Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Stranger than Fiction: Costs and Benefits of Confabulation

In this post I present the main ideas in my recent paper on confabulation, "Stranger than Fiction", which appeared in Review of Philosophy and Psychology in October, open access.

Confabulation has a bad press in philosophy, often identified with the main obstacle to attaining self-knowledge and described as an obvious instance of epistemic irrationality. In earlier work I thought about the current definitions of confabulation, which focus on the surface features of the phenomenon, and can be divided into two broad categories: those who define confabulations as false beliefs, and those who define confabulations as ill-grounded beliefs.

In this paper though, after a brief introduction, I leave aside how confabulation should be defined, and focus instead on its costs and benefits. In particular, I ask what costs and benefits it has for the acquisition, retention, and use of information that is relevant to us. Are we epistemically worse or better off when we confabulate?

Does confabulation really compromise self-knowledge? Does it really count as an instance of epistemic irrationality? I argue that confabulatory explanations of one's attitudes and choices do not threaten self-knowledge as correct mental-state self-attribution (that is, we know what our attitudes and choices are); but that it is an instance of epistemic irrationality in the sense that we "tell more than we can know", as Nisbett and Wilson (1977) famously put it. For instance, we put forward an explanation of our choice when we lack sufficient evidence relevant to the causal process behind that particular choice. As a result, our explanation is ill-grounded and, on the basis of it, we may adopt further ill-grounded beliefs.

But that is only one side of the story. Confabulation has also a wealth of benefits for our epistemic agency that are often neglected if we just focus on truth and justification as the primary epistemic goods. Primarily, the benefits of confabulation are psychological. First, offering explanations about our attitudes and choices makes us feel more competent and enables us to build links and connections between the different things we may value and choose. A sense of competence and coherence will enhance our perceived agency, that is, the sense that we do not do things randomly or under the influence of uncontrollable environmental cues, but act in accordance to our values striving to attain the goals we set for ourselves.

Another psychological benefit of confabulation is that by offering an answer to a request for an explanation we exchange information with other people, and socialisation might be enhanced as a result. Socialisation contributes to both wellbeing and cognitive performance, but also allows us to receive feedback on our explanations and, in some circumstances, build some critical distance from them. Our explanations are likely to be false, as they are not based on the relevant information, but by being "out there", as an object of conversation and discussion, they may become a source of reflection and bring knowledge eventually, either about our attitudes and choices or about other things.

This does not mean that confabulation is all things considered good for us or should be encouraged. Rather it means that, when we take steps to reduce confabulation, and tell stories that are better grounded, we should also think about how our new and improved stories support our sense of agency, so that we don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Interview with John Sutton on Distributed Cognition

In this post Alex Miller Tate (AMT) interviews John Sutton (JS), pictured below, about his views on a number of research topics, many of which were explored at the Distributed Cognitive Ecologies of Collaborative Embodied Skill workshop.

AMT: Hello John, and thank you very much for agreeing to be interviewed for the Imperfect Cognitions blog! Let’s start with quite a general question: could you please clarify for some of our readers the different research areas that came together at your workshop?

JS: Sure! The workshop investigated the intersection of three broad research topics that have interested myself and others for some time. The first is the notion of Collaborative or Joint Action, the second is the Psychology and Philosophy of Skill, and the third is the Embodied and Distributed Cognition paradigm.

Lab studies of Joint Action have tended to focus on various kinds of synchrony amongst actors – such as situations where two people who have just met up will walk off ‘in step’ with each other, having previously been walking out of synch with each other, or where two or more people’s eye-gaze falls upon the same object relevant to the achievement of some collaborative task. On this topic, we have evidence both that joint motives enhance certain kinds of bodily synchrony, and that bodily synchrony promotes the achievement of jointly held goals.

But many cases of intuitively joint action – or, perhaps better, collaborative action – necessarily involve non-synchronous behaviour in the achievement of some jointly held goal. Examples include members of sports teams and bands. Individual actions, in these cases, ideally complement each other, so that the group may achieve some collective end, but they may not be at all alike – a bass guitar player’s movements will be nothing like a trombonist’s, even (perhaps especially) when they are collaborating to produce, say, some improvised jazz.

In such cases, it seems like individuals are exercising skills collaboratively, but non-synchronously. But the skill literature is generally quite individualistic. While we have much discussion of the relative merits of automatic vs cognitively controlled accounts of skill and expert action, we have little insight into how collaboration in the realm of skill works, or how the need to collaborate may affect the deployment or acquisition of individual skill, or even how skills may be rightly attributed to joint agents (plausible cases include phenomena such as swarm intelligence).

Finally, we were interested in investigating at this workshop how features of our natural and social environments may act as cues or supports to our collaborative activities, or to our acquisition or deployment of skills in collaborative contexts. This is where the notions of embodied and distributed cognition enter into the picture.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Is Autism a Disease?

This post is by Christopher Mole, Chair of the programme in Cognitive Systems at the University of British Columbia. He is the author of Attention is Cognitive Unison (OUP, 2010), and The Unexplained Intellect (Routledge, 2016). This post outlines the argument of his recent article, “Autism and ‘disease’: The semantics of an ill-posed question” (Philosophical Psychology, 8(3): 557-571).

Discussions of autism are often euphemistic: We speak of ‘service users’ rather than patients; and ‘atypicality’ rather than illness. By avoiding the rhetoric of disease we avoid the implication that the autistic point of view is a defective one, which would be gone from a world in which everything was operating correctly.

Those who do use the vocabulary of disease might reject such motivations, while congratulating themselves on their straight-talking, no-nonsense approach. This would, I think, be a mistake. According to one tradition, the mistake would be that of applying a ‘medical model’. Autism, on this view, is something other than a disease.

This too is an unappealing position. Autism has several effects, some disrupting the gastrointestinal system, others disrupting the processes of immune response and inflammation. It seems arbitrary to deny that those consequences that affect psychological functioning might also be understood medically. And to deny this would leave us without a full account of the autistic person’s entitlement to help.

Autistic people can seem inconsiderate. They are, as a result, prone to suffer from loneliness, unless allowances are made. Such suffering can be profound. It is appropriate that these allowances be made (and appropriate that healthcare budgets provide funding for them). Autism therefore differs from such non-medical conditions as the condition of being an arsehole. That condition is also prone to produce the suffering of loneliness, but — not being a disease — there is no reason why healthcare resources should be directed to its mitigation.

On these grounds (and others) we find ourselves wanting to avoid saying that autism is a disease, and also wanting to avoid saying that it is not one. We might try to have it both ways, by saying that the question is vague, or that the answer varies from case to case. I claim that we should instead reject both answers.

Michael Dummett’s theory of pejoratives opens up the logical space for this. Pejoratives (such as racist terms for ethnic groups) should be rejected whether their use is affirmative or negative. Such terms should even be rejected in contexts that are non-assertoric, as in the asking of questions.

Similarly, I claim, we should reject the vocabulary of disease in connection with autism, not because we should deny that autism is a disease, but because we should refuse even to ask the question.

It is a strength of Dummett’s theory that it applies to vocabulary whether or not that vocabulary is insulting, and so explains why vocabulary that applauds piety, machismo, or class loyalty, is no better than vocabulary that deplores racial diversity, effeminacy, or free-thinking. The problem with pejorative vocabulary is not the insult. The problem is that such vocabulary allows normative consequences to be inferred from the wrong descriptive basis.

The vocabulary of disease enables us to infer certain normative consequences on the basis of there being a condition that impairs human flourishing: from the presence of such a condition it allows us to infer that cure-seeking would be appropriate (and perhaps obligatory for those with a duty of care); and it allows us to infer that shortcomings attributable to this condition are mitigated.

Thursday, 30 November 2017

Understanding Ignorance

In this post, Professor and Chair of Philosophy at Gettysburg College, Daniel DeNicola, introduces his just-released book, Understanding Ignorance: The Surprising Impact of What We Do Not Know (MIT, August 2017). He writes on a range of ethical and epistemic issues, usually related to education. His new book grew from an earlier work, Learning to Flourish: A Philosophical Exploration of Liberal Education (Continuum/Bloomsbury, 2012).  

Ignorance, it seems, is trending.  Political ignorance has become some so severe that the democratic ideal of an informed citizenry seems quaint.  Willful ignorance is the social diagnosis of the moment: critics found to be implicated in prejudice, privilege, ideology, and information cocoons.  Ignorance is used both as accusation and excuse.  In the broadest sense, it is a ineluctable feature of the human condition.

And yet, philosophers have ignored ignorance.  While occupied with the sources and structure of knowledge, epistemologists for centuries have dismissed ignorance as simply the negation of the proposition, “S knows that p. 

Within the last two decades, however, scholarship on various aspects of ignorance has popped up in several disciplines.  My book, Understanding Ignorance, draws on these multi-disciplinary works and presents what is likely the first comprehensive, philosophical treatment of ignorance—comprehensive, in that it addresses conceptual, epistemological, ethical, and social dimensions.

My explication is organized by four spatial metaphors: ignorance as a place or state, as boundary, as limit, and as horizon.   Among the topics discussed are the relation of ignorance and innocence, the technique of mapping our ignorance, and our intellectual tools for ignorance management.  I also offer a critique of “the virtues of ignorance” as proposed by various writers.