Monday, 13 April 2015

Philosophy for the Curious: Why Study Philosophy?

A new resource has recently been made available to people interested in studying Philosophy, “Philosophy for the Curious: Why Study Philosophy?” by Curious Academic Publishing (2015). Lisa Bortolotti was among the philosophers interviewed for this project. We report here an abridged version of the interview.

So, our curious students would like to know what actually the academic discipline of Philosophy is. How do you see the future of Philosophy in terms of career opportunities and options? Why should the students choose Philosophy as their undergraduate or postgraduate major?

Philosophy is at the same time a practice and a body of knowledge. As a practice, Philosophy invites us to adopt a critical attitude towards received opinions and by studying the subject we acquire the capacity to assess and develop arguments for or against a certain position. We learn how to spot weaknesses in an argument and build counter-examples to it, but also, more constructively, we learn how to avoid bad reasoning when we propose an argument for a certain position. Due to Philosophy as a practice, Philosophy graduates usually have excellent analytical, critical and problem-solving skills and they are sought after by employers for this reason.
As a body of knowledge, Philosophy is about gaining an understanding of the issues that matter to us, and to which we apply the skills we have been talking about. What is consciousness? Does God exist? Is killing always wrong? In practical philosophy we investigate ethical and political issues and in theoretical philosophy we ask questions about the methodology of the sciences, the nature of reality, the complexities of the human mind, and the limitations of our knowledge of the world, among many others. Philosophy can also be thought of as a reflection on other disciplines, so we have philosophy of physics, philosophy of psychology, and so on, where we look at the conceptual framework within which empirical issues are discussed. As a body of knowledge, Philosophy does not translate into a career in a direct way, apart from preparing for teaching or research. But Philosophy graduates often get into politics and public policy, human resources, law, journalism and publishing.

Now, why should our prospective students undertake a research degree in Philosophy? Can you briefly discuss the research areas in Philosophy that the University of Birmingham is actively pursuing? Are practitioners generally less interested in taking advantage of academic research in Philosophy?

As with all research degrees, a research degree in Philosophy requires passion for the subject and a commitment to contributing to advancing a specific debate that strikes us as important. A PhD student in particular makes a very significant investment of time and resources to become an expert in the topic of her proposed thesis, and it is important to acknowledge that such an investment does not always lead to an academic job.
We still have PhD students who have just finished their first degrees and Masters and continue to study because they aspire to an academic career. But we also have professionals who take time off to explore an issue that has emerged as interesting during their working life and aim to get back to their careers after their studies. In the area I am doing research in, the philosophy of the cognitive sciences and the philosophy of psychiatry, this is very common. In our department we do have specialisms in philosophy of psychology and psychiatry, but also in other areas of philosophy such as logic, metaphysics, philosophy of science, philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, ethics, global ethics and philosophy of religion. Not only do the themes vary, but also the methodologies we adopt. In my own research, I work closely with clinical psychiatrists and psychologists and my papers and books are often aimed not just at philosophers but at an interdisciplinary audience. Other areas of philosophical research are more self-contained.

Finally, would you like to share any best practice tips with our students and practitioners based on your observation on Philosophy education, research and practice in the UK?

When I teach I try hard to remember what it was like to be a Philosophy student and learn from my own experience. Different teaching styles and approaches can work equally well if the lecturer is enthusiastic about the topic of the lecture, well-informed, and ready to give students space to think and time to talk. My aim is to invite students to think about important issues, learn something new about themselves and the world they live in, develop their own coherent and sensible argument, fruitfully exchange ideas with each other, and ultimately engage in the debates currently shaping the field. They should always feel like active participants, not spectators.

When I do research I try and adopt the same attitude of an eager student. I read as widely as time allows. I write, get feedback, and rewrite to make my prose clearer and my arguments tighter. I go and talk to other philosophers, but also the general public, about my work and hope it can make a difference, in a small way, to what we think and how well we live. I give talks at international conferences but I am also happy to use Facebook and Twitter to share new results, by myself and others, and promote discussion. Recently, I have started a group blog, called ImperfectCognitions, where research in my area is made widely accessible and new ideas can be discussed safely and productively. Contributors range from Masters students to Distinguished Professors, have different disciplinary backgrounds and are based in different parts of the world, but all share a passion for philosophy and a desire to keep the conversation going.

Monday, 6 April 2015

Visiting Project PERFECT

Naomi Kloosterboer
This post is by Naomi Kloosterboer, PhD student at the VU University of Amsterdam.

In February and March of this year, I was a visiting PhD student in the Philosophy Department of the University of Birmingham. There is a welcoming and open atmosphere at the department where philosophy chatter and discussions are abundant, staff members like hearing about your philosophical ideas and research, and where many situations lend themselves to an opportunity to have drinks at the staff house bar and continue discussions.

During my time at ‘Brum’ I worked on the first part of my PhD Thesis, which is about understanding the threat that ignorance – as arising from the psychological literature on confabulation, attitude misattributions, choice blindness, etc. – poses to rational agency. Furthermore, I participated in the weekly Proseminar, the postgrad reading group, in the weekly PGR seminar, where postgrads present their work, and in the bi-weekly PERFECT reading group. These groups provided very engaging discussions from fellow students and members of staff. In this post I will discuss a paper that was discussed in the PERFECT reading group, chaired by Professor Lisa Bortolotti: ‘Lifting the Veil of Morality: Choice Blindness and Attitude Reversals on a Self-Transforming Survey’ by Hall et al. (2012).

Hall and Johansson and their group have developed, as they call it, the choice blindness paradigm (cf. Hall et al. 2010, 2012; Johansson 2006, PhD Thesis; Johansson et al. 2005, 2006). The paradigm is built upon the fact that it is possible to manipulate the relation between people’s decisions and the outcomes of these decisions without them noticing, revealing that people are prone to miss even dramatic mismatches between what they want and what they actually get. Moreover, faced with the question to explain choices they in fact did not make, participants offered reasons for the outcome.

After several studies on aesthetic, gustatory and olfactory choices, an experiment was designed to test whether people are also blind to their opinions on moral issues (Hall et al. 2012). In the study, which was conducted in a park, participants rate their level of agreement or disagreement on a score from 1 to 9 either with a general moral principle, e.g. “Even if an action might harm the innocent, it can still be morally permissible to perform it”, or with a specific political moral statement, such as “Large scale governmental surveillance of e-mail and Internet traffic ought to be forbidden as a means to combat international crime and terrorism.” Minutes later they are asked to give reasons for the score they filled in. However, unbeknownst to the participants and involving a kind of magic trick (see explanation of the method in Hall et al. 2012, 2), some of the principles and statements are reversed. This means that the participants are asked to give reasons for an opinion opposite to their original transcribed score.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Changing Understandings of Body Image

This post is by Heather Widdows, who reports on the first workshop of the BeautyDemands network. 

The workshop took place earlier this month at Warwick University. It considered changing body image and looked at how ‘normal’, ‘healthy’ and ‘perfect’ function as concepts in the beauty debate. For instance, how they function as people perceive themselves and others in terms of what is normal and beautiful, and in terms of what women and girls (and to a lesser extent men) feel is expected of them. 

The papers given covered a wide range of topics, including, on choice, on revenge porn, on ‘tanorexia’, on skin-lightening, on feminism and beauty, on cosmetic surgery scandals, and from very different perfectives including, law, psychology, sociology, philosophy and critical theory. 

These were the types of issues which were discussed were:
  • Whether and how choice or consent is relevant in the debate, for instance, can one ‘freely’ consent to cosmetic procedures or does social construction reduce the very possibility of choice. 
  • The extent to which such ‘requirements’ are more demanding than in previous generations and over time. 
  • The connection between these debates and previous feminist debates and the need to return to older discussions. 
  • The relationship between the philosophical debate and the law and policy debates and how to create not only dialogue between but to use the different debates in ways which might be useful to inform policy and practice intervention. 
  • Possible pathways to regulation in areas which are little regulated. 
  • The relationship between health, beauty, sexual attractiveness and identity. 

Friday, 20 March 2015

Mini Workshop on 30th March

Hartry Field
On 30th March we will host a mini-workshop featuring Hartry Field and Ofra Magidor. 

Hartry’s paper is entitled “Caie’s paradox of credence”, and Ofra’s paper is entitled “Conditional Acceptance”. Their talks will be from 2-4pm and 4-6pm respectively, in the large lecture hall on the ground floor of the ERI building. 

All welcome. Email Scott Sturgeon for further information.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Edward Cadbury Lectures 2015 by William Lane Craig

William Lane Craig
Professor Craig, Research Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, and Professor of Philosophy at Houston Baptist University, will deliver a series of five lectures between Monday 16 and Friday 20 March on the theme of ‘God All Over’. He will also give an additional public lecture on the Kalam cosmological argument for the existence of God on Saturday 21 March.

The Edward Cadbury Lectures come from an endowment from the Cadbury family to the University of Birmingham for an annual series of lectures open to the public on the history, theology and culture of Christianity. The first Cadbury Lectures were delivered in 1948 by the historian Arnold Toynbee, who has been followed by a succession of eminent scholars from around the world.

To register please e-mail us specifying which lectures you would like to attend.

Was Aristotle a Cognitivist about the Emotions?

Logo of the EPSSE
Our PhD student Isaura Peddis had her paper on Aristotle and the emotions accepted for presentation at a conference in Edinburgh in July 2015, organised by the European Philosophical Society for the Study of the Emotions

The paper is entitled: "Aristotle and his archetypal classical cognitive theory of emotions: a philosophical myth".

Friday, 30 January 2015

Philosophy of Mind and Psychology Reading Group -- The Predictive Mind chapter 12

Sam Wilkinson
Welcome to the Philosophy of Mind and Psychology Reading Group hosted by the Philosophy@Birmingham blog.

This month, Sam Wilkinson, Research Fellow in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Durham, introduces chapter 12 of Jakob Hohwy’s The Predictive Mind (OUP, 2013). This is the last in a series of posts on the book.

Many thanks to all of you who have contributed with posts and comments, and especially to Jakob Hohwy whose participation has made the reading group so interesting.


Chapter 12 - Into the Predictive Mind
Presented by Sam Wilkinson

In the twelfth and final chapter, “the prediction error mechanism is extended deep into matters of the mind” (p.242). In particular, it is applied to: emotions, introspection, privacy of mind, and the self, with each application having a section devoted to it. Hohwy readily acknowledges that these “are certainly aspects where the application of prediction error minimization [PEM] becomes more tenuous”. However, the applications are worth attempting, given the “immense explanatory scope” of the framework.

I take each section (with the applications to which they are devoted) in turn.

In “Emotions and Bodily Sensations”, the key idea is basically “interoceptive predictive processing”, namely, that emotion arises as a kind of perceptual inference on our internal states. This is neatly tied in with the James-Lange theory of emotion (recently made popular by Prinz 2004), according to which, e.g. we feel afraid because we tremble (rather than, as pre-theoretical intuition might have it, the other way around).

“Emotions arise as interoceptive prediction error is explained away” (p.243). It is not, as a classical bottom-up account (according to which inputs come in, get processed, and passed up until you get a conscious percept) would have it, the interoceptive state itself: it the hypothesis that explains it away.

One interesting upshot of this is that it allows that inference to go wrong, thereby giving rise to “emotional illusions”.

A further, attractive, consequence of the hierarchical approach is that it settles the dispute between conceptualist and non-conceptualist views of emotion. On the one hand, human emotions seem rather sophisticated, and yet, on the other, it seems that far simpler animals are capable of feeling emotions (at least in some sense). As discussed in Chapter 3, and put to work in Chapter 6 with a similarly ecumenical resolution of the cognitive penetrability debate, “the sharp distinction between percepts and concepts begins to wash out in the perceptual hierarchy” (p.243). Thus, relatively basic animals can be said to have emotions (viz. these Bayes-optimal hypotheses that explain away interoceptive prediction error), but the character of their emotional experience will not be subject to the same top-down predictions that the emotional experience of more sophisticated animals (like ourselves) will be subject to.