Thursday, 7 September 2017

SPP Annual Meeting 2017

The 43rd annual meeting of the Society for Philosophy and Psychology was held in Baltimore, Maryland, at Johns Hopkins University from 28-1 July, 2017. The meeting brought together philosophers, psychologists, and cognitive scientists working on issues of common interests. In this post, Federico Bongiorno (PhD student at the University of Birmingham) offers a summary of each of the keynote lectures presented in plenary sessions.

On day 1, Daniel Schacter (Harvard) kicked off the conference with a talk on memory distortions and constructive aspects of remembering. Schacter views human memory as being far more a matter of constructive rather than reproductive processes that are sometimes susceptible to error and distortion.

Two major themes were pursued. One is the idea that some types of memory distortions are side-effects of otherwise adaptive memory processes. The other is the critical role played by episodic memory, which is defined as the ability to recollect episodes from one’s personal past, in imagining possible future scenarios.

In the first part of the talk, Schacter discussed recent neuropsychological evidence suggesting the adaptive nature of gist-based false memories. He did so by showing that the same brain region that serves the adaptive function of encoding semantic memory, namely the temporal pole, is responsible for this type of memory errors.

The second part of the talk sought to demonstrate that the flexible retrieval processes involved in episodic memory support adaptive uses of episodic simulation but also increase memory errors. Experimental results were shown in support of the proposed hypothesis. The results suggested that the capacity for flexible retrieval underlying successful associative inference increases susceptibility to source misattributions, which result from mistakenly combining details of distinct episodes.

Peter Godfrey-Smith (CUNY, Sidney) opened day 2 of the conference. His talk looked at the evolution of consciousness, broadly conceived, in the context of the phylogenetic pattern of animal life – how animals of different kinds are related in the ‘tree of life’. 

Godfrey-Smith suggested that this can eventually help us work out whether consciousness evolved once or more than once, and if it evolved more than once, whether this was the replaying of an essentially similar sequence, or whether the historical paths were very different from each other.

He advanced the hypothesis that it evolved more than once. The branchings between vertebrates, cephalopods, and the most behaviourally complex arthropods (e.g. crabs and bees) are very deep in history, so deep that the common ancestor was probably something as simple as a flatworm. He conjectured that octopuses and vertebrates may be the clearest cases of evolutionary transition to consciousness, whereas arthropods are more uncertain.

Godfrey-Smith further discussed whether there might be two different kinds of basic consciousness, one kind linked to the senses and another more linked to evaluation and affect. He then discussed some invertebrate cases where these features might be dissociated. 

Some arthropods, in particular, seem much more sophisticated on the sensory then on the evaluative/affective side. This summarises a possible multiple-origin story where there are different types as well as different tokens with respect to the evolution of consciousness.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

A Moral Account of First-person Authority

This post is by Fleur Jongepier (picture below). Starting Autumn 2017 she will be based in Cambridge (UK), working on the role and value of self-knowledge in contemporary liberalism.

In the previous blogpost, I introduced some examples that I suggested provide a challenge to what I referred to as the ‘traditional’ approach to the notion of first-person authority, namely, the view according to which first-person authority and self-knowledge always come and go together. I ended the post by mentioning the following three views about the relation between first-person authority and self-knowledge:

  1. The Decoupling View. They have first-person authority despite not having self-knowledge.
  2. The Negative Traditional ViewThey do not have self-knowledge, therefore do not have first-person authority.
  3. The Positive Traditional View. They have self-knowledge and therefore have first-person authority.
One reason for thinking the second, Negative Traditional view (‘no self-knowledge, no authority’) is mistaken is because it appears to yield way too rigorous consclusions. It fails to reflect the way that we treat people’s sincere self-ascriptions. Even if someone says “I want to kill myself” and is clearly self-deceived somehow, it does not seem to be the case that we would be inclined or indeed justified to simply overrule or correct her self-ascription, and so it seems we should not deny her first-person authority.

Even if someone is wrong when s/he says “I feel X” or “I want Y”, it is still in an important sense out of place or inappropriate to e.g. say “No you’re not” – even if you’re entitled, epistemically speaking. So even when a person issues a self-ascription that is a very poor guide to how s/he will act in the future, this does not license us to correct, challenge or overrule the self-ascription. Indeed, we need to take their self-ascriptions seriously if we want to try to make them see their mistake or change their minds. Granting someone first-person authority is a condition for e.g. engaging in psychotherapy at all (see Strijbos and Jongepier forthcoming).

What about the third option? On the assumption the traditional view is right, granting that subjects have first-person authority in the given examples might also mean they therefore must have self-knowledge, given that on the traditional view, first-person authority and self-knowledge are a package deal. Those defending this option will thus want to say that e.g. the person saying he wants to kill himself in some sense does have self-knowledge, even if he does not (luckily) take any steps to act according to his own self-ascription. The defender of the third view will thus have to argue that it’s not evident that one lacks self-knowledge if one does not act in accordance with one’s own self-ascription.

And indeed such a view has been defended (see e.g. Ferrero 2003 and Bortolotti 2009). Luca Ferrero instance claims that “First-person authority is characteristic of self-ascriptions of present attitudes” and that “The distinctive first-person authority of [someone’s] self-ascriptions concerns ... whether she takes responsibility for them, not whether the self-ascribed attitude is both correct and a reliable guide to future conduct” (2003, 570 emphases in original). Lisa Bortolotti in a similar vein claims that subjects can have knowledge of their attitudes “no matter how representative of their future behaviour those attitudes would [turn] out to be” (Bortolotti 2009, 639). The subject, Ferrero and Bortolotti emphasize, has self-knowledge and responsibility with respect to what s/he is currently thinking or judging, and it’s this type of self-knowledge that lies at the basis of his self-ascription being authoritative.