Friday, 28 February 2014

Philosophy of Mind and Psychology Reading Group -- The Predictive Mind chapter 1

The Predictive Mind
The Predictive Mind
by Jakob Hohwy
Welcome to the online reading group in the Philosophy of Mind and Psychology hosted by the Philosophy@Birmingham blog. Our first book is Jakob Hohwy’s The Predictive Mind (OUP, 2013). We have a new post on the last Friday of each month. Who is “we”? Many of the people involved are affiliated with the Philosophy Department at the University of Birmingham, but everyone is welcome to participate. To present a chapter by writing a 500-word post on it, please contact Lisa Bortolotti. Comments will be moderated and so there may be a delay between submitting them and seeing them published on the blog.

Chapter 1 – Perception as Causal Inference
Presented by Lisa Bortolotti
In the book, Jakob Hohwy presents and defends the theory that “the brain is a sophisticated hypothesis-testing mechanism, which is constantly involved in minimizing the error of its predictions of the sensory input it receives from the world.” According to Hohwy, the theory is supported by philosophical argument and empirical evidence. Its greatest appeal is its unifying power. The basic idea is that the mind “arises in, and is shaped by, prediction.”

Monday, 24 February 2014

Birmingham Workshops in Philosophy - Truth & Vagueness

The focus of this workshop is the recent work on the central philosophical notions of truth and vagueness. This workshop is part of the new Birmingham Workshops in Philosophy series.

Wednesday 26 February, 2014, G42 Mechanical Engineering building (Y3 on the campus map):

10:40am   Coffee & Biscuits

11:00am - Hartry Field (Birmingham & NYU): “Vagueness, Logic and the Problem of Restricted Quantification"


1:45 - Coffee

2pm - Ofra Magidor (Oxford): “On Sider’s Argument from Vagueness” 

4pm - Nick Jones (Birmingham): “Representors and Artefacts"

All welcome!

Philosophy of Religion Public Workshop

On Friday 28 February The John Hick Centre for Philosophy of Religion is hosting an annual one-day workshop . The keynote speaker is Dr. Nick Trakakis from Australian Catholic University who is currently based at the Centre as a William Paton Visiting Fellow.

The workshop is a public event and registration is free. All are welcome.

Lecture Room 5, Arts Building University of Birmingham 

  •  2-3pm: Toby Betenson (University of Birmingham), "The Problem of Evil Remains a Logical Problem" 
  • 3-4pm: Leland Harper (University of Birmingham), "A Deistic Multiverse" 
  • 4-5pm: Nick Trakakis (Australian Catholic University), "Anti-theodicy"

Thursday, 20 February 2014

How Utopian can Political Philosophy be? (Part 2)

Gabriƫl Metsu, The Triumph of Justice
In the second of two posts, Ben Bessey discusses idealising methodology in political philosophy and asks how utopian political philosophy ought to be.

In my last post, I sketched an important challenge to idealising methodology in political philosophy. As I said,
many contemporary thinkers argue that idealisation, because it abstracts away from many of the features of our highly and persistently unjust world, will promote biases resulting from social inequalities, and threaten to cause more injustice than it alleviates.

However, the prospect of entirely abandoning consideration of the ideally just world should worry us. For one thing, an unrelenting focus on what better conduct can be expected of people within the confines of existing practices and institutions – sexist divisions of household labour, for example, or the prevalence and power of racial stereotypes – threatens to ossify those practices. If there is no space to claim that these portions of our society are unjust to their core, even though we have to find ways to live with them here and now, we will regard them as unproblematic, extending and deepening their grip on our collective lives.  For another, it isn't clear that anyone who genuinely values justice could aim merely at the mitigation of such injustices, rather than at their eradication. What we want is to live in a world without any injustice, where we can live rightly with others; we do not merely want to do the best we can.

Lisa Tessman1, in a recent paper, has forcefully developed this approach to the question of idealisation. She draws on the philosophical literature surrounding the concept of a dilemma to argue that questions about the right thing to do are not the only things with which we generally are, or should be, concerned. In a genuine dilemma, it cannot simply be the case that there is one right thing to do, which, when done, leaves no ethical remainder. Even if, in the final analysis, the correct option is chosen, this will not make everything OK. Similarly, most of the political choices before us will not leave the world a just place, even if we make them as well as we possibly can. Thus, a conception of justice that goes beyond what can be expected of people in our thoroughly non-ideal circumstances is necessary, to make sense of this further dissatisfaction with the state of our common lives.

My hope, building on Tessman's work, is that what this points to is a better division of labour in political philosophy. Much – probably most – political thought should be highly non-ideal, attempting to provide detailed, realistic accounts of contemporary political conditions, and then thinking pragmatically about the best way for differently situated individuals to improve those conditions. Questions about responsibility for wrongs and for their immediate repair, about what people are allowed to do or must do, and about what is best for them to do: all these are questions for non-idealised politics. Some of our reflections in political philosophy, however, will always have to go beyond this, mirroring our concern with true justice – with what it would really take for us all to live well together – and not merely with what we should expect from one another when we take injustice for granted.


1 Tessman 2010, 'Idealising Morality' in Hypatia Vol.25 No.4, pp.797-824.

Monday, 17 February 2014

How Utopian can Political Philosophy be? (Part 1)

This week, Doctoral Researcher Ben Bessey discusses idealisation and the proper methodology of political philosophy.

One of my current research interests concerns the proper methodology of political philosophy. In this post, and the next, I'll discuss one strand of thinking about this topic, and then sketch one way of responding to it, which I'll be talking about at a conference in April.

Several recent political thinkers have argued that the theories that academics have advanced to explain what justice requires have relied on too much idealisation. Often, political philosophers attempt to describe a world that differs radically from our own, not least in that they assume that citizens within it will generally be motivated to act correctly, in a way that is free from bias. For example, they assume that racism and sexism will have ceased to exist as significant motivating factors in the lives of most, or all, citizens. Opponents of idealisation1 have responded that this has terrible consequences for our understanding of justice as it affects the actual world.

This criticism takes two main forms. Firstly, some argue that obscuring the existence of racism and sexism (etc.), and thinking about justice and its attainment without acknowledging the multifaceted ways in which these unjust social practices affect people's lives will lead to conclusions that are themselves unjust. For example, if we think about the behaviours that are required of people without the history of sexism in mind, and then import our conclusions back to the real world without alteration, we are likely to impose unfair burdens on the current victims of sexism. In the real world, victims of sexism are likely to have less ability to contribute to a struggle against injustice without sacrificing their well-being, since sexism has caused them to have less power, and since their well-being may have become more fragile. Also, it is unfair to expect the victim of an injustice to contribute equally with relatively unharmed persons to that injustice's removal: they are probably less responsible for it.

Secondly, many have also argued that the presence of injustices such as racism or sexism affects the reliability of people's judgements2, including their judgements about what justice requires. Since the aspiration to produce idealised theories will encourage theorists to ignore their position in unjust social hierarchies (because in the ideal world such hierarchies would not exist), this aspiration will make them less aware of the true extent of their unreliability. As a result, idealised theory will not tend to give an accurate account of what justice requires.

If these arguments are compelling, idealised political philosophy seems to be an intellectual dead end, and engaging in it will probably do more harm than good. However, the alternative may seem equally unpalatable. If we cannot in any sense think about a world without (e.g.) racism, how can we aim at this world? And, if we are limited to considering only conservative changes to the institutions and practices that we already happen to have, isn't there a severe risk of complacency? In my next post, I'll discuss one recent partial defence of idealisation, and argue that it points us in the right direction.

1 Margaret Urban Walker's 2007 book, MoralUnderstandings (New York: Oxford University Press) focuses on such criticisms throughout, and Charles W. Mills' 2005 paper 'Ideal Theory as Ideology'(Hypatia Vol.20 No.3) provides a concise survey of much of this work.

2 Heidi Grasswick's encyclopedia entry for'Feminist Social Epistemology' (The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)) includes discussion of some different ways that this argument has been made.

Monday, 10 February 2014

The Epistemic Innocence Project

Today I want to introduce one of the projects we run at Birmingham, the Epistemic Innocence project. It investigates the potential epistemic benefits of imperfect cognitions, that is, cognitions that are factually inaccurate in some key respect. Imperfect cognitions include delusional beliefs, distorted memories, and confabulatory explanations in the clinical and non-clinical population. It is currently funded by a 12-month AHRC Fellowship awarded to me, and it also features Ema Sullivan-Bissett as a research fellow.
Some false beliefs can be pragmatically beneficial. For instance, falsely believing that I’m a great public speaker will make me feel better about myself and give me self-confidence next time I need to stand up and talk in front of a large audience. But it is really counterintuitive to suggest that beliefs that are false can be good epistemically, that is, bring us closer to the truth. Usually, false beliefs are dismissed as epistemically bad. In the project we want to see whether they can have redeeming features, despite their epistemic faults.
Our contention is not that imperfect cognitions are epistemically good, but that they can gain some sort of epistemic innocence, if they meet the following two conditions:
1. Epistemic Benefit. They deliver some significant epistemic benefit to a given subject at a given time, that is, they contribute to the acquisition and retention of true beliefs.
2. No Relevant Alternatives. Alternative cognitions that would deliver the same epistemic benefit are unavailable to that subject at that time.
What does it mean that other cognitions are not available? In general terms, there may be no genuine alternative to an imperfect cognition, because information that would lend support to a different, more accurate, cognition is opaque to introspection, not open to investigation, irretrievable, or blocked for motivational reasons; or the alternative cognition could be strictly speaking available, but it would not carry the same epistemic benefit as the imperfect cognition.
In order to establish whether cognitions are epistemically innocent we need some good old conceptual analysis, but we also need to be empirically informed about how such cognitions present themselves and how they interact with other cognitions. That is why we have created a network of researchers at different stages of their career and from different disciplinary backgrounds, but all interested in imperfect cognitions broadly conceived. We exchange ideas via a group blog, called Imperfect Cognitions, where we comment on each other’s ideas, report on relevant conferences, and present new books.

The themes of the project will be explored in a two-day workshop at the University of Birmingham, entitled “Costs and Benefits of Imperfect Cognitions”, to be held on 8th and 9th May 2014. The workshop will be one of the means by which the Epistemic Innocence project interim results are disseminated, and will promote exchange between philosophers and psychologists on the potential pragmatic and epistemic benefits and costs of beliefs, memories, implicit biases, and explanations. Speakers include the project team (Ema Sullivan-Bissett and myself at the University of Birmingham), and then Katerina Fotopoulou (University College London), Martin Conway (City University London), Ryan McKay (Royal Holloway) and Maarten Boudry (University of Ghent), Miranda Fricker (University of Sheffield), Jules Holroyd (University of Nottingham), Petter Johansson and Lars Hall (University of Lund).

Lisa Bortolotti 
(Professor of Philosophy, University of Birmingham)

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Public Lecture: Reincarnation

Eric Steinhart (Professor of Philosophy, William Patterson University, USA)

Location: Room GA03, Metallurgy and Materials Building, University of Birmingham
Date:Tuesday 11th February 2014 (17:00-18:30)


Popular reincarnation theories are inconsistent with our best science. But reincarnation can be naturalized. Following Aristotle, the soul is the form of the body; the soul is to the body as software to hardware. Souls are programs run by lives. Every soul defines a collection of abstract lives. The laws of karma transform lives into lives. Distinct lives inhabit distinct universes: you will be reincarnated in many other universes. Thus every earthly life occupies an infinitely ramified tree of lives. An argument from the rationality of nature supports this patternist reincarnation theory.

Public lecture - everyone welcome

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Saving Humans By Numbers - Jussi Suikkanen on the Saving Humans Blog

This week, Jussi Suikkanen is contributing to the Saving Humans Blog:

“When it comes to saving humans, the sad truth is that we cannot save everyone from everything bad that is going to happen to them. For one, we have limited resources and there are just too many people we could help. This is why we must make difficult choices: which groups should we save and from what? These decisions are common in both policy-making and everyday life. Who should we help with the money we spend on healthcare? Should I drive fast so as not to keep my family waiting or slow down and save the local cyclists from a higher risk of death?”

To read Jussi's posts, visit the Saving Humans Blog.