Tuesday, 31 May 2016

On Knowing One’s Own Resistant Beliefs

This post is by Cristina Borgoni (pictured above), Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Graz. Here she summarises her recent paper 'On Knowing One's Own Resistant Beliefs', published in Philosophical Explorations. 

I have two lines of research in philosophy: one is on self-knowledge and the other is on beliefs. In self-knowledge, I am part of a research trend that tries to expand the philosophical agenda in order to incorporate human concerns on the topic. Everybody knows that knowing oneself (e.g., one’s values or one’s deep desires) can be very difficult. However, philosophy has not been concerned with such difficulties. Philosophy has rather traditionally focused on a different issue, namely, on explaining how we know some of our thoughts in an apparently immediate and almost infallible way (e.g., if someone asks whether you believe it is raining now, you will have no problems in knowing immediately what you believe). However, the aspects of our psychological life that are not known in such a special way are left out from the philosophical agenda, including our resistant beliefs.

A resistant belief is a recalcitrant cognition that persists in the person’s psychology despite the person’s epistemic reasons against the belief. I have examined the nature of this type of belief in a number of papers, which belong in my research on beliefs. An example of a resistant belief is the following. Imagine that you have learnt since very early that women are not fit for politics. Perhaps, you have grown up in a community with only a few, or even no, women politicians. Or, perhaps, you learnt it from your family and friends, who explicitly acknowledged that women were very good for a variety of tasks but not for politics; men were the ones to represent your society collective interests. Today, however, you know and actually defend the idea that men and women are equally fit for politics. Nevertheless, your early-inculcated prejudicial belief might still be part of your psychology, and might still guide some of your automatic thoughts and emotional reactions. In this imaginary situation, you have a resistant belief.

Monday, 30 May 2016

PERFECT Focus Group 1: On Belief

As part of our ERC-funded project, PERFECT, we promised to run three focus groups with mental health service users and providers on the themes of the project. The first of these focus groups was held in Birmingham on 12th May 2016, organised and facilitated by Magdalena Antrobus and Michael Larkin.

Three service users and three service providers were invited to give feedback on PERFECT's research on the potential benefits of false or irrational beliefs. This happened via a game. They were presented with some statements and asked to locate them on a poster, where some areas indicated strong or moderate agreement, some strong or moderate disagreement, and other area no particular opinion. They were then asked to explain their choices.

Some notes follow on the parthcipants' views and discussion.

Some mental health difficulties may have positive outcomes. EVERYONE AGREED

Reasons for this choice included: Some mental health difficulties allow dialogue to happen, and are part of a larger scale change. They provide a context for re-evaluating life circumstances: the period of recovery can be understood as a period of discovery where people find a way of relating to the world. With self-harm, people who get better realise that the anxiety they experienced makes them stronger (growth). Also, self-awareness can be a positive outcome. People work through their beliefs to understand why they are important to them, and new knowledge about oneself is acquired.

Mental health problems are primarily a matter of human suffering. MIXED REACTIONS

Reasons for this included the thought that ‘suffering’ is an unhelpful word. Thinking in terms of suffering implies that the person can’t cope, can’t do anything about what is happening to her. Maybe ‘distress’ is a better word as it does not have the same connotation of passivity. Some participants also asked what the statement means. That mental health is an existential struggle? Or that human suffering causes mental health problems? Mental health problems are not always a matter of distress. And thinking that they are may be excessively individualistic.

Delusions may help us understand what is going on in a person’s life.

Reasons for this included the idea that delusions are not always un-understandable but can reflect individual and social issues. Some participants talked about their clinical experience and their research to support their views. In clinical experience, often delusions are related to a person’s life experiences (such as bullying). The content of delusions is helpful to understand people. Sometimes delusions have value, contrary to society’s norms. At times they are helpful and at other times they are not. They can give us clues about what the person is feeling and why she is struggling. Many people do not want their delusions to be regarded as symptoms to be eradicated. Delusions can also be protective mechanisms.

Unusual beliefs are often clinical symptoms of severe mental illness. UNANIMOUS STRONG DISAGREEMENT

Reasons for this included the thought that many unusual beliefs are present in the general population and do not indicate mental illness. Moreover, what is considered to be unusual changes all the time. For instance, homosexuality was being treated as a mental illness in the seventies.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

New Perspectives on Depression: Lifting the Veil AISB 2016

The AISB Convention is an annual conference covering the range of Artificial Intelligence and Cognitive Science, organised by the Society for the Study of Artificial Intelligence and Simulation of Behaviour. The convention is structured as a number of co-located symposia on a wide variety of topics, together with a number of plenary talks and events. This year’s convention took place on 4-6 April at the University of Sheffield and included a most interesting symposium on new approaches to depression. Below I briefly summarise the content of the symposium talks.

Joel Parthemore (University of Skövde, Sweden, pictured above) opened the symposium with his talk ‘Depression viewed from an enactive perspective: It’s the context, stupid.’ He pointed at some most commonly spread myths about depression, which contribute to the popular misunderstanding of the illness and may lead to stigmatization. These include a belief that depression always involves anhedonia or a belief that changes in brain chemistry cause depression. Parthemore argued that depression can be seen as adaptive: it is a warning sign of other psychological problems as well as a motivational force to creative responses and solutions.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

How Distinctive Is Philosophers’ Intuition Talk?

This post is by James Andow (pictured above), a Lecturer in Moral Philosophy at the University of Reading. James’s research interests are in philosophical methodology, in particular, on intuitions and experimental philosophy. In this post he summarises his paper ‘How Distinctive Is Philosophers' Intuition Talk?’

There’s a bomb on the funicular railway. It is about to go off. It’s a tragic disaster in the making.
There are two carriages connected by a rope. In the carriage nearest the pier, headed down the cliff, there is a party of schoolchildren with buckets and spades. In the carriage nearest the bandstand, headed up the cliff, there is a bomb planted by ecoterrorists. The carriages are currently alongside each other. If the carriages are stopped, … 

Philosophers use intuitions. They use them a lot. This much is beyond question. If you have ever studied any philosophy or talked about philosophy with a philosopher you will doubtless have noted the tendency of philosophers to pepper their conversation and writing with hypothetical cases like this which are designed to elicit your intuitions.

What about these slightly different claims? (1) Philosophers use intuitions as evidence. And (2) Philosophers use intuitions as evidence in a way that other academics do not. These are not so obvious. But both are tempting. Intuitions do seem to form parts of arguments for philosophical theories in the same way observations serve as support for scientific theories. It is sometimes difficult to see what else philosophers could use to support their theories. Whereas, in other fields, there is lots of other evidence—so they do not need to rely on intuitions.

If (1) and (2) are right, philosophy might seem to be in a particularly sticky situation. Why? Because, there are various experiments which suggest that such intuitions are unreliable (for discussion see here). (There are debates we could have here, e.g. my earlier post on this blog, but let us suppose philosophical intuitions are unreliable.)