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.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Procreation and the Welfare of the Future Child

This week, Masters in Health & Happiness student John J. Parry wonders whether existence constitutes a harm.

I’m not quite at the point in my life where I’m ready to have children (I have an atypical sensitivity to high-pitched screaming and a built-in love of a normal sleeping pattern). However, I have reached the point where a lot of my oldest friends are having/have had children, so I’m currently writing a paper exploring the idea that they may have disadvantaged their children just by the act of creating them.

This may seem like a very counter-intuitive claim. I mean, if it’s bad to come into existence, wouldn’t it be bad that we were born too? “But being born was the best thing ever to happen to me!” I hear you saying. Nevertheless, David Benatar (2008, p18-57) presents quite an interesting view as to how procreation always harms the created child. This view rests on a plausible asymmetry between the relative goodness and badness of the presence of benefits and harms in existent persons on the one hand, and the absence of those same benefits and harms in never-existent persons on the other. This works merely because the decision to procreate or not has two possible basic outcomes: a) a child is created and is therefore able to experience harm and benefit, or b) no child is created and there is a corresponding absence of harm and benefit. The relative value of the benefit and harm in scenario A is fairly simple: the presence of harm is bad and the presence of benefit is good. In this scenario, it would seem that whatever side outweighs the other the difference would be marginal, as we know that neither harms nor benefits occur in isolation throughout life. Conversely, Benatar presents a plausible and interesting difference in scenario B. Based on our intuitions surrounding the prevention of harm and benefit during life, the absence of benefit appears to only be bad when there is a person deprived of that benefit but the absence of harm seems good regardless. This means that in the scenario where the child will never exist, the absence of harm (to them) is always good but the absence of benefit (for them) is only neutral as they don’t exist to be deprived. So, in the comparison between the possibilities, scenario A is always better as it has no down side for the child in terms of the cost/benefit analysis. As we seemingly have either a moral obligation to our children or merely to prevent harm in general, we have a moral obligation not to procreate – because doing so always disadvantages the created child.

This argument looks to be pretty good, and relies on widespread intuition regarding the relative value of the presence or deprivation of harms and benefits. We could, based on this, conclude that all procreation is morally wrong and begin our species’ extinction through abstinence or birth control. However, I’m interested in alternative views of possibility that may have an impact on this argument. Consider modal realism – which in its simplest terms states that all possible worlds exist in the same way as our actual world. In this situation, the decision whether to procreate entails the comparison of two equally real possible worlds (scenarios A & B as above), and as such the relative value of these scenarios is different. This is because if the hypothetical child does not exist at our world, they will exist in an equally real way in the world of one of our closest counterparts. Due to the uncertainty of which world we inhabit at the point of decision, it is natural to conclude that if we have any moral obligation to the future child, we have that obligation to the child regardless of which of the two possible worlds that child comes into existence within. So, the relative value of the absence of harm to that child at our world (by virtue of non-existence) is neither bad nor good, as that harm is only displaced to the other world. Moreover, if it’s only a duty to prevent harm in general that we have, then we cannot prevent that harm and once again the absence of the relevant harm in our world has a neutral value. This would mean that whereas the value of the presence of harm and benefit in A is the same, the relative value of the absence of harm and benefit in B is neutral. Therefore, this suggests to me that we should divorce our procreative decisions from considerations of the child’s welfare, because we have no good option. The idea is that if modal realism is true, then anyone justifying their procreative decisions on the welfare of the future child is misguided – they should instead consider the child’s effect on their own welfare.

I’ve submitted the abstract for this paper to the British Postgraduate Philosophical Association conference in Leeds, and hope to present in September. Further information regarding the conference can be found here and here.


Benatar, D., 2008, Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Friday, 13 June 2014

Emergencies and Affected Peoples Conference (Natural Disasters and Opportunities for Action Part 5)

Today is the last day of my posts on this blog and I have decided to use it for a shameless plug. If it counts at all, it is absolutely related to the theme of my posts this week!

On 4 July, my colleagues and I will be hosting a conference entitled Emergencies and Affected Peoples: Philosophy, Policy and Practice. Through focused discussion between academics and practitioners, this conference aims to raise awareness of those issues that affect people during natural disasters, conflicts, humanitarian emergencies, etc. Our panellists will offer philosophical and practical insight into humanitarian issues in the hope that, together, we can improve both theory and policy. Really, so that we help those affected.

We will have a keynote speaker, Professor David Alexander (UCL). Originally a geographer and geomorphologist, David has devoted decades to the study and dissemination of knowledge on the topic of natural hazards. He is an expert who makes risk and response manageable as a topic of study. For me, he is someone who confirms that, while there are many disasters that we can’t fix, there is a lot we can do.

After our keynote speech we will have four panels – each with a practitioner and an academic. The panel topics were developed as an opportunity to bridge the gap between disciplines and approaches and help us get to some common ground. The panel topics are:

  • The Agency of Affected People
  • Rebuilding and Reconstruction
  • Long Term Implications of Refugee Situations
  • A Way Forward for Communities

The idea for this conference is quite obvious when you think that my conference organizers and I work in Global Ethics. We have varied interests (surrogacy, education, natural disasters, et al) but we are all working on applied ethics and are trying to influence matters that affect people. There is also an obvious (and direct) link between my research on natural disasters and the emergencies component of the conference.

Like other academics, we want to influence the literature in our particular fields. This conference will give us an opportunity to take this influence one step further and hopefully impact how people think about those affected by natural disaster, conflict and war. Through this, we as individuals are asserting the importance of human life. For me, this conference represents my rejection of helplessness and my opportunity to ‘lighten a little the torments’ of those affected by natural disaster.

To register for the conference, please email with your name and affiliation. The conference is free to attend but registration is required as space is limited.

You now have no excuse for feeling helpless.

Preparing for Natural Disasters (Natural Disasters and Opportunities for Action Part 4)

This week, doctoral researcher Lauren Traczykowski, discusses the ethics of intervention for natural disasters and opportunities for action.

The problems outlined in my previous posts – the environment, humanitarian emergencies – likely seem like common societal problems which need more than just a few of us registering our opinions. So today I will focus my post a little closer to home.

As I have previously said, if for no other reason, you should care about how a government prepares for and responds to natural disasters because a natural disaster WILL affect you at some point. Your life will be in the hands of others. Wouldn’t you like to know that there are robust plans and policies in place for when disaster does strike?

Today I want to focus on preparedness. Preparedness involves a state of readiness for whatever comes. So, let’s take flooding. A government prepares for the possibility of flooding by doing things like checking dams, putting up flood defences and making laws about where people can build homes and businesses (having to do with flood plain management). But governments know that floods will still occur despite their best efforts and therefore the people likely affected must also be prepared. The US Government, which I am more familiar with, reminds people that “anywhere it rains, it can flood”[1]. The USG has therefore established an initiative which asks you to Pledge to Prepare[2]. This is about preparing society for floods (and other natural hazards). But it is also worth noting that by preparing yourself and your family you are making it easier for the government to respond to the disaster. Preparedness initiatives are valuable for society at large because by being personally prepared you are freeing up resources to be diverted to more critical cases.

The West Midlands is incredibly prone to flooding due to the concentration of rivers and waterways flowing in and around Birmingham[3]. We must be acutely aware of flash floods, rivers bursting their banks, or even drains that stop draining. The British Government offers excellent advice as to how we can each, at an individual level, plan for a flood. This involves developing a plan and creating a personal flood kit.[4] Once again, personal preparedness saves your life – but it can also contribute to a more prepared community. This allows for resources to be distributed to the most extreme cases.

Finally, and as usual this week, if the idea of flooding in your area seems too distant to care about, I offer a final way for you to prepare for natural disasters. There is always the possibility of a quick on-set, over-in-a-second-type disaster. In these cases the government might be too distant to do anything to help you or your loved ones. As has been my tradition this week, I would like to offer you advice from the Red Cross. The British Red Cross now offers an app for first aid.[5] It provides step by step instructions on how to assist someone with anything from an allergic reaction to a head injury.

So – be prepared for a natural disaster. You are saving your own life and possibly the lives of others.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

World Humanitarian Summit (Natural Disasters and Opportunities for Action - Part 3)

In a fight between Mother Nature and all the politicians in the world, my money is on Mother Nature. In fact, my money is always on Mother Nature. How arrogant of us to think that we can tame or prevent nature from acting as it chooses. Governments can only expect to prepare for and respond to natural disasters. But even then, the preparation and response operations are so overwhelming, it is (understandably) easy for governments to lose sight of who needs saving. 

This is when international organizations and charities often step in to fill response gaps. And international organizations such as the Red Cross, Medecins Sans Frontieres, UNICEF, and so many others, work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of those affected by natural disaster, conflict, and war.

Their work is to be commended, but for me, their work is still distant to my own life. I still feel a bit helpless. To once again quote Henry Dunant: “The moral sense of the importance of human life: the human desire to lighten a little the torments of all these poor wretches, or restore their shattered courage; the furious and relentless activity which a man summons up at such moments: all these combine to create a kind of energy which gives one a positive craving to relieve as many as one can” (Dunant, 1959, p. 73). Indeed the awesome power of natural disasters to kill and destroy the lives and livelihoods of so many people, triggers a ‘human desire to lighten a little the torments’.

In order to satisfy that ‘craving’ to provide assistance, consider the following: international organizations are organized groups of people working toward a common goal – disaster relief, medical assistance, education – dependent on their organizational mission. We don’t have to belong to a formal organization, though, in order to collectively improve the lives of those affected by natural disasters.

In fact, the UN is now looking to individuals for ideas on how to make better policy for humanitarian intervention. Over the next two years, the UN Secretary General is hosting a World Humanitarian Summit. The goal “is to find new ways to tackle humanitarian needs in our fast-changing world” and they are asking everyone in the world to contribute to these talks. There are to be formal regional and global consultations between now and 2016. In the meantime, there are on-line forums for anyone with an interest in humanitarian related issues to offer thoughts and ideas for action. Register, think, contribute, and #ReShapeAid

Dunant, H (1959) A Memory of Solferino, International Committee of the Red Cross, Geneva