Thursday, 23 November 2017

The Meaning of Belief

This post is by Tim Crane.

I am Professor of Philosophy at the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest. I was Knightbridge Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge and he taught at UCL for almost twenty years. I founded the Institute of Philosophy in the University of London, and I am the philosophy editor of the TLS

I have written five books on the nature of the mind, which is my principal area of interest in philosophy. But I also have a long-standing interest in the nature of religion and religious belief, and The Meaning of Belief is my first serious attempt to write on this subject.

The Meaning of Belief attempts to give a description of the phenomenon of religion from an atheist’s point of view — that is, on the assumption that there is no god, supernatural or transcendent reality or being. The book’s aim is not to argue for this atheism, but to give a description of religious belief which makes sense to believers themselves.

In this respect the book differs from many recent atheist books on religion, which aim to show that most of what counts as religious belief is both false and irrational. These books — by the self-styled ‘New Atheists’ — tend to emphasise the cosmological element of religious belief, treating belief as a kind of primitive science or as a rival to science. The Meaning of Belief challenges this view of religion — cosmological claims, claims about the universe as a whole, are important to most religions, but they are not scientific claims.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Does Hallucinating Involve Perceiving?

My name is Rami el Ali and I am an assistant professor at the Lebanese American University. I work in philosophy of mind, but also have research interests in Phenomenology and the Philosophy of Technology. Currently my focus is on the nature of misperception, and in particular hallucinations.

In my paper 'Does Hallucinating Involve Perceiving?', I argue for the tenability of a common-factor relationalist (alternatively, naive realist) view of perceptual experience. I do this by arguing that a view on which hallucinating involves perceiving can accommodate three central observations thought to recommend the widely accepted nonperceptual view of hallucinations, on which hallucinations do not involve perception.

Philosophers usually agree, even when they do not accept the view, that relationalism provides the simplest characterization of perception. Correspondingly, the simplest view of experience merely extends the account of perception to illusions and hallucinations. The resultant view is that all experience involves sensory awareness of the mind-independent surroundings, where those surroundings appear some way to the subject. 

This view of experience is quickly dismissed because hallucinations are thought to be nonperceptual. In place, we have views like disjunctive relationalism and common-factor representationalism that seek to accommodate nonperceptual hallucinations. But whether we should resort to these views at least partly depends on whether we must accept the nonperceptual view of hallucinations. Upon closer inspection, three observations that seem to favor the view fail to recommend it over a perceptual alternative.

The first two observations focus on discrepancies between hallucinatory appearances and the surroundings the hallucinator is related to. The gist of my response to these is that no discrepancy between what the subject is aware of and how things appear to her establishes that the subject is not aware of her surroundings. More specifically, the first observation focuses on the 'inappropriateness' of the objects of awareness to the hallucinatory appearance. This depends on specifying an acceptable standard of appropriateness. 

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Only Imagine. Fiction, Interpretation and Imagination

Kathleen Stock is a Philosopher at the University of Sussex, working on questions about imagination and fiction, including: What is the imagination? What is the relation between imagining and believing? What is fiction? Can we learn from fiction? Are there limits to what we can imagine? She has published widely on related topics, and her book Only Imagine: Fiction, Interpretation and Imagination is now out with Oxford University Press. She blogs about fiction and imagination at

Philosophers and literary theorists argue about three things: what fiction is, how fiction should be interpreted, and what imagination is. In Only Imagine, I suggest that all three questions can be illuminated simultaneously.  I aim to build a theory of fiction that also tells us about the imagination, and vice versa.

My focus is on texts. First, I defend a theory of fictional interpretation (or ‘fictional truth’ as it’s sometimes called). When we read a novel or story, we understand certain things as part of the plot: ‘truths’ about characters, places, and events (though of course these are usually not actually true, but made up). A lot of the time, these ‘truths’ are made explicit – directly referred to by the words used by the author. But equally, in many cases, plot elements are only implied, not referred to explicitly. By what principle does or should the reader work out what such elements are, for a given story? Whether explicit or implied, I argue that fictional truths are to be discerned by working out what the author of the story intended the reader to imagine.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Philosophy of Psychedelic Ego Dissolution: Unbinding the Self

This post is by Chris Letheby.

In recent decades there has been a growing interdisciplinary attempt to understand self-awareness by integrating empirical results from neuroscience and psychiatry with philosophical theorizing. This is exemplified by the enterprise known as ‘philosophical psychopathology’, in which observations about unusual cognitive conditions are used to infer conclusions about the functioning of the healthy mind. But this line of research has been somewhat limited by the fact that pathological alterations to self-awareness are unpredictable and can only be studied retrospectively—until now.

The recent resurgence of scientific interest in ‘classic’, serotonergic psychedelic drugs such as LSD and psilocybin has changed all this. Using more rigorous methods than some of their forebears, psychiatrists have shown that psychedelics can, after all, be given safely in clinical contexts, and may even cause lasting psychological benefits. Small studies have shown symptom reductions in anxiety, depression, and addiction, and positive personality change in healthy subjects, lasting many months, after just one or two supervised psychedelic sessions.

What’s most intriguing is that the mechanism of action appears to involve a dramatically altered state of consciousness known as ‘ego dissolution’, in which the ordinary sense of self is profoundly altered or even absent. In many studies, ratings of ‘mystical experience’—of which ego dissolution is a core component—strongly predict clinical outcomes; so understanding ego dissolution is crucial for understanding the therapeutic potential of psychedelics.

Moreover, with the advent of modern neuroimaging technologies, there is a chance for psychedelics finally to fulfil their promise to be for psychiatry “what the microscope is for biology… or the telescope is for astronomy” (Grof 1980). The renaissance of psychedelic research allows neuroscientists, for the first time, to watch the sense of self disintegrate and reintegrate, safely, reliably, and repeatedly, in the neuroimaging scanner.

In a paper recently published in Neuroscience of Consciousness, Philip Gerrans and I have proposed a novel account of self-awareness based on findings from psychedelic science. Research to date has found that ego dissolution is associated with global increases in connectivity between normally segregated brain regions, resulting from a breakdown of high-level cortical networks implicated in the sense of self. However, results have not been entirely consistent; in some studies, breakdowns are most pronounced in the famous Default Mode Network (DMN), centred on the medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortices, whereas in others they are found in the Salience Network (SLN), centred on the anterior cingulate and anterior insular cortices.

Philip and I argue that this pattern of results can be explained by an account combining insights from two different theories: the influential predictive processing theory of brain function, and the self-binding theory of Sui and Humphreys (2015). Predictive processing holds that the brain is a prediction engine, constantly building models to anticipate its future inputs and reduce error. Meanwhile, self-binding theory says that a key function of self-representation is to integrate information from disparate sources into coherent representations. This claim is based on a body of experimental work showing that self-related information is integrated more efficiently than non-self-related information.