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.