Friday, 30 May 2014

Philosophy of Mind and Psychology Reading Group -- The Predictive Mind chapter 4

Zoe Jenkin
Welcome to the fourth post of the online reading group in the Philosophy of Mind and Psychology hosted by the Philosophy@Birmingham blog. This month, Zoe Jenkin (Harvard) presents chapter 4 of The Predictive Mind by Jakob Hohwy (OUP 2013).

Chapter 4 - Action and Expected Experience
Presented by Zoe Jenkin

The first three chapters of The Predictive Mind sketch how prediction error minimization underlies all perceptual processing, explaining various features of the mind using one unified framework. Chapter four addresses the question of how action fits into the PEM framework, arguing not only that PEM can adequately accommodate action, but also that action plays a crucial role in minimizing prediction error. We end up with a picture on which in any given case of a prediction error (a discrepancy between the prediction of the system and the sensory input), this error can in principle be minimized in one of two ways—by revising one’s priors and generating a new hypothesis, or by acting so as to selectively sample the world in a way that makes the input data match the selected hypothesis. An example of such selective sampling might be, if the system predicts that there will be a face before it, it will fixate its eyes toward the region where the prediction dictates a nose will be, and scan for a surface with a characteristically nose-like slope. Hohwy notes that this active, selective sampling method will be more efficient than random sampling, because it will target regions of space where the hypothesis makes a particular or unique prediction and so can easily be confirmed or disconfirmed. On this view, “perceiving and acting are but two different ways of doing the same thing” (71), where that “thing” is minimizing prediction error.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Making Philosophers Employable - Reflections on Philosophy and Employability (Part 2)

In the final post of a 2-part series on philosophy and employability, Ruth Oswald Wareham asks if the prospects of philosophy graduates could be improved by encouraging them to philosophise about employability.

In my last post I considered the common assumption that the study of philosophy produces graduates who are less employable than those with degrees in other subjects. Although there is strong evidence to suggest that this assumption is incorrect, with philosophy graduates outstripping those with degrees in a range of more obviously vocational subjects in terms of graduate employment, I wondered if the best way to enhance the employability of philosophers (and their own perceptions of this employability) was not merely to encourage them to identify the ‘transferable skills’[1] which they are likely to have developed over the course of their studies. Owing to the fact there is a sense in which such a justificatory move represents an endorsement of the useful/useless discourse which pervades popular discussion about the purpose of Higher Education, I suggested that there may be another way to make philosophers employable.

Philosophising About Employability

In 2011/12 I began working as a (student) project assistant with the Careers Network at the University of Birmingham. As a doctoral research student in philosophy, I was asked to look for ways in which we could start to embed employability into my own discipline. Of course, in spite of the obvious concerns about some of the overall assumptions underpinning the employability agenda, it seemed clear that we would not be able to abandon the traditional approach (involving skills auditing & personal development planning) completely. We may acknowledge that the vision of the university as a tool to produce workers is problematic, whilst simultaneously realising that we have an educational duty to equip students with the requisite knowledge to be able to ‘play the employability game’. This duty arises from the fact that, like it or not, such knowledge will determine the extent to which graduates are able to live flourishing lives after graduation. This said, the traditional approach needn’t be old-fashioned in terms of how it is delivered and, in order to support the personal development process, our Careers Network developed an innovative online employability tool, Progress, which is now being integrated into personal tutorials, induction and transition across the University of Birmingham.

The trouble with the traditional approach however, is that it does not provide us with the tools to establish the particularity of philosophy; its uniqueness as a discipline. In order to attempt to address this challenge I introduced the idea of philosophy & employability workshops dealing with the philosophy of employability.

Through problematising the employability agenda itself; by thinking philosophically about employability and asking what it means as a concept, I reasoned that participants would begin to grasp how the discipline of philosophy informs their thinking and give them a richer perspective on their own employability. Indeed, the feedback from the students who participated in the workshop that we held implied that this was, in fact, the case. Of course, far more empirical and theoretical work needs to be done in order to validate this theory but, if I’m correct, the position may point to the conclusion that good employability practice ought to arise out of in-depth critical engagement with the most significant features of a discipline; that it should help students to answer the question “what makes you employable?” with direct reference to the unique attributes of their subject.

[1] It is worth noting that the concept of ‘transferable skills’ is more controversial than mainstream discussions of employability acknowledge.  For an illuminating discussion of some of the key disagreements see Bridges, D. (1993) ‘Transferable skills: A philosophical perspective’, Studies in Higher Education, 18:1, 43-51.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Making Philosophers Employable - Reflections on Philosophy and Employability

In the following two blog posts, Ruth Oswald Wareham (Doctoral Researcher and Student Engagement Facilitator in The School of Philosophy, Theology and Religion) considers what can be done to enhance the employability of philosophy graduates and wonders whether the answer might involve philosophising about employability.

In recent years, the employability agenda has become one of the most prevalent in framing discussions about the efficacy of universities. Traditionally, academics have been loath to accept this shift towards what they regard as crude instrumentalism and which implies that the function of university is to produce work-ready individuals who will “meet the needs of business.” (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, 2012).

While David Willets has claimed that: “Our universities are centres of critical inquiry and free-thinking; they instil civic values in their students; and they extend understanding through teaching and research,” (BIS, 2012, p.3),  there is concern that the value of learning ‘for its own sake’ is being gradually eroded in favour of narrowly conceived market values.

The literary critic and academic Stefan Collini calls this pattern of debate “the conflict between the ‘useful’ and the ‘useless’”(Collini, 2012, p.39); a conflict which has, in one way, shape or form, existed in debates about the purpose of university since the early nineteenth century. Collini recommends that we recast the difference between academic inquiry and the more utilitarian thinking exhibited in current political discourse about the purpose of the university as one which arises out of a disparity between the idea that learning should be for a specific (pre-determined) purpose and the academic “drive towards understanding [which] can never accept an arbitrary stopping point, and [through which] critique may always in principle reveal that any currently accepted stopping-point is ultimately arbitrary.” (Collini, 2012, p.55)

With this in mind, perhaps it is time to withdraw from the useful/useless debate in terms of employability and begin to examine new ways in which to engage with the subject. In these blog posts, I intend to discuss what I envisage could be the way forward in terms of education for employability with particular relation to the study of  philosophy.

Philosophy & Employability – What Are You Going to Do With That?

When you study philosophy, you get used to derisory comments. The response to telling someone you are studying philosophy is usually something akin to: “What are you going to do with that then?” (although it is worth noting that I was once asked if this meant that I could read minds!). Philosophy graduates have a reputation for being less employable than graduates of STEM subjects. Indeed, even the students themselves have a fairly negative perception of their employability; only 42.5 per cent of students holding degrees in history & philosophical studies agreed with the statement 'The undergraduate subject I studied has been an advantage in looking for employment.' (Telegraph, 2012a). It is peculiar then, that according to recent data from HESA, graduates with degrees in history & philosophical studies actually do better than graduates of business, physics, architecture and computer science in terms of graduate employment. (Telegraph, 2012b)

Of course, the negative perception of philosophy is nothing new, in a discussion with Socrates, Adeimantus voices the concern that “the effect of [the] pursuit… even on those of its practitioners who are supposed to be particularly good is that they become incapable of performing any service to their communities.” (Plato, 1998, p.208) Socrates responds that the problem is not the uselessness of philosophers but “others’ failure to make use of them.” (ibid. p.209) Failing the complete overhaul of society in a manner reflective of Republic, what can be done to enhance (and improve perceptions of) the employability of philosophy graduates?

 Employability – Towards a Philosophical Perspective

Employability is about far more than securing a ‘graduate job’ after leaving university and is more properly defined as:

A set of achievements – skills, understandings and personal attributes – that makes graduates more likely to gain employment and be successful in their chosen occupations, which benefits themselves, the workforce, the community and the economy. (ESECT based on Yorke 2006)

On this definition, it seems plausible to argue that the best way to make philosophers employable is to encourage them to articulate the skills they've developed. According to an employability guide for students and graduates:

There are plenty of career opportunities for philosophy graduates, but often in roles that bear no obvious relation to the study of philosophy, so you need to be able to demonstrate sound personal transferable skills, which employers value…think about the general skills you are developing, like the ability to think logically, analyse critically, and communicate articulately and accurately, both orally and in writing. You’re also learning reasoning skills and the ability to formulate and address problems creatively. (HEAPRS, 2009)

However,  we need to be wary of adopting the overly narrow perspective of ‘transferrable skills’ because it carries the implication that certain skills can be picked up through the study of any discipline and entails the devaluation of particularity. Surely what we really want to know is: ‘What is special about philosophy?’

One answer may come from work on philosophy for children (P4C). From the point of view of skills development in children, participation in philosophical enquiry has been found to significantly enhance cognitive ability, reasoning skills and social skills (Trickey,2007; Trickey & Topping, 2004). However, it is not so much the subject matter of philosophy which appears to produce these educational gains, rather, it is the manner in which the subject matter is approached; through participation in a community of inquiry (Lipmann, 2003; Fisher 2003).

But while research on P4C serves the philosopher’s aim in terms of illustrating the benefits of studying the subject (at least when it is studied in a particular manner), this simply seems to buy into the useful/useless debate and thus amounts to an endorsement of the instrumentalist conception of a university education. Is there another way? In my 2nd post, I will examine one such possibility.


BIS (2012) Following Up the Wilson Review of Business-University Engagement

Collini, S (2012) What Are Universities For? London; Penguin

Fisher, R (2003) Teaching Thinking: Philosophical Enquiry in the Classroom (Second Edition), London; Continuum

Higher Education Academy Subject Centre for Philosophical & Religious Studies(HEAPRS) (2009)

Lipman, M (2003) Thinking in Education (Second Edition), Cambridge; Cambridge University Press

Plato (1993) Republic Translated by Waterfield, R, Oxford; Oxford University Press

Trickey, S (2007) Promoting Social and Cognitive Development in Schools: An Evaluation of ‘Thinking Through Philosophy’

S. Trickey & K. J. Topping (2004): ‘Philosophy for children’: a systematic review, Research Papers in Education, 19:3, 365-380

The Daily Telegraph (2012a)

Yorke, M (2006) cited in Pegg, A, Waldock, J, Hendy-Isaac, S & Lawton, R (2012) Pedagogy for Employability, York; HEA

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Delusion: doxasticity, rationality and normativity

This week, doctoral researcher Rachel Gunn examines the nature of delusions. 

If a subject says they believe something then I am inclined to take this at face value.  The subject usually has other mundane unexamined beliefs (e.g.: I believe that when I turn a tap on water comes out) as well as examined beliefs or opinions (e.g.: I believe that liberal democracy is the best political system).  Against this background of other beliefs it does not seem appropriate to ‘second guess’ the subject about his own experience.  Not everyone would agree with this and some would argue that delusions do not meet the criteria for beliefs as they are irrational, do not necessarily affect behaviour and do not cohere with other beliefs.

Some propose that a delusional subject fails to monitor an imagining as being self-generated (the subject is in some sense not the agent of the imagining).  This mental activity is then mislabelled (representationally) as a belief and somehow ‘given’ as true.  So the delusional person has a thought with content P.  He does not believe P.  He imagines P.  And he believes that he believes P.  In this case some delusions are imaginings with a strong feeling of subjective conviction (Currie and Jureidini, 2001).  This is an intriguing way of describing some delusions and might help us explain why some subjects do not seek to integrate their delusions into their lives or to act on them (we do not routinely act on our imaginings).  However, there are problems here – the most obvious being that there are many examples of people acting on their delusions and integrating them into elaborate belief networks that pervade the rest of their lives - for example, the person who believes he is a millionaire, a general and a senior psychiatrist who regularly phones the bank to check on his millions, attempts to arrange to inspect local military bases and applies for a job as a chief executive of a hospital (Bentall, 2004, pp.295–6)

The other problem arises from establishing how this characterisation of delusion differs from non-delusional subjects who are ‘believers’.  Our normal propositional attitudes can be manifest as beliefs, which we may not act on, which may not be integrated into the rest of our beliefs and which may also be irrational.  For example I might say that I believe smoking kills people and I do not want to die sooner than necessary yet I continue to smoke.  This series of un-integrated beliefs might include an unexamined belief (or sub-clinical delusion) that I am special and the detrimental effect of smoking will somehow not have an impact on me.  If questioned about it I would probably concede that the (weakly held) belief that I am special is not true, yet I am unlikely to change my behaviour.  Further, one could successfully argue that my behaviour and my thinking in this case is irrational but it is unlikely that one would question the belief status of my statement about smoking.  Some say that delusions are non-doxastic acceptances that do not meet relevant rationality standards (Frankish, 2012) – and here I would have to question what is meant by ‘relevant rationality standards.’  Ideal (normative) rationality is not consistent in human beings and therefore one cannot deny the doxastic nature of delusions simply because they are sometimes irrational (for supporters of this position see Bayne and Pacherie, 2005; Bortolotti, 2010)

Whilst it might be true that some delusions are not beliefs this does not alter the fact that our ordinary conceptualisation of beliefs sometimes seem to have the same external characteristics as the phenomenon that Currie and Jureidini describe as imaginings mistaken as beliefs and that Frankish describes as non-doxastic acceptances.  Of course, as we are unable to consistently and accurately define or describe beliefs or imaginings, I cannot say more about it here - perhaps beliefs, acceptances and imaginings are complex overlapping forms of mental activity.  For more on delusion see the imperfect cognitions blog.

Other (non-electronic) references:

Bentall, R.P. (2004) Madness Explained: Psychosis and Human Nature. London: Penguin
Bortolotti, L. (2010) Delusions and other irrational beliefs. International perspectives in philosophy and psychiatry. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Philosophy of Mind and Psychology Reading Group -- Hohwy Replies to Siegel

I am posting this on behalf of Jakob Hohwy, author the book we are currently discussing, The Predictive Mind (OUP 2013). It is a reply to Susanna Siegel's post on chapter 3.

Jakob Hohwy
Thanks to Susanna for this set of really nice, and challenging, questions. I’ll try to address them here. I do hope others might have insights to share on some of these issues!

First question: What are proper grounds for low confidence in a signal?

The signal can buck the trend in different ways. Importantly, a signal can change such that even if it has the same mean, it loses precision (e.g., a sound becomes blurry). This bucks a precision trend. This is sufficient for decreasing the trust in the signal. This is a reasonable response (and is seen in the ventriloquist effect). We build up expectations that deal with such state-dependent changes in uncertainty. Sometimes we will appeal to higher-level, slower regularities that interact with the low level expectations in question (my headphones are running out of battery, that’s why the sound has become blurry). This will often help in a particular case, but might not (I might rather learn I have developed otosclerosis, or I might need to adjust to new levels of irreducible noise). But if I do rely on the battery hypothesis then I down-grade the trust in the current signal. A similar story can be told for a change in mean, as when the location of the sound-source seems to change. Here I might appeal to an expectation about interfering causes that push the sound-source around. But if I assume the sound shifts due to some kind of echo chamber, then I’d be justified in trusting the signal less. The underlying story here is that the brain in the long run will end up apportioning noise to the right sources, and thus being able to make the right decision about any given signal.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Philosophy of Mind and Psychology Reading Group -- The Predictive Mind chapter 3

Susanna Siegel
Welcome to the third post of the online reading group in the Philosophy of Mind and Psychology hosted by the Philosophy@Birmingham blog. This month, Professor Susanna Siegel (Harvard and Birmingham) presents chapter 3 of The Predictive Mind by Jakob Hohwy (OUP 2013).

Update: on 4th May we posted a reply to this post from Jakob Hohwy that can be seen here.

Chapter 3 - Prediction Error, Context, and Precision
Presented by Susanna Siegel

Chapters 1 and 2 sketch a picture on which the brain generates perceptual experiences and judgment by relying on learned expectations to help interpret sensory signals. The need for interpretation arises initially because the signals are informationally impoverished, compared to the contents of the perceptual experiences and judgments that we end up with. The main point of Chapter 3 is that in addition filling in missing about the external world that’s missing from the initial sensory signal, there is a second dimension along which the brain has to respond to the sensory signal. It has to assess whether any given signal itself is ‘noisy’, where this means that it is not the result of a mechanism that systematically relates the subject to the distal stimulus that the perceptual experience purports to characterize. A signal is noise if it results from a random fluctuation, or some other process that isn’t systematically connected to any properties or objects in the world.

There are thus two sources of uncertainty that each generate a need to interpret sensory signals: The first-order impoverishment of the initial sensory signals themselves, and the second-order uncertainty about whether to ‘trust’ whatever information is given by the sensory signals, however paltry that information may be.  

Hohwy describes what’s needed to address the problem of second-order uncertainty in several ways. What’s needed is “second-order perceptual inference”, “engaging in second-order statistics that optimize precision expectations”, a “need to not only assess the central tendency of the distributions, such as the mean, but the variation about the mean”, a need to “modulate the way prediction errors are processed in the perceptual hierarchy”. Suppose I’m collecting signals and they form a trend. Now the nth signal comes in. The trend predicts that the nth signal will say “Yellow”. But instead the signal says “Grey”. Suppose I have little confidence in this signal. My second-order verdict on whether to trust it is that it’s probably unreliable.