Thursday, 31 August 2017

Cognitive Phenomenology: An interview with Peter Carruthers

In this post Federico Bongiorno (PhD student at the University of Birmingham) interviews Peter Carruthers, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Maryland, College Park, MD. Peter’s research has focused predominantly on philosophy of mind, philosophy of psychology, and cognitive science. Here, Federico and Peter (pictured below) discuss Peter's position on the debate over cognitive phenomenology.





FB: Your recent work has focussed, among other things, on the question of cognitive phenomenology. Roughly, the question amounts to asking whether cognition has its own phenomenal character. Can you tell us more about this issue and its significance?

PC: The first thing that I ought to mention is that this is joint work done with Bénédicte Viellet. The issue is essentially whether thought has a phenomenal character that is not reducible to other kinds of phenomenal character. Thought is often associated with phenomenal states. As you listen to me speaking now, you are extracting meaning. At the same time, you have the phonology of the sentences that I am using and you might also be forming visual images or other kinds of affective associations. 

So there is going to be a whole wealth of phenomenal character that goes along with the meaning of any particular sentence that I utter. The question of cognitive phenomenology can be stated as follows: is there some distinctive phenomenology that belongs to the concepts and propositions themselves, that doesn’t just reduce to all the surrounding stuff? 

For instance, when you think a thought, there is a phenomenology of inner speech. But is there also a phenomenology that is distinctive to the thought that you are thinking in inner speech? If you could have the pure thought, would that have a phenomenology in its own right, independent of its causes and effects on the rest of your mental life?

I became interested in these sorts of questions back when I was working on qualia and phenomenal consciousness. It seemed to me that what gave rise to the hard problem of consciousness was distinctively to do with those kinds of mental states that you can form recognitional concepts for – as happens, for instance, when you experience red and form a concept for the way the experience of red is for you. These mental states do in fact give rise to thought-experiments of the ‘hard problem’ sort. 

You can have, for instance, zombie thought experiments, and speculate that zombies might be able to employ direct recognitional concepts of their brain states, even if those states have no associated phenomenal quality. But you can also have inverted-spectrum thought experiments, where an experience which we form the direct recognitional concept of red for is caused by perception of green. 

What occurred to me is that we don’t have analogous recognitional concepts for thoughts – the idea that you can, for instance, recognise the occurrence of the concept seven being tokened in yourself struck me as implausible. These considerations motivated me to argue that there is no cognitive phenomenology, as thoughts and conceptual states do not give rise to the sort of hard-problem thought-experiments that perceptual states do. My view is that we ought to maintain the original position, viz., that phenomenology belongs with the sensitive, whilst cognitive states do get bound into sensory states but do not add any distinctive phenomenal component on their own.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Self-knowledge and First-person Authority

This post is by Fleur Jongepier (picture below). Starting Autumn 2017 she will be based in Cambridge (UK), working on the role and value of self-knowledge in contemporary liberalism.





Normally, our sincere self-ascriptions, like “I want some coffee” or “I hope the meeting will be cancelled”, are not open to correction or challenge, for instance by asking me “Are you sure?”. Indeed, we would normally consider it inappropriate to do so (as expressivists like Dorit Bar-On have argued, see e.g. Bar-On and Long 2001; Bar-On 2004). Now most traditional theories of self-knowledge think of the special sort of authority that subjects have when speaking about their own mental states is to be explained epistemically. In other words, what is referred to as ‘first-person authority’ is typically explained in terms of self-knowledge: it’s because you know your own mental states particularly well that you are particularly well-placed to say something about them.

First-personal authority gets more complex, and I think perhaps philosophically and otherwise more interesting, when we consider more problematic first-personal statements. Consider for instance an utterance like “I am going to commit suicide” or “I should kill my daughter.” Sadly, some people self-ascribe these sorts of mental states, too – not just beliefs about the rain or a desire for getting a beer from the fridge (despite most of the examples in the self-knowledge literature).

But suppose that you are a close friend or family member of the person making one of these utterances, and suppose further that you actually know the utterance is false. Perhaps you found out that the person who - sincerely and perhaps repeatedly - thinks and says she wants to kill herself does not really mean it. Or you come to know, for instance, that the person who says she wants to kill her daughter suffers from OCD and does not genuinely have the desire to kill her daughter. Damiaan Denys for instance describes the following prototypical case of a young mother suffering from OCD:

When I’m alone at home and I see my daughter sleeping in her crib then I can see myself strangling her. I’m terribly shocked by the thought and I am very frightened by it. If nobody holds me back, I could murder my daughter. I don’t want to harm her, but there is no guar- antee that I never will. I can’t control myself any longer. I thought I was a good mother, but the fact that I think about it says something about who I really am. It shows that perhaps I don’t love my daughter enough. I don’t want to think about it but I’m not able to keep the thought out of my mind. The harder I resist, the stronger the thought is. (Denys 2011)

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Delusions: Understanding the Un-Understandable


Today's post is by Peter McKenna. He is a psychiatrist with some background in psychology, currently working full-time in research in Barcelona. He introduces his new book Delusions: Understanding the Un-understandable.



I have been interested in delusions for a long time and around five years ago decided to try and write a book on the topic. The result, for better or worse, is Delusions: Understanding the Un-understandable. The ‘un-understandable’ of the title references Jaspers’ contention that delusions are a) psychologically irreducible, ie they cannot be derived from other psychological experiences, either normal or abnormal; and b) are unmediated, ie they are immediate rather than being the product of reflection (for a good and concise account of Jaspers’ views, see Walker, 1991).

Apart from the work of Jaspers, who was a philosopher as well as a psychiatrist and whose thoughts on delusions have influenced successive generations of clinicians, I made a deliberate decision not to include any philosophy in the book. Nevertheless, the book may still intersect with the interests of followers of Imperfect Cognitions, as follows.

First of all, the book gives a detailed description of delusions as they are encountered in clinical practice. This is something I feel it is important to do, since it often seems like authors writing on delusions are trying to represent them as something they are not. It is not uncommon to hear statements (especially from psychologists) that there is something true at the heart of any delusion. In fact, as the book tries to show, delusions are a much more weird and wonderful phenomenon than this. Where is the hidden core of truth in John Nash’s (of A Beautiful Mind) letter turning down a job offer by a university on the grounds that he was about to take up a position as emperor of Antarctica? Or in the account of a patient who once told me that his brain had recently been removed from his body, flown to America, and taken to a recording studio on a wheelchair, where it took part in a recording session with a rap artist?

At various points the book addresses the important question of continuity between delusions and the beliefs expressed by normal or at least not frankly mentally ill people. While the continuum view of psychosis is currently very popular, I personally see many pitfalls and complexities with this view. Some well-known kinds of false beliefs that arise in healthy people – for example end of the world cults, witch-hunts and conspiracy theories – have in common that they are a) shared and b) impersonal. This is in contrast to delusions which are idiosyncratic and (in most cases at least) personal, ie focused on the person concerned or those close to him/her, rather than concerning the world at large. While I would certainly not deny that some normal people have psychotic-like experiences, the rates of 5-7% currently quoted by authors like Linscott and van Os (2013) are inflated by quite serious uncriticality of the approach used to elicit them. In fact, the case for a continuum is actually stronger for other kinds of abnormal beliefs, such as overvalued ideas and Beck’s depressive cognitions.




Two separate chapters review psychological theories of delusions. The results of this exercise are rather disappointing. Popular approaches such as probabilistic reasoning bias (‘jumping to conclusions’) and theory of mind abnormality are simply not supported by the available evidence. Specifically, while impairments are present in patients with schizophrenia/psychosis, in neither case do they correlate with scores on delusion scales. Rather more promising is the ‘two-factor’ theory, applied to the Capgras delusion and other so-called monothematic delusions in patients with neurological disease. The conclusion I reach in the book is that something like the two stage verification process of novel and unexpected events that Coltheart’s group and others have argued for, almost certainly must take place; nothing else seems capable of accounting for symptoms like confabulation and anosognosia for hemiplegia. The problem here, however, is an almost complete lack of formal experimental evidence.

Finally, if any of you would like an accessible guide to the currently extremely influential aberrant salience theory (and one that is entirely free of mathematical formulas), the book provides one. Is this theory supported? Well, it predicts that individuals with delusions (eg patients with schizophrenia, those with first-episode psychosis, those at high risk of developing psychosis) will show excessive activation in the ventral striatum, as salience gets inappropriately attributed to neutral stimuli. There is now ample evidence from fMRI studies using reward paradigms that activation in this brain region is abnormal in all these clinical groups. The only slight problem is that it the activation is reduced rather than increased. Maybe, though, there is a way round this problem…

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Challenges to interpretation

Today's post is by Eivind Balsvik (pictured above), who is a Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Oslo, Norway. His principal research interests concern questions related to rationality, interpretation, and research ethics. He has also worked on the philosophy of Donald Davidson and theories of self-knowledge. In this post, he presents a recent article published in Philosophy of the Social Sciences entitled “Interpretivism, First-Person Authority, and Confabulation.”

My article, “Interpretivism, First-Person Authority, and Confabulation” is a first step in developing a weakly naturalistic interpretation theory for the social sciences, which is consistent with interpretivism. I have been interested in figuring out how a Davidson-inspired interpretation theory can incorporate psychological theories about the imperfections of cognition, which seems to fly in the face of his principles of holism, charity and the presumption of first-person authority. The project has prompted me to study philosophical theories of self-knowledge, psychological experiments that demonstrate confabulation, and dual-systems theory within psychology.

In the social sciences, it is widely accepted that an adequate description of social phenomena must include the participating agents’ own understanding of their actions. Social actors are “self-interpreting animals” (Taylor 1985), whose beliefs and desires, values and preferences enter constitutively into what they do. Adequate descriptions of social action therefore require that social scientists engage in a “double hermeneutic” where the object is to interpret how knowledgeable agents conceive of their own actions (Giddens 1976). This approach has been coined interpretivism.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Distributed Cognition and Collaborative Skills

This post is by Alex Miller Tate (University of Birmingham), reporting from an event taking place in London at the Institute of Philosophy on 26th May 2017, entitled "The Distributed Cognitive Ecologies of Collaborative Embodied Skill".





Philosophers, psychologists, and others share an interest in how human beings act in the world. In particular, scholars are fascinated by how humans develop and then intelligently deploy complex suites of skills and abilities, successfully engaging with an equally complex and rapidly changing environment. Even more impressively, humans often coordinate their actions with others – synchronising with and complementing the actions of their peers in collaborative endeavours as varied as football games and musical performances.

This workshop, organised by John Sutton of Macquarie University, was focused around the investigation of this fascinating topic, with particular emphasis on ways in which our complex, structured, material and social environments act not as a further burden on intelligent collaborative action, but as an enabler of it. At this workshop’s heart was a coming together of work on environmentally situated cognition and collaborative action. While the workshop brought together an invariably insightful group of scholars, I shall focus on just three presentations here.

Emily Cross of Bangor University presented a number of fascinating studies that her lab had conducted on the many and subtle connections between action observation and action performance. Her lab’s work differs in one particularly important respect to other work in the area; they focus on complex rather than simple activities in their test environments. As a consequence, they are able to probe the effects of expertise and learning on action observation and vice versa, and open their investigations to the nature of involved whole-body movements, rather than small and constrained motions (which one might think are ecologically relatively rare). Specifically, her lab focuses on the forms of movement found in dance.


Emily Cross

While there were too many nuanced sets of results offered in her presentation to do justice to here, a few stood out. Firstly, her team have found evidence that sensorimotor brain regions are shaped similarly by both physical practice of complex, whole-body actions and the mere visual experience of another individual practicing the same action. This bolsters previous behavioural evidence that physical and observational rehearsal may share significantly common mechanisms. Moreover, the acquisition of expertise through weeks of learning significantly alters and sharpens activity in the brain associated with action simulation during observation, suggesting that degree and quality of action simulation is modulated by acquisition of embodied skill.

Finally, Cross and her colleagues are just beginning to unravel complex interactions between the development of expertise through physical practice, action simulation, and subjective aesthetic enjoyment of observed movements. Although there is some evidence that enjoyment increases as a function of perceived difficulty in untrained participants, early results look significantly more complex for trained dancers. All of this is grist to the mill for those who want to argue for the fundamentally embodied character of everyday acts of perception, and associated aesthetic judgments.


Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Morality constrains what we (implicitly) think is possible


My name is Jonathan Phillips and I earned my Ph.D. in Philosophy and Psychology at Yale in 2015. I am now a postdoc in the Moral Psychology Research Lab at Harvard. My research falls in the intersection of psychology, philosophy, and linguistics, and has focused on the psychological representation of modality, or the way our minds represent possibilities.

One incredibly important aspect of human cognition is that we are able to think not only about what is, but also what could be. This ability to represent and reason about non-actual possibilities plays a critical role in many of the judgments that have long interested philosophers and psychologists: it is essential, for example, in how we determine the causes of past events, decide whether a person acted freely, or figure out whether someone is morally responsible.

One interesting, though often overlooked, feature of these kinds of judgments is that humans seems to able to make them quickly and effortlessly. So, to the extent that they require us to represent or reason about alternative possibilities, we must not be doing it consciously or deliberatively. Instead, it seems that we must have some access to a default or implicit representation of possibility.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Autism and Responsibility





On June 7th, Ken Richman (MCPHS University, Boston) and Julian Savulescu (Oxford) hosted a small workshop on autism and moral responsibility at the University of Oxford. 

Some philosophers have argued that impaired cognitive empathy prevents autistic individuals from being fully morally responsible. Neuropsychologists working on autism, philosophers working on moral responsibility and psychiatric illness, autistic adults, and students and postdocs at the Oxford Uehiro Center for Practical Ethics came together to discuss autism and responsibility. Throughout the discussion, we focused on autistic individuals with average or higher intelligence, rather than those who also experience intellectual disability.


One of the first issues addressed was that questioning the moral responsibility of a certain group is extremely sensitive, as exempting individuals from responsibility entails doubting their moral agency, either in a specific situation or more generally. Such considerations might even be used to exclude a person from school or the workplace.

The capacities relevant to moral responsibility are generally considered to be volitional capacity (control) and understanding of the consequences and moral character of one’s actions. Both are affected by autism to some extent. However, autistic individuals are not more prone to committing crimes than the general population, and are not unusually prone to other kinds of immoral behaviour, either. My impression from the discussion was that problems arise most frequently when people are in overwhelming situations, or there can also be problems with inappropriate social behaviour, such as unintended rudeness.

It was pointed out that for most mental disorders, the disorder does not provide a blanket excuse or exemption from responsibility. Rather, what needs to be considered is how specific features of the disorder affected a specific action in order to make a case by case decision regarding excuse. For example, when making a responsibility judgment regarding an autistic child’s meltdown in a noisy situation, we need to take into account how much more stressful certain situations are for autistic children, as well as possible problems with volitional control. This implies that a global assessment of moral incapacity is inappropriate.

Under the label ‘authenticity’ we discussed approaches to moral responsibility and agency that require a morally competent agent not only to do the right thing, but to do it with the right feelings and attitudes. Examples introduced were comforting behaviour without typical feelings of empathy, and apologies without emotional appreciation of the harm done. In reaction to this, some of the participants with more experience with or of autism doubted that such descriptions, which ascribe a lack of affect to autistic individuals, are in fact accurate. It was pointed out that individuals with autism experience affective empathy and emotional contagion and primarily struggle with cognitive empathy, understanding and predicting what other people think. 

Issues are further complicated by another feature common among autistic people: alexithymia, the inability to identify and describe one’s own emotions. So it is important to note is that while the affective responses to other people’s plights may well be different, this does not mean that emotional responses are absent. Furthermore, many of us believed, contra some Strawsonian approaches, that the emotions with which individuals do the morally right thing should not feed into our moral evaluation of their actions, even if they may well influence other aspects of interpersonal relationships. 

The last point we discussed was whether autism has any effect on autonomy and people’s ability to make decisions for themselves. One frequently observed phenomenon is that parents of autistic children are often slower to let them make their own decisions because they want to protect them from ill-considered decisions arising from an inability to appreciate relevant options for action, or insufficient appreciation of the way their condition may affect the success of an action or project. In other words, there can be a struggle to balance respect with paternalistic care for autistic individuals’ welfare.


The workshop generated a very rich and interesting discussion which benefited immensely from the different perspectives that informed the conversation. 

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

How Stereotyping Leads to Misperception

In this post, Kathy Puddifoot, Research Fellow on Project PERFECT at the University of Birmingham, introduces her article, “Stereotyping: the Multifactorial View” recently published Open Access at Philosophical Topics.




Have you ever been sure that someone has made a false judgement about you because of how they perceive members of your social group? Have you ever suspected that you have made false judgement about someone else because you have applied a stereotype? Have you ever wanted to challenge someone else’s stereotyping on the basis that it will lead them to misperceive the people they stereotype? My paper identifies the conditions under which applying stereotypes about social groups leads to misperceptions like these.

One common assumption is that stereotyping only leads to misperception when it involves the application of a false stereotype. The idea is that if a stereotype accurately reflects an aspect of social reality then the application of the stereotype can only improve the chance of a correct judgement being made. Take the stereotype associating certain social groups with crime. If this stereotype reflects true crime rates then applying the stereotype will increase the chance of a person who engages in stereotyping making a correct judgement. I call this the single factor view of stereotyping.

According to another view, there are two factors that determine whether the application of a stereotype leads to misperception. The application of a stereotype increases the chance of an accurate judgement being made if the stereotype that is applied is accurate and good quality information about the individual to whom the stereotype is applied is sparse.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Moral Responsibility - Hard Cases



Sometimes, agents should not be held responsible for what they have done, for example because they lacked relevant information when acting, their reasoning was impaired or because they had insufficient control over their actions. However, it is controversial under which conditions we should refrain from attributing full responsibility.

On May 18, we looked at some such hard cases in a one day workshop. In the morning, speakers focused on non-clinical cases, in the afternoon, the focus was on impaired responsibility in individuals suffering from mental disorders.

In the first talk of the day, Philip Robichaud asked whether the presence of behavioural nudges make the nudged agent less praise- or blameworthy for what she has done under the influence of nudging. He argued that the extent to which agents' decisions are influenced does not differ fundamentally from other familiar cases where situational factors affect agents’ decisions.  The main problem Philip identified for being responsible for nudged actions lies in the fact that the changes in behaviour are the foreseen results of the interventions of another agent.

Lisa Bortolotti looked at the phenomenon of choice blindness and considered the extent to which we are responsible for choices which we make without being aware that we in fact made this choice. She argued that while we are frequently unaware of why we make a certain choice and may even be unaware of what choice we have made in certain experimental setups, we can still be responsible for our choices in as far as we endorse them and give reasons for them, thereby showing our commitment to them. This may even be the case when the choice we are endorsing is not in fact our original choice but a choice that we mistakenly take to be ours on the basis of experimental manipulation.


Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Depressive Delusions


My name is Magdalena Antrobus, I am a PhD student working on Project PERFECT, researching psychological and epistemic benefits of depression. Together with Lisa Bortolotti I wrote a paper entitled Depressive Delusions, exploring the nature of delusions in severe forms of depression as well as the process of their formation. Here we present a summary of the article, which was published in 2016 in the Filosofia Unisinos journal.

It is common to define delusions as implausible beliefs that are held with conviction but for which there is little empirical support. The vast majority of delusions appearing in severe depression are mood-congruent, which means that their content matches the mood experienced by the person (Hales and Yudofsky, 2003). Common themes of depressive delusions are persecution, guilt, punishment, personal inadequacy, or disease, with half of the affected people experiencing delusions with more than one theme. Stanghellini and Raballo (2015) point to several differences between schizophrenic and depressive delusions. People affected by schizophrenia often describe the adoption of the delusion as a discovery, such as the discovery of the true meaning of life, or of a new purpose for humanity (Stanghellini and Raballo, 2015, p. 173), although delusions can and often do incorporate aspects of the person’s everyday reality and past experience. Delusions that emerge in depression – on the other hand - confirm self-related information that is already known and familiar. Delusions of guilt – for example - may validate a feeling of guilt and confirm the person’s conviction that she has done something wrong.