Thursday, 21 August 2014

Agent-Responsibility and Psychiatric Diagnosis

In this post PhD student Benjamin Costello talks about his research. Ben is supervised by Lisa Bortolotti and Iain Law, and soon Hanna Pickard will join his supervisory team too.


Benjamin Costello
My research is concerned with the relationship between mental illness, involuntary hospitalisation, and the sequencing of actions and personal identity. My thesis can be broken-down into the following four areas:

Moral Sequencing: Accounting for the nature of and changes in agency, personality, and identity. I am in the process of examining the nature of agency, personality, and identity, ascertaining the link between them, and determining how these alter or change. I am devising new models of moral sequences that can be used to track the actions of agents, which account for changes in personality/identity, and can help ascertain if and when an intervention is justifiable. I argue that these models have ramifications for how personality disorders and dissociative disorders should be discussed and used both in psychiatry and in the DSM/ICD. By constructing these models, I hope to: (a) establish a relationship between agency and personality/identity; (b) assess the dangerousness of an individual and the need to intervene; (c) gauge the extent to which an identity-change undermines agent-responsibility; and (d) elucidate how detentions based solely on the presence of a mental disorder is morally unjustifiable.

The criteria for being labelled ‘dangerous’ and ascertaining when intervention is justifiable. With the aim of positively influencing the way mental disorders are perceived, I aim to debunk the idea that the mentally ill are ipso facto dangerous (either to themselves or to others). Within the models of moral sequencing, I aim to incorporate a method of ascertaining the justifiability of intervening to assess the dangerousness of agents and prevent dangerous people from harming by constructing a “quick but accurate” hybrid decision theory that amalgamates a calculated decision-making mechanism (based on Bayesian probability) with a fast-and-frugal mechanism (based on Damasio’s Somatic Marker Hypothesis).


Thursday, 14 August 2014

Emotion and Consciousness: Damasio's Hypothesis

Isaura Peddis
This week PhD student Isaura Peddis writes about her research. Isaura is supervised by Iain Law and Lisa Bortolotti in the Philosophy Department, and her thesis is provisionally entitled 'The Importance of Empathy'.


I am a first year PhD student interested in emotions, particularly in empathy. In the last couple of months, I have researched the cognitive and feeling theories of emotions. During my research, I came across Damasio’s theory of emotions, which I will shortly summarise here. In my opinion, his idea well introduces the important role of consciousness for emotions, as it is a key factor for empathy and any actions deriving from this feeling. This is a topic that I will particularly focus on in my dissertation.

Antonio Damasio thinks that, to feel an emotion, an organism must satisfy three prerequisites. Firstly, the organism has to have a body and represent it through its mind; this excludes plants which do not have neural patterns to process the reaction of the stimuli like a brain would. Secondly, the organism has to have a nervous system able to map body structures and body states and transform this information into a mental representation. Thirdly, the brain creates the neural patterns that generate emotions through a constant interaction with the objects that provoke those emotions (Damasio, 2004: 109-110). Therefore, in simple words, an emotion is a change that happens into our body and is trigged by the interaction that an organism has with a particular object. Through our sensory perception and thoughts, we elaborate a mental representation of the relation between the body and the object, and this causes the bodily changes that we feel and normally label as emotions.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Do Delusions Have Epistemic Value?

Kengo Miyazono
In this post Kengo Miyazono, post-doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham Philosophy Department, summarises a paper he presented it at the 88th Joint Session of the Aristotelian Society and Mind Association in Cambridge earlier this month. The paper “Do delusions have any epistemic value?”, co-authored by Kengo and Lisa Bortolotti was presented in the open session.

Delusional beliefs are false in most cases. And, probably, they are unjustified according any interesting accounts of epistemic justification. However, we believe that there are some positive things we can say about epistemic status of delusional beliefs. The aim of the paper (or, strictly speaking, the aim of the longer paper upon which the presented paper is based) is to defend two claims about the epistemic status of delusional beliefs. The claims correspond to two kinds of epistemic evaluations; consequentialist and deontological evaluations. First, delusions can have some good epistemic consequences that are at least indirectly related to the acquisition of true beliefs. Second, people with delusions are not epistemically blameworthy for their delusional beliefs.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

On Anxiety and its Disorders: A Reconceptualization

Patrick Allen
This post summarises the research focus of Patrick Allen, PhD student at the University of Birmingham Philosophy Department, currently supervised by Lisa Bortolotti and soon also by Hanna Pickard.


My research is concerned with investigating and unpacking the premises underlying the psychiatric conceptions of so-called ‘anxiety disorders’. My research begins by assessing the historical trajectory for how we have come to think of anxiety as a psychopathology or a psychiatric disorder that may or may not require psychiatric (medical) attention. By considering how we have come to think collectively of anxiety as a psychiatric disorder (when it could be argued to the contrary), this leads to philosophical problems concerning the validity of the conclusion that anxiety is in fact a psychiatric disorder. To assess validity, I contrast historical turning points, evolutionary theory, usages of language and meaning, and plausible explanations that are in contrast and contradiction to the contemporary psychiatric conception of anxiety as a psychiatric disorder.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Philosophy of Mind and Psychology Reading Group -- The Predictive Mind chapter 6

Rachel Gunn
Welcome to the sixth post of the online reading group in the Philosophy of Mind and Psychology hosted by the Philosophy@Birmingham blog. This month, Rachel Gunn, PhD student at the University of Birmingham, presents chapter 6 of The Predictive Mind by Jakob Hohwy (OUP 2013).


Chapter 6 - Is predicting seeing?
Presented by Rachel Gunn


In Chapter 6 Hohwy asks the reader “does what we believe to some degree determine what we perceive?” (p.118). My initial reaction to this is – yes, of course it does. I believe that many perceptual experiences are cognitively penetrable. It seems straightforward that different people often see different things depending on prior beliefs. A person who believes in ghosts will see their dead mother in the reflection on a darkened window whereas the person who does not believe in ghosts will just see a weird reflection. This may be a similar finding to Hohwy’s reference to people who believe in extra sensory perception seeing more meaningful patterns than others in ‘noisy’ images (p.134).


The other day, looking at an object in the half-light I saw a small bottle or jar that looked like a tiny paint pot or maybe a pill bottle – this experience lasted for 2 or 3 seconds. At a self-conscious level I couldn’t understand what it was or why it was there, once that self-conscious (person-level) knowledge was realised “there is no paint pot/pill bottle like that in this house…” it suddenly looked like what it actually is – a connector for a garden hose. My perception – that it was a pill bottle/paint pot was altered when I applied the new knowledge – it no longer looked like a pill bottle. I wonder if this would this have worked if the knowledge had been supplied by another person – for example, if I’d seen this at someone else’s house I wouldn’t have had the knowledge “there is no paint pot/pill bottle like that in this house…” If someone said to me “…it’s definitely not a pill bottle” would that have been the right kind of additional person-level information to alter the perception? I have a strong intuition that ‘subjective’ information often comes with a higher probability than information supplied by a third party (and this might be important in cases of delusion). I’m not sure how this impacts on PEM or the notion of the Bayesian brain except perhaps to highlight that subjective probabilities are complex and perhaps impossible to grasp except in terms of, in this case, perceptual outcomes.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Epistemic Innocence and Delusion Formation

Ema Sullivan-Bissett
In this post Ema Sullivan-Bissett, post-doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham Philosophy Department, summarises a paper she is currently working on. She presented it at the 88th Joint Session of the Aristotelian Society and Mind Association in Cambridge earlier this month. Ema works with Lisa Bortolotti on the project entitled Epistemic Innocence of Imperfect Cognitions.

 In the paper I argue that that delusional beliefs have the potential for epistemic innocence, irrespective of which approach to delusion formation we adopt. If I am right, whatever implications there are for delusions having this epistemic status, hold for whatever one says about how delusions are formed, that is, whether they are bottom-up and involve one or two factors, or whether they are top down.

I use the notion of epistemic innocence to capture an epistemically poor cognition which nevertheless both confers an epistemic benefit, and for which such a benefit is otherwise unobtainable. I place two conditions on what it takes for a delusion to be epistemically innocent. The first is that the delusional belief confers some significant epistemic benefit onto the subject (Epistemic Benefit). The second is that the epistemic benefit conferred on the subject could not be otherwise had since alternative, less epistemically faulty cognitions, are unavailable to the subject at that time (No Alternatives).

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Philosophy of Mind and Psychology Reading Group -- The Predictive Mind chapter 5

Jona Vance
Welcome to the fifth post of the online reading group in the Philosophy of Mind and Psychology hosted by the Philosophy@Birmingham blog. This month, Jona Vance (Northern Arizona University) presents chapter 5 of The Predictive Mind by Jakob Hohwy (OUP 2013).

Chapter 5 - Binding is Inference
Presented by Jona Vance


Part 1 of the book (Chs 1-4) sets out the prediction error minimization (PEM) framework. Part 2 (Chs 5-8) applies the PEM framework to a number of specific problems and phenomena in cognitive science and the philosophy of mind. This post is on Ch 5, which addresses the binding problem (or problems). 

Hohwy has two main stated aims in Ch 5. First, he aims to use PEM to give a “reasonably detailed answer” to the binding problem. Second, he aims to use the debate about binding issues and the phenomena it centers on to illustrate how the PEM framework can be applied to various interesting cases. So the chapter aims to use PEM to illuminate how binding works and aims to use binding to illuminate how PEM works.

Hohwy glosses the binding problem in a few ways. On one gloss it concerns “how the brain manages to discern properties of objects in the world and correctly bind these properties together in perception” (p. 101). A second gloss adds that part of the problem is to explain how the brain correctly binds properties “in spite of processing them in different regions throughout the brain” (p. 101). For example, if visual receptors receive information as of something red and as of something round and the olfactory receives information as of something sweet, the brain still has to figure out whether the redness, roundness, and sweetness are properties of the same object or not. And it has to do so despite processing some of the information in different regions.