Tuesday, 2 September 2014

One Year of Epistemic Innocence

Epistemic Innocence logo
Yesterday, on September 1st, 2014 our project, Epistemic Innocence of Imperfect Cognitions, funded by an AHRC fellowship awarded to myself, came to an end. As my work on the project has been the main reason for starting this blog, I thought I would offer some thoughts on how things have gone, and invite your comments.

Fellowships are forms of funding awarded to an individual, but this project has been from the very beginning a collective effort. The researcher working on the project, Ema Sullivan-Bissett, has contributed to its development and its success in several ways: writing one new paper after the other, giving talks to very demanding audiences and taking excellent care of the blog by commissioning and authoring posts, editing material, all while preparing her (very successful) viva and honouring her teaching commitments.

Ema and I were supported by a wider group of Birmingham-based people who greatly helped us by contributing to the blog, running public engagement events and promoting the project far and wide: Kengo Miyazono (the author of the first post on this blog), Magdalena Antrobus (working on cognitive benefits of bipolar disorder), Gregory Yates (working on schizophrenia and its complexities), Ben Costello (writing about agent responsibility and psychiatric diagnosis) and Rachel Gunn (researching delusions) all deserve a special mention.

We were all inspired by the members of the Imperfect Cognitions research network, a fantastic international group of researchers who were happy to share their results and offer feedback on our preliminary ideas. Some debates on this blog have also helped make progress on some thorny issues outside the scope of the project narrowly conceived, such as the nature of beliefs and delusions, delusion formation theories, and how to understand human memory and what its limitations are.

What was new about Epistemic Innocence? The thought that "imperfect cognitions" (e.g., false beliefs) can be good for a variety of purposes had been explored before. But what we wanted to do was highlight their potential contribution to the advancement of knowledge. That false beliefs can be epistemically beneficial was a counter-intuitive thesis but it sounded promising to us and to those who followed and supported the project from the beginning, via social media (Facebook and Twitter) or by participating in our May workshop. At the core of our research efforts was the sense that there need not be a simple trade-off between epistemic and pragmatic benefits. Here is an example of the trade-off. Take Sarah's false belief that she is more generous than the average person. Of course having that belief may be beneficial to Sarah in a number of ways. She can feel better about herself if she thinks she is very generous, for instance. But if her belief is false, it is not likely to promote her epistemic standing. It is a form of deception.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Distorted Memory: Interview with John Sutton

John Sutton

I interviewed John Sutton, Professor of Cognitive Science at the ARC Centre for Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders at Macquarie University, Sydney. John is interested in memory, skill, and distributed cognition, and in his work he seeks to integrate philosophical, psychological, and historical ideas and methods. This is the first in a series of three posts.

ES-B: Do you think that distorted autobiographical memories might have pragmatic benefits insofar as they may function to fill gaps in a person’s recollection of the past, or are distorted in a self-enhancing way?

JS: "I think that’s a very difficult question, and it’s probably going to pan out differently for different kinds of memory pathology. In general, yes, for sure, the mechanisms which give rise to distortions can be adaptive mechanisms, distortions might just be a by-product of mechanisms that work well enough most of the time.

I am uneasy about pushing the line that specific distortions themselves are adaptive too much just because for somebody who stresses the constructive nature of memory, I also want to really underline that remembering is making a claim on the past, memory can be wrong, and that’s not just a philosopher’s point, it’s something that really matters subjectively. I think it’s easy for people like me who talk a lot about constructive processes to lose sight of that fact, that memories are meant to be true, and that phenomenologically when we get some doubt about something we seem to remember that’s something that we worry at, we don’t leave it unresolved."


Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Delusion and Emotion

Richard Dub
Most theories of delusion formation hold that delusions arise in response to an anomalous, unusual experience. For instance, the often-discussed Capgras delusion -- the conviction that a loved one has been replaced with an imposter -- is typically said to be formed in response to an extremely powerful feeling of unfamiliarity. We all intuitively understand what it is for a person or place to feel familiar or unfamiliar, and we have reasonably good cognitive models of how this feeling is formed. But what sort of state is this feeling? Sometimes the feeling of familiarity is listed alongside the "feeling of knowing" and other so-called "epistemic emotions." Is this a good term? Is the feeling of unfamiliarity an emotion?

I recently had the opportunity to pose this question to an audience of neuroscientists, cognitive psychologists, roboticists, and philosophers at a workshop run by the Swiss Center for the Affective Sciences. Opinion varied widely. Some people had affirmative intuitions; others were in the negative.

Like paradigmatic emotions, feelings of familiarity and unfamiliarity have an affective component. They seem to also be valenced. But there are differences. A feeling of unfamiliarity does not seem to generate physiological action tendencies in the same way that the standard emotions do. And the feeling does not seem to be evaluative in a way that emotions are thought to be. (For instance, to fear a dog is to represent the dog as dangerous; to be sad about a death is to represent it as a loss. Being dangerous and being a loss are evaluative properties. The feeling of unfamiliarity represents its object as unfamiliar, but unfamiliarity is not an evaluative property.)

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Better Than One: Why We Each Have Two Minds

I am posting this on behalf of David Uings, who received an MPhil for research into linguistic miscommunication, and went on to investigate the implications of split-brain research and the two visual pathways in the human brain for the philosophy of mind. His MLitt thesis was entitled Consciousness and Vision in Man: where philosophy has gone wrong. In this post David is presenting his forthcoming book, Better Than One (Karnac 2014).


Better Than One
by David Uings


We have known for more than half a century that if the link between the two halves of the human brain is severed, the separate halves reveal all the components of mindedness: perceptions, beliefs, desires, memories, thoughts and will. There are significant differences between the two minds of split-brain patients. The left mind uses language to report its perceptions, the right mind cannot. The right mind is good at visual tasks such as pattern matching at which the left mind is very poor. When the right mind acts on a perception unavailable to the left mind, that mind confabulates the reasons.

These differences provide a basis for assessing behaviour initiated by the intact brain. If someone confabulates about their reasons for action, then that action must have originated in the right mind. Wilson & Nisbett report an experiment in which subjects chose from a selection of five identical stockings. The subjects confabulated the reasons for their specific choice, indicating that it was made by the right mind (probably because there was no logical basis for a choice by the left mind).


Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Epistemic Injustice and Illness

In this blog post, Ian James Kidd (University of Durham and University of Leeds) and I, Havi Carel (University of Bristol), talk about our research on epistemic injustice.

Many of us are familiar with stories about doctors who don’t listen, large-scale healthcare systems that are impersonal and bureaucratic, and feelings of helplessness when trying to navigate these systems. In the UK these complaints have informed recent changes to healthcare policy, such as the NHS Patient Charter and the NHS constitution. But despite this greater awareness patients continue to voice concerns, which attest to persistent experiences of being epistemically marginalised or excluded by health professionals. Focusing on the epistemic dimension of these situations, we suggest that patients’ testimonies are often dismissed as irrelevant, confused, too emotional, unhelpful, or time-consuming.


Thursday, 14 August 2014

Psychiatric Kinds and Mental Harms

I am posting this on behalf of Nigel Sabbarton-Leary who has research interests in philosophy of science and metaphysics and more recently philosophy of psychiatry. Nigel co-edited with Helen Beebee a volume entitled Semantics and Metaphysics of Natural Kinds (Routledge, 2010).


Alternative Perspectives
on Psychiatric Validation

With Lisa Bortolotti and Matthew Broome I have recently written a paper on mental disorders and whether, or not, they should be construed as what philosophers call ‘natural kinds’. It will appear as a chapter in a volume entitled Alternative Perspectives on Psychiatric Validation, edited by Peter Zachar, Drozdstoj St. Stoyanov, Massimiliano Aragona, and Assen Jablensky for Oxford University Press (due out in November 2014). I thought I’d take this opportunity to articulate our position – in broad brush terms at least – and see what people thought.

First, a bit of preamble. By a ‘natural kind’ we mean an objective, mind-independent distinction in nature. The periodic table, for instance, is a fine example of a system of natural kind classifications; categories that latch on to real distinctions in nature.

In our paper we argue that not all of the categories set out in the various iterations of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) actually pick out mental disorders. As such we counsel some conceptual revisions. Let’s call the categories of the DSM Psychiatric Kinds. Our claim is that Psychiatric Kinds can be divided into two discrete sub-categories: Mental Disorders and Mental Harms.