Thursday, 27 April 2017

Interview with Thomas Sturm on the Science of Rationality and the Rationality of Science

In this post I am pleased to interview Thomas Sturm (pictured below), ICREA Research Professor at the Department of Philosophy at the Universitat Autónoma de Barcelona (UAB) and member of the UAB's Center for History of Science (CEHIC). His research centers on the relation between philosophy and psychology, including their history. Here, we discuss his views on empirical research on human rationality.

AP: The psychology of judgment and decision-making has been divided into what appear to be radically different perspectives on human rationality. Whilst research programs like heuristics and biases have been associated with a rather bleak picture of human rationality, Gerd Gigerenzer and his colleagues have argued that very simple heuristics can make us smart. Yet, some philosophers have also argued that, upon close scrutiny, these research programs do not share any real disagreement. What is your take on the so-called “rationality wars” in psychology?

TS: Let me begin with a terminological remark. I would like to refrain from further using the terminology of “rationality wars”. It was introduced by Richard Samuels, Stephen Stich, and Michael Bishop (SSB hereafter) in 2002, and I have used their expression too without criticizing it. In academic circles, we may think that such language creates no problems, and I hate to spoil the fun. But because theories of rationality have such a broad significance in science and society, there is a responsibility to educate the public, and not to hype things. Researchers are not at war with one another. Insofar as a dispute becomes heated, if fights for funding and recognition play a role, then we should speak openly about this, tame down our language, and not create a show or a hype. We should discuss matters clearly and critically, end of story.

Now, I study this debate, which has many aspects, with fascination. It’s fascinating because they concern a most important concept of science and social life, adding fresh perspectives to philosophical debates that have occasionally become too sterile. And the debates are so interesting because they provide ample materials for philosophy of science.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Strategic Thinking, Theory of Mind, and Autism

My name is Peter Pantelis. I study “theory of mind”—our ability to reason about other people’s mental states. Years ago, I became interested in an economic game called the Beauty Contest, because I think it taps into theory of mind very elegantly:

You are going to play a game (against 250 undergraduate psychology students). Each player will submit a whole number from 0 to 100. The winner will be the player whose number is closest to 2/3 of the mean number selected by all the players.

What number do you submit?

(I’ll wait for you to think about it for a moment)

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Memories: Distorted, Reconstructed, Experiential and Shared

PERFECT 2017 Memory Workshop

We are very excited that on 5th May 2017 Project PERFECT will be holding its second annual workshop, at Jesus College, Cambridge. The workshop will feature leading experts in the field of philosophy of memory. The talks will focus on a wide-range of fascinating issues that dominate contemporary research on memory. The talks will be of interest to philosophers of mind, philosophers of psychology, epistemologists and psychologists, as well as other cognitive scientists interested in how we remember the past.  

Issues to be covered in the talks include how memory can generate knowledge; how false and distorted memories can be useful features of ordinary cognition; the nature of experiential memories; whether we can be immune from error due to misidentifying ourselves in a memory; and the role of shared memories in relationships. 

Many of the talks will have an interdisciplinary angle, highlighting how recent psychological research—e.g. on false and distorted memory, and dementia and grief—should impact on our understanding of human memory.

Two of the talks will focus directly on a concept at the very heart of Project PERFECT: i.e. epistemic innocence. This is the idea that some false and misleading cognitions bring epistemic benefits that could not be possessed in the absence of the cognitions.

Kirk Michaelian will examine the claim that memory can generate new knowledge. He will explore two views that are consistent with this claim, arguing that the views, when combined, support the claim that episodic memories (our memories of individual incidents) are misleading but in a way that makes them epistemically innocent.

On a similar theme, I will present work written in collaboration with Lisa Bortolotti showing that three memory distortions famously studied in the psychological literature can be explained in terms of the presence of cognitive mechanisms that are epistemically innocent.

Dorothea Debus will explore the nature of memories with experiential qualities. She will argue that we give this type of memory special weight, and she will illustrate how we are both passive and active with respect to these memories. We are active because we can prompt ourselves and others to remember events. We are passive because the memories often just come to us.

Jordi Fernández will examine the claim that one cannot have an inaccurate memory as a result of misidentifying oneself in the memory. He will consider how psychological research on observer memories (when people seem to recall a scene in which they featured from the perspective of an observer) and disowned memory might be taken to challenge the claim. Then he will respond to the challenge by drawing on the same psychological research to offer a positive view in support of the target claim.

John Sutton will focus on how the ways people have shared memories that are reflected in and can come to constitute specific close relationships. He will focus on both ongoing relationships and the end of relationships. He will draw on psychological studies on the role of memory in dementia and grief.

For more information about the workshop see here.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Bounded Rationality Meets Situated and Embodied Cognition

This post is by Enrico Petracca (University of Bologna), who recently published a paper entitled ‘A cognition paradigm clash: Simon, situated cognition and theinterpretation of bounded rationality’ in the Journal of Economic Methodology. Enrico is involved in a project called ‘embodied rationality’, and pursued with his colleague Antonio Mastrogiorgio (University of Chieti-Pescara). The project aims to integrate the notion of embodied cognition within the framework of bounded rationality.

Bounded rationality has been a hard-to-digest notion in economics and the other social sciences since its introduction by Herbert A. Simon in the middle of the last century. How could ‘rationality’ be ‘bounded’? And – as a typically related concern – would this imply that social sciences should abandon any normative horizon, giving the way to an unappealable ‘irrationality’?

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Surfing Uncertainty

In this post, Andy Clark, Professor of Logic and Metaphysics at the University of Edinburgh, introduces his new book: Surfing Uncertainty: Prediction, Action, and the Embodied Mind.

Sometimes, we are most forcibly struck by what isn’t there. If I play you a series of regularly spaced tones, then omit a tone, your perceptual world takes on a deeply puzzling shape. It is a world marked by an absence – and not just any old absence. What you experience is a very specific absence: the absence of that very tone, at that very moment. What kind of neural and (more generally) mental machinery makes this possible?

There is an answer that has emerged many times during the history of the sciences of the mind. That answer, appearing recently in what is arguably its most comprehensive and persuasive form to date, depicts brains as prediction machines – complex multi-level systems forever trying pre-emptively to guess at the flow of information washing across their many sensory surfaces. 

According to this emerging class of models, biological brains are constantly active, trying to predict the streams of sensory stimulation before they arrive. Systems like that are most strongly impacted by sensed deviations from their predicted states. It is these deviations from predicted states (‘prediction errors’) that here bear much of the explanatory and information-processing burden, informing us of what is salient and newsworthy in the current sensory array. When you walk back into your office and see that steaming coffee-cup on the desk in front of you, your perceptual experience (the theory claims) reflects the multi-level neural guess that best reduces prediction errors. To visually perceive the scene, your brain attempts to predict the scene, allowing the ensuing error (mismatch) signals to refine its guessing until a kind of equilibrium is achieved.

Perception here phases seamlessly into understanding. What we see is constantly informed by what we know and what we were thus already busy (both consciously and non-consciously) expecting. Perception and imagination likewise emerge as tightly linked, since to perceive the world is to deploy multi-level neural machinery capable of generating a kind of ‘virtual version’ of the sensory signal for itself, using what the system knows about the world. Indeed, so strong is the tie that perception itself becomes a matter of what some theorists have called ‘controlled hallucination’.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Helpful Rationality Assessments

Hello, readers! I’m Patricia Rich, and I’m currently a philosophy postdoc on the new Knowledge and Decision project at the University of Hamburg. This post is about a paper stemming from my dissertation, entitled Axiomatic and Ecological Rationality: Choosing Costs and Benefits. It appeared in the Autumn issue of the Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics.

My paper defends a specific method of evaluating rationality. The method is general and can be applied to choices, inferences, probabilistic estimates, argumentation, etc., but I’ll explain it here through one example. Suppose I’m worried about my friend Alex’s beliefs regarding current affairs. Her claims often seem far-fetched and poorly supported by evidence. As rationality experts who want to help, how should we evaluate Alex?

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Bias in Context Sheffield 2017

In this post Robin Scaife reports from the conference Bias in Context.

On the 25th and 26th of January 2017 the University of Sheffield hosted the 3rd in a series of 4 conferences on Bias in Context. This workshop was supported by the Leverhulme Trust as part of a research project grant on bias and blame. The previous two conferences in the series had focused on how to understand the relationship between psychological and structural explanations. This time the theme was Interpersonal Interventions and Collective Action. The goal was to look beyond individualistic approaches to changing biases and examine how interpersonal interactions and collective action can be used to combat bias.
Experts came from both Philosophy and Psychology and many of those attending also had practical experience of leading diversity training sessions.

The conference began with Dr Evelyn Carter (UCLA) giving a talk about her ongoing research into applying theories of motivation to confronting bias. She argued that it is crucial that we always confront bias because speaking up sets norms. Across a number of studies her research team have found that feedback drawing attention to and condemning bias makes people more favourable to anti-prejudice. Their research indicates that both high and low confrontation feedback can be effective in promoting change.

After lunch Dr Gabriella Beckles-Raymond (Canterbury) talked about developing an ethics of social transformation. She argued that we are more aware of our biases, and in particular what causes them, than is typically assumed. She argued that we cannot use ‘implicit’ as an excuse that we can’t act or our society as an excuse that we are powerless. Instead we must move away from a focus that sees bias as a problem for individuals, to be solved by individuals and use the ethics of empathy to address the deeper social, societal and structural problems.

Then Dr Robin Scaife (Sheffield) presented the findings from a series of experiments examining the effects of administering in person blame for implicit bias. The results indicate that, contra common assumptions about blaming increasing bias or making people resistant to change, the communication of disapprobation for the manifestation of implicit bias has potential benefits and no costs. Those who had been blamed showed similar or slightly reduced levels of implicit bias and had significantly stronger explicit intentions to change their future behaviour than those who had not. 

This was followed by Dr Rosa Terlazzo (Kansas State) who discussed the idea that victims have a duty to other victims to resist their oppression. She argued that if this duty is to end the harm caused by oppressive norms then this is beyond their power, but if the duty is merely not to contribute to the harms then this will do little to limit oppression. Terlazzo argued that instead we should understand victims to have a duty to act as counter-stereotypic individuals in order to weaken the self-regarding biases experienced by other victims and thereby mitigating but not ending the harms of oppressive norms.
The first day of the conference ended with drinks and dinner which provided a great opportunity for all participants to discuss and share their perspectives on bias. 

The second day of the conference began with Dr Yannig Luthra (UCLA) on social prejudice, co-authored with Dr Cristina Borgoni (Graz). He presented several arguments in favour of the claim that an individual counts as violating norms of epistemic and practical rationality directly in virtue of drawing from epistemic and practical problems in her social context. The central idea is that rational life is social in much the same way it is temporal. Your view can be an extension of the view of others in the same way it can be an extension of your own past perspective. In both cases one can be implicated for importing rational failings. However, the diagnosis of the wrong must ultimately be with the social sources of the individual’s bias.

Then Dr Joseph Kisolo-Ssonko, (Nottingham) talked about collective intentionality, bias and constituting a ‘we’. He argued that our capacity to think of ourselves as a ‘we’ is not the voluntary choice it is often presented as being. Instead it is underwritten by normatively loaded social and structural biases and power structures. Because of this he concludes that biases do not just cause us to act irrationally on a pre-existing social stage. Rather, they also found what counts for us as collectively rational.

Professor Sally Haslanger (MIT) gave the final talk of the conferenced titled: ‘If racism is the answer, what is the question?’ She claimed that racism is best understood as a homeostatic system where racism is constituted by the systematic looping of schemas and resources. Practices distribute things of value and disvalue but in turn we learn about what different races “deserve” by looking around us at the result of these practices. Haslanger argued that to end racism we have to stop the systematic looping by dismantle society as we know it and that in achieving this end changing attitudes should not be the highest priority because other methods of intervention are likely to be more efficacious.

The conferences concluded with Dr Jules Holroyd (Sheffield) and Dr Erin Beeghly (Utah) chairing a round table discussion. Much of the discussion focused on how to resist and combat the way that recent election results in both the USA and UK have been perceived as legitimising prejudice. Lacey Davidson (Purdue)  made the exciting announced that she has been awarded a Global Synergy Grant to transform Jenny Saul’s bias project website ( into an ongoing bias web resource. There were lots of promising suggestions for features which could make up part of this resource. Keep an eye out for developments on that front.

The fourth & final conference in the bias in context series will take place on the 12th and 13th of October at the University of Utah. The full program, details, and call for abstracts for the poster session, will soon be/is available at

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

The Problem of Debiasing

Vasco Correia (pictured above) is currently a Research Fellow at the Nova Institute of Philosophy (Universidade Nova de Lisboa), where he is developing a project on cognitive biases in argumentation and decision-making. In this post, he summaries a paper he recently published in Topoi.

This paper is an attempt to show that there are reasons to remain optimistic—albeit cautiously—regarding our ability to counteract cognitive biases. Although most authors agree that biases should be mitigated, there is controversy about which debiasing methods are the most effective. Until recently, the notion that critical thinking is effective in preventing biases appealed to many philosophers and argumentation theorists. It was assumed that raising awareness of biases and teaching critical thinking to students would suffice to enhance open-mindedness and impartiality. Yet the benefits of such programs are difficult to demonstrate empirically, and some authors now claim that critical thinking is by and large ineffective against biases.

Monday, 3 April 2017

What is Unrealistic Optimism?

This post is the final one in our series summarizing the contributions to the special issue on unrealistic optimism 'Unrealistic Optimism -Its nature, causes and effects'. The paper by Anneli Jefferson, Lisa Bortolotti and Bojana Kuzmanovic looks at the nature of unrealistically optimistic cognitions and the extent to which they are irrational.
Anneli Jefferson

We know that people have a tendency to expect that their future will be better than that of others or better than seems likely on an objective measure of probability. But are they really expressing a belief that the future will be good, or should we see these expressions of optimism as hopes or possibly even just expression of desires for the future? Maybe when I say ‘My marriage has an 85% likelihood of lasting ‘til death do us part’’, what I am actually saying is ‘I really, really want my marriage to last.’ If what is expressed is a desire rather than a belief, we do not need to worry that we are systematically mistaken in our beliefs in the future and that our expectations for our future are insufficiently sensitive to the evidence we have for what is likely to happen. In the paper, we argue that expressions of unrealistic optimism are indeed what they seem to be on the surface, beliefs about what is likely to occur. The fact that optimistic expectations are frequently not well supported by the evidence is a feature that they share with many other beliefs, as we humans are not ideally rational in our belief formation.

Lisa Bortolotti

By definition, unrealistic optimism is a phenomenon that shows us to be insufficiently in touch with reality. However, establishing that we are in fact making an error when assessing the likelihood of future outcomes is surprisingly difficult. In some cases, whether an expectation is correct or not can only be established post factum. Only at the end of the Euro 2016 could we say that Ronaldo’s belief that Portugal would win the European cup had been correct (if indeed he had this belief). Things are more complicated if what we know is that Ronaldo believed that Portugal had a 95% likelihood of winning the European cup. Is this belief validated by the fact that Portugal did win? Not necessarily, as his likelihood estimate may still have been too high given some objective measure of likelihood. Furthermore, it cannot be the case that probabilistic risk estimates are proven or disproven by later outcomes. Otherwise, any risk estimate which isn’t either 0 or 1 will automatically be incorrect, it is just impossible to say whether the error lay in being too optimistic or pessimistic before the actual outcome ensues.

Bojana Kuzmanovic

But the question of whether an individual’s optimistic beliefs are false is in many ways less pressing than the question whether the individual is justified in holding that belief given the evidence available to them. Are unrealistically optimistic beliefs epistemically irrational because they do not take into account available evidence either when the individual forms the belief or when they maintain their belief?

Thursday, 30 March 2017

The Philosophy of Early Motherhood: Interview with Fiona Woollard

In this post I interview Fiona Woollard (University of Southampton) about her work in the philosophy of early motherhood.

LB: How did you become interested in the philosophy of pregnancy and early motherhood? Can you describe your research interests in this area?

FW: I’ve been interested in the ethics of abortion since I was an undergraduate. In fact, it was probably my interest in this issue that lead me to a career in philosophy. But once I became pregnant myself, I felt a strange kind of dissatisfaction with most of the existing literature on abortion. With a few notable exceptions – for example, the wonderful work of Margaret Little – the philosophical literature on abortion failed to engage at all with the messy reality of pregnancy: the blood and guts, the stretch marks and vomiting. Imagine that you were a little green alien from alpha centauri trying to learn about human reproduction from the most popular papers on abortion by analytical philosophers.

What kind of picture of pregnancy and birth would you have formed? You might well end up thinking that human reproduction normally involves a woman lying in a clean, white bed for 9 months with a small tube connecting her to a small version of an adult human whom she supports without noticeable change to her own body. In case, you are a little green alien from alpha centauri, let's state for the record that pregnancy is not like that. And it matters that the philosophical literature on abortion ignores what pregnancy is really like. What pregnancy is like, physically and emotionally, matters for understanding what is at stake when we consider whether a woman is required to remain pregnant.

I also found that it was very difficult to get people who had not been pregnant to understand what it was like to be pregnant. Laurie Paul's wonderful paper What You Can't Expect When You're Expecting was doing the rounds among philosophers at this point. Paul argues that some experiences, like becoming a parent, are epistemically transformative: they provide knowledge that cannot be acquired without the experience. I wondered if pregnancy itself was a epistemically transformative experience. If so, this might have important implications for philosophical debate on the ethics of abortion. If what it is like to be pregnant is crucial for understanding the ethics of abortion and those who haven't been pregnant cannot grasp what it is like to be pregnant, can only people who have been pregnant engage in debate about the ethics of abortion?

At around the same time, a new colleague, Elselijn Kingma arrived in the department, with a wonderful project on the metaphysics of pregnancy: is the foetus a separate organism inside the pregnant woman*, like a bun in an oven, or part of her*, like a tail on a cat? Elselijn and had some really fruitful conversations. I was excited by the ethical implications of Elselijn's work - and we were both more generally interested in the ways in which the unique relationship between the pregnant woman* and the foetus might raise challenges for our moral concepts. Most of our moral concepts, like the difference between doing and allowing harm and ideas of autonomy, rights and self ownership, have developed to apply to interactions between separate human beings, with separate bodies and separate interests. The intertwinement of pregnant woman* and foetus means these everyday moral concepts don't easily apply.

My work in the philosophy of pregnancy, led to an interest in philosophy of pregnancy, birth and early motherhood . I became convinced that there are philosophical mistakes in the way we think about motherhood, which influence how we treat pregnant women* and new mothers. This can often lead to very harmful consequences for these vulnerable groups.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Irrational Emotions, Rational Decisions, and Artificial Intelligence

Thomas Ames (pictured above) is a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and has interests in epistemology, agency, and disorders of selfhood. In this post, he summarizes some of his current research into what role irrational emotions may play when making rational decisions, and what that may mean for the future of artificial intelligence.

Quite a bit has been written on the role of emotion on the decision-making process. Using cases of traumatic brain injuries that have led to defects in both emotion and rational decision-making, several theories with a neurological framework have been proposed about why that may be. One such prominent theory, somatic marker hypothesis (1, 2), introduced by Antonio Damasio (University of Southern California), posits that emotions play an integral neurological role in decision-making. This is because it was found that in cases of specific brain lesions which affect patients’ emotions, their abilities to make decisions were also adversely affected. It follows, then, that the two are connected: there must be some relationship between emotions, decisions, and acting upon them.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Addiction: A Philosophical Perspective

Today's post is by Candice Shelby on her new book Addiction: A Philosophical Perspective.

Candice Shelby is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado Denver. She has published in the history of philosophy, philosophy of psychology, metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of addiction. She regularly speaks around the U.S. and Europe on the complex problem of addiction, and has recently completed a month teaching on the topic in Beijing, China.

In my new book I argue that most analyses of addiction get off on the wrong foot from the start, by assuming a simple linear cause-and-effect understanding the world. Very little about human beings can be understood in such a straightforward way, and certainly nothing having to do with mind or experience. Like other human phenomena, including mind itself, I believe that addiction is an emergent property of a complex dynamic system. It is better understood as a process than as a disease, a moral problem, or simply an ongoing set of utility evaluations.

Addiction is a process that emerges in some human beings as a function of genetic and epigenetic factors influencing the development of a particular mind/body within a complex, interactive, and specific physical and social milieu. We can speak in an informed way of addiction at the level of neurological structure and function, but we cannot reduce it to just that. We can speak of the family’s influence on one’s vulnerability to addiction, both psychologically and socioeconomically, which is also a viable and autonomous level of analysis, but we cannot assume that such a discussion will encompass all that is involved in addiction. 

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Imperfect Volitions

My name is Alexandre Billon. I am an Associate Professor in Philosophy at the University of Lille III. My research specialty is philosophical psychopathology, that is, the use of psychopathology to solve perennial philosophical riddles.

In a paper recently published in the Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy, I argue that in order to be happier, people with desires like us must behave irrationally. This might seem plainly paradoxical: being happier is, other things being equal, being better off. Behaving irrationally is not doing what is best for me. How can I be made better off by not doing what is better for me?

Before debunking this paradox let me briefly present my argument. Many philosophers, thinkers and even religions have claimed that unfulfilled desires diminish our level of happiness. This, I believe is not quite right. There are two kinds of interesting counterexamples.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Early Childhood Education Towards Equality

This post is by Natalia Garcez, Brazilian graphic designer currently based in Vienna. If you want to know more about her work, check out her research and the project she discusses in the post.

Contemporary European kindergartens were born in the first half of the 19th century. Pedagogues such as Fröbel and Montessori helped to create a model of education which motivates children to develop all their abilities, giving equal opportunities to every kid to learn what fits better their personal talents and personality.

Though the traditional European methodologies are the closest from a model of education which promotes equity among boys and girls, many early childhood educational spaces still do not guarantee a process of raising children free of stereotypes and gendered roles. One example was observed in a kindergarten located in the east of Germany. The place is deeply inspired in Montessorian methodologies, offering children the most varied spaces which all children have equal access to. Inside, kids are free to be what they want. But the freedom children live inside became a reflection of the traditional behaviours taught by families. 

Even in this open-minded educational space, all girls were wearing shades of pink, and all boys were in dark blue T-shirts. All girls were delicate beings, exploring the art's room, dolls, princess' dresses, and make-up, while boys were running around, throwing themselves into piles of pillows, and pedaling outside. By deeply respecting the preferences of each child, the educational space set aside motivating them to explore different activities, reproducing inside the educational space the stereotypes taught at home.

When turning to America, the system created by Fröbel could not be fully applied due to incompatibilities regarding culture and social development: besides the normal gap between kindergarten and home environments, also seen in Europe, the unprepared educational staff and cultural aspects, such as the use of nicknames, the relation with food, formally addressing adults, and so on, required many alterations in the Fröbelian system, coming up something new. What is seeing there are mainly formal and informal child care spaces which keep the children fed and safe while the family works. There is a lack of commitment to education, to the children's development, and, mainly, to raising them towards equity.

The project Design for Equity: Early Childhood Education Towards Gender Equity approaches the role of education in raising children in more egalitarian ways considering the following aspects: how to open dialogues with adults (families and child care spaces) to raise their children towards equity, and how to come up with a feasible system for developing countries in America, introducing poetry, story, music, games, and activities, in the development of educational materials for kids.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Delusion: Solving for Understanding and ‘Utter Strangeness’

Today's post is by Bill (KWM) Fulford and Tim Thornton. Bill is Fellow of St Catherine’s College, Oxford, and Emeritus Professor of Philosophy and Mental Health, University of Warwick.  Tim is Professor of Philosophy and Mental Health at the University of Central Lancashire.

Bill Fulford

Tim Thornton

What is delusion? Few questions have so vexed philosophers in recent philosophy of psychiatry. An invitation to contribute to Thomas Schramme and Steven Edward’s Handbook of the Philosophy of Medicine (Springer, 2016) gave us a welcome opportunity to review progress.

The philosopher Naomi Eilan characterized the challenge of delusion as solving simultaneously for understanding and for utter strangeness. Karl Jaspers, the great philosopher-psychiatrist of the early twentieth century and founder of modern descriptive psychopathology, would have approved. He famously thought delusions just too strange to be within the reach of empathic understanding - ‘ununderstandable’ he called them.

Contemporary theories, seeking understanding by explication, fall, we think, broadly into two categories concerned with delusions as aberrations on the one hand of beliefs or other either familiar or bespoke propositional attitudes or, on the other, of the grounds of beliefs or other propositional attitudes. The many variations on these theories each offer important insights. None though meets Eilan’s challenge in full: propositional attitude-focused theories solve (in part) for understanding but at the expense of strangeness; grounds-of-belief theories solve (in part) for strangeness but at the expense of understanding. It may be time therefor for something new. It may be time we suggested to turn our attention to the agential aspects of delusion.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Knowing the Score

In this post, David Papineau, Professor of Philosophy at King’s College London and the City University of New York, introduces his new book “Knowing the Score.”

I have always been a great sports enthusiast. I’ve played many different sports as an energetic amateur, and I follow even more in the newspapers and on television. But, even so, until recently I was never moved to subject sport to philosophical scrutiny. I was happy to leave that to the official philosophers of sport, and to carry on an ordinary fan myself.

In the year of the London Olympics, however, I agreed to contribute to a lecture series on philosophy and sport. When I accepted the invitation, I had in mind that I would have a go at one of the stock topics in the philosophy of sport. But nothing seemed very exciting. So, rather than stick to the official curriculum, I decided to write about something that interested me. If it didn’t count as philosophy of sport, that would be too bad.

The topic I chose was the peculiar mental demands of fast-response sports like tennis, baseball and cricket. When Rafael Nadal faces Roger Federer’s serve, he has less than half a second to react. That’s scarcely enough time to see the ball, let alone to think about how to hit it. Nadal can only rely on trained reflexes. Yet at the same time his shot selection will depend on his consciously chosen strategy, on that day’s plan for how best to play Federer in those conditions. This struck me as puzzling. How can unthinking reflexes be controlled by conscious thought?

I had great fun addressing this conundrum. I didn’t try to hide my enthusiasm as a sports fan, but curiously I ended up with a series of substantial philosophical conclusions. Even though I started with nothing but a few sporting incidents and some everyday questions, I was led to think hard about the connection between conscious decision-making and automatic behaviour, and the result was a series of ideas about the structure of action control that I am still working on.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Simple Rules to Cope with a Changing Climate

The following post is by Astrid Kause (pictured above), who recently completed her PhD at the University of Konstanz, in South of Germany. She is continuing her research at the University of Leeds (UK), investigating how individuals grasp and behave in face of uncertain phenomena like climate change. In this post, she discusses from a psychological perspective why this uncertain and complex problem does not require a complex solution – but how simple prescriptive decision strategies might help us to behave better in face of climate change.

Climate change is considered one of the most challenging problems humanity has to solve in the 21st century (van der Linden, 2015). What makes it so particularly difficult to grasp climate change? After all, we experience changes in extreme weather like rainfall, learn about climate change consequences like rising sea levels, hear scientists and politicians call for action against climate change or rather sceptic voices downplaying need for action. One reason is that when individuals try to understand climate change by information sampling they face various kinds of uncertainty. A second reason might be that they lack concrete strategies of how to behave in face of these uncertainties.

What are sources of uncertainty when trying to understand climate change? We don’t know what we don’t know. Domains of climate sciences largely differ in how well established their findings are. For example, the general mechanisms of human influence on global warming are virtually certain and backed up by an overwhelming scientific consensus (Cook et al., 2013). In contrast, how exactly humans will influence the climate in the future, how the climate system reacts and how this then affects subsequent behaviors is difficult to predict (Schellnhuber, 2015).

As individuals, we are not aware of all factors that have been revealed as influential on the climate system. This is because individuals access different information sources: For example, in different countries, scientific predictions on a changing climate might be communicated differently in the media. Also, their own experiences might only reflect some change of climate – experiences naturally differ between for example citizens in the UK and Northern Africa.

Monday, 6 March 2017

What Can Attention Teach Us about Optimism?

This post is by Adam Harris (University College London) who recently published a paper entitled: "Understanding the coherence of the severity effect and optimism phenomena: Lessons from attention". The paper appeared in a special issue on the nature and consequences of optimism, guest-edited by Anneli Jefferson, Lisa Bortolotti, and Bojana Kuzmanovic. In this post, Adam (pictured below) offers a precis of his paper.

Popular belief maintains that humans are prone to an almost universal optimistic bias, including a tendency to overestimate the likelihood of good outcomes and underestimate the likelihood of bad outcomes. Related research findings include (all references are in the paper[AH1] ):

  1. Wishful thinking. For example, estimates of the likelihood of a sports team winning being higher from that team’s supporters than neutral individuals;
  2. Unrealistic comparative optimism. People think they are less likely to experience negative events, such as cancer, than their peers;
  3. Optimistic belief updating. People fail to sufficiently update likelihood estimates in response to bad news.
Given this popular belief, a surprising result is therefore the ‘severity effect’, whereby likelihood estimates for negative events are higher than for neutral events.

At first sight, the severity effect appears clearly at odds with the three optimism phenomena outlined above. My paper proposes a simple framework (inspired by the motivated attention hypothesis from lower level cognition) to determine the degree to which these phenomena are necessarily inconsistent. The framework clarifies the relationships between the phenomena and stimulates future research questions.

A dominant perspective in attention and word recognition is that valenced stimuli (both positive and negative) have attentional primacy over neutral stimuli. One result of this is that both negative and positive words are recognised faster than neutral words (though note that there is some debate over these results, with other researchers finding an advantage solely for negative words). The motivated attention hypothesis explains these results in terms of an attentional bias towards motivationally relevant stimuli – positive and negative.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

AEP and WPA Psychopathology Sessions 2016

In this post, I report from the 20th Annual Meeting of the AEP and WPA Psychopathology Sessions. The symposioum took place at the Hospital Corentin Celton in Paris on the 9th and 10th of December 2016. Researchers in psychopathology and philosophers gathered to present their findings and reflections on the psychopathology of the lived body and its exposure.

On the first day, Luis Madeira talked about abnormal bodily phenomena (ABP) and how these symptoms are experienced in patients with affective disorders, psychosis, and particularly schizophrenia. These features are subjective and at the same time experienced as out of control. In patients diagnosed with manic depression, the body is represented as a nebulous existence, a quasi-inefable constellation of feelings, feelings of inner burden and paralysis which is caused by a lack of motivation, with patients often wondering: “It is in me but, what should I do?”

When the diagnosis is schizophrenia, reports show an increase of mental activity elements which include exaltation of uncontrolled self with patients reporting “desperate vitality”, “irritating emptiness”, “overcharged negative energy” and “internal agitation”. ABP are considered to include several different types of symptoms: disturbed coenesthesia (an assortment of uncanny bodily feelings with or without delusional interpretation), kinesthetic hallucinations and disruptions of body structure and boundaries. Madeira claims that as a group ABP have been absent from diagnostic textbooks due to the fact that psychiatrists lack specific and reliable tools to assess them. Until recently this led psychiatrists to believe that these subjective phenomena may be quasi-ineffable in nature.

Norbert Andersch gave a talk on the ideas of embodiment in Aby Warburg and Ernst Cassirer. He presented the discussion between these authors in the mid 1920s. Aby Warburg regarded ritual action as the basis of culture and gave special attention to the study of emotional expression in gestures and rituals. Cassirer was mainly interested in the logic of categorisation organised on the basis of rituals. Warburg’s emphasis on the primacy of ritual action in the emergence of culture was of great influence for Cassirer. Andersch claims that the study of rituals could also illuminate today’s psychopathological discourse.

The third talk was given by Dr. Femi Oyebode who talked about the role of the body in the formation of self. Oyebode described the functioning of the sensory apparatus and kinesthetic activity involved in embodied perception. Departing from the fact that the human mind evolved in response to interaction with the physical environment, Oyebode claimed that even the most abstract concepts that we use to describe the idea we have of self have their origins in embodied experiences. To illustrate his points he referred to the use of some metaphors such as ‘standing one’s ground’. Without any understanding of what it means to stand and what it feels like to resist a push and hence not fall over, it would be impossible for us to use these as descriptions of our personalities.

Dr. Gilberto Di Petta gave the last talk of the first day. He presented a case study which he described as a strange case of drug abuse and psychosis. Petta claims that there is a contemporary trend of poly-abuse of new psychoactive substances in young people which can lead to intensified states of psychosis. These episodes were characterised by Petta as featuring uncommonly continuous hallucination, formed by a mental automatism syndrome and secondary (or interpretative) delusions. He proposed that new terminology should be considered in order to categorize cases in which patients suffer psychosis as a consequence of some new psychoactive substances.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

A Political Justification of Nudges

This post is by Francesco Guala (pictured above), Professor of Economics at the University of Milan. In this post, he presents a paper he wrote with Luigi Mittone, Professor of Economics at the University of Trento, and which was published in the journal Review of Philosophy and Psychology. A reply to their article by Cass Sunstein is also available in the same journal.

‘Behavioural economics’ is a research programme that aims at making economic models psychologically more realistic. After many years ‘in the wild’, behavioural economists are now part of the mainstream and have succeeded at bringing microeconomics in line with the developments of cognitive psychology.

Up until recently, however, behavioural economists had been rather shy regarding the normative (i.e. policy) implications of their research. All of this has changed in 2008 with the publication of Nudge, the best-selling book by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler. Nudge is not only an impressive showcase for the best social policies inspired by behavioural economists. It also offers a philosophical framework to justify the use of behavioural interventions. The framework is called ‘Libertarian Paternalism’: nudges are libertarian because they influence people’s behaviour without limiting the range of options available to them; they are paternalistic because they help people choose the options that are good for them.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

What Love Is

Today's post is by Carrie Jenkins, Canada Research Chair and Professor of Philosophy at the University of British Columbia, where she is heading up a multi-year interdisciplinary research project on the Metaphysics of Romantic Love. She lives in Vancouver, and she is @carriejenkins on Twitter. Her new book is What Love Is And What It Could Be (2017, Basic Books).

The book takes off from a dilemma facing anyone who wants to know what romantic love is. One promising approach treats love as a biological phenomenon: a bundle, perhaps, of evolved neurochemical responses (chapter 1). Another promising approach locates it as a social construct: a creature of norms, institutions, and practices (chapter 2). These approaches appear inconsistent—evolved neurochemistry is not a social construct—yet choosing one to the exclusion of the other feels like discarding half our hard-won wisdom.

After a brief detour through some “canonical” (and often deeply problematic) philosophers of love (chapter 3), I propose a new approach. Drawing on broadly functionalist traditions in other areas of philosophy, I sketch a “dual-nature” theory of romantic love as ancient biological machinery embodying a modern social role (chapter 4). It is at the interface between love’s twin natures that I identify many of the most pressing philosophical questions about love, and I use these as a way to understand more deeply the reasons why love changes over time (chapter 5) and in what ways love is currently broken and in need of change (chapter 6).

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Moral Exemplars

Hyemin Han (pictured above) is Assistant Professor in Educational Psychology and Educational Neuroscience at The University of Alabama. In this post, he summarises his paper "Attainable and relevant moral exemplars are more effective than extraordinary exemplars in promoting voluntary service engagement", recently published in Frontiers in Psychology.

Did your parent or teacher tell you the stories of morally great people, moral exemplars, e.g., Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King Jr., when you were young? Your parents and teachers perhaps told you such stories at least once, and you were asked to learn how to live a good life from them. Do you think that the stories have made you a morally better person, who is trying his/her best to emulate such exemplars’ moral behavior?

Let’s make this question more general. Can such (seemingly) morally perfect people’s stories really promote motivation to engage in moral behavior? On the one hand, prior social and developmental psychological studies examining the motivational effects of moral modeling have demonstrated that it is possible (Bandura & McDonald, 1963). On the other hand, some other studies have shown that the mere presentation of moral stories, particularly the stories of extraordinary moral exemplars, might produce negative side effects, such as extreme envy and decrease in motivation for emulation (Monin, 2007). Then, how can we maximize the positive effects of the stories of moral exemplars while preventing possible negative side effects? 

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Addiction and Choice

Today's post is by Nick Heather and Gabriel Segal on their new edited collection Addiction and Choice: Rethinking the Relationship.

Nick Heather (pictured below) is a clinical psychologist by training and is now Emeritus Professor of Alcohol and Other Drug Studies at Northumbria University. He has over 500 publications, mostly in the area of addictions, with an emphasis on treatment and brief intervention for alcohol problems.

Gabriel Segal (pictured below) is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at King’s College, London. He has published extensively in philosophy of psychology, cognitive science and philosophy of language.

In 1997, Nick Heather, together with Ian Robertson, published the 3rd edition of a book called ‘Problem Drinking’. It argued that there is no such thing as ‘alcoholism’ in the sense of a discontinuous form of drinking problem and that it was not helpful to see problem drinking as a disease. Rather, people drink in problematic ways for a variety of reasons that can be understood from the point of view of social learning theory.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Neil Levy on "Do religious beliefs respond to evidence?"

Neil Levy (pictured above) is Professor of Philosophy at Macquarie University (Sydney) and Senior Research Fellow at the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, University of Oxford. Here, he replies to last week's post by Neil Van Leeuwen. Neil Levy's post draws on themes from his paper recently published in Cognition.

There are two central strands to Neil Van Leeuwen’s post (hereafter NVL). One is the claim that there is a class of representational state (in the post he focuses on religious belief, but in his paper in Cognition he suggests that ideological beliefs belong to this class too) which fail to be evidentially vulnerable in the same way as more mundane beliefs. The second strand is the one developed in his paper in Philosophical Explorations, arguing that we best understand the limited signs of evidence responsiveness exhibited by these beliefs in terms of a kind of imaginative play. People who respond to evidence with regard to their religious beliefs typically do so because the apparent evidence is assigned a role within a circumscribed Evidence Game.

The suggestion that we sometimes engage in a game of make believe unbeknownst to ourselves in the way NVL suggests is fascinating and deserves exploration. It may even be true. As he mentions, Tanya Luhrmann’s subjects seem to take such an attitude toward their religious beliefs, and some people who profess belief in UFOs or ghosts may be only half serious in their beliefs. It is noteworthy, though, that Luhrmann’s subjects were at least half aware that their attitude to their religious beliefs had an element of playfulness; we should be careful about generalizing from this sample of charismatic Christians to other believers. Luhrmann’s sample is whiter, better educated and more affluent than most religious believers worldwide, and WEIRD people differ in important and relevant ways from other people. In particular, being educated correlates with a higher capacity to detect contradiction. It may be that WEIRD people can maintain their religious beliefs only by taking a semi-serious attitude toward them, but this attitude is not typical of religious believers.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

The Virtue of Defiance

In this post, Nancy Nyquist Potter introduces her new book, The Virtue of Defiance and Psychiatric Engagement.

I am a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Louisville, an Associate with the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and a core faculty member of the Interdisciplinary Master’s Program in Bioethics and Medical Humanities. My main area of focus is in the intersection of philosophy and psychiatry, where I’ve published on topics on Borderline Personality Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, self-injury, trauma, and related nosological, epistemic, and ethical issues.

Because I have spent over 10 years working in the university’s Emergency Psychiatric Services and the Mood Disorders Clinic, I also write on therapeutic issues that are implicated in diagnosis and treatment. I always examine issues through a feminist lens and am increasingly including critical race theory in my work. I am a board member of the Association for the Advancement of Philosophy and Psychiatry, an organization that fosters interdisciplinary work and provides invaluable scholarly support for this field.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Do religious “beliefs” respond to evidence?

This post is by Neil Van Leeuwen (pictured above), Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Associate of the Neuroscience Institute at Georgia State University. What follows is a synopsis of his new paper, which is forthcoming in a special issue of Philosophical Explorations on false but useful beliefs. The special issue is guest edited by Lisa Bortolotti and Ema Sullivan-Bissett and is inspired by project PERFECT's interests in belief.

One might argue that the answer to my title question is just blindingly obvious. Religious “beliefs” don’t respond to evidence, because no beliefs do! After all, human belief formation processes are a motley crew, including such ignobles as confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance, wishful thinking, the availability heuristic, post hoc ergo propter hoc, the base rate fallacy, the genetic fallacy, ad hominems, prestige bias, framing effects, and many, many…many more.

This cynical view, however, grows out of a diet of focusing on the bad and ignoring the good. In short, I agree with Donald Davidson’s view that irrationality is only possible against a large background of rationality. So I think, at least when it comes to the mundane, that the vast majority of factual beliefs (like my factual belief that there’s a tree in my backyard or my factual belief that my bank balance is such-and-such) in fact do respond to evidence quite well (though not perfectly).

The situation, in any case, looks far different when we turn from factual belief to the mental state that I call religious credence. 

Monday, 6 February 2017

Optimistic Update Bias Holds Firm

Neil Garrett

This post is by Neil Garrett who recently wrote a paper with Tali Sharot, entitled Optimistic Update Bias Holds Firm: Three Tests of Robustness Following Shah et al.. The paper is to appear in a special issue of Consciousness and Cognition on unrealistic optimism, guest edited by Anneli Jefferson, Lisa Bortolotti, and Bojana Kuzmanovic.

Much of the recent research on optimism has centred around the phenomenon of optimistic belief updating. A well established finding is that healthy individuals are reluctant to revise beliefs when in receipt of “bad news” compared to “good news”. One of the tasks that has been devised to show this in the lab, examines how beliefs about life events (such as being burgled or involved in a car accident) change when individuals find out the events are more or less likely to occur than they initially thought. For example, how much does someone alter their beliefs when provided with evidence that they are more likely to have a car accident than they thought (an instance of bad news) versus when provided with evidence that they are less likely to have a car accident than they thought (an example of good news)? This is referred to as the belief update task. In a recent paper, we set out to examine whether optimistic updating continued to be observed when variations to the belief update task were made.

One aspect we examined asked whether the type of life events individuals are asked to consider makes a difference. A lot of past research on optimistic belief updating has focused on beliefs about unpleasant life events. Individuals can also receive good and bad news about pleasant life events however. For example, finding out that one is more (good) or less (bad) likely to earn a high salary in the future than thought. An obvious tweak to the belief update task therefore was to examine whether an optimistic update bias also existed for pleasant life events. Alongside this, another alteration we made was to test whether updating remained optimistically biased when the events examined were everyday events; events that could plausibly happen in the next few weeks (e.g., being invited to a party). Previously, the events under consideration tended to be grave, significant life events that could occur once or twice in someone’s lifetime, but were unlikely to occur over shorter timescales such as the forthcoming month.