Monday, 31 March 2014

Perfect Me!

This week and next, Professor Heather Widdows writes about the philosophy behind notions of ideal beauty and perfection.

One of the books I'm currently working on is about beauty. Called Perfect Me! From October I will be full time working on this – thanks to the award of a Major Research Fellowship from the Leverhulme Trust.

Perfect me! explores the ideal of perfection as exhibited in contemporary, and increasingly global, ideals of beauty. It considers whether being perfect is something that individuals really choose, or whether it is an increasingly constraining and dominating ideal.  Perfect me! can be read in a number of ways: as an individual’s aspiration to perfect themselves (‘I want to be perfect’), as assertion of what being perfect is (‘this is what I would be if I were perfect’), and as a command which a woman (or man) feels she should obey (‘you should be perfect’). In the book I explore all of these meanings, with particular focus on the moral element that each reading implies: the first, that being perfect is worth having; the second, a judgement that this is what perfection is; and the third, a moral imperative to attain it.

Too often beauty – appearance and body image – is treated by philosophers as something trivial. This is borne out by the lack of research on this area in mainstream philosophy. Philosophers, especially moral philosophers, have tended to look at beauty as an abstract concept or in the context of the sublime, rather than as attached to real bodies and as influencing how real people actually feel. But beauty is not trivial. It is a dominating ideal and one which pervades nearly every aspect of contemporary life. It is an ideal by which we judge other people – and women particularly. Think about the coverage of sports women or politicians or almost any woman in the public eye. Media coverage invariably comments on how they look irrespective of the story. Whatever women are trying to do and say they will also be judged on how they look. This is not something which is only true of those in the public eye – but more and more for all of us. Through social media women – and girls – are judged and ‘liked’ according to how they look and we create ourselves by the pictures we use to represent ourselves. Whether or not you think that this should be the case it is hard to pretend that it isn't. Try telling a school girl that it’s ‘what’s inside that counts’ when she’s being ‘virtually’ bullied about pictures her ‘friends’ posted of her (there is nothing virtual about this type of bulling, it is real and devastating). Or think about the recent debate about women posting barefaced (no-make-up) selfies in order to raise money for cancer. For some this is brave, for others it is, and should be, ‘normal’. Whatever your view is it is certainly the case that how we, individually and collectively, present our physical form to ourselves and to others (and in turn how we judge others) is currently primary in our society. It matters.

My view is that if philosophy wants to continue to address core questions –  questions about ‘what are human beings?’, ‘what is the self?’, ‘what gives meaning to life?’ and ‘what makes life fulfilling and flourishing? – then thinking philosophically about how the beauty ideal functions, and how it should function, is anything but trivial.

I will say more about this is next week’s blog and if you would like to hear me talk more about this I will be talking at this year’s Hay Festival.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Philosophy of Mind and Psychology Reading Group -- The Predictive Mind chapter 2

Welcome to the second post of the online reading group in the Philosophy of Mind and Psychology hosted by the Philosophy@Birmingham blog. This month, Alastair Wilson (Birmingham Fellow in Philosophy specialising in Metaphysics and Philosophy of Physics) presents chapter 2 of The Predictive Mind by Jakob Hohwy (OUP 2013).

Alastair Wilson

Chapter 2 - Prediction Error Minimization
Presented by Alastair Wilson

According to the perceptual error minimization (PEM) model, perception is inferential. Chapter 2 addresses a crucial question for any inferential approach - where do the priors come from? - and argues that PEM offers a new answer to this question.
A statistical illustration Translating talk of Bayesian priors into curve-fitting for illustrative purposes, what we want is a mechanism which will optimize the trade-off between accuracy and over-fitting. This means that there is a need to factor in expected noise levels in the incoming data when determining how low to force the prediction error. PEM implements this via the following feedback loop:


Use prior beliefs harnessed to an internal model to generate predictions of the sensory input



Revise models prediction or change sensory input to minimize prediction error subject to expectations of noise.



Reconceiving the Relation to the World  PEM goes beyond the analogy with trial-and-error procedures. The primary representational content of perception is encoded in the downwards/backwards connections between levels in the hierarchy rather than in the upwards/forwards connections. That is, perceptual content primarily consists in the predictions that higher levels are making about lower levels rather than in any top-down interpretation of the signals that higher levels receive from lower levels. "The functional role of the bottom-up signal from the world is then to be feedback on the internal models of the world." (47)

Monday, 24 March 2014

Believing at Will

This week, Ema Sullivan-Bissett discusses why we cannot believe at will.

In my PhD thesis I am giving an account of belief which explains the link between belief and truth. One of the features of belief I am interested in is our inability to bring about beliefs at will. Most philosophers agree that we cannot bring about beliefs at will, but there has been disagreement about precisely what this inability amounts to.

I think that the various requirements for a case to count as one of willed belief, found in the work of philosophers working in this area, are captured by the Uncontrollability Thesis, which is the claim that ‘unmediated conscious belief-production is impossible’ (Noordhof 2001: 248).
I cannot bring about the belief that I’m an awesome dancer, just like that, i.e. without mediation. The ‘unmediated’ clause rules out cases in which I bring about the belief that my arm is in the air by raising my arm, or I bring about the belief that I am a chicken, by seeing a hypnotist—these believings would be mediated. We might usefully compare this to the imagination. I can imagine, just like that, without mediation. I can imagine that I am an awesome dancer just like that, I can imagine that my arm is in the air, just like that, and I can imagine that I am a chicken, just like that. I can imagine all of these things consciously, and without mediation, but I cannot believe them consciously, and without mediation.
In my PhD thesis I give an explanation of why we cannot believe at will—of why the Uncontrollability Thesis is true—by appealing to the one of the biological functions of our mechanisms for belief production. I claim that what is essential to belief is its motivational role, whereas our inability to believe at will is just a contingent feature, grounded in our biological history. This means that I allow for believers in other possible worlds who can bring about beliefs at will.         

Many philosophers will be unhappy with my explanation because it treats the Uncontrollability Thesis as expressing a contingent claim. They think that our inability to believe at will does not reflect a fact about us, but rather reflects a fact about the nature of belief itself. Indeed, ‘[m]ost’ philosophers take it that ‘our inability to bring about a belief just like that is a conceptual matter’ (Scott-Kakures 1994: 77), and ‘there is a widespread sense’ that ‘there is something in the nature of belief that makes it impossible to decide to believe a proposition for which one lacks epistemic support’ (Frankish 2007: 528). More strongly: ‘[t]here is [...] something so chokingly unswallowable about the idea of someone’s voluntarily coming to believe something that I have to suspect that this is ruled out at a deeper level than the contingent powers of our minds’ (Bennett 1990: 3). In my thesis I argue that this consequence of my account of belief is not so ‘chokingly unswallowable’ after all.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Feminist Philosophy Reading Group

This week, Doctoral Researcher Sarah-Louise Johnson discusses the feminist philosophy reading group at the University of Birmingham.

Much of my doctoral research broadly fits into the category of ‘feminist philosophy’ and as such I decided at the beginning of the academic year to set up a reading group for staff and post-graduate students to meet every two weeks and discuss a paper or book chapter which could be considered as feminist philosophy. In this post I will discuss what we have been getting up to so far with this reading group, and why feminist philosophy is an important area of research.

Birmingham’s feminist philosophy reading group has been meeting every two weeks for the past five months to discuss a range of papers and book chapters, in order to foster conversation and improve our respective research projects that relate to feminist philosophy. We set up a blog to detail what we were reading, both as information for those who would be attending upcoming sessions and as a log of what we had covered in the group so far. To date we have read and discussed both classic feminist work (Bartky; Bordo; Jaggar) and contemporary feminist work (Beres; Phillips; Saul; Scheman; Sveinsdottir; Weir and Sholock) which detailed arguments on a wide range of debates. These included: sexual consent, essentialism, gender and race, shame, love and knowledge, political demands, bodies and femininity, social kinds, freedom, and privilege.

One may question whether feminist philosophy matters, and if so why it matters. I would claim that feminist philosophy matters for three reasons. First, feminism is an important political movement that still has resonance today.  At its core feminism exposes and seeks to correct the marginalisation of women’s experiences and aims to address gender injustice (Clack 2014). This is encapsulated by the feminist slogan ‘the personal is political’. Second, philosophy is an important tool for providing detailed analysis and arguments which support the positions contained within it. Therefore, philosophical enquiry can help to shed light on previously unconnected concepts and be used to convince others closer to the truth of a certain matter. Third, feminist philosophy is an important sub-discipline within philosophy that bridges many traditional divides; and whilst feminist philosophers are not a homogenous group, one thing that is common to all feminist philosophies is the desire to embed philosophical ideas in practice by putting the experience of the human subject at the heart of philosophical research (Ibid). Briefly then, I think that feminism is important, philosophy is important, and feminist philosophy is particularly important at seeking to question gendered injustices through rational argument, and as such should be considered an important area of research.

The University of Birmingham feminist philosophy reading group is open to all postgraduates and staff across the university. So far we have participants from the departments of Philosophy, Theology, Politics, and Law. If you are interested in joining us please do not hesitate to email Sarah for further details. 

Monday, 3 March 2014

Birmingham Workshops in Philosophy - Belief & Perceptual Reasons

Belief & Perceptual Reasons

The presentations of this workshop will all investigate the notion of belief. This event is part of the new Birmingham Workshops in Philosophy series.

Wednesday 12th of March, 2014

10am - 4pm

Open to all.

10:40am  Coffee & Biscuits

11:00am  Scott Sturgeon (Birmingham): “The Tale of Bella and Creda”


1:45 Coffee

2pm         Rae Langton (Cambridge): “Moral Realism and the Plasticity of Mind”

4pm        Susanna Siegel (Birmingham, Harvard): “Can Expertise Rationally
                Influence Perceptual Experience?"

Talks will be in room Lecture Room 3 of the Learning Centre: R28 on the campus map.

Mental Illness: Philosophy, Ethics and Society

A public engagement event, Mental Illness: Philosophy, Ethics and Society, will be held at the University of Birmingham during the Arts & Science Festival on March 17, 2014. The purpose of the event is to discuss the relationship between psychiatric diagnosis and responsibility for action based on some case studies.

The event is free and open to the general public. If interested in participating, please email Kengo. More information will be available here.

13:00-13:20: a talk by Dr Matthew Broome (Arts Building, Lecture Room 5)
13:20-13:30: a commentary by Professor Lisa Bortolotti
13:30-13:50: Q&A session
13:50-14:10: a short break with refreshments
14:10-15:00: group discussions moderated by Ema Sullivan-Bissett and
        Kengo Miyazono (Arts Building, G51, 141)