Wednesday, 11 November 2015

What is optimism?

In this post Anneli Jefferson, research fellow at the University of Birmingham, announces a workshop on optimism in February 2016.

The Costs and Benefits of Unrealistic Optimism project looks at the nature of the optimism bias and at the consequences unwarranted optimism has for individuals and groups. It is a one year project funded by the Hope and Optimism funding initiative.

While there is a large body of research in psychology on the optimism bias, there is not much philosophical engagement with the topic. We (Lisa Bortolotti and Anneli Jefferson) are exploring the following questions: Is unrealistic optimism irrational? Can optimistically biased beliefs be said to be untrue? Why do we have these beliefs? What consequences do they have? Do they carry benefits in terms of resilience and coping? Do they aid or undermine our attempts to act morally? Do they leave us unprepared for harsh reality?

Some of these topics will be explored in an interdisciplinary workshop that will take place at Senate House in London on February 25th and 26th, 2016. We will be hearing from psychologists, neuroscientists, and philosophers. On the first day, the focus will be on the nature and causes of optimism, with contributions that focus on brain processes underlying optimism, the link between motivation and optimism and evolutionary accounts of unrealistic optimism. On the second day, we will be looking at the consequences of optimism, trying to tease out when these are beneficial and when detrimental. Realistically or not, we are convinced that this will be a great event well worth attending!

If you would like to attend this event, please go to the University of Birmingham online shop to register. 

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

PERFECT on Memory

This post is by Kathy Puddifoot, Research Fellow in Philosophy at the University of Birmingham, working on project PERFECT.

Kathy Puddifoot
Project PERFECT aims to understand the nature of false beliefs, distorted memories, and confabulated explanations. In particular, on the project we are exploring whether there are ever benefits that follow from these mental phenomena. We consider whether false beliefs, distorted memories or confabulated explanations ever have positive practical consequences, and whether they ever enable us to achieve epistemic goals, such as forming true beliefs.

Since October, I am one of the research fellows on the project. One strand of the research I am undertaking on the project focuses on distorted memories. I am studying cases in which individuals form false memories, strongly believing that they recollect things that did not occur. My aim is to get a better understanding of why distorted memories are formed, and to understand their place within the wider human memory system. 

I am currently exploring the hypothesis that at least some distorted memories are outputs of an otherwise efficient memory system working under constraints of time and cognitive capacity. Under this view, the memory system as a whole provides an effective way to produce true memory beliefs, and that memory distortions can be viewed as unfortunate outputs of features of a cognitive system that has distinct epistemic benefits. By understanding distorted memories in this way it will hopefully be possible to challenge the stigma surrounding cases in which memory produces false belief.

A second strand of research I am undertaking on the project focuses on how perception is influenced by memories of past experience. There has been lively debate about this topic in two areas of philosophy. Some discussion has focused on how beliefs can influence the way we perceive the world—something that has become known as cognitive penetration. Other philosophers discuss how stereotypes can determine the way individual members of social groups are perceived. Both the beliefs and the stereotypes that influence perception are the result of memories of past experiences. It seems that, depending on the situation, these states can either increase or decrease the accuracy of our perceptions. 

My project aims to identify the conditions under which accuracy of perception is increased and decreased. As a part of this research I will consider whether, and under what conditions, inaccurate beliefs and stereotypes, based on false memories or accurate memories of false views, can enhance or reduce the accuracy of perception. In the long term I intend to apply insights from this project to medical practice, to provide an account of the conditions under which accuracy of diagnostic and treatment decisions can be increased or decreased by medical practitioners drawing on past experience when perceiving their patients. 

This month project PERFECT features in the Birmingham Heroes campaign launched by the University of Birmingham to highlight research that matters: learn more about the project on the Birmingham Heroes website and follow our updates on Twitter.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

The Metaphysics of Time Travel in Literature - An Undergraduate Reflects

In the first post of the new academic year, University of Birmingham undergraduate student Harriet Walters reports on the 5 weeks she spent as an academic researcher as part of the Undergraduate Research Scholarship scheme.

I recently had the opportunity to be involved in an undergraduate research scholarship in the Philosophy Department.

The project, run by Nikk Effingham and Alastair Wilson, centred on the metaphysics of time travel in literature and involved the compilation and classification of instances of time travel in fiction. I was to classify notable occurrences of time travel across short stories and books, noting them for consistency, causal loops, and claims to scientific accuracy, amongst other things. Due to the sheer volume of time-travel fiction available, it required a fair amount of time to sift through such a quantity of work and necessitated that I was selective in my choices for classification. As such I focused on the early development of the time travel genre in fiction, and then later notable instances where the stories contained more novel conceptions of time and time travel, specifically on the author’s attempt to avoid paradoxes. I particularly enjoyed reading various attempts at resolving the notorious grandfather paradox and protagonists’ (mostly unsuccessful) inferences with past events. By far the most frustrating were the stories that finally revealed that the whole adventure had been nothing but a dream- although this did prove a handy escape for many previously inconsistent plots!

As a joint honours English Literature and Philosophy student, it was also especially intriguing to see how the genre developed - particularly over the 19th and 20th centuries. As a previous fan of H.G. Wells, I enjoyed tracing time travel fiction back to its origins, beyond science fiction and into the realm of supernatural and as the mechanism for utopian novels and societal critiques. This allowed me to study the transition between where time travel ended as a plot device and where a concern for paradoxes and causal interaction came into play, causing time travel to become a narrative interest in itself and leading to our modern understanding of science fiction time travel. It was also interesting to note the influence of scientific developments on science fiction writers, where the fiction became an outlet for exploring the possibility of time travel.

All in all it was both an enjoyable and a useful experience, allowing me to get first-hand experience of working on a project for an extended period. The nature of the project allowed me to incorporate both sides of my degree, and gave me a taste of independent research, something which will undoubtedly help me going into my third year and towards further study.

For more details about the University of Birmingham's Undergraduate Research Scholarship scheme, please contact:

Wednesday, 22 July 2015


Logo of project PERFECT
Project PERFECT wants to promote further investigation into whether false or irrational beliefs can be advantageous. Can such beliefs be biologically adaptive, enhance wellbeing, be conducive to the satisfaction of epistemic goals, or promote some other form of agential success? 

In the existing psychological literature, self-deception, positive illusions, delusions, confabulatory explanations, and other instances of false belief have been shown to be beneficial in one or more ways. However, in the philosophical literature, there has not been yet a systematic study of the role of false beliefs in supporting different aspects of human agency. We are organising a workshop which aims to fill this gap, PERFECT 2016, a workshop on False but Useful Beliefs (see link for a full programme).

Speakers will consider different types of beliefs that have an important role in supporting human agency. Some beliefs make us feel better about ourselves and even enhance our health prospects (e.g., positive illusions); some provide some explanation for very unusual experiences (e.g., clinical delusions); some protect us from undesirable truths (e.g., self-deception); some help us fill existing gaps in our memory (e.g., confabulation); some support a sense of community that improves social integration (e.g., religious beliefs). 

The workshop will encourage a reflection on the relationship among the different types of benefits that such beliefs can have and on the different aims and functions of beliefs. Registration is now open! The workshop will be held at Regent’s Conferences in central London on 4th and 5th February 2016. Keynote speakers include Anandi Hattiangadi, Allan Hazlett and Neil Van Leeuwen.

Please go the University of Birmingham online shop to register as places are limited.

Friday, 17 July 2015

On Emotions (a conference report)

In this post our PhD student Isaura Peddis reports from the second annual conference of the European Philosophical Society for the Study of Emotions (EPSSE).

The EPSSE is a young not-for-profit organisation, which was born to satisfy the demand for a deeper understanding in the subject of emotions and give a chance to those who, like me, are interested in this subject to connect together and share ideas.

The society hosted its second annual conference at the University of Edinburgh between the 14 and 17 July. 97 speakers from all around the globe participated in the conference and presented several topics and perspectives connected to the study of emotions; for example, aesthetic philosophy, theoretical philosophy, moral philosophy, political philosophy, philosophy of mind and ancient philosophy.

I had the pleasure to attend the conference as a member of the audience and as a speaker. The number of speakers and the quality of their work, made it difficult for me to choose what talks to attend. Among all the talks available the ones that I most enjoyed, due to the nature of the topic, were those by Sonja Rinofner-Kreidl (“The challenge of forgiveness: Shallow and Deep, Moral and Non-Moral”), Laura Candiotto ("Aporetic State: The Shameful Recognition of Contradictions in the Socratic Elenchus") and Christina Werner ("How can we be moved by the Fate of an Abstract Artefact? Created Non-spatial Entities as Intentional Objects of Fictional Emotions").

I presented my paper, "Aristotle and his Archetypal Classical Cognitive Theory of Emotions: a Philosophical Myth", during the second day of the conference. It was a big surprise for me to discover that my paper was selected to be presented during the section dedicated to ancient philosophy. When it comes to ancient philosophy, I consider myself to be an amateur who has a soft spot for the ancient Greek philosophy; therefore it was an honour to have the opportunity to share my ideas with those who not only share my passion but also are competent in the topic. In my paper, I argue that Aristotle cannot be considered a cognitivist; my assertion is based on the analysis of passages where Aristotle sketches out the passions and those where he outlines the sensitive faculty and determines that, inside his philosophy, the body, together with the cognition, has a role in the arousal of emotions.

The annual conference is not the only occasion where the members meet. In order to encourage the interaction between its members, the EPSSE, runs workshop all year round. The two upcoming for the next year are “Love and Time” that will take place in Israel in March 2015 and “The meaning of Moods” that will be held in Basel in December 2015. 

Athens is the city chosen for the third annual conference in 2016, therefore, Aristotle, wait for me at the Lyceum and I will share with you my ideas!

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Forthcoming Philosophy of Mind and Psychology Talks

On 30th June 2015, we shall have an exciting Delusions Lunchtime Seminar at the University of Birmingham, jointly organised by the Philosophy Department and the School of Psychology (under the Aberrant Experience and Belief Research Theme), and sponsored by project PERFECT.

The seminar will feature Dr Philip Corlett (Yale University) and Kengo Miyazono (Keio University) who will be talking about their latest research on delusion formation. Talks will be from 12 to 1:30pm in the Hills Building, room 1.20. Corlett's talk is entitled: "Delusions and the Brain: Using Cognitive Neuroscience to Understand Psychosis", and Miyazono's "Prediction-Errors and Two-Factors: A Hybrid Approach".

At 3:30pm on the same day, Kengo Miyazono will also be giving a talk in the Philosophy Department, European Research Institute room 149, entitled: "The Role of Imagination in Philosophical Thought Experiments".

On the following day, Lisa Bortolotti, Richard Bentall, and Philip Corlett will speak at a session on the function of delusions at the Royal College of Psychiatry Annual Congress in Birmingham, chaired by Matthew Broome (University of Oxford), and sponsored by project PERFECT.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Birmingham Workshop on Probability and Time Travel

If time travel is possible, what's the probability of it spontaneously occurring? - of time-travellers 'bootstrapping' themselves into existence by travelling back in time and creating themselves? How does physical probability, or chance, work in physical theories which allow causal loops? And what is the probability of you killing your own grandfather?

Birmingham philosophers Nikk Effingham and Alastair Wilson have been working to answer these questions, and others like them, as part of a project on Probability and Time Travel funded by the New Agendas in the Study of Time programme at the University of Sydney. If you haven't seen it already, check out Nikk's post from last year, which introduces the project and describes the first workshop, which was held in Sydney in November 2014.

To conclude this project, on May 27th and 28th the Department of Philosophy will be hosting a workshop on Probability and Time Travel. There will be six talks spread over the two days, looking at various aspects of the connection between probability and the metaphysics of time travel, and plenty of time for discussion of the issues that arise.

The speakers at the workshop have a background in various aspects of metaphysics. Sara Bernstein is a leading specialist in the metaphysics of causation and time-travel, who will be talking about the idea of a movable objective present; Graeme A Forbes will be commenting on and developing Bernstein's proposal in order to allow for probabilistic time travel. John Cusbert recently completed a PhD at the Australian National University on chance and what time-travel cases can tell us about it, and will be speaking on stability conditions on objective chance. Birmingham's own Nikk Effingham has been revisiting David Lewis' analysis of the Grandfather paradox, and will argue that logical impossibilities should in some cases be ascribed non-trivial objective chances. Daniel Nolan has written extensively on causation, counterfactuals and chances, and will be investigating how time-travel impacts on rational decision-making. Stephanie Rennick is a recent PhD from Glasgow and Macquarie, focusing squarely on time-travel and on abilities which we have in time-travel contexts, while Alastair Wilson will be using time travel as a test case to hone the distinction between causation and metaphysical grounding.

The workshop is free and open to all; details are below. For catering purposes please confirm attendance to by 14 May.

Birmingham Workshop on Probability and Time Travel

Wed 27th & Thu 28th May 2015
Room G51, ERI Building, University of Birmingham, Birmingham B15 2TT

Schedule and abstracts available at:


Sara Bernstein (Duke)
John Cusbert (Oxford)
Nikk Effingham (Birmingham)
Graeme A Forbes (Kent) 
Daniel Nolan (ANU)
Stephanie Rennick (Glasgow)
Alastair Wilson (Birmingham)

This workshop is supported by the New Agendas in the Study of Time project at the University of Sydney - - and is organized in association with MIMOSA - .

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Consciousness and Cognition - Special Issue

Ema Sullivan-Bissett gives us an overview of the latest edition of Consciousness and Cognition which she co-edited with Lisa Bortolotti:

In May 2014, Lisa Bortolotti and I organized a workshop on the Costs and Benefits of Imperfect Cognitions, funded by Lisa’s AHRC grant for her project on the Epistemic Innocence of Imperfect Cognitions. We have since edited a special issue of Consciousness and Cognition, which includes most of the papers presented at the workshop, plus two more. In this post I will summarise the papers in the special issue (to see fuller summaries head over to our blog, where the authors have blogged about their papers).

In our Introduction Lisa and I describe our two objectives for the issue. The first is to look at what kinds of costs and benefits imperfect cognitions might have, and the second is to explore the relationship between such costs and benefits.

Lisa then opens the issue with her paper ‘The Epistemic Innocence of Motivated Delusions’ (blog post summary here). She argues that motivated delusions (those which have been understood as playing a defensive function), may have both psychological and epistemic benefits, and she introduces the notion of epistemic innocence to capture cognitions which have epistemic benefits which are otherwise unavailable. She argues for the conclusion that motivated delusions are sometimes epistemically innocent by looking at the case of anasognosia, and pointing out that alternatives to the delusional belief that one is not impaired is unavailable to the subject, since she does not have direct evidence of her impairment and she is unable to integrate indirect evidence of her impairment into her concept of self.

In her paper ‘The Virtual Bodily Self: Mentalisation of the Body as Revealed in Anosognosia for Hemiplegia’ (blog post summary here), Aikaterini Fotopoulou argues that the present self is known via perceptual inference (whilst the past self is known via inference from autobiographical memory). She argues that anosognosia for hemiplegia is an exaggerated imperfection of bodily awareness, which is due to the subject’s inability to update bodily awareness in response to new information about the affect body parts, as well as an inability to integrate first and third-person perspectives of the body.

Jules Holroyd argues in her paper ‘Implicit Bias, Awareness and Imperfect Cognitions’ (blog post summary here), that one can and should have observational awareness of the effects of implicitly biased behaviours. If one has observational awareness, one is aware that one’s behaviour has some morally undesirable property, for example, the property of being discriminatory. She also suggests that whether or not people are responsible for their actions guided by implicit biases may be informed by the relationship between such biases and other imperfect cognitions (e.g., failures of attentiveness and self-deception).

In their paper ‘Can Evolution get us off the Hook? Evaluating the Ecological Defence of Human Rationality’ (blog post summary here), Maarten Boudry, Michael Vlerick, and Ryan McKay ask whether human reasoners can be exculpated of their irrationality via ecological considerations. They argue that though some reasoning heuristics might have local adaptiveness, this is not an indicator of such heuristics being epistemically rational.

Jordi Fern├índez defends the possibility of beneficial memory distortion in his paper ‘What are the Benefits of Memory Distortion?’ (blog post summary here). He looks at two forms of distorted memory: observer memories, and fabricated memories, and asks whether they can be adaptive. Looking at these kinds of memory distortion brings to light an interesting result: if we are narrative function theorists about memories, observer memories and fabricated memories do not count as distorted, due to their pragmatic benefits. If we are preservative theorists about memories, observer memories and fabricated memories do not have benefits, because only epistemic benefits count. Jordi concludes that these two cases demonstrate that we should take an inclusive approach to the functions of memory.

In my paper ‘Implicit Bias, Confabulation, and Epistemic Innocence’ (blog post summary here), I explore the nature of confabulatory explanations of action guided by implicit bias. I frame my discussion with two imaginary cases: that of Roger, whose implicit bias against women guides his decision not to invite a good (female) candidate to interview, and that of Sylvia, whose implicit bias against black people guides her action in crossing the road upon seeing a (non-threatening) black man. I argued that sometimes confabulatory explanations of decisions or actions guided by implicit bias can be epistemically innocent, and that when we are evaluating confabulatory explanations, we ought to take into account the context in which they occur.

In his paper ‘Delusions as Harmful Malfunctioning Beliefs’ (blog post summary here), Kengo Miyazono gives a positive account of the pathological nature of delusional beliefs. He defends a Wakefieldian account of delusional belief according to which delusions are harmful beliefs producing by malfunctioning psychological mechanisms. Delusions are pathological because they involve a harmful biological malfunction, they are produced in a biologically abnormal way.

Finally, Martin Conway and Catherine Loveday in their paper ‘Remembering, Imaginings, False Memories and Personal Meanings’ (blog post summary here), suggest that false memories can carry significant benefits. Drawing on empirical work on memory, they argue against the preservative function of memory in favour of a view which has it that memories and imagined events are constructed in a similar way, via the ‘remembering–imagining system’. They conclude that the main function of memory is to provide agents with an understanding of the world which will allow them to adapt to it, via the generation of personal meanings.

As Lisa and I note in our Introduction, we think that the eight papers collected in this issue initiate a much needed interdisciplinary dialogue on imperfect cognitions and their costs and benefits as they occur in the clinical and non-clinical populations. 

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Gender and Global Justice: New Directions - 21st and 22nd May 2015

Gender and Global Justice: New Directions is a two-day conference to be held at the Centre for the Study of Global Ethics, Department of Philosophy, University of Birmingham

Draft Program:

21st  May

Heather Widdows (Birmingham) ‘Why beauty matters? Beauty, ethics & justice’

Corwin Aragon (Concordia) ‘Epistemic Oppression:  A Relational Account of Epistemic Oppression’

Leif Wenar (King’s College London) ‘The Oil Curse and Women’

Sarah Clark Miller (Penn State) ‘The Normative Implications of Transnational Sexual Violence for Global Gender Justice’

Elisabetta Aurino (Kings College London) ‘Gender bias in dietary diversity in the lifecourse of children and adolescents in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, India’

Nicola Jones (Overseas Development Institute) 'Rethinking the 'Maid Trade': Experiences of Ethiopian adolescent domestic workers in the Middle East'

Public Discussion

In 1995, at the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the member states of the United Nations agreed to the most progressive platform to date regarding commitments to secure gender equality.  20 years on, it is a time of reflection on both progress that has been made and persistent inequalities that remain.  This public forum aims to assess the state of play in contemporary struggles for women's rights and gender equality, and to discuss priorities for public action in the next two decades.  The panellists will present their views, and then engage in a wide ranging question and answer session with opportunities for audience participation.

Panelists: Heather Widdows, John Ferguson Professor of Global Ethics, University of Birmingham; Nicola Jones, Overseas Development Institute; Rhouba Mhaissen,  Founder and Director, SAWA for Development and Aid, SOAS; Bijayalaxmi Nanda, University of Delhi

22 May

Alison Jaggar (Colorado/Birmingham) ‘Other worlds are possible—but which are gender just?’

Noa Nagardi (Leeds) ‘Patriarchal structures and the duty to not harm’

Monique Deveaux (Guelph) ‘Is the cross-border trade in human eggs exploitative?’

Sheelagh McGuinness (Birmingham) TBC

Angie Pepper (York) ‘Global Gender Justice: An Ethics of Care or Cosmopolitanism’

Christine Bratu (Munich) ‘Adaptive Preferences and Deformed Desires’

Bijayalaxmi Nanda (Delhi) ‘Sex Selective Abortion and State in India: Dilemmas of Gender Justice’

To register, please email Scott Wisor at<
Information and accommodation, location, and final program times will be provided on registering.

Please note you can register for the evening public event on the 21st without attending the full conference.

Reinier Schuur to Present at Cognitio 2015

Birmingham PhD student, Reinier (Ray) Schuur,  has been invited to present a paper at Cognitio 2015.  This prestigious and highly competitive conference will be held in in Canada later this year (click here for further details about the conference). Ray's paper is entitled:

"Promises and limitations of cognitive neurosciences and genomics in identifying valid mental disorder constructs within the Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) framework” 

An abstract can be viewed below:

I wish to give my talk on the promises and limitations of the cognitive neurosciences, genomics, and related sciences, in identifying valid disorder constructs in the context of the new framework for researching mental disorders, the Research Domain Criteria (RDoC). I will argue that the RDoC is necessary for attaining greater validity in disease attribution, but that it is not sufficient. This is because greater validity depends on notions of normativity outside the scope of the cognitive sciences, having to do with philosophically rooted notions of the good life and well-being.

In 2013, Thomas Insel announced that the NIMH would reorient its research framework away from the DSM towards a new framework for research, the RDoC (Insel, 2013). DSM categories are considered to hinder findings from the cognitive neurosciences and genomics from informing disorder classification and treatment because the DSM categories that constrain psychiatric research have low validity by not reflecting distinct disease entities.

The RDoC framework is intended to overcome this problem by providing a dimensional approach to researching mental disorders, providing a matrix of domains of functioning (cognitions, negative/positive valence, etc…) and units of analysis (genetics, physiology, neural circuits, self reports, etc…) that cut across traditional DSM categories. A primary goal of this framework is to elucidate the underlying mechanisms and biomarkers of mental disorders, which is hoped to inform future nosological decisions about disorder categories, thresholds, and sub-groups.

Wakefield argues that a major problem with the RDoC is that it only aims at improving construct validity but that it offers no solution to how to attain greater concept validity for disease categories (Wakefield, 2014). Construct validity is whether or not a mental disorder category picks out a distinct entity, whereas concept validity is whether a mental disorder picks out an actual mental disorder as opposed to a non-disorder. Wakefield argues that these two kinds of validity can be independent, since a disease category can lack construct validity if it categorises several disease entities but can have concept validity if it only picks out real mental disorders, as well as vice versa.

I will argue in this talk that the RDoC, along with other empirical approaches using cognitive neurosciences to identify mental disorders, may indeed succeed in attaining construct validity in elucidating more refined and distinct causal classifications, but that no such approaches so far have offered a viable solution to how to attain concept validity in disease attributions. I will argue that the cognitive sciences cannot in principle provide such a solution because questions of normativity in regards to mental health must ultimately be derived from conceptions of normativity outside the true scope of the cognitive sciences, having to do with philosophical notions of the good life, norms of mental functioning, and well-being. I will not offer a theory of normativity, but make the negative case that the cognitive sciences cannot attain concept validity. If this is the case, the important consequence is that some normative theory, whatever it might turn out to be, is required to inform empirical findings to arrive at a conceptually valid classification of mental disorders.


Insel, T. R. (2013, April 29). Director’s blog: Transforming diagnosis. <>Retrieved on 14-11-2013

Wakefield, J. C. (2014). Wittgenstein’s nightmare: why the RDoC grid needs a conceptual dimension, 13 (1), World Psychiatry, 38-40.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Philosophy for the Curious: Why Study Philosophy?

A new resource has recently been made available to people interested in studying Philosophy, “Philosophy for the Curious: Why Study Philosophy?” by Curious Academic Publishing (2015). Lisa Bortolotti was among the philosophers interviewed for this project. We report here an abridged version of the interview.

So, our curious students would like to know what actually the academic discipline of Philosophy is. How do you see the future of Philosophy in terms of career opportunities and options? Why should the students choose Philosophy as their undergraduate or postgraduate major?

Philosophy is at the same time a practice and a body of knowledge. As a practice, Philosophy invites us to adopt a critical attitude towards received opinions and by studying the subject we acquire the capacity to assess and develop arguments for or against a certain position. We learn how to spot weaknesses in an argument and build counter-examples to it, but also, more constructively, we learn how to avoid bad reasoning when we propose an argument for a certain position. Due to Philosophy as a practice, Philosophy graduates usually have excellent analytical, critical and problem-solving skills and they are sought after by employers for this reason.
As a body of knowledge, Philosophy is about gaining an understanding of the issues that matter to us, and to which we apply the skills we have been talking about. What is consciousness? Does God exist? Is killing always wrong? In practical philosophy we investigate ethical and political issues and in theoretical philosophy we ask questions about the methodology of the sciences, the nature of reality, the complexities of the human mind, and the limitations of our knowledge of the world, among many others. Philosophy can also be thought of as a reflection on other disciplines, so we have philosophy of physics, philosophy of psychology, and so on, where we look at the conceptual framework within which empirical issues are discussed. As a body of knowledge, Philosophy does not translate into a career in a direct way, apart from preparing for teaching or research. But Philosophy graduates often get into politics and public policy, human resources, law, journalism and publishing.

Now, why should our prospective students undertake a research degree in Philosophy? Can you briefly discuss the research areas in Philosophy that the University of Birmingham is actively pursuing? Are practitioners generally less interested in taking advantage of academic research in Philosophy?

As with all research degrees, a research degree in Philosophy requires passion for the subject and a commitment to contributing to advancing a specific debate that strikes us as important. A PhD student in particular makes a very significant investment of time and resources to become an expert in the topic of her proposed thesis, and it is important to acknowledge that such an investment does not always lead to an academic job.
We still have PhD students who have just finished their first degrees and Masters and continue to study because they aspire to an academic career. But we also have professionals who take time off to explore an issue that has emerged as interesting during their working life and aim to get back to their careers after their studies. In the area I am doing research in, the philosophy of the cognitive sciences and the philosophy of psychiatry, this is very common. In our department we do have specialisms in philosophy of psychology and psychiatry, but also in other areas of philosophy such as logic, metaphysics, philosophy of science, philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, ethics, global ethics and philosophy of religion. Not only do the themes vary, but also the methodologies we adopt. In my own research, I work closely with clinical psychiatrists and psychologists and my papers and books are often aimed not just at philosophers but at an interdisciplinary audience. Other areas of philosophical research are more self-contained.

Finally, would you like to share any best practice tips with our students and practitioners based on your observation on Philosophy education, research and practice in the UK?

When I teach I try hard to remember what it was like to be a Philosophy student and learn from my own experience. Different teaching styles and approaches can work equally well if the lecturer is enthusiastic about the topic of the lecture, well-informed, and ready to give students space to think and time to talk. My aim is to invite students to think about important issues, learn something new about themselves and the world they live in, develop their own coherent and sensible argument, fruitfully exchange ideas with each other, and ultimately engage in the debates currently shaping the field. They should always feel like active participants, not spectators.

When I do research I try and adopt the same attitude of an eager student. I read as widely as time allows. I write, get feedback, and rewrite to make my prose clearer and my arguments tighter. I go and talk to other philosophers, but also the general public, about my work and hope it can make a difference, in a small way, to what we think and how well we live. I give talks at international conferences but I am also happy to use Facebook and Twitter to share new results, by myself and others, and promote discussion. Recently, I have started a group blog, called ImperfectCognitions, where research in my area is made widely accessible and new ideas can be discussed safely and productively. Contributors range from Masters students to Distinguished Professors, have different disciplinary backgrounds and are based in different parts of the world, but all share a passion for philosophy and a desire to keep the conversation going.

Monday, 6 April 2015

Visiting Project PERFECT

Naomi Kloosterboer
This post is by Naomi Kloosterboer, PhD student at the VU University of Amsterdam.

In February and March of this year, I was a visiting PhD student in the Philosophy Department of the University of Birmingham. There is a welcoming and open atmosphere at the department where philosophy chatter and discussions are abundant, staff members like hearing about your philosophical ideas and research, and where many situations lend themselves to an opportunity to have drinks at the staff house bar and continue discussions.

During my time at ‘Brum’ I worked on the first part of my PhD Thesis, which is about understanding the threat that ignorance – as arising from the psychological literature on confabulation, attitude misattributions, choice blindness, etc. – poses to rational agency. Furthermore, I participated in the weekly Proseminar, the postgrad reading group, in the weekly PGR seminar, where postgrads present their work, and in the bi-weekly PERFECT reading group. These groups provided very engaging discussions from fellow students and members of staff. In this post I will discuss a paper that was discussed in the PERFECT reading group, chaired by Professor Lisa Bortolotti: ‘Lifting the Veil of Morality: Choice Blindness and Attitude Reversals on a Self-Transforming Survey’ by Hall et al. (2012).

Hall and Johansson and their group have developed, as they call it, the choice blindness paradigm (cf. Hall et al. 2010, 2012; Johansson 2006, PhD Thesis; Johansson et al. 2005, 2006). The paradigm is built upon the fact that it is possible to manipulate the relation between people’s decisions and the outcomes of these decisions without them noticing, revealing that people are prone to miss even dramatic mismatches between what they want and what they actually get. Moreover, faced with the question to explain choices they in fact did not make, participants offered reasons for the outcome.

After several studies on aesthetic, gustatory and olfactory choices, an experiment was designed to test whether people are also blind to their opinions on moral issues (Hall et al. 2012). In the study, which was conducted in a park, participants rate their level of agreement or disagreement on a score from 1 to 9 either with a general moral principle, e.g. “Even if an action might harm the innocent, it can still be morally permissible to perform it”, or with a specific political moral statement, such as “Large scale governmental surveillance of e-mail and Internet traffic ought to be forbidden as a means to combat international crime and terrorism.” Minutes later they are asked to give reasons for the score they filled in. However, unbeknownst to the participants and involving a kind of magic trick (see explanation of the method in Hall et al. 2012, 2), some of the principles and statements are reversed. This means that the participants are asked to give reasons for an opinion opposite to their original transcribed score.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Changing Understandings of Body Image

This post is by Heather Widdows, who reports on the first workshop of the BeautyDemands network. 

The workshop took place earlier this month at Warwick University. It considered changing body image and looked at how ‘normal’, ‘healthy’ and ‘perfect’ function as concepts in the beauty debate. For instance, how they function as people perceive themselves and others in terms of what is normal and beautiful, and in terms of what women and girls (and to a lesser extent men) feel is expected of them. 

The papers given covered a wide range of topics, including, on choice, on revenge porn, on ‘tanorexia’, on skin-lightening, on feminism and beauty, on cosmetic surgery scandals, and from very different perfectives including, law, psychology, sociology, philosophy and critical theory. 

These were the types of issues which were discussed were:
  • Whether and how choice or consent is relevant in the debate, for instance, can one ‘freely’ consent to cosmetic procedures or does social construction reduce the very possibility of choice. 
  • The extent to which such ‘requirements’ are more demanding than in previous generations and over time. 
  • The connection between these debates and previous feminist debates and the need to return to older discussions. 
  • The relationship between the philosophical debate and the law and policy debates and how to create not only dialogue between but to use the different debates in ways which might be useful to inform policy and practice intervention. 
  • Possible pathways to regulation in areas which are little regulated. 
  • The relationship between health, beauty, sexual attractiveness and identity. 

Friday, 20 March 2015

Mini Workshop on 30th March

Hartry Field
On 30th March we will host a mini-workshop featuring Hartry Field and Ofra Magidor. 

Hartry’s paper is entitled “Caie’s paradox of credence”, and Ofra’s paper is entitled “Conditional Acceptance”. Their talks will be from 2-4pm and 4-6pm respectively, in the large lecture hall on the ground floor of the ERI building. 

All welcome. Email Scott Sturgeon for further information.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Edward Cadbury Lectures 2015 by William Lane Craig

William Lane Craig
Professor Craig, Research Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, and Professor of Philosophy at Houston Baptist University, will deliver a series of five lectures between Monday 16 and Friday 20 March on the theme of ‘God All Over’. He will also give an additional public lecture on the Kalam cosmological argument for the existence of God on Saturday 21 March.

The Edward Cadbury Lectures come from an endowment from the Cadbury family to the University of Birmingham for an annual series of lectures open to the public on the history, theology and culture of Christianity. The first Cadbury Lectures were delivered in 1948 by the historian Arnold Toynbee, who has been followed by a succession of eminent scholars from around the world.

To register please e-mail us specifying which lectures you would like to attend.

Was Aristotle a Cognitivist about the Emotions?

Logo of the EPSSE
Our PhD student Isaura Peddis had her paper on Aristotle and the emotions accepted for presentation at a conference in Edinburgh in July 2015, organised by the European Philosophical Society for the Study of the Emotions

The paper is entitled: "Aristotle and his archetypal classical cognitive theory of emotions: a philosophical myth".

Friday, 30 January 2015

Philosophy of Mind and Psychology Reading Group -- The Predictive Mind chapter 12

Sam Wilkinson
Welcome to the Philosophy of Mind and Psychology Reading Group hosted by the Philosophy@Birmingham blog.

This month, Sam Wilkinson, Research Fellow in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Durham, introduces chapter 12 of Jakob Hohwy’s The Predictive Mind (OUP, 2013). This is the last in a series of posts on the book.

Many thanks to all of you who have contributed with posts and comments, and especially to Jakob Hohwy whose participation has made the reading group so interesting.

Chapter 12 - Into the Predictive Mind
Presented by Sam Wilkinson

In the twelfth and final chapter, “the prediction error mechanism is extended deep into matters of the mind” (p.242). In particular, it is applied to: emotions, introspection, privacy of mind, and the self, with each application having a section devoted to it. Hohwy readily acknowledges that these “are certainly aspects where the application of prediction error minimization [PEM] becomes more tenuous”. However, the applications are worth attempting, given the “immense explanatory scope” of the framework.

I take each section (with the applications to which they are devoted) in turn.

In “Emotions and Bodily Sensations”, the key idea is basically “interoceptive predictive processing”, namely, that emotion arises as a kind of perceptual inference on our internal states. This is neatly tied in with the James-Lange theory of emotion (recently made popular by Prinz 2004), according to which, e.g. we feel afraid because we tremble (rather than, as pre-theoretical intuition might have it, the other way around).

“Emotions arise as interoceptive prediction error is explained away” (p.243). It is not, as a classical bottom-up account (according to which inputs come in, get processed, and passed up until you get a conscious percept) would have it, the interoceptive state itself: it the hypothesis that explains it away.

One interesting upshot of this is that it allows that inference to go wrong, thereby giving rise to “emotional illusions”.

A further, attractive, consequence of the hierarchical approach is that it settles the dispute between conceptualist and non-conceptualist views of emotion. On the one hand, human emotions seem rather sophisticated, and yet, on the other, it seems that far simpler animals are capable of feeling emotions (at least in some sense). As discussed in Chapter 3, and put to work in Chapter 6 with a similarly ecumenical resolution of the cognitive penetrability debate, “the sharp distinction between percepts and concepts begins to wash out in the perceptual hierarchy” (p.243). Thus, relatively basic animals can be said to have emotions (viz. these Bayes-optimal hypotheses that explain away interoceptive prediction error), but the character of their emotional experience will not be subject to the same top-down predictions that the emotional experience of more sophisticated animals (like ourselves) will be subject to.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Our Graduate Students at the Cognitive Futures Conference!

Two of our PhD students, Magdalena Antrobus and Rachel Gunn, are going to be presenting their work at the Cognitive Futures conference.

Magdalena will talk about the phenomenon of depressive realism. Here is an abstract for her talk: "I will describe the evolution of the notion of Depressive Realism, starting from its first discovery by Alloy and Abramson (1979) up to today, where it has become one of the issues investigated by Project PERFECT, at the Department of Philosophy, University of Birmingham. Alloy and Abramson first introduced the notion of Depressive Realism in 1979, when one of their experiments gave rise to a significant result: people with moderate or sub-clinical depression turned out to present a more accurate perception of their cognitive control over reality than non-depressed participants. The phenomenon, repeatedly confirmed in a series of successive experiments and nicknamed “sadder, but wiser” by its discoverers, sparked both world-wide interest and controversy, as well as inspired new trends in literature (e.g., novels by Michel Houellebecq and Susan Sontag). Throughout last three decades, researchers have tried to address the following questions: why would being depressed make people see the reality in a more objective way? What is it exactly that people with depression see more accurately? What are the costs and benefits of this cognitive inclination? My presentation will summarise the state of debate on the phenomenon of depressive realism, and identifies implications for its future study and for clinical practice."

Rachel will talk about thought insertion. Here is an abstract of her talk: "Thought insertion is a first rank symptom of schizophrenia and can be extremely debilitating and confusing. Those experiencing thought insertion have huge difficulty in describing what is happening. What can it possibly mean to say that I have first-person (subjective) access to the content of thought but deny that I generated the thought and deny that the thought is mine? By examining first person descriptions of thought insertion as well as different philosophical conceptions of the phenomenon I will show that thought insertion is characterised by a lack of ownership and it is this critical fact, not simply a loss of agency, which we need in order to inform research and therapeutic intervention. Whilst distressing for some, thought insertion alone may not be indicative of illness and it is the secondary phenomena such as content, level of influence and intrusion on other mental activities, functioning and wellbeing that determine whether psychiatric or other therapeutic help is required. Further, the first-person descriptions suggests that thought insertion may have different aetiologies and this may mean that there is more than one kind of thought insertion. It may also be the case that there is overlap between some kinds of ‘internal’ voice hearing and thought insertion. The lack of detailed descriptive phenomenology in the literature suggests the need for further empirical research in this area."