Wednesday 28 February 2024

Loneliness as a closure of the affordance space: The case of COVID-19 pandemic

This post is by Susana Ramírez-Vizcaya, who is a post-doctoral fellow at the Institute for Philosophical Research, National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). She works in embodied cognitive science, the enactive approach, phenomenology, and habits. This post is about her recent paper on loneliness and the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Susana Ramírez-Vizcaya

When social distancing measures were implemented to reduce the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, many specialists were concerned about a potential dramatic upsurge in loneliness, which was particularly worrying given the wide range of physical and mental health problems associated with it (e.g., depression, anxiety, substance use, cognitive decline, cardiovascular diseases, and suicide risk). However, the few longitudinal studies comparing loneliness levels before and during the social contact restrictions present inconsistent results, with many factors influencing whether the levels of loneliness increased, decreased, or remained constant.

These inconsistent findings underscore the fact that loneliness is not the same as social isolation, so one may feel lonely even among many other people or, conversely, may not experience loneliness even if socially isolated. Thus, the reduction in the number of face-to-face interactions during pandemic-related social restrictions is not a reliable indicator of people’s level of loneliness. In this regard, I propose that loneliness, unlike social isolation, arises not from a lack of social contacts but from a lack of connections, in the sense that, while experiencing loneliness, one lacks meaningful relationships not only with other living beings but also with oneself and aspects of the environment.

I explore this idea by conceiving of loneliness as resulting from a closure in one’s affordance space, i.e., a closure in the range of relevant possibilities for action and interaction that are open to a concrete individual with a particular repertoire of habits. Given a relational reading of the notion of affordances, this closure pertains to both individuals and the materiality of their environment, so the same aspects of the environment could show up as meaningful and solicit action for one person but not for another. Importantly, the relevant affordances missing in loneliness are those that a person would find enjoyable or attractive to engage with if they were present and she had the adequate skills to do so. Moreover, I argue that the lack of those affordances that are most central to our habitual identities, and therefore more meaningful to us, will have a greater impact on our experience of loneliness.

To support this proposal, I consider three possible ways in which the COVID-19 lockdown may have increased levels of loneliness in some people by suddenly contracting their affordance spaces, thus disrupting their habitual possibilities for (1) joint action, (2) affective regulation, and (3) embodied social interaction. I also present some examples from qualitative studies that suggest that some people managed to overcome this contraction ––and even expand their affordance spaces–– by engaging with new affordances or increasing the affective allure of existing ones. This reconfiguration of their affordance spaces may have prevented some people from experiencing the high levels of loneliness that were expected at the beginning of the pandemic. For them, this experience could have been an opportunity to connect or reconnect with others, themselves, and the wider community. However, this opportunity was not equally open to everyone, as is the case for older adults, whose levels of loneliness increased during the pandemic.

Wednesday 21 February 2024

Anorexia Nervosa and Delusions – What Can We Learn?

Today’s post is from Kyle De Young and Lindsay Rettler on their recent paper, “Causal Connections between Anorexia Nervosa and Delusional Beliefs” (published in Review of Psychology and Philosophy in 2023). 

Kyle is a clinical psychologist specializing in eating and related behaviors, who oversees the Eating Behaviors Research Lab at the University of Wyoming. Lindsay is a philosopher at UW teaching ethics and philosophy of mental health, who oversees the ethics curriculum for Wyoming’s med school (Wyoming WWAMI Medical Education Program).

Lindsay and Kyle

Anorexia nervosa (AN) is a severe mental disorder associated with mortality and functional impairment. It is complex, multi-systemic (e.g., behavioral, cognitive, endocrine, gastrointestinal), and requires multidisciplinary evidence-based treatment at various levels (e.g., outpatient, inpatient). Despite the availability and use of intense treatments, outcomes are poor, with only 1 in 3 individuals recovering within 9 years. 

Complicating matters is that although 10-30% of individuals with AN experience delusions, AN is not understood as a psychotic disorder nor conceptualized in terms of how delusions relate to its development or maintenance. Focusing on the connections between delusions and AN is a promising way to shed light on this complicated condition, possibly pointing researchers and clinicians in fruitful directions to improve outcomes for this terrible disorder.

Believing that eating a piece of chocolate will cause me to gain 5 lbs might not seem very similar to a psychotic delusion of persecution. But I may hold the belief in a way that floats free of evidence. Is the belief then delusional? The DSM-5 characterizes delusions in varied and sometimes inconsistent ways. These definitions focus on the content of delusions (are they false, unshared, bizarre, etc.?), the degree of conviction with which the delusional belief is held, whether a person has insight to the origins of their belief, whether the belief is irrational, and whether the belief is fixed. 

In our paper we sort through these characterizations and argue that fixedness is the core feature of delusions. When a belief is maintained in a way that’s insensitive to evidence or unresponsive to reasons, the belief is fixed. 

How are these delusions related to AN? We consider several possibilities and conclude that most likely the psychopathology of AN causes delusions, and delusions are likely reciprocally causal with AN. The content of delusions in AN is typically limited to eating, digestion, and body shape/weight, and the delusions function as explanations for behaviors that are otherwise hard to justify. 

Starving oneself to the point of emaciation, medical complications, and interpersonal and occupational impairment when food is readily available are hard to understand without the accompanying delusional belief that one’s body cannot process food, for instance. Delusions may help explain this extreme behavior and in so doing help subdue the fear brought about by AN. As the seriousness of the condition amplifies, the need to hold firmly to the delusion grows.

If delusions and AN are reciprocally causal, intervening on one should improve the other. Most promising is to add treatment components known for their efficacy in ameliorating delusions to existing evidence-based approaches for AN to test whether such additions improve outcomes. Antipsychotic medications that might increase cognitive flexibility could be tried. Some have been tested in AN, generally with underwhelming results, but no trials investigated whether individuals with delusions specifically benefit.

Other approaches include acceptance-based psychotherapies that help individuals change behavior despite their cognitions or specific variants of cognitive therapy developed for delusions. Although we can't estimate the impact on AN of intervening on delusions, even if it helps in only 10-30% of cases, the potential for improving outcomes is great. So, we hope that research will move in this direction!

Wednesday 14 February 2024

Symbolic Belief in Social Cognition

The post today is by Evan Westra (Purdue University) on his recent paper "Symbolic Belief in Social Cognition" (Philosophical Perspectives, 2023).

 Evan Westra
If you go up to an ordinary person on the street and ask them to tell you about their beliefs, they’ll probably start telling you about their religious, moral, or ideological attitudes: Trans rights are human rights; God created the universe; Black lives matter; Abortion is wrong; Trump won 2020. These are generally interesting answers that tell you a lot about who that person is.  

If you ask a philosopher for an example of their beliefs, on the other hand, you’re likely to get something terribly boring: today is Wednesday; it’s raining outside, the cat is on the mat (or, if they’re feeling particularly boring: p). This makes perfect sense from the philosopher’s perspective: they simply are giving you examples of mental states that function as “the map by which we steer,” that is, states that aim at an accurate representation of the world, are generally coherent, responsive to evidence, and that the pursuit of our goals and desires.  

This doesn’t seem to be what the non-philosopher is doing when they’re telling you about their beliefs. Instead, they’re telling you about attitudes that matter to them, that express what they stand for. These are not the kind of attitudes that one readily updates in response to evidence; indeed, if we were presented with counterevidence to these beliefs, we’d probably do our best to explain it away. Unlike the philosopher’s mundane “beliefs,” these “beliefs” are the kind of attitude one might express to signal one’s identity and affirm one’s status as a member one’s community. They’re also the kind of attitude that we might look for when deciding whether or not a person belongs to one’s ingroup or outgroup, and perhaps even enforce as a criterion for group-membership.

The non-philosopher also has attitudes about whether today is Wednesday, or whether the cat is on the mat, of course. And they’d probably find the philosopher’s way of using the word belief perfectly sensible (albeit somewhat formalistic and weird – much like philosophers in general). Nevertheless, they’re much more likely to express such mundane attitudes using more common attitude verbs like think or know. But for some pragmatic or semantic reason, the term belief is much more likely to be used to express religious, moral, and ideological attitudes.  

Here's my question: in cases like these, are the philosopher and non-philosopher talking about the same type of mental state? That is, are they both employing the same basic folk psychological concept of belief?  

In my recent paper in Philosophical Perspectives, “Symbolic belief and social cognition,” I suggest that the answer to this question is no. Drawing on several different lines of evidence, I argue that in our day-to-day lives, we regularly employ two distinct concepts of belief, each with a distinct folk psychological profile and socio-cognitive function. The epistemic concept of belief corresponds roughly to what the philosopher means by “belief,” though it is more commonly expressed by the verb to think. This concept is used primarily for mindreading – that is, to keep track of what other people take to be true, and this informs how we predict and interpret their behaviors. The symbolic concept of belief is more commonly expressed by the verb to believe. It describes a very different kind of mental state, with a strong affective and volitional dimension, and well as preference-like characteristics and limited sensitivity to evidence or updating. I argue that the primary function of this concept is mindshaping: we express symbolic beliefs in order to signal our identities and thereby regulate how others behave towards us, and we also monitor and normatively enforce certain symbolic beliefs in others. Along the way, I touch on the ways that questions about the folk psychology of belief intersect with questions about the ontology of belief, and how each debate might inform the other.

Sunday 11 February 2024

Why Human Nature Matters

We celebrate Darwin Day (12th February) with a post by Matteo Mameli (King’s College London) on his new monograph, Why Human Nature Matters: Between Biology and Politics (Bloomsbury 2024). In the book, Mameli discusses Darwin’s views on mental faculties, human differences, and the transformative agency of organisms. 

Cover of Why Human Nature Matters (with barnacles)

My monograph addresses classic and contemporary perspectives on human nature and makes a novel proposal, one that stresses the biological and political significance of human diversity and mutability. Darwin’s ideas on variation and niche construction play an important role in my argument, which also draws on insights from Marx, Engels, Gramsci, Sebastiano Timpanaro, Sylvia Wynter, and others. The cover image is a plate from one of Darwin’s books on barnacles. To discover why Darwin was so interested in barnacles, you will have to read the book!

Below are some excerpts from the introductory chapter:

Organisms inherit genetic material from their parents, but they also inherit the outcomes of the choices and activities of their conspecifics and non-conspecifics. […] In relation to changes in their conditions of life, both internal and external, corporeal and extracorporeal, organisms are both subjects and objects, agents and patients, sources as well as recipients of change. […] Human niche construction has profoundly transformed both humans and the rest of nature, with the pace of transformation continually accelerating. Finding the right way to grasp the similarities and differences between human niche construction and the niche-constructing processes of other species is of utmost importance. 
In the current epoch of genetic and molecular engineering, anthropogenic climate change, and ecological collapse, the human planetary footprint is becoming every day more evident. Will we destroy our conditions of life and cause our own extinction? Will we bio-engineer our bodies and those of other living organisms? Will we geo-engineer Planet Earth? Will we be able to remove the barriers that separate us and other terrestrial beings from better modes of life? Will we revolutionize our praxis? If so, in what ways? 

The elaboration, modification, and spread of ideas about human nature is a part of human praxis that shapes other parts of human praxis and that, by doing so, conditions the ways we live, including the ways we organize and reorganize our social systems and our interactions with the rest of nature. Symbols can be causally powerful, including those symbols with which we humans think about ourselves as members of a species. […] A view that draws attention to the ways in which human nature can mutate is better than an eliminativist approach. However, for a view of human nature as mutable through praxis to work, one needs to acknowledge not just the transformative impact of human praxis but also its concrete materiality. We need to avoid seeing human nature as something rigid and unchangeable; at the same time, we need to reject any “attenuation of materialism.” 

In Part One of this book, I explore various classic perspectives on human nature, featuring ideas from Aristotle, Augustine, Hobbes, Rousseau, Marx, Engels, and others. The discussion shows how debates about human nature are often debates concerning the ways humans can or cannot cooperate and the ways our nature enables or constrains the social production (and reproduction) of valuable human goods and relations. Ideas about human nature often have a profound influence on how we continuously recreate and govern our modes of life. 
In Part Two, I make an intervention in contemporary discussions on the concept (or notion, or conception) of human nature. This part of the book criticizes various proposals concerning how we should think about human nature in abstract terms, and it makes an alternative proposal—one that focuses on plasticity, diversity, and transformative processes. In today’s context, ideas about human nature cannot be isolated from evolutionary biology and the sciences of human biocultural differences, as long as these sciences are understood in fully niche-constructionist terms. At the same time, a good way of thinking about human nature needs to consider the role played by ideas about human nature in social conflict and in structuring our modes of life. 
In the Conclusions, I revisit Timpanaro’s critique of Gramsci’s attenuated materialism and the general issues concerning human nature, human modes of life, and the embeddedness of human praxis.

Wednesday 7 February 2024

Concept Revision, Concept Application and the Role of Intuitions in Gettier Cases

Today's post is by Krzysztof Sękowski (University of Warsaw) on his recent paper, Concept Revision, Concept Application and the Role of Intuitions in Gettier Cases (Episteme, 2022).

Krzysztof Sękowski
According to the standard view, in thought experiments (or more specifically in the method of cases) the conclusion is justified by intuitions about the applicability of a given concept. For instance, in Gettier Cases our intuition that we can not say that the protagonist in a story KNOWS something justifies our conclusion that JTB theory of knowledge is false. According to this view, the method of cases enables us to establish some truths about that concept. Therefore, it is considered a descriptive method, as it helps discover truths about a given concept without revising, regulating or explicating its meaning.

The paper presents a different view on this method. According to it this method can be interpreted as a normative method, within which arguments for revising the meaning of a scrutinized concept are provided. Thus, the method of cases might be understood not only as a method used within conceptual analysis but also as part of the conceptual engineering enterprise.

The paper discusses two crucial distinctions. The first one distinguishes between intuitions of intension (intuitions about general properties that an object falling under a given concept has), and intuitions of extension (intuitions about the applicability of a given concept in particular situations). The second distinction distinguishes between concept-application arguments and concept-revision arguments. Concept-application arguments aim to provide reasons for a claim that a particular concept applies in a given case, while concept-revision arguments aim to provide reasons for why we should think about a given concept in a particular way. The paper argues that the method of cases might be interpreted as providing one of both of these kinds of arguments. The crucial difference between them is that concept-application arguments rely on the content of intuitions of extension, while concept-revision arguments rely on the content of intuitions of intension. The paper shows, on the example of Gettier Cases, that the crucial feature of the normative interpretation of the method of cases in which its conclusion is justified by concept-revision arguments, is that it provides reasons based on general expectations towards the concept for abandoning intuitions on whether it applies to a certain case or not. Thereby, this interpretation of the method of cases makes it a useful tool for conceptual engineering purposes.

In the last parts of the paper, it shows that the normative interpretation of the method of cases provides a defense from the critique of that method provided by the negative program of experimental philosophy. This critique aims to show that this method is unreliable as it relies on intuitions, which are, according to empirical findings, sensitive to philosophically irrelevant factors such as culture, gender, personality, etc.. However, the paper argues that the conceptual-engineering-friendly interpretation, according to which the method of cases is justified by concept-revision arguments and the content of intuitions of intension, can be defended with the help of some particular form of expertise defense. The paper argues that experts' intuitions, that is, intuitions of speakers who are immersed in philosophical discourse and who express their expectations about a target concept, can form a reliable source of evidence for revisionary arguments. This is because they do not serve as evidence for the method of cases' conclusions but they provide reasons for a particular conceptual change.

Wednesday 31 January 2024

The Know-How of Virtue

This post is by Kathleen Murphy-Hollies, on her recent paper 'The Know-How of Virtue', published open-access in the Journal of Applied Philosophy. 

Kathleen Murphy-Hollies

How can we be good people who do things for the right reason, when we very often confabulate a good reason for our behaviour after the fact?

Imagine, for example, that I do not give money to a person in need on the street, and instead rush home. But then, later on, my friend mentions seeing the person who needed help and I express that I saw them too. Then they ask me, ‘why didn’t you help them?’.

In these circumstances, we might confabulate. This means that, only upon being asked, do we start formulating an answer to that question. In that way, confabulation is post-hoc. We come up with reasons for our behaviour which protect our positive self-conceptions. So I might say to my friend, ‘Oh I was in a rush and the street was too busy for me to stop!’. This explanation protects my self-concept of still generally being kind and helpful. I explain away this instance with an ill-grounded claim, because in fact the street was not busy at all. This is a core feature of confabulations; they are not appropriately based on the relevant evidence, so they usually make false statements about the world (it is not impossible for them to be true by accident/mere luck).

Importantly, people confabulate with no intention to deceive. So, we believe our confabulations to be an authentic account of why we behaved in the way we did. In a way, this is surely what makes confabulation so worrying. When we are prompted to look more closely at our behaviour, confabulation seems to hide our shortcomings from us, because we immediately come up with a self-protecting story. We don’t notice that we’re doing this, and we don’t notice that we don’t actually have a good understanding of why we acted in some way.

So it would seem that confabulation is surely a worry for virtuous behaviour, which ought to be ‘for the right reason’. Virtuous behaviour should be a response to the values inherent in a situation, and the agent should have this right reason at the forefront of her mind when acting. But, in confabulation, we reverse this story and posit those ‘right reasons’ after the fact, believing that we were responding to those reasons at the time.

In my recent paper, I argue that confabulation is not necessarily such a barrier for virtuous behaviour, and is actually probably involved in the development of virtue a lot of the time. This is because confabulation actually has some benefits, which can be applied in the development of virtue. In seeking to protect our positive visions of ourselves, we can give them a more explicit space in our ongoing self-narratives. These self-conceptions are not passive, but also guide and influence future behaviour. So, engaging in the construction of good self-image, even at the expense of getting all the facts of the matter right, can be efficacious in making that image a reality. And therefore, in a sense, making it true. Maybe next time, you’ll actually respond to the reasons which you had previously only posited post-hoc in a confabulation.

This is quite an optimistic outlook for confabulation, though. Surely for some people, confabulation will mean that they just continue masking their bad behaviour to themselves, indefinitely. I agree that gaining these benefits from confabulation is far from guaranteed. I argue that what makes the difference, is having certain self-related skills and attitudes. These include attitudes such as being open-minded to what other people say to you in response to your confabulations, being curious about other explanations of your behaviour to the one you’ve given, and being attentive to your thoughts, feelings, and desires for your idealised self.

I use a mindshaping framework to flesh out how these attitudes, which require a skilful know-how rather than propositional knowledge about the self, play an extremely valuable role in the fundamentally social enterprise of sharing reasons for behaviour. Not only does this bring self-knowledge, but the process shapes and thus constitutes it. Due to our cognitive limitations and desires to have an understanding of our actions, the reasons that we share may well often be confabulatory. However, that doesn’t mean that this process of social shaping can’t take place and be valuable, particularly for the formation of consistent virtuous behaviour.

Finally, I posit that this know-how is a meta-virtue because the skills encompassed by it could be applied to the development of any other particular virtue. Patience, generosity, compassion, will all require the development of capacities to see specific values and needs in a situation, and we will need the help and input of others in the development of these capacities. Then, we can come to respond to them appropriately, as reasons for action. In essence, if you’re interested in being a virtuous person who acts for the right reasons, you should work on having these pro-social attitudes, rather than on trying to somehow never confabulate.

Wednesday 24 January 2024

The Sense of Existence

 Today's post is by Alexandre Billon (Université de Lille) on his recent paper, "The Sense of Existence" (Ergo 2023).

Alexandre Billon

Things we perceive typically seem to be real to us. Unlike Bigfoot or Pegasus, this sparrow flying above the building for example seems to be real to me and I indeed judge that it is real. The sense of reality is the kind of awareness or seeming that underlies such judgments of reality. 

There has been a lot of work on the sense of reality lately in the philosophy of mind, in psychology, and even in aesthetics (think about the difference between an apple on a trompe l'oeil and a regular painting). The terminology is not quite settled, however: some talk of the sense of reality, others of the sense of presence, yet others of "real presence". Nor is the conceptual landscape: it is sometimes unclear whether all authors who talk about the sense of reality talk about the same thing.

Although it is usually ignored, there is also a long tradition, in philosophy of studying the sense of reality. Hume and Kant have had interesting insights about the "idea of existence", the 18th century Encyclopedists  (Diderot, Turgot), 19th-century Ideologists (Condillac, Destutt de Tracy, Maine de Biran) as well as major 20th-century figures such as  Dilthey, Husserl, and  Bergson developed interesting accounts of the "feeling of existence" or the "feeling of presence" some of which  were based, or at least closely tied, to the psychology of their time.

My aim in this paper was twofold. First I wanted to draw on the contemporary literature and on the philosophical tradition to brush a landscape of the various possible theories of the sense of reality and put forward a consistent terminology for these theories. That required to get clear on the meaning of "real", and I decided to focus on reality in the sense of existence: what is real in this sense is what really exists.

My second aim was to assess these various theories. Focusing mainly on "derealization" (a condition in which people perceive their surroundings and themselves as unreal) I argue that no extant theory of the sense of reality quite succeeds, and that we should carefully distinguish the sense of reality from the various senses to which some theories have identified it: 

- the sense of  resistance, 

- the sense of phenomenological depth (the awareness that the object has hidden parts exhibited by so-called “amodal completion”), 

- the sense of perceptual presence (the awareness that the object belongs to the same spatial manifold as me),  

- the sense of the temporally present, 

- the sense of directedness (the awareness of being directly related to the object), 

- and the sense of affective value (the awareness of the object is or at least can be affectively moving).

At the end of the paper, I put forward an alternative theory of the sense of reality that given our present state of knowledge seems to fare better than all other theories. This alternative theory construes the sense of reality as a sense of substantiality. I indeed suggest that normally, we are implicitly and more or less determinately aware that unlike say, virtual objects, the things we perceive have a certain ordinary substrate that gives them substantiality and that this substrate endows the things with a sense of being real. This sense of substantiality would be lacking in derealization. 

Wednesday 17 January 2024

Receptive Publics

Today's post is by Joshua Habgood-Coote and Nadja El Kassar on their recent paper, Receptive Publics (Ergo, forthcoming). Joshua Habgood-Coote is a research fellow at the school of philosophy, religion, and history of science at the university of Leeds. Natalie Ashton is a research associate at VU Amsterdam, Nadja El Kassar is Professor of Philosophy at University of Lucerne.

Joshua Habgood-Coote

It is common to hear the following kind of complaint:

You can’t say anything these days! You never know who might get offended, or whether you’re going to get cancelled for saying something totally innocuous. Back in my day we just said it like it was, we were all a lot more thick-skinned, and we just came out and said uncomfortable truths.

This complaint makes a historical comparison: things used to be better because you could say what you thought. Both better psychologically—we weren’t spending our whole time in a defensive crouch—and epistemically—we could get to the truth, even when it was uncomfortable. And this is no longer the case.

Natalie Ashton

At this point it’s going to be tempting to contest both the historical and the contemporary part of the complaint. Hold your horses: we’re not interested in whether the complaint is true. Rather, we’re interested in the kind of criticism it makes. Like so much of the criticism of contemporary discourse, concerns about cancelling and the censorious youth are centred around what it is possible and permissible to say. The quality of speech is surely an important part of the epistemic quality of public discourse, but surely just as important a factor is the quality of public listening. In fact, we suspect that a significant reason why people complain about not being able to say anything these days is that they haven’t acquired the listening skills to process and understand the political concerns raised by minority groups.

Nadja El Kassar

In Receptive Publics (forthoming in Ergo), we try to open up a set of questions about the quality of political listening. Drawing on the history of liberation movements, we suggest that there is an important set of discursive spaces which have been established with the goal of allowing non-marginalised people to listen to marginalised people. Promoting and supporting this kind of space is a pressing political issue 

To start off with, we offer a diagnosis of what we call the listening problem. We argue that the listening problem has three parts. The first is the high social costs of speech in the public sphere, which we argue is a consequence of the unmanaged epistemic friction between different epistemic frameworks. The second is the unequal recognition and distribution of epistemic labour between marginalised and non-marginalised people. And the third is antagonistic relationships which impede the progress of new concepts into the public sphere.

Next, we suggest that within the public sphere tradition there is a lack of resources for thinking about spaces for collective political listening. Besides the main public sphere, and counterpublic groups which bring together members of marginalised groups, there are receptive publics: spaces for the reception of ideas from counterpublics, and or the development of the skills needed to listen effectively to marginalised speakers.

With the concept of a receptive public in hand, we apply it to some examples. We consider to what extent the feminist podcast the Guilty Feminist and the audio social media app Clubhouse have enabled receptive public spaces. Part of the goal of the paper is to open up a bridge between social epistemology and work in media studies which employs the notions of a public sphere and a counterpublic. We think that social epistemologists have a good deal to learn from media studies researchers—and vice versa—and research into different kinds of discursive spheres offers a good opportunity to establish conceptual connections between these research projects.

Wednesday 10 January 2024

The case of poor postpartum mental health: a consequence of an evolutionary mismatch–not of an evolutionary trade-off

Today's post is by Orli Dahan (Tel-Hai College) on her recent paper, "The case of poor postpartum mental health: a consequence of an evolutionary mismatch–not of an evolutionary trade-off" (Biology & Philosophy, 2023).

Orli Dahan

In my paper I criticize an evolutionary explanation to the phenomena of postpartum mood disorders and offer a different evolutionary explanation. These disorders develop shortly after childbirth in a significant proportion of women and have severe effects. I suggest that poor postpartum mental health is a classical mismatch situation: Namely, that a trait or function adaptive in a previous human environment becomes maladaptive in the modern environment. This is an argument used to explain many human health problems, such as diabetes and allergies. 

The evolutionary explanation that I reject is the ‘evolutionary trade-off’ explanation. According to it, poor postpartum mental health is a consequence of an evolutionary trade-off – a compromise of neurological changes in the maternal brain during pregnancy which, on the one hand, maintain pregnancy, and on the other, increase the likelihood for women after giving birth to develop psychopathology. 

I demonstrate that the trade-off explanation ignores the crucial event of childbirth. I elaborate on environmental features of childbirth, a physiological process that is substantially different in the current versus evolutionary childbirth and postpartum setting, and show that maternal brain neuroplasticity and biochemical alterations are not an evolutionary trade-off, but an adaptation. 

Additionally, the incidents of poor postpartum mental health are better viewed as a maladaptation of the typical modern environments – an evolutionary mismatch. Thus, the potential to suffer from poor mental health in postpartum is an external, dependent on contemporary childbirth and postpartum environments, and not due to any essential property women possess as a result of evolutionary compromise.

I argue that many women today are at risk for poor postpartum mental health, but not because it is an evolutionary trade-off. The approach of an evolutionary trade-off posits that there is something inherently not healthy in postpartum women: The tendency toward poor mental health is the price a woman must pay for becoming a mother. Instead, I argue that the physiological process of becoming a mother once included the triggering of feeling like a superwoman, but the modern birth setting and post-birth environment have turned this adaptation into the maladaptation we now face. 

Women after a physiological childbirth are probably adapted to feel euphoric pleasure and enhanced self-esteem – as a natural aid in adjusting to motherhood. However, most deliveries nowadays are not physiological deliveries, but highly medicalized and traumatic. Thus, unfortunately, the exceptional adaptation, in our current setting, became a maladaptation.

Furthermore, I claim that accuracy in use of evolutionary concepts is crucial for making good science, as well as for developing beneficial practices. Hypotheses have consequences for future research programs, psychological and medical treatments, prevention strategies, and intervention procedures. Thus, mere screening postpartum women at risk is insufficient. Distinguishing between evolutionary concepts (such as ‘evolutionary mismatch’ and ‘evolutionary trade-off’) in the context of pregnancy, birth, and motherhood is vital for developing more accurate preventions and interventions.

Wednesday 3 January 2024

On the Origin of Conspiracy Theories

The blog post today is by Patrick Brooks (Rutgers University) on his recent paper, "On the origin of conspiracy theories" (Philosophical Studies, 2023).

Patrick Brooks

In the last, say, 20 years or so, a lot has been written about conspiracy theories. Much of this has focused on what conspiracy theories are, why people believe them, and so on. Very little has been said, however, about why people might posit a conspiracy theory in the first place. My recent paper, “On the Origin of Conspiracy Theories” (2023) attempts to do this for a significant subset of conspiracy theories—namely, those conspiracy theories that run counter to an official or standard account of some event of phenomenon. Here’s a very brief sketch of the argument.

People in open, broadly democratic societies have a somewhat naïve view of how their societies and the institutions within them work. These are the kinds of things we learned about, e.g., the scientific method or governmental processes, in primary and secondary school. Many people think of science, for example, as a highly collaborative process in which loads of very smart people engage in a good faith pursuit of the truth. Having this sort of understanding of something like science generates certain normative expectations on scientists. Indeed, if we think that scientists are engaged in a good faith pursuit of the truth, we expect them to be responsive to evidence, willing to engage with critics, etc., because these sorts of behaviors are conducive to figuring out how the world is.

So, suppose that some theory becomes the standard view—i.e., the one that is widely held and endorsed by relevant epistemic authorities—for some event or phenomena. Further suppose that there are some anomalies that are not captured by the theory. Finally, imagine that someone either points out these anomalies as a problem for the theory or else comes up with some rival hypothesis. How should proponents of the official view respond, given the assumption that they’re engaged in a good faith pursuit of the truth? Clearly, they ought to respond by taking the evidence seriously, by looking carefully at the rival theory, and so on. Unfortunately, however, this is not always how scientists or other epistemic authorities respond to this sort of thing. Too often, they dismiss people out of hand, resort to name-calling, and so on. That is, they act in ways that are inconsistent with the norms generated by being engaged in a good faith pursuit of the truth. Sometimes, people attempt to resolve such tensions by positing a conspiracy theory (or so I claim!). 

Here's an example from the paper. In 1947, something crash landed on Mac Brazel's ranch in Roswell, NM. The Roswell Army Air Field initially said that they had recovered a “flying disc” at the site of the crash. This is the story that ran in the Roswell Daily Record. Over the next several decades, the U.S. Gov’t changed their story a half-dozen times. Whenever someone inevitably pointed out a flaw with whatever story was the “official” one at the time, the response from various officials and epistemic authorities was to dismiss that person as a kook or crank obsessed with “little green men.” These people then come up with their own (often conspiratorial) explanations for why the epistemic authorities are behaving in the way that they are rather than like people who are engaged in a good faith pursuit of the truth.