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: r.j.wareham@bham.ac.uk

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 a.j.wilson@bham.ac.uk 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 - https://newagendasstudyoftime.wordpress.com/ - and is organized in association with MIMOSA - http://www.mimosa.org.uk .

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 s.l.wisor@bham.ac.uk<mailto:s.l.wisor@bham.ac.uk.
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.