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 - .