial 120 people signing up, but I think it speaks to maybe a sense of isolation or disconnection, of people not being able to  have those conversations in the rest of their lives. A few people who came have said to me: "You know, I see my friends, but we don't talk about stuff like this" or "Oh, I haven't been to it a pub for ages".

LB: That's great. You told us that people open up and share their life experiences which I think is crucial. But do you think there is anything else about a philosophical discussion that gets people together, get people to share?

BA: I think giving people a thought experiment in particular gives them like a clear thing that they can all talk about. Obviously, people can interpret that differently, and that's where you get the interesting discussion. I think of it as like putting an object on the table and then asking people to talk about it from their different perspectives. I think our life experiences and what we've learned give us different angles on this object, but having an object is very helpful. It gives people some focus. 

LB: Thanks Bonny!

If you want to listen to the whole interview, click below!

Also, Bonny recommends Andy West's book, The Life Inside, which is about teaching philosophy in prisons.

Monday 14 August 2023

Should Epistemic Injustice Matter to Psychiatrists?

This post is by Eleanor Harris, Lucienne Spencer, and Ian James Kidd. A version of this post was originally published on the EPIC blog on 24th May 2023.

Harris is a M4C funded doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham, working on epistemic injustice and epistemic vigilance. Spencer is a postdoctoral researcher working on the Wellcome Trust-funded project ‘Renewing Phenomenological Psychopathology’ at the Institute of Mental Health, University of Birmingham. Kidd is a lecturer in philosophy at the university of Nottingham and works on epistemology, philosophy of illness and healthcare. 

Eleanor Harris

Does epistemic injustice matter in psychiatric contexts? Brent Kious and colleagues have recently argued ‘No’ (see paper in Psychological Medicine). While it is welcome to have our assumptions challenged, we think the answer should still be that epistemic injustice should matter to psychiatrists. (See our full response in Philosophy of Medicine).

Before addressing whether epistemic injustice is applicable to psychiatry, it’s important to briefly clarify what “epistemic injustice” is. Epistemic injustice is a broad and heterogenous category of wrongs. Very generally, epistemic injustices are those which harm someone in their capacity as a knower (as an epistemic agent). With this notion in place, we can focus on epistemic injustice in psychiatry.

Lucienne Spencer

When disputing the need for epistemic injustice, one has to have a good understanding of what it is. Our first worry is that Kious and colleagues have an overly-narrow conception of epistemic injustice as ‘unfairly discriminating against a person with respect to their ability to know things’. While this captures some important kinds of epistemic injustice, it does not include others, such as those involving the unfair and harmful distribution of epistemic goods (like credibility). Given the varieties of epistemic injustice, claims about whether or not it matters in a given context should be sensitive to the richness and diversity of the concept.

Secondly, Kious and colleagues dispute the prevalence of epistemic injustice, which we think overlooks the abundance of evidence for its enduring and widespread presence in psychiatry. Many patient testimonies report negative epistemic experiences – such as the feeling of not being listened to – which are interpretable as epistemic injustices. Indeed, such reports are common almost to the point of cliché. 

A related claim by Kious and colleagues is that even if there are a few localised instances of epistemic injustice, the psychiatric profession has existing tools and clinical standards to deal with these cases. However, this is unpersuasive, given that epistemic injustices are still being reported despite these tools and standards. Moreover, we worry that those tools and standards themselves could perpetuate epistemic injustices. Some apparent solutions might actually be part of the problem, and this is precisely the point raised by so many critical writers in the philosophy of psychiatry, mad studies, and elsewhere.

Ian Kidd

Kious, Lewis and Kim end their paper with a worry that the concept of epistemic injustice might encourage some psychiatrists to ‘act as though we believe everything patients tell us’. Even worse, patients might come to expect ‘uniform acceptance of their ideas about diagnosis and treatment’. We agree that neither of these outcomes is desirable, but we also think that no epistemic injustice scholar would endorse such exaggerated policies of epistemic credulity and acceptance. Uncritical acceptance of all testimony is not epistemic justice.

We think that epistemic justice does need appreciation of psychiatrists’ epistemic power, the intrinsic and contingent obstacles to interpersonal understanding in cases of psychiatric illness, and the serious consequences of epistemic injustice in this domain. The conceptual resources offered by epistemic injustice studies are vital for making progress in that direction.

Tuesday 8 August 2023

Perpetrator Disgust

Ditte Marie Munch-Jurisic is a research associate at the Moral Injury Lab, University of Virginia and a Teaching Associate Professor at the University of Copenhagen. In this post, she tells us about her new book, Perpetrator Disgust (OUP 2023).

What is the significance of our gut feelings? Can they disclose our deep selves or point to a shared human nature? My book identifies and analyzes the phenomenon of “perpetrator disgust”. Across time and cultures, soldiers who participate in war crimes sometimes feel ill. They start to shake, feel nausea and sometimes even retch and vomit. As a philosopher, I’ve been interested in the many moralized interpretations that scholars and journalists have applied to the phenomenon.

In a nutshell, many have thought that such reactions demonstrate a sort of bodily morality, a physical revolt against the act being committed. But such interpretations are often wrong, especially when grounded in nativist ideas about morality and human emotions. As an alternative explanation, I draw on recent developments in the study of emotions to detail a comprehensive portrait of the phenomenon. I argue for a contextual understanding of human emotions as biological templates that can be hitched to a range of different values and morals.

Ditte Marie Munch-Jurisic

In every culture, the pedagogy of disgust draws subtle lines of demarcation between us and them: Who should we care for? Who is repulsive and unworthy of concern? As revealed by the recent surge of research in implicit biases, feelings of disgust and discomfort can convey internalized moral values, including values that we may not endorse or believe in, even values we have forgotten about.

My central claim is that, in such cases, our feelings have merely a signaling function: they point toward some transgression of internalized values but do not necessarily reflect a moral judgment. Our feelings may make us aware that something is amiss before we are able to put words to the discomfort, but the bodily feeling itself does not entail a moral evaluation (though it may influence and even distort whatever judgments, decisions, or motivations that follow it). The book considers numerous examples to demonstrate the operation and complexities of this process.

The dominant trend shows that most soldiers are able to overcome the initial shock of killing and adapt to their new circumstances—and this applies even to soldiers who experience perpetrator disgust with explicit feelings of compunction. Soldiers who are altogether unable to cope with killing or who explicitly refuse or protest the atrocities are a rare, anomalous set. Even when a soldier can be said to feel some empathic concern for a victim, the specific context constrains the range of available actions in response to their empathetic impulse; often, the soldier’s actions become more atrocious with time.

There is thus no inherent direction or moral value in visceral feelings of disgust or horror. Through conditioning, the bodily capacity for such reactions can be molded in many different directions, to many different purposes, depending on ideological and moral circumstances. Our physiological reactions and gut feelings are biological templates onto which societies and circumstances imprint their particular values. Instead of reflections of morality, nature, or a revelation of our true self, gut feelings speak primarily to the facts of our time and place.