Thursday, 17 April 2014

Mental Capacities and Legal Responsibilities Conference

Jillian Craigie
The conference “Mental Capacities and Legal Responsibilities” was held at London’s Senate House last week (7-8 April 2014), as a part of my Wellcome Trust and Nuffield Foundation funded project, based in the Philosophy Department at University College London. The project is a comparative study of the way that mental incapacities due to psychiatric disorder are taken into account in legal decisions concerning the right to patient autonomy, and the attribution of criminal responsibility, in England and Wales.

The conference expanded on this theme, inviting speakers to discuss the clinical, legal and moral complexities raised by questions of mental capacity arising in diverse legal contexts. Legal tests of decision-making abilities can be used, for example, to determine whether you are allowed make your own treatment decisions, whether you can marry, whether you can consent to sex, your ability to participate in criminal proceedings (and therefore whether you can stand trial), and whether you will be held responsible for a criminal act. However, these standards are rarely considered side-by-side.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Is Belief in God Irrational?

Joshua Cockayne
My name is Joshua Cockayne. I am currently a PhD student at the University of York under the supervision of David Efird. I am interested in the epistemic justification for religious beliefs and whether it can ever be reasonable to believe in the existence of God.

Is belief in God irrational? William Clifford claimed that ‘It is wrong, always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence’ (1877) and this charge is often put to believers in God to demonstrate that their beliefs are irrational. I maintain that even if the publicly available evidence for the existence of God is ambiguous, that belief in God can be rational. I claim that a certain experience of God can immediately justify belief in God and thus render this belief rational. In what follows, I describe what it is to experience God and the epistemic value of such experience.

Typically, beliefs are concerned with knowledge that something is the case. For instance, I believe that there is thirty pounds in my wallet, I believe that I had a croissant for breakfast and I believe that I have a hospital appointment at three thirty this afternoon. All of these beliefs can be justified by appealing to publicly available evidence - namely, by looking in my wallet, checking my receipts, and reading today’s date in my diary.

However, some instances of belief cannot be easily understood as knowledge that something is the case. In her Wandering in Darkness, Eleonore Stump (2010) claims that there are some beliefs which are irreducible to propositions purporting to claim that something is the case. She cites Frank Jackson’s (1982) famous thought experiment of Mary. Stump maintains that Mary learns something new which is essentially non-propositional and irreducible to knowledge that. She then extends this example to think about our knowledge of persons, she writes:

Imagine then that Mary in her imprisonment has had access to any and all information about the world as long as that information is only in the form of third-person accounts giving her knowledge….But she has never had any personal interactions of an unmediated and direct sort with another person. . . When Mary is first united with her mother, it seems indisputable that Mary will know things she did not know before, even if she knew everything about her mother that could be made available to her in non-narrative propositional form, including her mother’s psychological states. Although Mary knew that her mother loved her before she met her, when she is united with her mother, Mary will learn what it is like to be loved. . . . [W]hat will come as the major revelation to Mary is her mother. (2010: 52-3)

Supposing Stump is right here, and there is something that Mary learns when she meets her mother that is irreducible to propositional knowledge that, what follows for belief in God? I claim that this insight can shed light on our original question of whether belief in God is rational.

If the God of the Christian Bible exists, for example, then we ought to understand God as a person who aims to have relationship with human beings. Furthermore, as Soren Kierkegaard (1844) claims, we ought to expect belief in God to arise from an encounter with the person of Jesus Christ. With Stump’s distinction in place, we can see why public evidence which purports to show that something is the case is an inadequate basis for belief in God as a person. Such evidence can only provide beliefs about God, and not beliefs in God. What is required for belief in God, I maintain, is an experience of God. 

Do such experiences occur? And can these experiences really justify belief in God? These two questions cannot be dealt with here in depth, but I will suggest how these might be broached. Firstly, it is an empirical question whether or not theistic believers purport to having had experiences which are rich enough to be considered experiences of God. However, for present purposes, it seems reasonable to assume that at least some sane individuals claim to have had such an experience.

Secondly, the most promising account of epistemic justification for these experiences, I claim, focuses on the ‘theistic seemings’ that theistic believers claim to have (see my summary of Michael Bergmann’s paper in my post on the Workshop on Defeat and Religious Epistemology, for example). Under such an account, theistic believers are justified in believing P, iff P seems to be the case and there is no defeating evidence for P. James Pryor (2000, 2004) has developed a defence of this kind of justification for perceptual beliefs, which I claim can be extended to belief in God.

If this account is correct, and theistic believers lack successful defeaters for the belief, then they are justified in believing that their personal experience of God is reliable. Furthermore, if this is true, then regardless of whether or not the public evidence is ambiguous, theistic believers are not irrational in continuing to believe.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Symposium on Re-conceptualizing Mental ‘Illness’

The symposium "Re-conceptualising Mental Illness: An Ongoing Dialogue Between Enactive Philosophy and Cognitive Science" was part of the AISB50 (Artificial Intelligence and Simulation of Behaviour) conference. It took place at Goldsmiths College, University of London over a 2 day period (3-4 April, 2014). It attracted philosophers of mind and cognitive science, as well as psychologists, therapists and other professionals interested in emerging streams of thought, which attempt to overcome the traditional mind-body dualism.

Papers invited for presentation at the symposium reflected a wide variety of enactive approaches to human mind, mental conditions and psychotherapy. A common theme seemed to be grounded in the assumption that the mind is dynamic and cognition extends over processes of the brain, to include the entire body as well as affection. Such a view implies necessary alterations in effective treatment. Below you find a short selection of summarized presentations. Some of the presented papers have been published here.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

The Phenomenology of Delusion: Un-falsifiable, Impervious or Amenable to Revision?

Rachel Gunn
Some postulate that for certain kinds of delusions sensory input is distorted such that the evidence available to the subject is altered and this evidence is therefore powerful enough to resist counter arguments. In this case the subject employs normal cognitive processes to explain perceptual anomalies and this results in delusion (Maher 1974). If the experience of a subject provides or includes the evidence for a delusion and the experience is anomalous (outside ‘normal’ experience) then a third party cannot hope to grasp the subject’s explanation. Further, as Maher says, there is no point of intervention in any ordinary sense to dispute the subject’s delusion. If this theory holds water it is likely to only apply to a subset of delusional subjects.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Explaining Delusions (6)

This a response to Phil Corlett's contribution to the blog, posted on behalf of Max Coltheart.

Max Coltheart
Dear Phil

Let’s focus for the moment on the best-studied monothematic delusion, Capgras delusion, and let me ask you two questions so that we can decide whether your account differs from ours.

First question: there are 3 studies of autonomic responding to familiar faces in patients with Capgras delusion, and all showed that these deluded patients don’t show greater response when faces are familiar than when they are not, and general show weak faces. Would you agree that this abnormality is not a coincidence, but instead plays a causal role in the delusion? And if your answer is Yes, what do you see this causal role as being? (Our answer to this question: the absence of autonomic response to the face of a spouse is unexpected i.e. unpredicted, and that triggers a search for an explanation of the prediction error, which takes the form of a candidate belief).

Second question: if you do agree that this absence of autonomic responding to familiar faces is causally implicated in Capgras delusion, would you agree that it can’t be sufficient for the delusion to occur, since the same absence is seen in patients with ventromedial frontal damage, and yet these patients do not exhibit Capgras delusion? If your answer is Yes, does that not imply that there must be a second impairment present for the delusion to occur?

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Workshop on Feminism in/and Philosophy

On 29th-29th March the Society for Women in Philosophy (SWIP) held a conference on Feminism in/and Philosophy at the University of Oxford. Invited speakers were Rae Langton (Cambridge), Michèle Le Doeuff (CNRS, Paris), and Jennifer Saul (Sheffield). Papers were also given by Elselijn Kingma (Southampton), Karen Margrethe Nielsen (Oxford), Paula Boddington (Oxford), Ema Sullivan-Bissett (Birmingham), Stella Sandford (Kingston), Aislinn O’Donnell (Mary Immaculate College, Limerick), Sandrine Berges (Bilkent), Alex Davies (Tartu), and Melissa Zinkin (Binghamton SUNY).

Langton opened the conference with her paper 'Accommodating Authority in Philosophical Language Games'. She was interested in different kinds of authority and how these interact. She noted that some speech acts will 'misfire' if the speaker does not have sufficient authority, and discussed language games: where a scorecard tracks play, norms govern appropriate play, and where 'rules of accommodation' mean the conversational score evolves unless blocked. She argued that bystanders and participants in conversations confer authority of the speaker by up-taking, blocking and failure to block. This has normative implications when considering gender norms and Langton suggested that we may have an imperfect duty to create a more just epistemic situation.