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 thinkingaboutfiction.me.





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.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

The Copenhagen 2017 School in Phenomenology and Philosophy of Mind




The Copenhagen Summer School in Phenomenology and Philosophy of Mind is an annual event organized by the Center of Subjectivity Research . It aims to provide essential insights into central themes within the philosophy of mind, viewed from a phenomenological perspective. The general topics covered this year were intentionality, experience, reflection, perception, attention, self-awareness, rationality, normativity and methodology.

Over a period of 5 days, the schedule included keynote lectures, PhD presentations, discussion groups and seminars. The late afternoons and evenings were dedicated to different social events (such as visits to the city, a harbour tour) which allowed for opportunities to exchange ideas amongst researchers. In this post, I give a detailed summary of the main points made by the keynote speakers.




On the first day Søren Overgaard talked about Embodiment and Social Perception. The question he set up to answer was whether Social Perception Theory depends on a particular view of embodiment. Social Perception Theory (SPT) claims that it is possible to perceive that others are in happy, angry, in pain, desire another piece of pie, or intending to attack.

The idea of embodiment that Overgaard argued for is that in which at least some mental states extend all the way to the perceptible surface behaviour. In his view, a joyous smile on someone’s face is part of the mental state of joy in so far as it may carry information about the emotion. According to an intuitively plausible view that he labels the ‘Dependency Thesis’, SPT depends in specific ways on Embodiment. But he considers that in the context of the mindreading debate the Dependency Thesis is false.







On the second day Hanne Jacobs gave a talk on Attention, Reason and Subjectivity. According to Jacobs, Husserl’s account is worth considering when trying to understand what we do when we make up our own (embodied, personal, and socially embedded) minds. Based on Husserl’s phenomenology, she proposed that attention is a mode of consciousness in which we exercise reason.

She argued against contemporary authors who defend the idea that Husserl’s phenomenology proposes that there is a non-discursive form of rationality present in pre-predicative perception. She proposed instead that Husserl ties the activity of reason to the capacity for reflection in at least one significant sense. That in which, when we are attentive to something and take something to be in certain way and not other, we are also pre-reflectively aware of the reasons that there are are for and against our taking something to be in such specific way.

This sort of pre-reflective awareness gives way to reflective deliberation. And that it is for this that we do not just need a theory of self-knowledge but a theory of the subject or subjectivity to understand the nature and scope of the exercise of rationality. Jacobs argues that Husserl presents us with both a theory of self-knowledge and with an account of the subject that exercises rationality.


Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Understanding Autism

This post is by Dan Weiskopf. He is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Georgia State University, and his research deals with classificatory practices in scientific taxonomy and everyday cognition.



Autism is among the most mystifying of psychiatric disorders. For patients and their families, doctors, and caregivers, it presents an intractable and often painful clinical reality. For researchers, it presents a profound theoretical challenge. While it has a handful of fairly well agreed-upon characteristics (the so-called “core triad”), it is also linked with an enormous range of inconsistent and heterogeneous symptoms. These include behavioral, cognitive, neurobiological, and genetic abnormalities, as well as somatic medical conditions.

Given this messiness, it is hard to say what autism itself even is, let alone design effective interventions and treatments for it. There has been a call by some—psychologist Lynn Waterhouse most prominently—to eliminate the disorder from our nosology, on the grounds that it is too disunified to count as a single condition.

Against this eliminativist position, I argue that the prospects for understanding autism are brighter if we adjust our expectations of what psychiatric disorders look like. In “An Ideal Disorder? Autism as a Psychiatric Kind”, I propose that the complexities of autism can best be explained using a network model.

Think of a disorder as initially “anchored” by a set of focal exemplars. These exemplars represent cleaned-up and idealized sets of clinical cases in which the disorder appears. They constitute the nodes of the network that represents the disorder. In the case of autism, there might be different idealized cases standing for “high” and “low” functioning individuals, but many more distinctions might be necessary depending on how the disorder presents itself in different settings and patient populations. For example, we now recognize the important fact that the profile of autism appears to be quite different in men than in women.

For each exemplar there is a set of a characteristic set of cognitive, somatic, neural, and genetic markers. These correspond to places where things have gone wrong, at many levels, to produce that particular clinical phenotype. The existence of these underlying explanatory clusters is what warrants treating focal exemplars as real sites for deeper investigation and treatment.

This captures autism’s heterogeneity. Still, why think there is one disorder here rather than many? The answer is that we can trace out commonalities in the patterns of disruption underlying these exemplars. Exemplars are chained together into a network by having these properties in common. One patient may share a certain rigid behavioral repertoire and GI ailments with a second one, and that patient may share a form of abnormal language development with a third. The third, in turn, might have a specific neuroanatomical abnormality that is shared with the first, but not the second.