Tuesday, 20 March 2018

What Makes a Belief Delusional?

In December 2016 an exciting volume entitled Cognitive Confusions: Dreams, Delusions and Illusions in Early Modern Culture has been published by Legenda. The book, edited by Ita McCarthy, Kirsty Sellevold and Olivia Smith, contains a chapter authored by Ema Sullivan-Bissett, Rachel Gunn and myself on the challenges we face when we want to tell delusional beliefs apart from other beliefs.

We start with the standard DSM definition of delusions, and explain that clinical delusions are characterised by surface features of two kinds, epistemic (fixity, implausibility) and psychological (negative impact on functioning). Then we ask whether we can decide whether a type of belief is delusional by using those criteria. We consider three cases of belief that match at least some of the criteria: the belief that some thoughts have been inserted in one's mind by a third party; the belief that one has been abducted by aliens; and the belief that one is better than average at just about everything.

Discussing the similarities and differences among such beliefs -- Are they based on evidence? Are they common or rare? Do they bring any benefit? Do they help explain anomalous experience? -- is relevant to two projects that have been featured on this blog before: the Costs and Benefits of Optimism project and the PERFECT project. In the end, our goal is to show that neither the epistemic nor psychological features mentioned in the definition of delusions can help us sort delusional beliefs from non-delusional ones. Some delusions do not meet the criteria and some beliefs that we would not class as delusions do.

Rachel Gunn (who successfully completed her PhD at the University of Birmingham, working on delusions) examines the phenomenon of thought insertion by using very interesting first-person reports by people who used internet forums to share their unusual experiences. She observes that the experience affects people in different ways. For some but not for all the thought is felt like an unwelcome intrusion. For some but not for all the content of the thought also generates a compulsion to think or do certain things. Thought insertion is regarded as a symptom of schizophrenia, but whether it involves a pathological experience, whether it is a delusional belief, or whether it is harmful cannot be established without reflecting on the specifics of the individual case.

Here is one of the first-person reports Rachel analyses:
i truly do have unwanted thoughts that are forced into my head from somewhere... I mean I will have a thought saying my grandmother is a bitch. I would never ever think of my grandmother as a bitch. She is one of the greatest women I know and I adore her. So how is that a delusion? It is an intrusive thought! I sure didnt imagine it!.... i really do not think my grandmother is a bitch. i think these thoughts are evil and came from an evil being. Some thoughts however that pop into my head all of a sudden are my own thoughts and i can recognize that even though they are unwanted, but some are just plain ridiculous and mean and i know must be from an outside force. 
Star-28, ‘Forum’, Mental Health Forum (2010)

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Unbelievable Errors

This post is by Bart Streumer. Bart Streumer is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Groningen. In this post he introduces his book Unbelievable Errors, which has recently been published by Oxford University Press.

Widespread beliefs can be systematically mistaken. Take religious beliefs: if God does not exist, these beliefs are all mistaken. But you may think that some widespread beliefs cannot be mistaken in this way. For example, consider normative judgements: our beliefs about what is right or wrong, or about what there is reason to do or to believe. Could these beliefs be systematically mistaken?

In my book Unbelievable Errors, I argue that they are. I argue that normative judgements ascribe normative properties, but that these properties do not exist. This means that all normative judgements are false. For example, the belief that stealing is wrong ascribes the property of being wrong to stealing, but this property does not exist, which means that this belief is false. The belief that stealing is permissible ascribes the property of being permissible to stealing, but this property does not exist either, which means that this belief is false as well. And similar claims apply to all other normative judgements.

The view I defend in the book is known as ‘error theory’. Some philosophers accept such a theory about moral judgements. But the error theory about all normative judgements that I defend may seem so bizarre as to be simply incredible. I agree. For in addition to defending the error theory, I also argue that we cannot believe this theory. If I am right that the theory is true of judgements about reasons for belief, the theory entails that there is no reason to believe the theory. I therefore think that we only really believe the error theory if we believe that there is no reason to believe the theory. And I argue that we cannot do this: we cannot have a belief while at the same time believing that there is no reason for this belief. If so, it follows that we cannot believe the error theory.

If I am right that we cannot believe the error theory, the arguments I give in my book cannot convince anyone that this theory is true. That is why I have called the book  Unbelievable Errors. But the fact that an argument cannot convince us does not show that this argument is unsound. Moreover, I argue that our inability to believe the error theory actually makes the theory more likely to be true, since it helps to answer objections to the theory, it makes it harder to reject the arguments for the theory, and it undermines revisionary alternatives to the theory. I therefore think that our inability to believe the error theory is an advantage rather than a problem for the theory.

When we have mistaken beliefs, it is normally possible for us to see that these beliefs are mistaken. But this may not always be possible. If I am right, our normative judgements are systematically mistaken in a way that we are unable to see.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

The Paradoxical Self

Today's post is by Clara Humpston. Clara is a Research Associate at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, King’s College London.

Not long ago I completed my PhD from Cardiff University and this paper was first written a couple of years ago when I was a PhD student there.

My PhD research focused on the pathogenesis of psychotic symptoms and adopted a cognitive neuropsychiatric approach by incorporating behavioural and phenomenological investigations. In my second post for Imperfect Cognitions, I summarise my most recent theoretical paper on the paradoxical nature of self-awareness in schizophrenia, published in Philosophical Psychology.

The primary manifestations of schizophrenia in my opinion, are basic self-disturbances leading to the adoption of a solipsistic lifeworld that provides fertile ground for the development of psychotic phenomena such as first-rank symptoms. First-rank symptoms are often disruptions of one’s ego-boundary: that is, one’s demarcation between the internal and external worlds, between self and other. This paper aims to provide an integrated account of the structure of self-disorders found in schizophrenia and shed further light on the issues of paradoxicality and solipsism which are often overlooked or ignored in the clinic.

Contemporary theorists such as Louis Sass and Josef Parnas have further disentangled anomalous self-experience (‘ipseity disturbance’, from Latin ipse – ‘self’) into a combination of factors termed ‘hyperreflexivity’ and ‘diminished self-affection’, which is a dominant theory which has guided many others’ pursuits in this matter. According to Sass and Parnas, ipseity is the most fundamental, pre-reflective and vital level of the broadly defined ‘sense of self’ and concerns the ‘experiential sense of being a vital and self-identical subject of experience or first-person perspective on the world’ which is tacit and property-less, but forms the very foundation of other more complex levels of the self.

Hyperreflexivity and diminished self-affection feed into each other and the end result is often a shattered sense of self, unable to maintain a hold or ‘grip’ over either one’s internal mental states or external perceptions. Indeed, what is left is nothing but a mere shadow of one’s own ipseity – when self-consciousness loses vitality and the most basic, taken-for-granted ‘mineness’ (i.e. the given property that anything I experience is my experience) of subjectivity, can it even be called an ‘awareness’ any more? Yet still, the entire focus of one’s existence is transferred to the field of experience at the same time, creating an illusory reality that is more ‘real’ than what one may call ‘consensual reality’, which can lead to an overwhelming sense of ego-centrality.

However, patients with schizophrenia are not solipsists by choice. On the one hand, the patient is aware of the instability of the subjective world, but on the other hand he or she has to hold on to the solipsistic self because if they let go of even this last straw, their entire subjectivity would surely disintegrate.

Solipsism, it seems to me, is not a choice of a self-deceiving disorder, but the end product of a long and painful reasoning process (no matter how irrational or biased) that has detached from one’s own agency.

The merge between action and passivity, oblivion and omniscience as a consequence of the solipsistic stance is perhaps the most crucial paradox for the schizophrenic mind. Yet it is also a state of equilibrium, a carefully balanced stasis where the patient is simultaneously the owner and the owned, the subject and the object. Despite being a maladaptive strategy, it nevertheless acts as a protective barrier for the integrity of one’s self, at least initially.

Extreme care and balance are therefore called for in order to manage the subtler symptoms of schizophrenia, especially in the early stages. What should be placed first and foremost, however, is the clinician’s willingness to listen (even if they cannot understand) what the patient tells them, as this forms the very basis of any kind of therapeutic alliance.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Real Hallucinations

This post is by Matthew Ratcliffe, Professor for Theoretical Philosophy at the University of Vienna, Austria. Ratcliffe also leads the Phenomenological Psychopathology and Philosophy of Psychiatry research group. Most of his recent work addresses issues in phenomenology, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of psychiatry. He is the author of: Rethinking Commonsense Psychology: A Critique of Folk Psychology, Theory of Mind and Simulation (Palgrave, 2007), Feelings of Being: Phenomenology, Psychiatry and the Sense of Reality (Oxford University Press, 2008), and Experiences of Depression: A Study in Phenomenology (Oxford University Press, 2015).

In this post Ratcliffe presents a review of his most recent book Real Hallucinations: Psychiatric Illness, Intentionality and the Interpersonal World.

When we perceive something, we seldom wonder whether we are actually perceiving it rather than imagining or remembering it. Perceptual experience ordinarily incorporates a pre-reflective sense of perceiving, an observation that applies equally to other types of intentional states. For instance, what we imagine is usually experienced as imagined. In Real Hallucinations, I develop an account of what this sense of being in an intentional state consists of, through an exploration of various changes in the structure of intentionality that can occur in psychiatric illness.

One might think that the sense of being in one or another type of intentional state is easy enough to characterize: it is a matter of experiential content. Certain aspects of perceptual content are specific to perception in one or another modality; aspects of imagined content are specific to one or another type of imagining; and so forth. However, I show that this cannot be the case, as sense and content are dissociable. To do so, I offer a detailed examination of thought insertion (TI) and auditory verbal hallucination (AVH). I argue that many of those experiences referred to as TI and/or AVH involve a sense of perceiving something, but without the usual perceptual content.

An experiential content resembling that of inner speech, autobiographical memory, or some form of imagination comes to be associated with the sense of encountering something perceptually. In such cases, the sense of perceiving is usually incomplete and often conflicted, resulting in an intrinsically strange experience that stands out as distinct from mundane forms of intentionality. I go on to show how experiences like this tend to arise in the context of much more pervasive but less pronounced disturbances of the structure of intentionality. This approach, I suggest, also applies to many other anomalous experiences that are labeled as “delusions” and “hallucinations”.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Taxonomising Delusions

Colin Klein

We are philosophers working on various topics that intersect with delusions. Colin Klein works on the philosophy of neuroscience and the application of interventionist accounts of causation to this area, and has also discussed the relation between psychopathologies like somatoparaphenia and his theory of pain. Stephen Gadsby works on distorted body representations and false body size beliefs in anorexia nervosa. And Peter Clutton has defended the doxastic status of delusions—offering a cognitive phenomenological account of delusions (forthcoming)—and explored the status of delusions on the harmful dysfunction account.

Peter Clutton

Any discussion of delusions needs some criteria by which patients are grouped together as having the same delusion. In our paper, ‘Taxonomising Delusions: content or aetiology?’, we compare content-based and aetiological taxonomies of delusions, arguing in favour of the latter.

Stephen Gadsby

Most authors taxonomise delusions by the content of the delusional belief: Capgras patients believe that their spouse has been replaced by an imposter, Cotard’s delusion involves the belief that one is dead, and so on. Taxonomising by belief content has intuitive appeal. Content is often what brings patients to clinical attention in the first place, and may be all a researcher has to work with. Additionally, content appears to offer a theory-neutral starting point, in that it does not presuppose any particular theoretical explanation of the underlying causes of delusions.

We argue that these intuitive advantages are not as strong as they seem, and that an aetiological taxonomy is to be preferred: that is, we think that patients ought to be grouped by the causes of their delusions, rather than by what they believe. An aetiological taxonomy has the advantage of supporting the kinds of empirical generalisations we want from scientific taxonomies. Good taxonomies identify similarities among group members that manifest across a variety of distinct circumstances. In studying the cognitive processes that lead to delusions (and thereby learning about the normal processes of cognition, as cognitive neuropsychiatrists aim to do), we want discoveries about one patient to guide our thinking about other patients we encounter with the same problem. Taxonomising delusions by their underlying cognitive causes allows for just such projectability.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Philosophy of Mind Workshop Series

Does philosophy have a purpose outside academia? What does philosophy look like when it’s done beyond the walls of the lecture theatre and the seminar room? And who should get to do it? I got to think quite a bit about these questions recently. It was back at the start of 2017 that I travelled to London to meet some of the senior team from mental health charity Mind in Camden to discuss the possibility of developing a series of philosophy workshops, based on project PERFECT’s research, and running them at Mind in Camden, for people with lived experience of unusual beliefs and experiences, and mental distress, as well as for service providers and mental health advocates.

Mind in Camden runs training, support and capacity building services to benefit people who are struggling with mental distress, and I saw commonalities between its values and the sorts of conceptions of mental health and rationality that we’re arguing for through PERFECT. So, the organisation was a natural partner in this collaboration. 

The idea of the workshop series was this: in groups of around 10, we would learn some philosophical techniques, and set up a receptive space for debate in which to exercise these, and then, drawing on aspects of PERFECT’s research, and inviting reflection on lived experience, we would explore and critique different theories of mental health and rationality.

It’s the first time I’ve done something like this with project PERFECT. As I sat on the 29, chugging up Marylebone Road, on my way to the first session, I did wonder to myself: would any of this be of any use – or interest – to Mind in Camden’s members?

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Dissociative Identity Disorder, Ambivalence and Responsibility

Today's post is by Michelle Maiese, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Emmanuel College in Boston, Massachusetts. Her research focuses on topics in philosophy of mind, philosophy of psychiatry, and moral psychology.

There has been debate among philosophers about how to address issues of responsibility in cases where subjects suffer from dissociative identity disorder (DID). If one personality commits a wrongful act of which another was unaware, should we regard this individual as responsible for her actions? If we regard DID as a case in which multiple persons inhabit a single body, it may seem natural to conclude that each alter is a separate agent and that one alter is not responsible for the actions of another. However, in “Dissociative Identity Disorder, Ambivalence, and Responsibility", I argue that even once we acknowledge that a subject with DID is a single person, there are still serious reasons to question the extent to which she is responsible for her actions.

This is because a subject suffering from DID often will find it difficult to exercise autonomous agency. This individual cannot control the slide into one or another alter-state, and once she is in that state, she will lack awareness of many considerations favoring a particular course of action. In addition, due to disturbances in memory and self-awareness, the subject with DID is either incapable of remembering prior decisions, or incapable of being properly motivated by them. Even if a subject decides on a course of action, other desires and priorities may ‘take over’ once she switches to a different alter-personality. Also, there may be so much psychological fragmentation and memory loss that it becomes difficult for her to foresee what she will do or assess the long-term consequences of her actions.

I argue that these impairments in agency are the direct result of extreme ambivalence: young children who develop DID experience extreme inner conflict regarding emotional needs to which they feel deeply attached. Suppose that Sue hates her mother and wants her to die, but also loves her mother and wants to have a close relationship with her. Rationality demands that Sue alter her desires appropriately. However, suppose that Sue feels so strongly attached to both of these conflicting desires that there is no way to achieve a well-integrated, unified perspective. What allows her to avoid crumbling under the pressure of inner contradictions is the belief that her conflicting mental states belong to separate selves. That is, she both accepts certain desires and tries to rid herself of them, and those desires that seem like ‘unacceptable intruders’ are handed off to an alter-personality. This ‘handing-off’ of desires and actions thus can be understood as Sue’s attempt to mask contradictions and manage inner conflict. Although extreme dissociation may intensify emotional disturbance over the long-term, it may be in Sue’s short-term interests in the sense that it allows her to compartmentalize painful feelings and memories.

Such compartmentalization can be paralyzing or lead to other disruptions of agency. It is notable that “competing” alter-personalities often vie for control of the body. For example, alters sometimes intervene in the lives of other alters by destroying their school work, spending their money, or hiding their things. This lack of a coherent will also is evidenced via the phenomenon of waverings, when one alter attempts to do something that is directly at odds with the goals and intentions of another. Such struggles for control should be understood as the outward signs of inner conflict. Because the subject with DID suffers from persistent and pervasive ambivalence, she does not form an integrated will and is largely incapable of restructuring it. Since her concerns and attitudes are not integrated, she is unable to arrive at an ‘all-things-considered’ judgment about what it would be best to do

If it is true that subjects with DID suffer from extreme ambivalence of the sort I describe, then it would be a mistake to regard them as responsible for their wrongful actions in the same way that we regard ordinary adults as responsible. However, although autonomy and responsibility are eroded in such cases, they do not disappear altogether. If such a subject behaves wrongfully, there certainly is ‘part’ of her that wanted to do so, and thus, the action is attributable to her. Furthermore, even if she cannot exercise self-determination, it is important to acknowledge that her overall capacity for autonomous agency remains intact. This means there may be steps she can and should take to attempt to restore her autonomy or prevent any immoral actions from occurring.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

On Folk Epistemology

Mikkel Gerken is associate professor at the University of Southern Denmark. In this post he writes about his new book ‘On Folk Epistemology. How we think and talk about knowledge’.

A central claim of my book, On Folk Epistemology. How we think and talk about knowledge, is that some folk epistemological patterns of knowledge ascriptions are best explained by cognitive biases. I argue that this approach to folk epistemology yields diagnoses of some hard puzzles of contemporary epistemology. So, On Folk Epistemology seeks to contribute to some prominent debates in contemporary epistemology. For example, I criticize contextualism, pragmatic encroachment, knowledge-first epistemology etc. If you want to check it out, there is an introduction and overview here.

In this blog post, however, I will emphasize why the study of folk epistemology is an important task. In a nutshell, it is because folk epistemology is extremely consequential. Consider, for example, the roles of knowledge ascriptions in our social interactions. We acquire the ability to think and talk about knowledge early in life. Moreover, mental and linguistic ascriptions and denials of knowledge remain extremely prominent in adulthood. Indeed, linguistic knowledge ascriptions are arguably among the most important speech acts that we engage in on a daily basis.

To ascribe knowledge to oneself or to someone else is a powerful speech act that gives the proposition said to be known a special status. Often it indicates that we are in a position to act on the proposition. Moreover, the subject to whom knowledge is ascribed is often given a stamp of social approval or disapproval. Just consider phrases such as “she is in the know” or “he doesn’t know what he is talking about.” Consequently, knowledge ascriptions are central to many of the social scripts that govern social life. So, if our knowledge ascriptions and intuitions about them are biased, we’d want to understand how and why. After all, we do not want to make our decisions about whom to trust and how to act based on biased judgments.

Understanding the biases of our folk epistemology is all the more urgent given that they may lead to social injustices. This may be the case if biases reflect stereotypes that pertain to gender, race or class. Folk epistemological biases are particularly relevant to distinctively epistemic injustices. While epistemic injustices may be caused by general “identity prejudices”, folk epistemological biases are especially relevant.

After all, they may lead us to mistakenly regard someone who in fact knows that p as not knowing it. Thus, biases of our folk epistemology may lead to “wrongs done to someone specifically in their capacity as a knower” which is Miranda Fricker’s initial conception of epistemic injustice (Fricker 2007). At present, we do not know enough about whether folk epistemological biases interact with biases pertaining to gender, race or class. Here I think of On Folk Epistemology as providing part of a framework for further research on epistemic injustice.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Why Moral and Philosophical Disagreements Are Especially Fertile Grounds for Rationalization

Today's post is by Jonathan Ellis, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Center for Public Philosophy at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Eric Schwitzgebel, Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Riverside. This is the second in a two-part contribution on their paper "Rationalization in Moral and Philosophical thought" in Moral Inferences, eds. J. F. Bonnefon and B. Trémolière, (Psychology Press, 2017) (part one can be found here).

Last week we argued that your intelligence, vigilance, and academic expertise very likely doesn't do much to protect you from the normal human tendency towards rationalization – that is, from the tendency to engage in biased patterns of reasoning aimed at justifying conclusions to which you are attracted for selfish or other epistemically irrelevant reasons – and that, in fact, you may be more susceptible to rationalization than the rest of the population. This week we’ll argue that moral and philosophical topics are especially fertile grounds for rationalization.

Here’s one way of thinking about it: Rationalization, like crime, requires a motive and an opportunity. Ethics and philosophy provide plenty of both.

Regarding motive: Not everyone cares about every moral and philosophical issue of course. But we all have some moral and philosophical issues that are near to our hearts – for reasons of cultural or religious identity, or personal self-conception, or for self-serving reasons, or because it’s comfortable, exciting, or otherwise appealing to see the world in a certain way.

On day one of their philosophy classes, students are often already attracted to certain types of views and repulsed by others. They like the traditional and conservative, or they prefer the rebellious and exploratory; they like confirmations of certainty and order, or they prefer the chaotic and skeptical; they like moderation and common sense, or they prefer the excitement of the radical and unintuitive. Some positions fit with their pre-existing cultural and political identities better than others. Some positions are favored by their teachers and elders – and that’s attractive to some, and provokes rebellious contrarianism in others. Some moral conclusions may be attractively convenient, while others might require unpleasant contrition or behavior change.

The motive is there. So is the opportunity. Philosophical and moral questions rarely admit of straightforward proof or refutation, or a clear standard of correctness. Instead, they open into a complexity of considerations, which themselves do not admit of straightforward proof and which offer many loci for rationalization.

These loci are so plentiful and diverse! Moral and philosophical arguments, for instance, often turn crucially on a “sense of plausibility” (Kornblith, 1999); or on one’s judgment of the force of a particular reason, or the significance of a consideration. Methodological judgments are likewise fundamental in philosophical and moral thinking: What argumentative tacks should you first explore? How much critical attention should you pay to your pre-theoretic beliefs, and their sources, and which ones, in which respects? How much should you trust your intuitive judgments versus more explicitly reasoned responses? Which other philosophers, and which scientists (if any), should you regard as authorities whose judgments carry weight with you, and on which topics, and how much?

These questions are usually answered only implicitly, revealed in your choices about what to believe and what to doubt, what to read, what to take seriously and what to set aside. Even where they are answered explicitly, they lack a clear set of criteria by which to answer them definitively. And so, if people’s preferences can influence their perceptual judgments (including possibly of size, color, and distance: Balcetis and Dunning 2006, 2007, 2010) what is remembered (Kunda 1990; Mele 2001), what hypotheses are envisioned (Trope and Liberman 1997), what one attends to and for how long (Lord et al. 1979; Nickerson 1998) . . . it is no leap to assume that they can influence the myriad implicit judgments, intuitions, and choices involved in moral and philosophical reasoning.

Furthermore, patterns of bias can compound across several questions, so that with many loci for bias to enter, the person who is only slightly biased in each of a variety of junctures in a line of reasoning can ultimately come to a very different conclusion than would someone who was not biased in the same way. Rationalization can operate by way of a series or network of “micro-instances” of motivated reasoning that together have a major amplificatory effect (synchronically, diachronically, or both), or by influencing you mightily at a crucial step (Ellis, manuscript).

We believe that these considerations, taken together with the considerations we advanced last week about the likely inability of intelligence, vigilance, and expertise to effectively protect us against rationalization, support the following conclusion: Few if any of us should confidently maintain that our moral and philosophical reasoning is not substantially tainted by significant, epistemically troubling degrees of rationalization. This is of course one possible explanation of the seeming intractability of philosophical disagreement.

Or perhaps we the authors of the post are the ones rationalizing; perhaps we are, for some reason, drawn toward a certain type of pessimism about the rationality of philosophers, and we have sought and evaluated evidence and arguments toward this conclusion in a badly biased manner? Um…. No way. We have reviewed our reasoning and are sure that we were not affected by our preferences....

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Social Media and Youth Mental Health

On 14th November there was an interesting conference at the Royal Society of Medicine on the effects of social media on mental health.

Mary Aiken (University of College Dublin) discussed the Cyber Effect, her book which addresses the risks of social media on young people (cover below). Cyber space is a space and we need to consider the impact of it on vulnerable populations such as teens. We need to factor in developmental aspects (at what age should parents let children have a smartphone?). We need to recognise the continuous evolution of behaviour and as experts we need to drive policy initiatives and develop guidelines for parents and educators.

Jon Goldin (Great Ormond Street Hospital) talked about the risks and benefits of social media for young people. Children like using social media for different reasons: they use it for communication, to express themselves, to gain confidence, for popularity, for entertainment, to develop a sense of belonging, to receive information. Social media is risky for adolescents: it may cause a lack of sleep; due to anonymity, it encourages bad behaviour such as cyberbullying; it may facilitate gambling; and it can be used to research suicide methodology.

The worrying data suggest a correlation between social media use and mental health issues. There can be advantages to the use of social media such as ready availability of information, but the reasons to worry are greater than the reasons to be optimistic unless measures are taken to regulate the use of social media. One worry concerns anorexia nervosa: whereas some sources offer support there are sites inviting people to be anorexic and offering tips to avoid food. Another worry concerns child protection such as preventing grooming and sexting.

What are the possible solutions to these problems? There needs to be more education (sex education and internet security in schools). There needs to be an acknowledgement that social media has good effects, an open discussion about it with adolescents. Social media cannot be banned entirely but there needs to be boundaries, such as no more than two hours of social media a day and no social media in the bedroom after a certain time.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Rationalization: Why your intelligence, vigilance and expertise probably don't protect you

Today's post is by Jonathan Ellis, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Center for Public Philosophy at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Eric Schwitzgebel, Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Riverside. This is the first in a two-part contribution on their paper "Rationalization in Moral and Philosophical thought" in Moral Inferences, eds. J. F. Bonnefon and B. Trémolière, (Psychology Press, 2017).

We’ve all been there. You’re arguing with someone – about politics, or a policy at work, or about whose turn it is to do the dishes – and they keep finding all kinds of self-serving justifications for their view. When one of their arguments is defeated, rather than rethinking their position they just leap to another argument, then maybe another. They’re rationalizing –coming up with convenient defenses for what they want to believe, rather than responding even-handedly to the points you're making. You try to point it out, but they deny it, and dig in more.

More formally, in recent work we have defined rationalization as what occurs when a person favors a particular view as a result of some factor (such as self-interest) that is of little justificatory epistemic relevance, and then engages in a biased search for and evaluation of justifications that would seem to support that favored view.

You, of course, never rationalize in this way! Or, rather, it doesn’t usually feel like you do. Stepping back, you’ll probably admit you do it sometimes. But maybe less than average? After all, you’re a philosopher, a psychologist, an expert in reasoning – or at least someone who reads blog posts about philosophy, psychology, and reasoning. You're especially committed to the promotion of critical thinking and fair-minded reasoning. You know about all sorts of common fallacies, and especially rationalization, and are on guard for them in your own thinking. Don't these facts about you make you less susceptible to rationalization than people with less academic intelligence, vigilance, and expertise?

We argue that no. You’re probably just as susceptible to post-hoc rationalization, maybe even more, than the rest of the population, though the ways it manifests in your reasoning may be different. Vigilance, academic intelligence, and disciplinary expertise are not overall protective against rationalization. In some cases, they might even enhance one’s tendency to rationalize, or make rationalizations more severe when they occur.

While some biases are less prevalent among those who score high on standard measures of academic intelligence, others appear to be no less frequent or powerful. Stanovich, West and Toplak (2013), reviewing several studies, find that the degree of myside bias is largely independent of measures of intelligence and cognitive ability. Dan Kahan finds that on several measures people who use more “System 2” type explicit reasoning show higher rates of motivated cognition rather than lower rates (2011, 2013, Kahan et al 2011). Thinkers who are more knowledgeable have more facts to choose from when constructing a line of motivated reasoning (Taber and Lodge 2006; Braman 2009). 

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Challenges to Wellbeing

The workshop Challenges To Wellbeing: The Experience of Loneliness and Epistemic Injustice in the Clinical Encounter originated from a multi-disciplinary conversation about wellbeing and happiness. Exploring the theme of challenges to wellbeing, this conversation brought together academics from across the University, practitioners, and campaigners. The workshop was hosted by Lisa Bortolotti and Sophie Stammers for project PERFECT, and co-organised and funded by the Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS). It was held at the Centre for Professional Development (CPD) in the Medical School on the 22nd of November 2017. This is a detailed report on the talks given that day.

The workshop was divided in three sessions. Session One was dedicated to Themes from Project PERFECT.

Kathy Puddifoot started with an Introduction to Epistemic Injustice. She defined epistemic injustice and spoke about the different types that have been identified. Kathy explained that since the processes of giving and receiving knowledge are social, we rely on others for these to happen in a fair way. Epistemic injustice happens when people are wronged in their capacity as knowers and thus treated unfairly in these processes of knowledge exchange.

The first type of epistemic injustice, which was identified by Miranda Fricker, is testimonial injustice. Examples of this type of injustice are the stereotype that women depend on intuition or black people are athletic, not intelligent, or the stereotype that people with mental health issues are crazy. In cases of this type specific stereotypes determine the lack of credibility given to people from those groups.

Kathy then went on to describe the second type of epistemic injustice identified by Miranda Fricker, hermeneutical injustice. Kathy explained that people need specific resources (e.g. conceptual resources) to understand and articulate their own experiences. But as a result of how society is structured, some stigmatized groups can be denied of such resources and this puts them in a disadvantageous position within that society. Fricker’s example of this is the term sexual harassment, and Kathy added the example of postnatal depression. An important distinction here is lack of concepts within the person who has the experience and lack of conceptual resources within other people. Some members of groups have their own understanding but are not able to explain those experiences to non-group members.

The last type of epistemic injustice that Kathy talked about is testimonial silencing. Identified by Kristie Dotson, the two forms of this type of epistemic injustice are testimonial quieting (which happens when ‘an audience fails to identify the speaker as a knower’); and testimonial smothering (which happens when the speaker believes her testimony will be misinterpreted so she self-silences) Kathy said that the example Dalston gives of this second group is black domestic violence victims in the U.S. Kathy noted that epistemic injustice can be wilful and intentionally chosen or unintentional. Empirical findings suggest that implicit bias can lead people to avoid eye contact with members of certain groups. And this can cause members of these groups to silence themselves. Kathy argued that this could be a case of implicit bias leading to a form of epistemic injustice and testimonial smothering.

The second speaker was Alex Miller Tate. Alex talked about how issues of epistemic injustice emerge in the psychiatric encounter. He did so by discussing the paper Epistemic Injustice in Psychiatry by P. Crichton, H. Carel, and I. Kidd (2016). Alex explained that the focus in this paper is on testimonial injustice and that three points are argued. First, that it is psychiatric service users in their interactions with medical staff who are particularly vulnerable to testimonial injustice.

Second, a similar sort of injustice might emerge from the fact that medical professionals might enjoy undue credibility inflation. Third, two factors may contribute to these injustices: global prejudices about the mentally ill; and specific prejudices about people with specific diagnosis. The example Alex gave is people who are diagnosed with schizophrenia which are seen as intrinsically violent. This can contribute to undue credibility deflation of these people's testimonies. The recommendation made in the paper is for medical staff to develop specific dispositions to behave in ways that they actively seek to give respect and credibility to patients’ testimonies.

Alex raised two questions on this recommendation. First, stigma and prejudice are thought as extending beyond individual interactions in the psychiatric encounter, and are thought in terms of social structure. Alex argued that amongst structural failings we can find the lack of what he called socially accepted markers of credibility that psychiatric service users have. An instance of these markers is the credibility we generally give to people who are well dressed and whose personal hygiene is impeccable.

This quality can be lost in people with specific psychiatric issues. Alex argued that these markers are not shared widely enough. And even when there is nothing wrong with using markers of credibility, injustice can be perpetuated when people use them in the clinical encounter. He argued that service users might lack access to the kinds of epistemic resources that are necessary to make sense of their experience. Here the problem seems to go beyond the responsibility of the clinician. It seems to relate to how knowledge in psychiatry is produced and disseminated to the wider population. The final point in relation to epistemic resources was that it might be the case that service users develop resources themselves. This can be illustrated by service user movements. But attempts to communicate these insights to clinicians are often undervalued.

The second question Alex raised was whether service users are vulnerable to other forms of epistemic injustice apart from the ones identified by Crichton, Carel and James. Alex argued that at times the testimony involved is risky. This happens for various reasons one of them being that there is a chance of harm if the testimony is misinterpreted; and another that psychiatric professionals have power over service users which they can use appropriately or not. These are the powers of detention, the powers of enforcing treatment, powers of giving or refusing care. All of these different kinds of risks, especially in recent history and crisis care, Alex argued, are present when there is testimony about symptoms or experiences involved.

I gave the third talk On the Experience of Loneliness and Solitude. The first part of the talk was about the experience of Loneliness. I provided a review of the existing empirical research, raised some philosophical questions and concerns, and talked about loneliness in adolescence. I dedicated the second part of the talk to solitude and some of its benefits.

I started talking about how the research that has been done over the past decades has shown the influence that loneliness has on our mental and physical health. And referred to a Meta-Analysis of Interventions to Reduce Loneliness (Masi, Cheng, Hawkley and Cacioppo, 2011) where four different strategies used in interventions for alleviating loneliness are identified.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

"Me and I are not friends"

Today's post is by Dr Pablo López-Silva, who is Lecturer in Psychology at the Faculty of Medicine of the Universidad de Valparaíso in Chile. He is the director of the 3-years FONDECYT Research Project titled 'The Agentive Architecture of Human Thought' granted by the National Commission for Scientific and Technological Research of the Government of Chile. 

Pablo López-Silva currently works on the philosophy of mind, clinical psychiatry, and psychopathology with a special focus on the way mental pathologies and empirical research inform our understanding of the nature of consciousness.

Self-awareness i.e. the awareness we have of being the subject of our own experience is, perhaps, one of the most elusive elements of human mind. A common idea within current philosophy of mind is that the awareness we have of different external and internal experiences might necessarily involve a degree of self-awareness. In other words, every time you reach a cup, read a book, and so on, you enjoy a degree of awareness of yourself as the one who is doing the reaching, reading, etc. Although such an idea sounds highly intuitive, philosophers disagree on the ways in which the link between our awareness of our experiences and our self-awareness is established.

A very specific group of philosophers has suggested that a sense of mineness intrinsically contained in the qualitative structure of all conscious experiences is a necessary condition for a subject to become aware of himself as the subject of his experiences. Thus, on this view, consciousness necessarily entails phenomenal self-awareness.

In my last paper titled 'Me and I are not friends, just acquaintances: On thought insertion and self-awareness' I first argue that cases of delusions of thought insertion undermine this claim and that such a phenomenal feature plays little role in accounting for the most minimal type of self-awareness entailed by phenomenal consciousness. Patients suffering from thought insertion report the belief that external agents of heterogeneous nature have placed thoughts into their minds/heads. I’m aware of the fact that my strategy for evaluating this argument is not new in philosophy.

As a second step, I offer a systematic evaluation of all the strategies used by the defenders of this view to deal with the challenge from thought insertion. Finally, I conclude that most of these strategies are unsatisfactory for they rest in unwarranted premises, imprecisions about the agentive nature of cognitive experiences, and especially, lack of distinction between the different ways in which subjects can become aware of their own thoughts.

For further questions and comments, just drop me an email!

Thursday, 1 February 2018

PERFECT 2018 Confabulation Workshop

On Wednesday 23rd May, PERFECT will host its third annual workshop, at St Anne’s College, Oxford. This year, our topic is confabulation, and we’re excited to welcome leading researchers in the field for a stimulating programme of presentations.

The talks explore a number of philosophical issues arising from confabulation, and will be of interest to philosophers of mind, philosophers of psychology and epistemologists. Papers to be presented also examine confabulation in relation to wider research programmes in cognitive science and psychiatry, and so we also welcome researchers from all disciplines of the mind who are interested in how we give accounts of our experiences, choices and actions.

The speakers will address a range of issues, with some exploring an aspect of confabulation that is underdeveloped or has been overlooked in previous work, whilst others propose a new model of the phenomenon that helps to explain and bring clarity to existing observations.

In her talk, Sarah Robins will focus on the possibility of veridical confabulation and how this possibility pushes us to clarify successful remembering and explaining, as well as what it tells us about the nature and extent of the phenomenon of confabulation itself.

William Hirstein will consider how recent empirical research counts against the standard model of Capgras syndrome, a condition in which patients confabulate about their loved ones. He will offer an alternative to the standard interpretation of the condition, arguing that this is a better fit with the evidence.

Derek Strijbos and Leon de Bruin extend previous work undertaken on the “mindshaping” interpretation of confabulation as an alternative to the mainstream “mindreading” view in their talk, offering an exploration of the relevant folk psychological norm that underwrites this interpretation.

I’ll look at confabulation in the context of a more general faculty for organising experience into a coherent narrative, and how interventions to reduce confabulation must account for the epistemic benefits of this faculty as revealed by other research programmes in cognitive science.

In her talk, Louise Moody argues that the notion of confabulation is central to understanding key characteristics of the phenomenology of dreaming, and demonstrates that this revisionary theory of dreams reveals new insights into confabulation.

I hope you’ll join us in May! For the full programme, further information, and to register, please follow this link.

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Social Contagion of Autobiographical Memories

Today's post is from Celia Harris, who works in the Department of Cognitive Science at Macquarie University in Sydney Australia. In this post she summarises research from her paper "Social Contagion of Autobiographical Memories" recently published in Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition.

I’m interested in memory, and particularly the social and functional aspects. What do we use memory for in our day-to-day lives, and in our social relationships? And how does this inform our models and theories of memory, which have typically been developed by focusing on individuals learning word lists in a lab?

One of the aims of my research has been to counter the negative emphasis on the power of social interaction to distort memory. My research suggests that social influence does indeed shape and alter memories in interesting ways, consistent with our goals of agreeing with others and being informed by them. However I argue that we shouldn’t necessarily see these influences as “distortion” and individual memory as “pure”, but rather we should understand these social influences on memory in their ecological context as serving goals for individuals and groups.

In a recent paper, along with my co-authors, I reported a study where we applied the “social contagion of memory” paradigm to autobiographical memories. Social contagion – adopting a ‘disease’ metaphor for social influence – is an experimental method that has been developed to study social influences on memory in the laboratory. In the original paradigm, participants view a set of household scenes and recall them with a confederate (acting as a fellow participant but actually working for the experimenter). During the course of their joint recall, this confederate mentions specific false items that never appeared. The social contagion effect is demonstrated when participants later recall these false items as if they had actually seen them.

We were interested in whether we would find similar effects when people recalled and discussed personally experienced events instead of more artificial stimuli. In our autobiographical adaptation, participants described four specific events to a confederate, who also described four (scripted) events. Participants and confederates summarised each other’s memories, and the confederate inserted two specific new details when they summarised participant’s memories. We tested whether participants later included these details when recalling alone, thus showing evidence of social contagion.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

TEDxBrum 2017

On 15th October 2017, a team of volunteers headed by Immy Kaur hosted TEDxBrum 2017 at the Birmingham Hippodrome. The theme for the day was Perspectives: "we learn more about reality by sharing perspectives". On stage speakers and performers powerfully addressed the theme by reference to their own experiences, art, work, or research.

Some talks discussed the importance of new technological advances and their potential challenges.

Catherine Allen talked about virtual reality (VR) and argued that this new technology has a lot of potential but we should develop some critical distance from it. VR is special because it is not a rectangular space that represents reality (which is what TV, mobile phones, or laptops do) but it is a simulation of reality that enables people to do things rather than just watch, and to empathise with other people.

Ade Adewunmi addressed the contradictions of a software-mediated world. Personal data are gathered by manufacturers, because of their economic value. If manufacturers both own customers' data and control the use of the devices they sell, we have a situation where there is a power imbalance. Customers should start negotiating with manufacturers so that product information can be shared.

Other talks focused on the idea of a city: what makes a city a good city?

Glenn Howells argued that good cities are interesting places where things spontaneously happen and not everything is regulated in all the tiny details. When regulation becomes too suffocating, telling citizens what they can and cannot do even with the space, the city does not develop its own distinctive style. Some spaces should be created without a specific purpose, so that they can develop into something dynamic.

Amahra Spence talked about the need for artists to create spaces where they can live and work together and contribute to the rest of the city. She designed what she calls an artist-led hotel where people can stay and share project spaces. She is also involved in community hubs built for inclusivity where training for young people can happen and ideas can be exchanged.  

Two talks were particularly close to the themes of PERFECT.

Rob Nash discussed the widespread occurrence of false and distorted memories. He argued that remembering is not like going to the library to get a book (information being retrieved), but it is like telling a story (information being constructed). When we tell a story, we add some details or focus on some aspects of what happened to make a point or provoke a reaction.

And I (Lisa Bortolotti) presented our project PERFECT's perspective on mental health: by stressing that experiences of mental distress can be understood in context and often have positive as well as negative outcomes, we can undermine the foundations of mental health stigma and recognise that we are all vulnerable to unreliable memories and poorly supported beliefs.

It was a great day and I learnt a lot by listening to the other speakers and talking to some very engaged members of the audience. TEDxBrum is a perfect example of how to bring expertise and research to bear on people's lives in a fun and informative way.

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

What Causes Post-Traumatic Stress?

Today's post features Christopher Mole, Associate Professor of Philosophy, and Chair of the Programme in Cognitive Systems at the University of British Columbia. In this post he outlines a recent debate concerning the causes of intrusive memory in post traumatic stress. 

Christopher has published on this topic in his papers "A methodological flaw in 'The neural basis of flashback formation: the impact of viewing trauma'" (Psychological  Medicine, 46(8), p. 1785) and "Causes and correlates of intrusive memory: a response to Clark, MacKay, Holmes and Bourne." (Psychological Medicine, 46(15), p. 3255).

People often witness events that cause post-traumatic stress in others, without suffering from such stress themselves. Because of that, it has been supposed that the explanation of PTSD should not be sought in the experience of the traumatizing event, but in disruptions to the processes that occur in the days and weeks after it: processes of grieving, coping, and coming to terms.

That supposition is questionable, and an explanation of the fact that only some witnesses to an event will be traumatized by it does not require it. That fact could instead be explained in lots of other ways. Some disgusting event might traumatize Jones, but not Smith, because Jones has just eaten. Some violent event might traumatize Smith, but not Jones, because Smith better understands its consequences. And so on, for any number of other reasons; some to do with differences of situation, some with differences of personality, some with cognitive factors, and some with emotional ones. There is no need to suppose that the untraumatized person has better coping capabilities than the traumatized one.

The several factors that might contribute to post-traumatic stress at the time of the traumatizing event have seldom been studied, partly because the assumption that PTSD is a disorder of subsequent coping has long been the orthodoxy, and partly because such peri-traumatic factors are hard to observe in the lab. A series of experiments has begun to rectify this. The experiments use fMRI to observe the brains of people who are watching films of events such as eye-surgeries and road traffic accidents, and who are therefore undergoing something analogous to a traumatizing experience. 

These participants are then asked to keep a diary, which enables the researchers to ascertain which of the upsetting films are recollected intrusively. Such experiments enable us to identify factors at the time of a traumatizing experience that contribute to its PTSD-like recollection. They have made a crucial contribution to our understanding of the ways in which peri-traumatic factors might contribute to PTSD. (A review of this paradigm can be found here.)

These experiments are undoubtedly of the first importance, but I have a qualm about one way in which their results have been interpreted. To bring the qualm into view, notice that, whereas some of the possible peri-traumatic contributors to PTSD are emotional (Smith is frightened), some are not (Jones has just eaten). One might naïvely suppose that it is always the emotional factors doing the work. Jones having eaten contributes to his trauma only to the extent that it makes him susceptible to an emotion; in this case disgust. Smith’s understanding of the violence contributes to her trauma, only to the extent that it makes her susceptible to an emotion; in this case fear. According to this naïve view, the immediate causes of trauma-symptoms are emotional through and through. That view may ultimately prove to be mistaken. My qualm is that it has been dismissed too quickly. The data that are thought to make trouble for it do not.

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Beyond Concepts

This post is by Ruth Millikan. Ruth Garrett Millikan is Distinguished Professor Emerita at the University of Connecticut. She is a Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and Winner of the 2017 Researcher Prize for Systematic Philosophy.

I am a retired professor of philosophy from the University of Connecticut with special interests in thought and language, the ontological structures of the world that support thought and language and the kinds of selection ---- genetic, learning, cultural ---- responsible for their evolution and development.

Beyond Concepts weaves together themes from natural ontology and from the philosophies of mind, language and information. The sprawling topic is Kant's how is knowledge possible? but viewed from a contemporary naturalist standpoint. The assumption is that we, along with the other animals, are evolved creatures that use cognition as a guide in dealing with the natural world, and that the natural world is, roughly, as natural science has tried to describe it. Very unlike Kant, then, the book begins with a discussion of what the world is like prior to cognition, only later developing theories about the nature of cognition within that world.

Central to the view of cognition is the introduction of “unicepts” and “unitrackers” which, together, serve to replace traditional concepts. They are responsible for “tracking” items perceived in different ways and at different times, for recognizing what is the same again as the same again and for storing information thus collected in a way that marks it clearly as information about the same. A novel description of the act of recognizing an identity is central. The ways that various unicept complexes may be developed from experience over time is explored, one conclusion being that the law of noncontradiction acts as a regulative principle in the fashioning of unitrackers, coherence serving as a test for correspondence. The training of unitrackers is not always successful but sometimes leaves behind redundant, equivocal or even empty unicepts or “would-be” unicepts.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

No need to know

Matthew Frise is a Lecturer at Santa Clara University. He writes on memory in epistemology and the philosophy of mind. In this post he discusses his paper "No Need to Know" published in Philosophical Studies in 2017.

Knowing isn’t always best. It’s never best, actually. Something that’s not quite knowledge can be just as great. And folks think knowledge is great. In fact, some philosophers think it’s so great that we should focus on explaining other great things in terms of it. Some even think knowledge isn’t just valuable, but uniquely valuable. Nothing else has its value. Knowledge, after all, closes inquiry. Once we get it, our investigation wraps up. Also, we seem to prefer knowing over any kind of not knowing. Doesn’t that all show knowledge is special?

Nope. Some knowledge shares its value with something that isn’t knowledge. If that’s right, knowledge isn’t so special. Its value isn’t unique to it. What shares the value of knowledge? Being in a position to know. A person in a position to know some fact already has plenty of reason to believe it, yet doesn’t believe. When you are in a position to know, you are geared up to know. All you still need to do is believe – on the reasons you’ve already got – and you’d know.

Here is why being in a position to know is as good as knowing: belief is fiddly, and memory is a rascal. Human memory works in surprising ways, partly having to do with belief. It turns out we don’t always believe what we would have thought we believe. This is because memory isn’t hanging on to the beliefs you form, or to all that believing requires. Instead it’s hanging on to a blueprint for belief. It’ll use the blueprint and crank out a belief whenever one is ordered. In the meantime, memory’s shelves are empty of beliefs.

Another surprise about memory: it likes to hang on to and even piece together information we never actually believed, but would believe, if we only gave it a moment’s thought.

Whatever we don’t believe, we don’t know. Since memory doesn’t stock beliefs, it doesn’t stock much of the knowledge we once had. Then again, memory can put us within spitting distance of new knowledge, knowledge we never thought we had. So there’s a lot we don’t know, but only thanks to bitty technicalities about how memory happens to work. Still, memory puts us in a position to know quite a bit.

And that’s great – great in the way that knowing is great. We can stop inquiring, once we’re in a position to know. We wouldn’t always find reason to trade places with someone who knows whatever we’re just in a position to know. It’s odd to suppose that, merely forming belief here – going from a position to know, to knowing – would always drive up value. Better to suppose the value doesn’t always change, to suppose something besides knowledge can have the value we thought belonged to it alone. The value of knowledge isn’t unique. Knowing is still great, but there’s no need to know. That’s surprising. But so is memory.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Reasons, Rationality, and Intentional Agency

Christian List organised a two-day workshop on Reasons, Rationality, and Intentional Agency in the Lakatos Building (picture above) at the LSE on 29th and 30th September 2017. I was lucky enough to attend three talks on the 29th, and here is a brief report. The event was funded by the Leverhulme via a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship awarded to List.

Kate Vredenburgh from Harvard (picture above) opened the workshop with a paper entitled “Rational Choice Explanation”. She started with the observation that choice-frameworks have been criticised a lot recently. Especially, the revealed preferences approach, according to which statements about preferences are summaries of choice behaviour, has been criticised on the basis that it cannot provide causal explanations and action explanations. Vredenburgh's main thesis was that, if revealed preferences theorists adopt a unificationist theory of explanation, then they can avoid some of the problems.

Revealed preferences are not something constructed out of preference data but something that summarises the choices the agent made (or the agent could make, depending on interpretations). The main objection is that the revealed preferences approach is circular and thus cannot explain choice on the basis of preferences. But one assumption in this argument is that for something to be a good explanation it needs to refer to the causal mechanisms responsible for the phenomenon to be explained. 

We can resist this assumption by adopting a unificationist account of explanation where all the explanation does is systematise the information about the phenomenon. The revealed preference relation explains by efficiently fitting individual choices into a pattern of choices. According to Vredenburgh, unificationism matches well the spirit of the revealed preferences approach because preferences fail to tell us something about choices that is not already implicit in the choices themselves.

Francesco Guala from Milan (picture above) presented a paper entitled “Preferences: Neither Behavioural nor Mental”. In the old behaviourist approach (1900-1950) the attempt was to do without any psychological concept, and preferences were reduced to observed choice behaviour. There is an ambiguity in the view: are preferences revealed by behaviour or are they just behaviour? The latter position is not held by many.

For Guala behaviourism is untenable but mentalism is not a good option either. So we need a third way. The untenability of behaviourism is due to the fact that two people can make the same choice but have very different preferences. And this has already been shown. But the inadequacy of mentalism needs to be argued for, and this is the purpose of the talk. Guala talks about preferences as dispositions, where for S to have a disposition to B is for S to be disposed to do B in C. Dispositions do not give us the details of the causal process, but they are informative. Dispositions don’t tell us about causal bases, but looking at causal bases is useful to establish how to model dispositions.

Two different but related projects can be pursued: (a) in choice theory preferences explain behaviour and (b) in behavioural economics psychological dispositions explain preferences. But these psychological dispositions are not mental! The 'psychological' there only indicates that economists need to know about psychological theories and psychological methods for research concerning preferences. 

There is no reasons we exclude from choice theory decisions made by robots, organisations, animals, etc. Choice theory can be applied to the behaviour of all the systems that have the following characteristics: S has conflicting goals and there are trade-offs to make; and S resolves the conflict by weighing pros and cons. But the weighing of the pros and cons does not need to be in the human brain. So the preferences economists are interested in are not mental, they are dispositional properties with different causal bases (in humans these are psychological states, which means that you need to study them using the resources of psychology; but in other creature they may be something else).

Franz Dietrich (CNRS & PSE) talked about “Reason-based choice: An overview and progress report”. He argued that there are two paradigms about choice: ranking-based vs. reason-based.
According to the ranking-based approach, we do something because we rank it highest. According to the reasons-based approach, we do something following our best reasons. Dietrich prefers the reason-based model he developed with Christian List.

There are three problems with ranking-based explanations of choice:

· Empirical problem. This kind of explanation for actual choice has been falsified because we are not as rational as the model suggests.

· Explanatory problem. Preferences do not genuinely explain choice. Preferences are at best the most immediate cause of a choice, but they are rarely part of the most interesting causal explanation (the causal explanation is not at the right level). There may be choices that are not caused by preferences at all. Also, preferences do not give us reasons for choices.

· Predictive problem. An ordering of the options does not help us make predictions that are non-trivial. We cannot make predictions in novel contexts on the basis of preferences. (This is the problem that would most interest economists).

The reasons-based explanation Dietrich favours says that each option has several properties: option properties (e.g. the sweet is healthy); context properties (e.g. there are 12 sweets in the basket); and relational properties (e.g. the sweet is the smallest sweet left in the basket). An agent’s choice is explained by a reason structure: a motivational salience function (which for each context specifies the motivationally salient properties of an option) and a preference relation between property bundles (e.g. politeness trumps the preference for healthy sweets). For each choice there are several reason structures that could explain that choice (underdetermination). Which explanation is chosen is determined by (1) psychological accuracy; (2) prediction in novel contexts; (3) welfare judgements.

It was a very informative morning session, with some interesting overlap among the talks!