Friday, 19 December 2014

Philosophy of Mind and Psychology Reading Group -- The Predictive Mind chapter 11

Ema Sullivan-Bissett
Welcome to the Philosophy of Mind and Psychology Reading Group hosted by the Philosophy@Birmingham blog.

This month, Ema Sullivan-Bissett introduces chapter 11 of Jakob Hohwy’s The Predictive Mind (OUP, 2013). Ema is a Research Fellow on Lisa Bortolotti’s ERC-funded project PERFECT, in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Birmingham.

Chapter 11 - The Fragile Mirror of Nature
Presented by Ema Sullivan-Bissett

In chapter eleven Hohwy seeks to challenge background beliefs we hold about the nature of our body, and characterizes us as ‘fundamentally fragile prediction error minimizing machines’ (p. 224). The fragility of the perceptual system is what is to be explicated in this chapter.

Hohwy starts by setting up a contrast between his prediction error minimization view of perception, and the bottom-up view. The latter casts us as ‘passive receivers of sensory input’, which does not require of us that we interpret such input making use of relevant background beliefs. Such a view is, of course, ‘fundamentally in stark contrast to the prediction error minimization idea’ (p. 225).

Friday, 28 November 2014

Philosophy of Mind and Psychology Reading Group -- Predictive Mind chapter 10

Welcome to the Philosophy of Mind and Psychology Reading Group hosted by the Philosophy@Birmingham blog. This month, I am introducing chapter 10 of Jakob Hohwy's The Predictive Mind (OUP, 2013).

Chapter 10 - Perceptual Unity in Action
Presented by Lisa Bortolotti

In this chapter, Hohwy attempts to provide answers to two key questions about perceptual unity by relying on the prediction error minimisation (PEM) model. This is part of the project of showing that the model can account for all the core characteristics of conscious experience, such as having a first-person perspective, being cognitively penetrable, being subject to illusions, etc.

(1) Why do the elements of conscious unity hang together?
(2) Why is there one perceptual state subsuming all other ones?

Tim Bayne (2010, page 75) endorses the "unity thesis", i.e. the idea that conscious states of any subject of experience at any one point in time will occur as the components of a single total phenomenal state, a unitary phenomenal field. Hohwy agrees with Bayne that the unity thesis is true and claims that it is an important (but contingent) feature of consciousness. His task is to explain the unity thesis (as it applies to conscious perception) via the PEM mechanism.

In PEM we switch from seeing a coffee shop and feeling thirsty to making a decision about whether to buy a coffee in the shop or go home and have a glass of water (this is Hohwy's example of a switch from perceptual to active inference as described in previous chapters of the book). The switch involves making many predictions on the basis of different hypotheses and evaluating them in the light of contextually relevant considerations (e.g., money, daily intake of caffeine, time) in order to make a decision and act. What we do as agents who are limited to do one thing at a time is to select one hypothesis as "the best prediction error minimizer". This delivers one perceptual field, and no more.

To answer questions (1) and (2), in Hohwy's words, "perception is unified because it is based on hypotheses in a causally structured hierarchical model". Creatures like us can use only one hypothesis at the time to "sample the world" and make decisions about what to do. Building bridges with the work of Susan Hurley (1998, page 3) on the link between consciousness and action, Hohwy claims that "there would be no need for unity if there were no agency". That said, he rejects Hurley's externalism about perception. Causes of sensory input need to be inferred as they are to some extent hidden.

I found the picture sketched by Hohwy in this chapter both clear and attractive. I would be interested in examples where problems of agency (such as disruptions in the capacity to choose one option over another or in the capacity to act consistently) could be explained as problems of "perceptual disunity". If the transition from perceptual to active inference were somehow compromised and, say, two hypotheses were seen as prediction error minimisers, maybe not simultaneously but in very close temporal succession, then would paralysis of action or inconsistent action patterns result? Could this maybe explain phenomena such as "double-bookkeeping" in delusions?

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

The Probability of Time Travel

Dr Nikk Effingham discusses some of the philosophical issues relating to his new project, 'The Probability of Time Travel'.

Time travel isn’t merely of interest to Dr. Who fans; philosophers and physicists alike worry about whether or not it’s possible. You probably know the sort of story that causes concern: if time travel were possible you could kill your maternal grandmother long before your mother’s conception, but if you did then how would you be born in order to go back in time and commit the dreadful act of murder in the first place? This ‘Grandfather Paradox’ seems to tell against time travel’s possibility.

Within philosophy the most famous contribution to this debate is David Lewis’s ‘The Paradoxes of Time Travel’. We could travel in time, says Lewis, but don’t think you can thereby do the impossible – that (unsurprisingly!) is something you will definitely fail to do. If you go back in time and try and bring about a paradox, then something will get in your way. Perhaps you slip on a banana peel and miss, perhaps the gun jams, perhaps you bump into the man/woman of your dreams and decide an evening of romance is better than an evening of blood-soaked ancestor murder, perhaps… well, lots of things might stop you. Lewis nonetheless assures us that one of those possibilities will definitely come about if you go back in time and try.

These questions about the possibility of time travel are still live questions, and are still discussed in the philosophical literature. What have received less attention are issues concerning the probability of time travel. The ‘Probability and Time Travel’ project headed by myself and Alastair Wilson investigates just these questions. For instance, if it’s definitely the case that something will stop you when you go back in time to kill your grandmother, and one of those things is having a stroke, does that mean that the chance of having a stroke when travelling in time is higher than it would be if you stayed at home? Is time travel hazardous to your health? If so, how hazardous is it?

Nor are these the only questions. Time travel gives rise to all sorts of strange situations called bootstrapping paradoxes. The famous example is Robert Heinlein’s story ‘–All You Zombies–’ wherein the protagonist, who undergoes a sex change and travels through time, is both their own mother and father (the just-released Australian film Predestination is directly based on it). The person ‘comes from nowhere’; they ‘bootstrap’ themselves into existence. Or perhaps (spoiler alert!) you’ve seen the recent blockbuster Interstellar: there mankind is set on a course for extinction but humans from the future interact with the past to save mankind – they ‘bootstrap’ the survival of the entire human race. Similarly there are ‘information paradoxes’ where information appears only through the use of time travel e.g. a time traveler coming back from the future and telling themselves how to build a time machine.

These situations are all very interesting, and the philosophical consensus is that they are, in fact, logically possible (at least, they are if you buy into the possibility of time travel in the first place!). But how likely are they? If time machines were commonplace, should we expect lots of people to be bootstrapped people, or virtually no-one to be bootstrapped? And why focus on humans? Couldn’t a Tyrannosaur Rex bootstrap itself into existence? And why stop with actually existing things? If time travel were possible you could meet a Wookie that only exists because he’s his own mother and father. Is a Wookie as likely to bootstrap itself into existence as a human? Similarly, if mankind is about to die (and we’re certain time travel is possible) should we expect our time travelling future selves to save us? With the information paradoxes we have the same questions. Is Stephen Hawking as likely as Joey Essex to find his future self telling him how to build a time machine? Am I as likely to meet myself coming from the future telling myself how to build a time machine as I am to meet myself coming from the future telling me how to answer a tricky crossword puzzle?

Answers to these questions are difficult to figure out. They also appear to be relevant. For instance, these issues feature in various attempts to reconcile quantum physics with relativity. Such theories talk about ‘closed timelike curves’ – effectively tunnels through space and time that go back to the past – and so what one says about probability and time travel will have bearing on these difficult questions in physics. So musing about Wookies appearing from nowhere and the likelihood of slipping on banana peels is more than mere navel gazing.

The Probability and Time Travel Project is headed by Nikk Effingham and Al Wilson. It is funded by the ‘New Agendas for the Study of Time: Connecting the Disciplines’ project based at the University of Sydney. As part of the project a two day workshop took place in Sydney on the 19th and 20th of November 2014.  A second workshop is scheduled to take place in Birmingham, UK, during 2015.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Doctoral Researcher Lauren Traczykowski Speaks at Themes in Emergency Services 2014

One of the appealing aspects of working in the field of Global Ethics is that it provides an opportunity for cross-discipline research. Last week, Lauren Traczykowski, a Global Ethics PhD student, applied ethics to natural disaster intervention at a Nottingham Trent University conference. Her presentation focused on issues of leadership in the wake of the 2005 Pakistan earthquake and the 2010 Haitian earthquake. In it she questioned ethical assumptions underpinning natural disaster response. In particular, she argued that the possibility of military intervention for natural disasters is ethically permissible and ethically required if we are to adequately support those affected by a natural disaster and, at the same time, make headway into actually addressing operational lessons learned.

The conference was titled Themes in Emergency Services 2014 and is hosted biannually by the Emergency Services Research Unit (ESRU) within NTU. This kind of academic-practitioner forum is beneficial because it means that there can be a cross-pollination of ideas. Ultimately, this means that the way we act will be influenced by both experience and research. For natural disasters, better action means better response – and that means more lives saved.

For more information on Lauren’s research, check her website follow her on twitter @ltraczy. For more information on ESRU follow @ESRU_NTU

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Professor Heather Widdows to Speak at Two Events - 21st and 22nd November 2014

One of our own professors, Professor Heather Widdows, will be speaking at two events this weekend. The first on global health and the second on her new project 'Perfect Me!' which considers the dominant beauty ideal, its demands and implications.

Her first talk is on Friday as part of a conference organised in Birmingham's Law School by the Centre for Health Law, Science and Policy, in response to a presentation entitled Global Health Law, by Larry Gostin. Heather's talk is titled, ‘Global health justice and the right to health’. And in it she reflects on whether Larry’s broadly communal vision of global health justice is well served by making the right to health central to his project. She considers some of the reasons why rights-talk might be problematic in the context of health justice; namely, structurally, rights are individual and state-centric and politically they are oppositional and better suited to single-issue campaigns. She will suggest that stripping rights of their individualist assumptions is difficult, and perhaps impossible, and hence alternative approaches, such as those Larry endorses, based on public goods and/or security might deliver much, perhaps most, global health goods, while avoiding the problems of rights-talk.

Details of the conference can be found here:

You might also be interested in hearing Larry speak on ‘Ebloa: Towards an International Health Systems Fund’. This is a public lecture on Friday 21st November (5.30-7.30) – all are very welcome.

To register visit:

Heather's second talk is on Saturday in London at Conway Hall in London. Her talk about beauty and happiness, is entitled, ‘More Perfect, More Happy?’. Here she will  consider whether and in what ways appearance and body image – being perfect – is connected to happiness. A current prevalent assumption is that those who are more perfect will be happier. Many women (and men) judge themselves and others on how much they ‘fit’ the dominant ideal, on how perfect they are, and their sense of self often follows from this. That being perfect connects to being happy is often assumed: ‘if I’m thinner, prettier, sexier s/he’ll love me more’ or ‘if I was ten pounds lighter, I’d be happier with myself and my life would go better’. This talk is part of her wider project on beauty and research for the book she is currently writing called ‘Perfect Me!’ (for Princeton University Press). The other two speakers are very impressive: Professor Lord Layard, (co-editor of co-edited the 2012 World Happiness Report), and Professor Elaine Fox (author of Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain).

For more information on this event go to:

Friday, 7 November 2014

Philosophy of Mind and Psychology Reading Group -- The Predictive Mind chapter 9

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

This month, Chloë FitzGerald introduces chapter 9 of Jakob Hohwy's The Predictive Mind (OUP, 2013). Chloë is postdoctoral Fellow on the project Understanding Implicit Bias in Clinical Care at iEH2 (institut Ethique Histoire Humanités), Centre Médical Universitaire, Université de Genève.

Chapter 9 - Precision, Attention and Consciousness
Presented by Chloë FitzGerald

In Chapter 9, Hohwy describes how the PEM framework can be used to explain the functional role of attention and to illuminate the relation of attention to conscious perception. He claims that the PEM theory of attention is the best explanation we currently have of attention.

Hohwy’s account follows Karl Friston and colleagues’ proposal that ‘attention is just optimization of precisions in hierarchical prediction error minimization’ (p. 194). The sensory signals received by the brain vary in how reliable they are and this variability needs to be gauged to enable perceptual inferences to work well. This is why expected precisions are important for PEM. Howry explains that the brain needs to select where to put in most effort in prediction error minimization and that this effort should be spent where the prediction error signals are expected to be most precise. Attention thus ‘requires learning state-dependent patterns of noise and precision and then using such prior beliefs to set the gain on prediction error’ (p. 195).

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Object and property in logic, language and metaphysics

A one-day workshop at the University of Birmingham

Wednesday 5th November

Location: European Research Institute, Room 149 (G3 on campus map


11.00-12.45: Jonathan Payne (Institute of Philosophy): "Quantification and the neo-Fregean conception of object"

14.00-15.45: Jessica Leech (Sheffield): "Absolute necessity"

16.00-17.45: David Liggins (Manchester): "Propositions and "that"-clauses"

For further details contact 

Friday, 26 September 2014

Philosophy of Mind and Psychology Reading Group --The Predictive Mind chapter 8

Alex Kiefer
Welcome to the Philosophy of Mind and Psychology Reading Group hosted by the Philosophy@Birmingham blog. This month, Alex Kiefer (CUNY), introduces chapter 8 of Jakob Hohwy's The Predictive Mind (OUP, 2013).

Chapter 8 - Surprise and Misrepresentation
Presented by Alex Kiefer

Chapter 8 of The Predictive Mind explores longstanding and unresolved debates about the nature of mental representation and representational content from the point of view of the Prediction Error Minimization framework. The chapter is concerned primarily with perceptual representation, in keeping with the emphasis on perception throughout the book.

Jakob offers novel perspectives on a wide range of topics in the theory of content and the philosophy of mind more generally. In this post I'll focus on the two topics that I take to be most crucial for characterizing the account of representational content that best fits with the PEM framework: misrepresentation and causal VS descriptive theories of content. The positions sketched in the chapter with respect to these topics can be summarized in the following two claims:

Misrepresentation: Misrepresentation is perceptual inference that minimizes short-term prediction error while undermining long-term prediction error minimization.

Causal VS descriptive theories: Cognitive systems that minimize prediction error represent the world by maintaining causally guided descriptions (modes of presentation) of states of affairs in the world.

In what follows I'll discuss these claims and Jakob's arguments for them in more detail, then consider challenges for each position as well as connections between the two topics.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Philosophy of Religion One-Day Workshop (9th October)

The John Hick Centre for Philosophy of Religion is pleased to announce

The 7th Philosophy of Religion One-Day Workshop

Date: 9th October, 2014

Location: Room G16, Law Building, University of Birmingham


2:00-2:45: Dani Adams (University of Leeds), ‘'God and Laws of Nature’

2:45-3:30: Toby Betenson (University of Birmingham), ‘Moral Anti-Theodicy and the Moral Philosophy of Raimond Gaita’

3:30-3:45: Break

3:45-4:30: Sarah Adams (University of Leeds), ‘Theism and Modal Expressivism’

4:30-5:30: Erik Wielenberg (DePauw University, USA), ‘The Absurdity of Life in a Christian Universe’

All welcome. Please let Yujin Nagasawa know whether you are planning to attend.

Birmingham Workshops: Aesthetics & Value (29th September)

Our series of BIRMINGHAM WORKSHOPS IN PHILOSOPHY starts on Monday 29th September with a workshop on Aesthetics & Value.

Aesthetics & Value

10:40am Coffee & Biscuits

11:00am Paul Boghossian (Birmingham, NYU): “Should We Be Objectivists about Aesthetic Value?”


1:45 Coffee

2pm Eileen John (Warwick): “Are Meals Art?”                    

4pm Aaron Meskin (Leeds): “Challenges to Experimental Aesthetics”

Talks will be in room G05 of the Law building. This is building R1 on the campus map.

All welcome. Please contact Scott Sturgeon if you are planning to attend.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Climate Change and Divestment Policies

Scott Wisor
Yesterday, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund made headlines by announcing that it would divest its portfolio of fossil fuel companies. The announcement was timed to coincide with global protests calling on governments to take action to combat climate change. The announcement seems welcome—one time oil barons decide it is time to shift to a green economy. But is the fossil fuel divestment campaign structured so as to contribute to efforts to halt global warming?

In a recent post at the Ethics and International Affairs blog, Scott Wisor argues not. On his view, the campaign is designed in such a way as that it cannot effectively change the conduct of fossil fuel companies. Worse, it may draw strength from more effective efforts to combat climate change by directing activist energy to misguided policies.

What do you think? Have a read of Scott’s post and feel free to comment.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Philosophy of Mind and Psychology Reading Group -- The Predictive Mind chapter 7

Kengo Miyazono
Welcome to the Philosophy of Mind and Psychology Reading Group hosted by the Philosophy@Birmingham blog. This month, Kengo Miyazono, post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Birmingham, introduces chapter 7 of Jakob Hohwy's The Predictive Mind (OUP, 2013).

Chapter 7 - Precarious Prediction
Presented by Kengo Miyazono

In chapter seven, Hohwy describes the ways in which perceptual inference is tuned in order to represent the world correctly and the ways in which it goes wrong.

The chapter discusses many different issues, but the central idea is that maintaining the "balance between trusting the sensory input and consequently keeping on sampling the world, versus distrusting the sensory input and instead relying more on one's prior beliefs" (146) is crucial in the successful operation of perceptual inference. Maintaining it is not a trivial task. And, the failure of the maintenance might be responsible for pathological conditions such as delusions or autism.

In principle, the prediction errors that are expected to be precise are allowed to drive revisions of prior beliefs higher up the hierarchy, while the prediction errors that are expected to be imprecise are not allowed to do so. Ideally, we expect high precision in predictions errors and, hence, allow them to drive belief revisions when they are trustworthy and expect low precision in prediction errors and, hence, do not allow them to drive belief revisions when they are not.

But, the process can go wrong. A possibility is that some people expect sensory prediction errors to be much less precise than they actually are. Hohwy suggests that this is what is happening in people with delusions; "a persistent, exaggerated expectation for noise and uncertainty would lead to imprecise sensory prediction errors mediated by low gain on sensory input and heightened reliance on top-down priors. 

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.

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

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Conference - New Directions in Public Reason

Dates: 16th – 17th June 2014

Contact: Jeremy Williams (

Location: Edgbaston Room, Lucas House, University of Birmingham (G16 on this campus map)



Clare Chambers (Cambridge)
Gerald Gaus (Arizona)
Andrew Lister (Queen’s)
Stephen Macedo (Princeton)
Fabienne Peter (Warwick)
Thomas Sinclair (Oxford)
Kevin Vallier (Bowling Green)
Steven Wall (Arizona)

Recent years have seen a flourishing of the philosophical literature on public reason, with a number of new models of public reason being developed, novel arguments in favour of existing models being advanced, and exploration taking place into the implications of the use of public reason for a range of pressing political controversies. At the same time, critics of public reason liberalism have been deploying new objections, and refining familiar ones.

This two-day conference, hosted by Birmingham’s Department of Philosophy, aims to address new and emerging themes in the political philosophy of public reason, and features contributions from proponents of a range of key perspectives from the contemporary debate.


Monday 16 June:

10.30 – 12.00: Macedo (‘The Practical Uses of Public Reason in a Diverse Democracy’)

12.00 – 13.00: Lunch

13.00 – 14.30: Vallier (‘Public Reason and Public Choice: A Synthesis’)

14.30 – 14.45: Coffee

14.45 – 16.15: Peter (‘From Objective Reason to Public Reason’)

16.15 – 16.30: Coffee

16.30 – 18.00: Wall (‘Razian Authority and Public Reason’)

18.00: Drinks

19.30: Conference dinner

Tuesday 17 June:

10.30 – 12.00: Lister (‘Toleration, Public Reason, and Community’)

12.00 – 13.00: Lunch

13.00 – 14.30: Sinclair (‘International Public Reason’)

14.30 – 14.45: Coffee

14.45 – 16.15: Chambers (‘Political Liberal Neutrality, Public Reason, and State-Recognised Marriage’)

16.15 – 16.30: Coffee

16.30 – 18.00: Gaus (‘Is Public Reason a Normalization Project?: Deep Diversity and the Open Society’)

18.00 End of conference

This event is generously supported by the Leverhulme Trust, the Mind Association, the College of Arts and Law at Birmingham, and the Birmingham University Academic Collaboration Fund (North America).


All are welcome, but space is limited, and registration is required. Registration fees have been kept to a minimum, and are £10 for a single day, or £20 for the whole event, including lunch and coffee. To register, please email

6th Philosophy of Religion Mini Workshop - John Hick Centre for Philosophy of Religion, University of Birmingham

6th Philosophy of Religion Mini Workshop
John Hick Centre for Philosophy of Religion, University of Birmingham

13 June, 2014

Room G52, European Research Institute Building 

2:00-2:45: Toby Betenson (University of Birmingham), ‘Evaluative Claims within the Problem of Evil’

2:45-3:30: Leland Harper (University of Birmingham), ‘Motivations for Divine Action in a Multiverse’

3:30-3:40: Break

3:40-4:40: Trent Dougherty (Baylor University, USA), ‘Visible Faith in a Hidden God’

All welcome!

World Environment Day (Natural Disasters and Opportunities for Action - Part 2)

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

Yesterday I explained that I am mainly interested in the ethics behind why countries do/do not intervene in the affairs of countries affected by natural disaster. Assumptions about what ‘should’ be done and why certain people ‘should’ be helped tend to undermine the inherent value of all persons who are equally deserving of being saved in the aftermath of a natural disaster. Instead, I am pushing for an ethical agenda in natural disaster relief.

Policy makers do have a difficult job – and I accept that I am adding one more thing to all the considerations they already incorporate into decision making. Policy is made following intense negotiation and while balancing a duty to assist with operational capabilities. We as every-day people, though, have an opportunity to influence how policymakers make policies.

This week’s posts are supposed to be aimed at what you can do to contribute to the alleviation of suffering caused by a natural disaster. One of the issues policymakers face is the environment. As I explained in yesterday’s post, my research focuses on planning and policy for natural disasters. But there is an obvious link between natural disasters and the environment. Natural disasters are natural – they are formed by and of the environment and so it is impossible to divorce our use of one from the expectations we have of the other. For example, the use of ground water to irrigate desert fields for farming has been linked to increases in seismic activity in California. Removing water creates underground gaps, earth then moves to fill the gap and makes area around the fault lines more unstable (Goldenberg, 2014). There are also concerns that fracking will destabilize areas and also cause, or at least exacerbate, the effects of earthquakes (RT, 2014). So, if we want to better prepare for natural disasters we need to think about how we utilize the environment.

The 5th of June was World Environment Day. This was a day the United Nations identified as the focus for a campaign “encouraging worldwide awareness and action for the environment” (United Nations Environment Programme, 2014). This year has been designated the International Year of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and so all WED Events and activities are focused on supporting SIDS. Particularly, WED is trying to bring attention to the effect that climate change has on SIDS. I therefore offer that climate change and an increase in natural disasters are linked. With this, small island states and developing states are disproportionately affected by natural disasters. Indeed, SIDS are highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change: they usually have less capital and more corrupt/non-functioning governments with which to respond to natural disasters.

Considering, then, the impact humans have on the environment, the possible natural disaster destruction this causes, and in honour of World Environment Day, what can we do to support the environment and reduce the associated risk of some natural disasters? The World Environment Day website offers some suggestions.

Think about helping.


Goldenberg, S (2014) "Water depletion in California 'may be increasing chance of earthquakes.'" The Guardian 14 May 2014

RT Staff (2014)"Los Angeles becomes largest US city to prohibit fracking." 4 March 2014

Monday, 9 June 2014

Natural Disasters and Opportunities for Action

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

My work focuses on the ethics and appropriateness of intervention in the aftermath of natural disasters. Intervention is necessary because sometimes a national government doesn’t respond by themselves – either because they are unable or unwilling - which leads to unnecessary suffering and death. We can blame response failure on poor planning, lack of situational awareness, and more bad weather or natural disaster that compounds the problem. We even know that extreme poverty exacerbates the effects of natural disasters.

The part of natural disaster response and intervention I am interested in, though, is the ethics that drive our decision-making. I focus on two political issues which have ethical components. First, sovereignty. Governments assert that sovereignty must be observed, and thus consent to intervention must be granted, in all natural disaster scenarios and in order for an intervention to take place. But ethically, sovereignty shouldn’t be a barrier. In fact, sometimes intervention on behalf of the people affected can be seen as intervention in support of the individual’s sovereignty. Second, the human right to welfare – food, shelter, emergency medical attention, and basic security. However, governments upholding this right and assume the associated duty inconsistently. There is also very often an inherent bias as to who governments will deliver the right to welfare. I argue that we need to look beyond sovereignty and accepted norms of welfare desert. We must consider what our ethical responsibility to intervene is when people are suffering from the effects of a natural disaster.

My research obviously keeps me entrenched in atrocity and surrounded by disaster, disease and death. And of course many of you, like me, often feels helpless. Henry Dunant, the founder of the International Committee of the Red Cross, wrote “the feeling one has of one's own utter inadequacy in such extraordinary and solemn circumstances is unspeakable” (Dunant, 1959, p. 72). Despite our feelings of inadequacy in saving those affected by natural disasters, though, we are ethically responsible for those affected by a natural disaster. With that, we need to do our best to make effective, appropriate and ethical policies before disaster strikes.

I will not dwell on the horrific nature of natural disasters and the unethical policies that prevent us from intervening. Instead, I want to use this week to show you that we as individuals are not powerless to make important contributions to those affected by disaster. If you feel like addressing the needs of those millions affected by natural disasters is too big to tackle on your own, you are not alone. But small actions can make a big difference. If you don’t care about this because you don’t care about helping – fine. I am not going to convince you. But you should care and you should be aware of the effects of natural disasters, the duties your governments usually fail to fulfil and what the international community is doing, if for no other reason than that you could be next. Natural disasters, unlike politics and economics, do not care about borders, race or religion. They don’t care who you are - but I would guess you do care about your own life. And so keep reading… tomorrow.

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

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Desiring to Believe and Self-Deception

This week, postgraduate student Martin Smith considers the relationship between self-deception, the desire to believe and rationality. 

Nicole swears that her husband is faithful. She’s adamant about it. Her friends, though, aren’t convinced. That weekly poker game of his? He spends it with Rachel, they say. They see his car at her place every week. And these friends of Nicole’s are good friends. They wouldn’t say this lightly. But Nicole’s firm; “I just don’t believe any of it”, she says.

She speaks with conviction but her words aren’t the whole story. She won’t drive by Rachel’s place when her friends say he’ll be there. A few times she’s needed to get somewhere and it would have been convenient to just go past Rachel’s. But if it’s ‘poker night’, she’ll avoid that route. It piles minutes on to her journey but she just won’t go near that house.

Nicole is a bit of a puzzle. She says she believes her husband to be faithful. She’s not trying to deceive her friends by saying that. Best as she can tell in that moment, that’s an honest report of her perspective. But still, she doesn’t behave like someone who really believes that.

She seems to have some awareness that things are off. That’s why she avoids Rachel’s house. Part of her, somewhere, we might think, senses her friends have a point. But she’s keeping that sense – that awareness – at bay somehow. She’s blocking it out. She’s self-deceived.[1]

No doubt this self-deception is irrational. Hopefully, if we look at her case more deeply, we should be able to draw from it certain lessons. Namely, lessons about what not to do if we want to remain rational! And what’s interesting about this case, I think, is that the lessons we can draw from it might challenge common assumptions about desire, belief and rationality.

We might be tempted to describe Nicole’s problem like this: she wants too much to believe that her husband is faithful. Or she is too committed to believing that her husband is faithful. This desire/commitment, sadly, we might think, is competing against and trumping the rational demands upon her. Demands, for instance, to be fully attentive to evidence against her husband’s faithfulness. If only she could be less ‘invested’ and more ‘neutral’ regarding her belief that her husband is faithful, she would be more able to be rational.

There is something right in this. I think Nicole’s desire to believe that her husband is faithful is involved, in some way, in her irrationality – her self-deception.[2] But I don’t think the problem is that this desire is too strong. Rather the desire (or commitment) is too weak. Let me explain.

Nicole’s belief that her husband is faithful can’t withstand serious levels of opposing evidence. If she were to find her husband’s car at Rachel’s place, it might not be psychologically possible (it would at least be very hard) for her to continue believing in her husband’s faithfulness. So if Nicole desires to believe that her husband is faithful, evidence that he isn’t will make her uncomfortable. She’ll feel the threat that this evidence poses to her desire. It will be distressing for her.  

What can you do to get out of a distressing situation? One option is to face up to it. When you’re, say, anxious about making a phone call to a friend you’ve upset, you can choose to respond by gritting your teeth and picking up that phone. The distress might temporarily increase as you do so but you’re actually tackling the problem. Once it’s resolved, the distress will disappear.

The other way out of a distressing situation is to avoid it. You put off the phone call. Put it out of your mind. Distract yourself whenever the thought of it arises. Avoidance, no doubt, is easier than facing up to a problem. In avoidance you can experience immediate relief from distress rather than the temporary increase that taking action brings about. But there can be other price tags attached to avoidance, as I hope to show.

Obviously Nicole, rather than facing up to the evidence against her husband’s faithfulness, avoids that evidence. She keeps away from Rachel’s house. Brushes aside memories of suspicious activity. She has some level of awareness of this evidence alright but she keeps it from the centre of conscious attention. It’s always pushed to the peripheries. That’s how she deals with the distress that threats against her desire to believe bring.

Well okay, that’s a little cowardly but she’s getting what she wants, isn’t she? Hasn’t she has kept her belief that her husband is faithful intact? It sure seems like her desire to believe is winning out against the demands of rationality. It seems her desire is being gratified.

Consider, though, that her avoidance of threatening evidence against her husband’s faithfulness seems to call into question whether she does in fact believe him to be faithful. After all, she’s not willing to put that belief to the test. She’s not willing to ‘put her money where her mouth is’. Really, her avoidance of the evidence just seems like distrust that the world really is as she professes to believe it to be. That is, she seems to distrust her judgment that her husband is faithful. But if she distrusts that judgment, does she really believe it? Intuitively, to me, it seems she doesn’t. Or at least, she doesn’t fully believe it.[3]

It seems to me that in avoiding evidence against her belief, Nicole gradually loses that belief by systematically distrusting it. Self-deception may gratify her temporary desire for relief from distress but it sabotages her desire to believe that her husband is faithful. Her desire to believe loses out against her desire for comfort. Self-deception isn’t quite as attractive regarding belief-preservation as it may have seemed.

So what could she have done differently? Could she have better served her desire to believe? Yes, she could have, by facing up to the evidence. Enough avoidance guarantees loss of belief through mistrust. But while facing up to threats to a belief may also lead to loss of that belief, it also opens up the possibility of preserving it.

Confronting the situation allows one to potentially find out that the ‘evidence’ is not what one feared. Perhaps Nicole, if she drove up to Rachel’s house, would find a satisfactory and innocent explanation of it all (Rachel’s help was needed for a surprise for Nicole). Even if the chances of this are slim, they beat the zero-chance of belief-preservation offered by avoidance.

If all this is correct, then Nicole’s desire to believe would have been best served by complying with the demands of rationality. She would have maximised her chances of gratifying that desire by being attentive to the evidence. Really, her failure to be attentive to the evidence is a failure to be properly committed to her desire (and her belief). So rather than her desire competing against the demands of rationality, taking her desire seriously requires meeting those demands.

It’s often thought that desire for a belief, emotional investment in a belief, or commitment to a belief compromises rationality. But the lesson we can draw from cases of self-deception like Nicole’s might be that the problem is not in these attitudes themselves but in the deficient methods we use to (attempt to) uphold them. Deficient methods like choosing avoidance over action (‘facing up’), for instance.  


Funkhouser, E., 2005. Do the self-deceived get what they want? Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 86(3), pp.295-312.

Lynch, K., 2012. On the “tension” inherent in self-deception. Philosophical Psychology. 25(3), pp.433-450.


[1] This is an adaptation of a case of self-deception discussed by Funkhouser (2005, p.302).
[2] Of course, she may desire that her husband actually is faithful too. But it’s plausible to think that she also desires to believe that. Even if it were false that her husband were faithful, sincerely believing him to be would surely provides a level of comfort she could easily cherish. Ignorance is bliss after all. For considerations in favour of viewing desire for belief rather than for some state of affairs out there in the world as more significant in self-deception see Funkhouser (2005).
[3] I find plausible something in the spirit of Lynch’s claim that “the extent to which S really believes that p can be gauged by observing the risks he/she is willing to take on that assumption (2012, p.444).”