Peer pressure and a steady mind

Sociologist Dr Nicholas Christakis has a new book in which he argues that we are subject to a process of ‘social contagion.’ What we do is to a great extent determined by the company we keep. In some cases this is obvious: the clothes they wear, the music they like, and so on. But not just that. Christakis claims that things such as whether you know someone (who knows someone who knows someone) who is obese, influences whether you are likely to become obese. Ditto kinds of sexual activity, smoking, whether or not you vote, happiness, and other things.

The study that is supposed to support this claim is Continue reading “Peer pressure and a steady mind”

Advertisements

Why is a raven like a writing desk?

Philosophers do like a bit of Lewis Carroll. When Humpty Dumpty exclaimed to Alice, “There’s glory for you!” and meant “there’s a nice knock down argument for you!”, Donald Davidson took it as an illustration of how intention can override convention in determining what one said. When the Tortoise said to Achilles to use logic to force him to accept Z, given that If A and B then Z, Barry Stroud and Robert Brandom (among many others) took this to indicate something important about meaning and inference. And there have been various occasions when the Jabberwocky has been wheeled out to illustrate some point about sense or nonsense.

Last month, DPhil student Melanie Bayley Continue reading “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”

There’s no success quite like failure

In this week’s Wired magazine there’s an article on the way scientists think. “We’ve heard this all before,” I hear you savvy-with-the-philosophy-of-science readers say. Right. And the results reported are similar to what we’ve heard before too: scientists interpret anomalies as methodologically generated, and so removable from their data, until that is no longer an option, and a change of how one goes about interpreting the data is required (cf. Kuhn on anomalies). If Popper ever meant to describe what scientists actually do, he would have been quite wrong.

The supposed novelty of the work reported by Wired is Continue reading “There’s no success quite like failure”

Gettier cases, murder, and automatism

In July, Brian Thomas strangled his wife Christine to death. He was acquitted because he suffers from a sleep disorder. This is far from unprecedented. The first defence of this kind in court occurred back in 1846 by Albert Tirrell for the murder of Maria Ann Bickford. The prosecution in Mr Thomas’ case summarised the situation like so.

“In other words, at the time of the killing the defendant was asleep and his mind had no control over what his body was doing.”

What does this mean? We cannot say that he was entirely unaware of his surroundings or his own limb movements (and so perhaps actions) during the episode. For he reports believing, at the time, that someone had broken into their room and was on top of Christine. This motivated him to strangle someone, but a person other than he thought it was. Presumably this action would have involved some kind of control over his limbs in the sense that he could guide his hands toward someone’s neck, despite the neck moving around, move his body over to a given location, and so on. So then is it not false that ‘his mind’ had no control over ‘what his body was doing’?

Another explanation of what the prosecutor has in mind can be got from papers by Jennifer Hornsby (Knowledge, Belief, and Reasons for Acting) and John Gibbons (Knowledge in Action). They present Gettier cases of beliefs that play a part in the explanation of an intentional action. What they find is that if the beliefs are only luckily true, then the intuition is that the action is not intentional. So then, applied to this case, Mr Thomas had a belief that there was someone there, that he was strangling, but because of the state he was in, he mistook his wife to be someone else, an intruder. So the action was not intentional. This was not because his mind had no control over his body. But because he did not have the right kind of awareness of how things are for his action to be intentional.

For a summary of the case go here or here.

Related articles:
£1.99 - small Recent work on Free Will and Moral Responsibility
By Neil Levy and Michael McKenna, University of Melbourne Florida State University
(Vol. 3, December 2008)
Philosophy Compass

Related articles:
£1.99 - small Recent work on Free Will and Moral Responsibility
By Shaun Gallagher , University of Central Florida
(Vol. 2, February 2007)
Philosophy Compass

He said, she said.

388px-Germany_Singelfingen_GossipsThis week the Guardian published an article questioning the veracity of UK sex trafficking figures. Not long ago, numbers as high as 25,000 were being used to motivate government policy which has led to changes in the priorities of virtually every police force in the country, and likely changes in the law. But it turns out the figures are bogus. The Guardian article charts their genealogy.

A central division that shapes the epistemology of testimony is that between reductionists and non-reductionists. Reductionists think that interlocutors have to justify what they are told by their own means. Non-reductionists think that interlocutors can, in principle, be justified in being so told, alone. The present situation offers a nice illustration of what’s at issue.

It’s difficult to imagine how anyone could know everything that is known. But in any society in which there is a division of epistemic labour, many people make decisions which affect the lives of others on matters about which they are not experts or even knowledgeable hobbyists.

This combination (absent first-hand knowledge, and, a capacity to affect the lives of others) introduces a requirement that people rely on what the authorities (whoever they are: mechanics, scientists, economists, estate agents, policy designers, teachers…) tell them. This is a fact of modern life. Most of what you know you do not know first hand. But for this dependence on authority to work effectively as a basis on which interlocutors can make good decisions, and act appropriately: the authorities in question must have an accurate reputation; the theatres in which authorities have their checks and controls need to be functioning properly; and that which leaks out into the public domain needs to be put in a way that non-experts can understand and put to use responsibly.

When we have non-expert consumers of information, much scaffolding needs to be in place for a reliance on authority not to end in disaster. But with it in place, we get a picture of the epistemological status of testimony that is not obviously either reductionist or non-reductionist.

Related articles:
£1.99 - small Knowing from Testimony
Department of Philosophy, Northern Illinois University
(Vol. 1, June 2006)
Philosophy Compass

I didn’t do it, my brain did.

Bereitschaftspotenzial_fig1A recent article in Consciousness and Cognition continues the debate over Benjamin Libet’s famous free will experiment.

In 1983 Libet showed that before subjects announced their decision to perform an action (and hence, or so Libet assumed, before deciding to perform an action) their motor cortex was already preparing the way for the act in question. Libet concluded:

“These considerations would appear to introduce certain constraints on the potential of the individual for exerting conscious initiation and control over his voluntary acts.” (Libet et al. 1983) Continue reading “I didn’t do it, my brain did.”

Memory as storage space

DrawersFindings published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, and reported in Wired, add to the evidence that remembering ought not be conceived as the retrieval of an item from a store.

Psychologist Kimberly Wade performed an experiment in which subjects played a gambling task, in pairs. Each member of the pair was entrusted to keep track of her own score. Afterwards, footage was doctored to give the impression that one member of a pair had cheated. The partner of the framed subject was found to show a strong willingness to testify that they themselves had seen their partner cheat, once shown the doctored footage.

The results add to the evidence against a conception of memory as storage of passive vehicles of content. The misremembering in this experiment is not the result of deteriorating memory but rather of further experience. This suggests that what one experiences after the event is perhaps as epistemologically relevant to the quality of the memory as the conditions at the time the memory was formed. Nonetheless, the store metaphor is still popular in fields like philosophy of mind and philosophy of language. Is that a mistake?

For the article in Wired go here.

Related articles:
£1.99 - small Neuroethics: Ethics and the Sciences of Mind
By Neil Levy , University of Melbourne
(Vol. 3, December 2008)
Philosophy Compass