Thursday, 30 November 2017

Understanding Ignorance

In this post, Professor and Chair of Philosophy at Gettysburg College, Daniel DeNicola, introduces his just-released book, Understanding Ignorance: The Surprising Impact of What We Do Not Know (MIT, August 2017). He writes on a range of ethical and epistemic issues, usually related to education. His new book grew from an earlier work, Learning to Flourish: A Philosophical Exploration of Liberal Education (Continuum/Bloomsbury, 2012).

Ignorance, it seems, is trending. Political ignorance has become some so severe that the democratic ideal of an informed citizenry seems quaint. Willful ignorance is the social diagnosis of the moment: critics found to be implicated in prejudice, privilege, ideology, and information cocoons. Ignorance is used both as accusation and excuse. In the broadest sense, it is a ineluctable feature of the human condition.

And yet, philosophers have ignored ignorance. While occupied with the sources and structure of knowledge, epistemologists for centuries have dismissed ignorance as simply the negation of the proposition, “S knows that p.”

Within the last two decades, however, scholarship on various aspects of ignorance has popped up in several disciplines. My book, Understanding Ignorance, draws on these multi-disciplinary works and presents what is likely the first comprehensive, philosophical treatment of ignorance—comprehensive, in that it addresses conceptual, epistemological, ethical, and social dimensions.

My explication is organized by four spatial metaphors: ignorance as a place or state, as boundary, as limit, and as horizon. Among the topics discussed are the relation of ignorance and innocence, the technique of mapping our ignorance, and our intellectual tools for ignorance management. I also offer a critique of “the virtues of ignorance” as proposed by various writers.

I conclude that ignorance has significant philosophical import and a structure perhaps more complex than that of knowledge. (After all, if genuine knowledge requires, say, four conditions, then the failure to meet any one or any combination describes a different form of ignorance.) I argue that we have many ways of constructing our own (and others’) ignorance, both deliberately and inadvertently—a few of which are morally permissible, even obligatory.

Although Understanding Ignorance is intended to be accessible to a non-specialist readership, it builds a critique targeted against traditional analytic epistemology: it has been focused on propositional knowledge and the “context of justification,” ignoring other forms of knowing and the “context of discovery”; it has concentrated on the individual knower in solo acts of cognition, ignoring the dynamics of epistemic communities; and has been disinterested in many values issues that arise from the acquisition, content, purpose, and context of knowing and not-knowing.

In reaction, I embrace virtue epistemology, along with insights from social and feminist epistemology—with a richer treatment of ignorance. Thus, I advocate a re-centering of the field on the interaction of knowledge and ignorance.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Structure-to-Function Mappings in the Cognitive Sciences

Muhammad Ali Khalidi is Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Department of Philosophy at York University in Toronto. He specializes in general issues in the philosophy of science (especially, natural kinds and reductionism) and philosophy of cognitive science (especially, innateness, concepts, and domain specificity). His book, Natural Categories and Human Kinds, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013, and he has recently been working on cognitive and social ontology.

If a sudden interest in taxonomy is indicative of a crisis in a scientific field, then the cognitive sciences may be in a current state of crisis. Psychologists, neuroscientists, and researchers in related disciplines have recently devoted increasing attention to the ways in which their respective disciplines classify and categorize their objects of study. Many of these researchers consider themselves--rightly in my opinion--engaged in the effort to uncover our “cognitive ontology”.

Ever since the nineteenth century, naturalist philosophers like Whewell, Mill, and Venn have regarded scientific taxonomy as a guide to the “real kinds” that exist in nature. The categories that play an important role in our theorizing, by explaining and predicting phenomena, are the ones that will tend to uncover ontological divisions in nature. Contemporary naturalists, like Richard Boyd, agree with this inference from taxonomy to ontology, holding that “successful induction and explanation always require that we accommodate our categories to the causal structure of the world” (1991, 139).

Thursday, 23 November 2017

The Meaning of Belief

This post is by Tim Crane.

I am Professor of Philosophy at the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest. I was Knightbridge Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge and he taught at UCL for almost twenty years. I founded the Institute of Philosophy in the University of London, and I am the philosophy editor of the TLS

I have written five books on the nature of the mind, which is my principal area of interest in philosophy. But I also have a long-standing interest in the nature of religion and religious belief, and The Meaning of Belief is my first serious attempt to write on this subject.

The Meaning of Belief attempts to give a description of the phenomenon of religion from an atheist’s point of view — that is, on the assumption that there is no god, supernatural or transcendent reality or being. The book’s aim is not to argue for this atheism, but to give a description of religious belief which makes sense to believers themselves.

In this respect the book differs from many recent atheist books on religion, which aim to show that most of what counts as religious belief is both false and irrational. These books — by the self-styled ‘New Atheists’ — tend to emphasise the cosmological element of religious belief, treating belief as a kind of primitive science or as a rival to science. The Meaning of Belief challenges this view of religion — cosmological claims, claims about the universe as a whole, are important to most religions, but they are not scientific claims.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Does Hallucinating Involve Perceiving?

My name is Rami el Ali and I am an assistant professor at the Lebanese American University. I work in philosophy of mind, but also have research interests in Phenomenology and the Philosophy of Technology. Currently my focus is on the nature of misperception, and in particular hallucinations.

In my paper 'Does Hallucinating Involve Perceiving?', I argue for the tenability of a common-factor relationalist (alternatively, naive realist) view of perceptual experience. I do this by arguing that a view on which hallucinating involves perceiving can accommodate three central observations thought to recommend the widely accepted nonperceptual view of hallucinations, on which hallucinations do not involve perception.

Philosophers usually agree, even when they do not accept the view, that relationalism provides the simplest characterization of perception. Correspondingly, the simplest view of experience merely extends the account of perception to illusions and hallucinations. The resultant view is that all experience involves sensory awareness of the mind-independent surroundings, where those surroundings appear some way to the subject. 

This view of experience is quickly dismissed because hallucinations are thought to be nonperceptual. In place, we have views like disjunctive relationalism and common-factor representationalism that seek to accommodate nonperceptual hallucinations. But whether we should resort to these views at least partly depends on whether we must accept the nonperceptual view of hallucinations. Upon closer inspection, three observations that seem to favor the view fail to recommend it over a perceptual alternative.

The first two observations focus on discrepancies between hallucinatory appearances and the surroundings the hallucinator is related to. The gist of my response to these is that no discrepancy between what the subject is aware of and how things appear to her establishes that the subject is not aware of her surroundings. More specifically, the first observation focuses on the 'inappropriateness' of the objects of awareness to the hallucinatory appearance. This depends on specifying an acceptable standard of appropriateness. 

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Only Imagine. Fiction, Interpretation and Imagination

Kathleen Stock is a Philosopher at the University of Sussex, working on questions about imagination and fiction, including: What is the imagination? What is the relation between imagining and believing? What is fiction? Can we learn from fiction? Are there limits to what we can imagine? She has published widely on related topics, and her book Only Imagine: Fiction, Interpretation and Imagination is now out with Oxford University Press. She blogs about fiction and imagination at

Philosophers and literary theorists argue about three things: what fiction is, how fiction should be interpreted, and what imagination is. In Only Imagine, I suggest that all three questions can be illuminated simultaneously.  I aim to build a theory of fiction that also tells us about the imagination, and vice versa.

My focus is on texts. First, I defend a theory of fictional interpretation (or ‘fictional truth’ as it’s sometimes called). When we read a novel or story, we understand certain things as part of the plot: ‘truths’ about characters, places, and events (though of course these are usually not actually true, but made up). A lot of the time, these ‘truths’ are made explicit – directly referred to by the words used by the author. But equally, in many cases, plot elements are only implied, not referred to explicitly. By what principle does or should the reader work out what such elements are, for a given story? Whether explicit or implied, I argue that fictional truths are to be discerned by working out what the author of the story intended the reader to imagine.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Philosophy of Psychedelic Ego Dissolution: Unbinding the Self

This post is by Chris Letheby.

In recent decades there has been a growing interdisciplinary attempt to understand self-awareness by integrating empirical results from neuroscience and psychiatry with philosophical theorizing. This is exemplified by the enterprise known as ‘philosophical psychopathology’, in which observations about unusual cognitive conditions are used to infer conclusions about the functioning of the healthy mind. But this line of research has been somewhat limited by the fact that pathological alterations to self-awareness are unpredictable and can only be studied retrospectively—until now.

The recent resurgence of scientific interest in ‘classic’, serotonergic psychedelic drugs such as LSD and psilocybin has changed all this. Using more rigorous methods than some of their forebears, psychiatrists have shown that psychedelics can, after all, be given safely in clinical contexts, and may even cause lasting psychological benefits. Small studies have shown symptom reductions in anxiety, depression, and addiction, and positive personality change in healthy subjects, lasting many months, after just one or two supervised psychedelic sessions.

What’s most intriguing is that the mechanism of action appears to involve a dramatically altered state of consciousness known as ‘ego dissolution’, in which the ordinary sense of self is profoundly altered or even absent. In many studies, ratings of ‘mystical experience’—of which ego dissolution is a core component—strongly predict clinical outcomes; so understanding ego dissolution is crucial for understanding the therapeutic potential of psychedelics.

Moreover, with the advent of modern neuroimaging technologies, there is a chance for psychedelics finally to fulfil their promise to be for psychiatry “what the microscope is for biology… or the telescope is for astronomy” (Grof 1980). The renaissance of psychedelic research allows neuroscientists, for the first time, to watch the sense of self disintegrate and reintegrate, safely, reliably, and repeatedly, in the neuroimaging scanner.

In a paper recently published in Neuroscience of Consciousness, Philip Gerrans and I have proposed a novel account of self-awareness based on findings from psychedelic science. Research to date has found that ego dissolution is associated with global increases in connectivity between normally segregated brain regions, resulting from a breakdown of high-level cortical networks implicated in the sense of self. However, results have not been entirely consistent; in some studies, breakdowns are most pronounced in the famous Default Mode Network (DMN), centred on the medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortices, whereas in others they are found in the Salience Network (SLN), centred on the anterior cingulate and anterior insular cortices.

Philip and I argue that this pattern of results can be explained by an account combining insights from two different theories: the influential predictive processing theory of brain function, and the self-binding theory of Sui and Humphreys (2015). Predictive processing holds that the brain is a prediction engine, constantly building models to anticipate its future inputs and reduce error. Meanwhile, self-binding theory says that a key function of self-representation is to integrate information from disparate sources into coherent representations. This claim is based on a body of experimental work showing that self-related information is integrated more efficiently than non-self-related information.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

The Copenhagen 2017 School in Phenomenology and Philosophy of Mind

The Copenhagen Summer School in Phenomenology and Philosophy of Mind is an annual event organized by the Center of Subjectivity Research . It aims to provide essential insights into central themes within the philosophy of mind, viewed from a phenomenological perspective. The general topics covered this year were intentionality, experience, reflection, perception, attention, self-awareness, rationality, normativity and methodology.

Over a period of 5 days, the schedule included keynote lectures, PhD presentations, discussion groups and seminars. The late afternoons and evenings were dedicated to different social events (such as visits to the city, a harbour tour) which allowed for opportunities to exchange ideas amongst researchers. In this post, I give a detailed summary of the main points made by the keynote speakers.

On the first day Søren Overgaard talked about Embodiment and Social Perception. The question he set up to answer was whether Social Perception Theory depends on a particular view of embodiment. Social Perception Theory (SPT) claims that it is possible to perceive that others are in happy, angry, in pain, desire another piece of pie, or intending to attack.

The idea of embodiment that Overgaard argued for is that in which at least some mental states extend all the way to the perceptible surface behaviour. In his view, a joyous smile on someone’s face is part of the mental state of joy in so far as it may carry information about the emotion. According to an intuitively plausible view that he labels the ‘Dependency Thesis’, SPT depends in specific ways on Embodiment. But he considers that in the context of the mindreading debate the Dependency Thesis is false.

On the second day Hanne Jacobs gave a talk on Attention, Reason and Subjectivity. According to Jacobs, Husserl’s account is worth considering when trying to understand what we do when we make up our own (embodied, personal, and socially embedded) minds. Based on Husserl’s phenomenology, she proposed that attention is a mode of consciousness in which we exercise reason.

She argued against contemporary authors who defend the idea that Husserl’s phenomenology proposes that there is a non-discursive form of rationality present in pre-predicative perception. She proposed instead that Husserl ties the activity of reason to the capacity for reflection in at least one significant sense. That in which, when we are attentive to something and take something to be in certain way and not other, we are also pre-reflectively aware of the reasons that there are are for and against our taking something to be in such specific way.

This sort of pre-reflective awareness gives way to reflective deliberation. And that it is for this that we do not just need a theory of self-knowledge but a theory of the subject or subjectivity to understand the nature and scope of the exercise of rationality. Jacobs argues that Husserl presents us with both a theory of self-knowledge and with an account of the subject that exercises rationality.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Understanding Autism

This post is by Dan Weiskopf. He is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Georgia State University, and his research deals with classificatory practices in scientific taxonomy and everyday cognition.

Autism is among the most mystifying of psychiatric disorders. For patients and their families, doctors, and caregivers, it presents an intractable and often painful clinical reality. For researchers, it presents a profound theoretical challenge. While it has a handful of fairly well agreed-upon characteristics (the so-called “core triad”), it is also linked with an enormous range of inconsistent and heterogeneous symptoms. These include behavioral, cognitive, neurobiological, and genetic abnormalities, as well as somatic medical conditions.

Given this messiness, it is hard to say what autism itself even is, let alone design effective interventions and treatments for it. There has been a call by some—psychologist Lynn Waterhouse most prominently—to eliminate the disorder from our nosology, on the grounds that it is too disunified to count as a single condition.

Against this eliminativist position, I argue that the prospects for understanding autism are brighter if we adjust our expectations of what psychiatric disorders look like. In “An Ideal Disorder? Autism as a Psychiatric Kind”, I propose that the complexities of autism can best be explained using a network model.

Think of a disorder as initially “anchored” by a set of focal exemplars. These exemplars represent cleaned-up and idealized sets of clinical cases in which the disorder appears. They constitute the nodes of the network that represents the disorder. In the case of autism, there might be different idealized cases standing for “high” and “low” functioning individuals, but many more distinctions might be necessary depending on how the disorder presents itself in different settings and patient populations. For example, we now recognize the important fact that the profile of autism appears to be quite different in men than in women.

For each exemplar there is a set of a characteristic set of cognitive, somatic, neural, and genetic markers. These correspond to places where things have gone wrong, at many levels, to produce that particular clinical phenotype. The existence of these underlying explanatory clusters is what warrants treating focal exemplars as real sites for deeper investigation and treatment.

This captures autism’s heterogeneity. Still, why think there is one disorder here rather than many? The answer is that we can trace out commonalities in the patterns of disruption underlying these exemplars. Exemplars are chained together into a network by having these properties in common. One patient may share a certain rigid behavioral repertoire and GI ailments with a second one, and that patient may share a form of abnormal language development with a third. The third, in turn, might have a specific neuroanatomical abnormality that is shared with the first, but not the second.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Call for Papers: Confabulation and Epistemic Innocence

Elisabetta Lalumera is organising a Confabulation and Epistemic Innocence workshop at the University of Milano-Bicocca (image below), to be held in Milan (Italy) on May 28, 2018.

Below you find a call for papers for the event.

Summary of topic

When people are unaware of information that accounts for some phenomenon, this does not necessarily prevent them from offering a sincere, but often inaccurate, explanation. Indeed, whilst confabulation has been shown to occur alongside psychiatric diagnoses featuring serious memory impairments, and in people undergoing symptoms of mental distress, it also occurs regularly in people with no such diagnoses or symptoms.

Some cognitions which fail to accurately represent reality may nonetheless have redeeming features that promote good functioning in a variety of domains. Inaccurate cognitions may misrepresent the world, but can also bring psychological and practical benefits. More recently, philosophers have pointed out that epistemically costly cognitions can also sometimes have positive epistemic features.

When these epistemic benefits are significant, and could not be attained in other ways, then the cognition can be considered “epistemically innocent”. The notion of epistemic innocence has already been discussed in the case of some inaccurate cognitions, such as delusions, but whether or not confabulation counts as epistemically innocent is a relatively underexplored issue.

Sample questions

  • What are the epistemic costs of confabulation and are there any epistemic benefits? 
  • How should epistemic costs and potential benefits of confabulation be adjudicated? 
  • Are the potential epistemic benefits of confabulation related to, or independent of, any psychological benefits? 
  • Is providing an inaccurate answer or an inaccurate explanation better (and in what sense) than providing no answer or no explanation at all? 
  • Are the costs and benefits of clinical confabulation comparable to those of non-clinical confabulation?

Instructions, review process, and timeline

Please submit a 500-word paper by 28th February 2018. The short paper is supposed to sketch the main argument and include some reference to its conclusions and implications. Contributors will be informed by 30th March 2018 whether their short papers have been selected for presentation at the workshop.

For the authors whose short papers are selected for presentation, there may also be an opportunity to submit a full paper (max. 8000 words) by 30th June 2018 for inclusion in a special issue of a journal on the philosophy of confabulation.

Please submit your 500-word papers to Valeria Motta as an email attachment. The title should be CONFABULATION 2018 [SURNAME OF AUTHOR]. Identifying information such as the full name of the authors, their email addresses, and their affiliations should not appear in the attachment, but only in the body of the email. The attachment should contain a blind version of the short paper. Authors’ names, affiliation if applicable, and contact details will be accessed only by Valeria Motta who will assign reviewers, but will not be involved in reviewing submissions. Each paper will be independently reviewed by two experts. Contributions from members of groups underrepresented in philosophy are especially welcome.

Please note that reasonable travel and subsistence expenses of the selected workshop contributors will be covered thanks to the support of the University of Milano-Bicocca and the sponsorship of project PERFECT. Also note that presentation of the selected papers at the workshop does not guarantee that the full papers will be accepted for publication in a special issue dedicated to the issue of confabulation, as the full papers will be subject to further, independent review and may be rejected at that stage.

You may contact Elisabetta Lalumera for general inquiries about the workshop or the CFP.