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.