Australasian Association of Philosophy 2015 Philosophy of Cognitive Science and Psychology Stream

Sisters and Brothers,

Here are links to the abstracts for the Philosophy of Cognitive Science/Psychology stream at this years AAP. Timetable is currently being done :). Also please note that there are some relevant talks in the Neuroethics Stream (which includes moral cognition) and some other good looking philosophy of science talks elsewhere in the conference (e.g. the Peter Menzies Stream).

Peter Godfrey-Smith “Animal Evolution and the Origins of Consciousness”

Dan Hutto “Overly Enactive Imagination? Radically Re-Imagining Imagining”

Richard Menary “What? Now. Predictive Coding and 4E Cognition”

Peter Slezak “Intuition in Study of Language: Syntax & Semantics”

John Sutton (Celia Harris and Amanda Barnier) “Otto in the Wild: dementia and distributed cognition”

Linus (Ta-Lun) Huang “The Nativist Input Problem: Why Evolutionary Psychology Still Can’t Explain Human Intelligence”

Mindaugas Briedis “Phenomenology of Radiology: Intentional Analysis of the Constitution of Diagnostic Judgment”

Massimiliano Cappuccio “The biggest challenge: contentless cognition vs Mind Uploading”

Glenn Carruthers “Irvine’s elimination of consciousness”

Peter Clutton “A realist defence of doxastic theories of delusions: the cognitive phenomenological defence”

Sidney Diamante “Armed with information: The octopus as an embodied cognitive system”

Henry Dobson “Why Integrated Information Theory fails to solve the hard problem of consciousness.”

Caitrin Donovan “Thought insertion and the minimal self”

Renee England “The natural kind status of emotion – a Spinozist approach”

Mirko Farina “Taxonomising phenotypic plasticity: the role of cultural plasticity in human cognition”

Robert Farquharson “Self-Organisation & Connectionism: An Added Layer of Biological Realism”

Alexander James Gillett “Model-based reasoning in science and the Manipulation Mill”

David Michael Kaplan (Lincoln Colling) “Dynamical-mechanistic explanation: Rebutting the challenges from nonlinearity and emergence”

Chris Letheby “The Epistemic Innocence of Psychedelic States”

Christopher McCarroll “Constructing and reconstructing observer perspectives in personal memory”

Kourken Michaelin “Collaborative memory knowledge: A distributed reliabilist perspective”

Hoda Mostafavi “The Origins of a Pluralistic Folk Psychology”

Matthew Nestor “A critique of etiological theories of target fixation”

Sarah Pini (Doris McIlwain and John Sutton) “Flowing into the Jam: a Phenomenology of Shared Place”

Thomas Robert “Darwin and the language instinct”

Melanie Rosen “Achieving my dream-body: can the sense of agency in sleep tell us what it’s like to dream?”

Laura Ruggles “Biological information processing in plants: towards a theoretical framework”

Diane Stringer “Thinking about the future and thinking about suicide: an account of hopelessness and its connection with suicidal thought.”

Lachlan Douglas Walmsley “Reformulating the Scope Objection”

John Zerilli “An evaluation of the recent multiple realization controversy”




Abbott’s shrinking circle

Human Beings of Australia our Prime Minister has reached a new level of detachment from the people he is supposed to govern. We have all been crying out for some actual leadership, some vision from a Prime Minister who wants to improve our home and perhaps even (though this is controversial) the rest of the world as well. Obviously this has been too much to ask from this Prime Minister. But, if we are not to have any sort of actual leadership, the very least we can expect is that the Prime Minister grant his people some basic human regard.

It is one thing for him to dehumanise and attack vulnerable “foreigners”. After all they have committed the egregious crime of running for their lives. Well, really they’re just not us, they are out-group, other and so less worthy of protection. At any rate that’s a difficult aspect of human psychology to overcome, the feeling we have that “others” are less than “us”. It is another thing entirely for the Prime Minister to dehumanise his own people.

Yet this is exactly what he has done in declaring that employers should be able to try before they buy. Despite what it sounds like he was not referring to a new model of espresso machine, nor even a new printer. Instead he was referring to you. The people of Australia. The key word there is people. Our Prime Minister discussed other human beings, people he is supposed to be governing, as though they were property. But, Human Beings of Australia, you are not property, mere things, you are people and you deserve to be treated as such.

What we see is Abbott attempting to shrink the circle around himself, to reduce the number of people worthy of his protection and governance. Business owners are fine, but workers, not so much… and certainly not the long term unemployed. They are not enough like him to worthy of governance.

The language Abbott used here is not a slip of the tongue, or a bad joke, or even misuse of an idiom. If it were maybe we could all just laugh it off. Rather, it is a deliberate attempt to make the long term unemployed sound less like people and more like property. How do we know this? Because of the goals Abbott was trying to achieve, namely free labour. He was suggesting that employers get a month of free labour from an employee. It is, of course, obviously wrong to not pay someone for working. As expensive as they are to buy, it is perfectly acceptable to not pay your espresso machine or printer.

Dehumanisation has licensed the most exploitative practices imaginable, all the way up to full blown slavery; the literal ownership of people. These are no “mere words” that we ought not get worked up about. These comments are the latest salvo in the class war perpetuated by Abbott and the neo-aristocracy in an attempt to create a new class of surfs, of people, like you, but so disadvantaged as to have no choice but to work for two dollars a day. We see this not only in the rhetoric of neo-aristocrats like Abbott and Rinehart, but in their actions as well. From assaults on a minimum wage, to a royal commission into the organisations of people who disagree with him, to bypassing the competitive grants process in order to reward political allies with university research centres, the actions of the Prime Minister speak loud and clear: Only some people in Abbott’s Australia matter.

It cannot be economic theory that leads to our Prime Minister acting this way, for reducing the amount of money available to workers to spend reduces the amount of money moving through the economy. Vacuumming cash out of our economy to sit in the bank accounts and investment portfolios of a few people just means everyone else makes less. Which means they spend less. And the system we have chosen, for better or worse, depends on as many people as possible continuing to spend.

Instead our Prime Minister’s behaviour is part of a broader pattern of dividing Australia on the grounds of race (the attacks on refugees and closure of aboriginal communities), religion (only Christian chaplains in schools) and class. This is a pattern that has never worked. Dividing France into three estates lead to revolution and the rise of one of the most deplorable dictators the world has ever known. Taxing citizens whilst at the same time denying them representation in government lead to the American Revolution. Only violence has ever come from dividing a people into those who count and those who don’t in the government’s eyes.

But, the last thing we need is revolution and more violence. Instead we need leaders who understand that we are all in this together. Who understand that every person counts, regardless of how much they are “like them” or whether or not they’d like to get together to skol a beer. And who understand that a unified nation is a prosperous, happy and productive nation. This can never be achieved so long as we degrade each other and act as though our only value is to make someone else money.

Abbott is the Prime Minister of Australia. With that comes the opportunity to unite the people of Australia. He is our Prime Minister after all and the very least we can ask is that he is Prime Minister for all of us. We wait in hope, Human Beings of Australia.

With love


& Dr Elizabeth Schier

CFA: Cognitive Science Stream at AAP 2015

This year the Australasian Association of Philosophy meeting is being hosted by Macquarie University (July 5th-9th), which also boasts a philosophy friendly Department of Psychology and an interdisciplinary Department of Cognitive Science.

This year we will continue to run an Advances in the Philosophy of Cognitive Science and Psychology stream in partnership with the Australasian Society for Cognitive Science:

In recent decades philosophers taking a rigerously naturalistic approach to the mind (broadly treating minds as natural phenomena open to empirical investigation) have made considerable advances in our understanding of phenomena such as consciousness, memory, delusions and mental representation to name just a few. This stream aims to showcase the newest work in this area.

Registration/Conference info:

Early registration closes Friday May 15th

Please direct any questions specific to the stream to me, general questions about the conference should go to Jeanette Kennett

Do we elicit a sense of agency by inferring that our intentions cause actions?

It’s doubtful, is the short answer, but the long answer is more interesting. What I’m asking about today is the account of the sense of agency put forward by Daniel Wegner and various collaborators since the late ‘90’s (Aarts, Custers, & Wegner, 2005; Wegner, 2002; Wegner, Sparrow, & Winerman, 2004; Wegner & Wheatley, 1999). Their account can be read as either an alternative to or an addition to the comparator model account of the sense of agency which we have met in previous posts. Unlike the comparator model which hypothesises that the sense of agency is elicited by the same mechanisms that are responsible for action control, Wegner and colleagues’ account suggests that the sense of agency is elicited by an inference as to the internal causes of action. In its most basic form if I infer that one or other of mental states, usually on of my intentions, causes me to act in a certain way, then I experience a sense of agency for that action. But, that’s getting ahead of ourselves for the moment, so let’s remind ourselves what the sense of agency is.

“Imagine that you are moving swiftly down a flight of stairs. At the appropriate floor, you slow and reach for the door handle that will allow you egress from the stairwell. As you open the door, you find it moves far more rapidly than you had intended. Someone else is opening the door from the other side! Call this the simultaneous door-opening effect. This effect involves the feeling that one is the agent behind an action being suddenly replaced by the feeling that one is not the agent due to the interference of another.” (Carruthers, 2010, p. 345)

In this example, which is supposed to be fairly ordinary and mundane the sense of agency is just the feeling of being the agent who is performing/controlling/initiating (different authors prefer different descriptors here) action. That is the feeling which Wegner and colleagues’ are seeking to explain. So what, on their account, might be happening in the simultaneous door opening case? It seems that the agent of this action will, for a while, infer that their mental states, their intention to open the door say, is causing their action, and so they experience a sense of agency. But, after experiencing the effects of another on the door this inference is no longer plausible and so their sense of agency is lost or reduced.

In order to complete the model Wegner and colleagues owe us an account of how such inferences are made. Well that’s probably asking a bit much, but we would like an account that tells us something about what information the inference is based on and that makes predictions about when it is made. This is just what we get in the articles cited above. To be able to infer that one or other of one’s mental states are the cause of an action one needs to represent the action and a mental state that is a potential cause. Say opening a door and one’s intention to open the door. When do we infer that one’s intention caused the door to open? According to Wegner and colleagues we do so automatically when 3 further conditions are met. First, the intention must appear an appropriate time prior to the action, e.g. a memory of previously opening a door won’t be inferred as the cause of one currently opening the door. Call this the principle of priority. Second, the intention must be consistent with the action, i.e. it should specify that action, e.g. my desire to get a coke represents a different action than my intention to open the door so won’t be inferred as a cause of that action. Call this the principle of consistency. Third, the intention must be represented as the exclusive cause of the action. Call this the principle of exclusivity. This is what is violated in the door opening scenario, in that case the subject perceives that another agent is also opening the door and so their intention to open the door isn’t an exclusive cause of it opening. As such their sense of agency is reduced.

Wegner and colleagues’ studies looked to confirm this model by attempting to elicit a sense of agency for actions not controlled by the subject. They do so by creating circumstances where to the subject it appears that the principles of priority and consistency are met. Typically it is clear to the subject that the principle of exclusivity is not met. However, as each of the three principles are considered to contribute to the sense of agency, and the sense itself is conceived of as being formed by continuum, it is hypothesised that subjects in these studies should report a weak sense of agency rather than a full or absent sense.

If we allow the assumption that the inference that one’s intention is the cause of an action is mandatory, i.e. that the subject must make it when the principles are met, then combined with the above assumption about a continuum of senses of agency, some studies do support Wegner and colleagues’ model. For example, in the helping hands study (Wegner et al., 2004), subjects reported a weak sense of agency for other people’s actions:

“In this study, one subject (the participant) stood with their back against the second subject (the helper). The participant stood with their arms by their side, whilst the helper reached their arms forward underneath the participant’s arms. A screen obscured the helper in such a way that their arms appeared (from the front) to be those of the participant. Both subjects were given head phones. The helpers heard a series of instructions to perform a set of hand movements (e.g. make the ok sign with both hands). The participants were divided into three groups depending on what they heard. One group (the preview group) heard the instructions to the helper whilst the other groups (the control groups) heard either nothing or an instruction to perform a movement other than what the helper heard. Those in the preview group reported a greater sense of agency over the movements of the helper than either of the control groups (Wegner et al. 2004, pp. 841 & 842).” (Carruthers, 2010, p. 346).

A variety of studies, mostly coming from Wegner and his collaborators, seem to confirm that subject’s experiences of their own agency can be altered by playing with the principles of priority, consistency and exclusivity. As such we have good reason to consider this model a viable explanation of the sense of agency.

As I said above, though, I think it is doubtful that it is making such an inference that causes subjects to experience a sense of agency. The reason for this, is that such an account ties the sense of agency to the subject’s knowledge of their mental states, in particular their intentions. This, it seems, we have good reason to question as some subjects seem to experience a sense of agency even when they don’t know what their intentions are.

A study by Montgomery and Lightner (2004) provides an illustrative example. They began by showing young children (3-4 years old) a picture of a ball. They then copied the picture by holding their child’s drawing hand (with the child’s eyes closed) and moving the hand in a circle. The child then watched the experimenter alter the picture to be a picture of a clock. In comparison conditions the child either produced a copy of the picture of a ball themselves or produced the copy themselves and then watched as the experimenter changed it to a picture of a clock. After the picture of a clock or ball was produced in this way the child was asked who had produced the (final) picture. This was relatively easy for 3-4 year olds, most of whom were able to accurately state who drew the final picture. That is they were able to identify the agent of the action, suggesting they experienced a sense of agency. Despite this, in the conditions where the experimenter changed the picture of a ball to a picture of the clock, the children tended to claim that they had tried (i.e. intended) to produce a picture of a clock. In other words, although the children where good at keeping track of who the agent of the action was, they were poor at knowing their own intentions. Even though they knew it was the experimenter and not themselves who had drawn the clock, they nevertheless claimed that they had tried to produce the picture of a clock.

Lost? Fair enough. The point is in this study children knew who had done what (so they had a sense of agency) but they did not know what their intentions where. So it seems that a sense of agency is not dependent on knowing what one’s intentions are, as predicted by Wegner and colleagues’ model. So it is, as I say, doubtful that we elicit a sense of agency by inferring that our intentions cause our actions.

with love


A more complete version of this argument is published in: Carruthers, G. (2010). A problem for Wegner and colleagues’ model of the sense of agency. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 9, 341–357.


Aarts, H., Custers, R., & Wegner, D. M. (2005). On the inference of personal authorship: enhancing experienced agency by priming effect information. Consciousness and Cognition, 14, 439–458.

Carruthers, G. (2010). A problem for Wegner and colleagues’ model of the sense of agency. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 9, 341–357.

Montgomery, D. E., & Lightner, M. (2004). Children’s developing understanding of differences between their own intentional action and passive movement. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 22, 417–438.

Wegner, D. M. (2002). The Illusion of Conscious Will. MIT Press.

Wegner, D. M., Sparrow, B., & Winerman, L. (2004). Vicarious Agency: Experiencing control over the movements of others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86(6), 838–848.

Wegner, D. M., & Wheatley, T. (1999). Apparent mental causation: sources of the experience of will. American Psychologist, 54(7), 480–492.


From the friendly Phytophilosophy, check her out.



For many of us the ideas and images that this word conjures up are of a particular kind. We may imagine a forest, a single tree in a park, a garden, a field of daisies, a handful of picked flowers, a crop. What springs to mind may be a thing that grows beside the road, still and leafy, perhaps gently and passively swaying in the breeze. Relaxing, splashes of colour on a green backdrop, unconcerned if we snap off a small branch, unconcerning as we go about our daily business. We know they aren’t just there to look at and enjoy, though, plants are also very useful; they are sources of food and of medicine for many animals, including us. Throughout history humans have written countless classificatory manuals and amassed thousands of specimen collections that help us identify and describe species for these and other purposes.

CITRUS_MEDICA_DALECHAMP_1587_P298 Useful plants: Aristotle’s…

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The Naturalist Fallacy ; Or, Bad Reasoning in the Real World part 11

10959776_837946422931632_7410676636479577840_nAh, elections, they’re a great time for philosophy bloggers. So much nonsense from people desperate to gain or maintain a position of power by what ever short hand manipulation they see fit. This from Member of the Legislative Council Fred Nile is a classic in this regard. Never mind that equality is a christian ideal (Matthew 7:12, Romans 2:11, Mark 12:31 for example*) and this is the leader of of the supposed Christian Democratic Party (it’s right there in the name!), the deepest mistake here is what we like to call the Naturalist Fallacy.

The Naturalist Fallacy is the claim that what is good or right follows in a straight forward manner from what is natural. That is, that we ought to do what is natural. We see this in the post from Nile in his derision of equality as a social construct and thus not natural and thus inequality is to be preferred. Now, I want to focus on the Naturalist fallacy here, but I can’t resist pointing out an irony and factual error. First the irony: Nile has gained his power through the church and parliament, both social constructs, so unless he thinks there’s something wrong with his power it’s hard to see what he has against them! The factual error: social constructs are natural, human’s (not eagles granted) naturally live in societies, it’s part of what we are. So it is natural for us to make social constructs.

Nonetheless, it is clear enough (if you wade through the BS) what Nile is advocating here and that is a form of social Darwinism (with standard apologies to Darwin for the name). That is, that the strong should dominate the weak, because this is more natural than the social construct of equality. Even if we leave aside the mistake about the naturalness of social constructs a very basic mistake means that we oughtn’t be convinced by Nile’s argument.

That mistake is the Naturalist Fallacy, or the assumption that what we ought to do (what is good or right) follows from what is natural. Nothing follows about what is the right thing to do from what is natural, because nature is neither good nor bad, it is amoral we might say. This can be seen from some simple examples. Which of these is good, which of them is bad?:


Flushing toilets.

straight forwardly cancer is bad, and flushing toilets are good, much of our modern society depends on flushing toilets after all and like many of you I have lost multiple relatives to cancer and assert that there is nothing in any way good about that. Yet by any standards cancer is natural and flushing toilets are artifacts. So by the standards Nile is advocating we ought to like cancer and hate flushing toilets, indeed we should let people die of cancer (when they get it ‘naturally’) and dismantle all our toilets.This is obviously absurd. The general problem is that natural things can be both good and bad, in some if we look at the whole of nature we see, as Gerard O’Brien so powerfully puts it, nothing but pure and utter indifference. So, it cannot be the case that simply because something is natural we ought to do it, that it is right.

As a point of clarity, the above does imply that there is a fuzzy dividing line between natural and artificial, but if we’re not going to call technologies like toilets artifacts then we may as well do away with the word entirely. If we did this then the Naturalist Fallacy would still be a fallacy because everything would be natural so if natural implied good then everything would be good. Obviously there are some bad things (torture for example) so not everything is good.

So please, don’t be fooled into thinking that we ought to let the strong dominate the weak because it’s natural. Nature doesn’t care, but you should.

with love,


* — with thanks to Denise Abou Hamad for doing the research

Meditations on Moral Failure and Growth

A meditation is a funny thing to write. Not least because it is fundamentally unscholarly. That always bugged me reading Descartes, no sourcing of ideas, only the vaguest sense of who he’s responding to – without a historian to hand anyway. I don’t like that; being unscholarly. A bit of harder work, well a few months, and I could contribute something significant to the genuinely philosophical attempts to understand ourselves. I have no reason not to do that, except I sleep a lot.

Moral Failure”. That sounds funny too. It reminds me of the signs up in Sydney’s Hyde Park telling us to stay away during storms, in case of “Tree Failure”. What they mean, of course, is falling branches. I don’t know why they don’t just say that. What I mean is the failure of good people, and people who are trying to be good, to act morally.

The essence of moral failure is a lack of regard for the welfare, needs, desires, wishes, freedom and interests of other persons. At least that’s the kind I’m meditating on. I’m interested in this as a matter of personal growth. When I have failed to act morally – and it is at this point that my meditation runs the risk of becoming a suicide note – it has been a lack of regard for other persons which has made my actions wrong.

That’s not why I acted immorally of course. I acted immorally out of misdirected anger and feelings of powerlessness. It feels as if everything that is easy for other people is hard for me and so I lash out. But it is not merely being motivated by anger that makes it wrong; even if that is a sign I should have been able to pick up on that I was at risk of doing something wrong. What makes it wrong is a failure to respect other persons as persons. If I where in a scholarly mood I’d call them “moral subjects”. Beings worthy of the full range of moral protections.

So I’m worried about the failure of people who are trying to be good – perhaps rather arrogantly I’ll include myself in that group – to act with regard for others. But why ‘good people’ and ‘people trying to be good’? Well, because that’s all of us. Contrary Catholic Doctrine and the evidence of the 20th century, humans aren’t born evil. Perhaps, even, as Yeshua tells Pilate in The Master and Margarita ‘There are no evil people in the world.’ It is our very essence to be social, if we were born with a lack of regard for other persons – at least those in our immediate groups – we surely wouldn’t have survived long enough for any of us to meditate on anything. Let alone morality.

Although we are born good, that goodness doesn’t easily extend to regard for all persons. The circle of people who’s interests we will naturally respect is really very small, for some of us as small as one, but most will include their family or football team. To extend the in group takes more than a little effort. It seems to me at least that the tendency to divide the world of persons into an in group who’s interests we respect and an out group who’s interests we don’t is the biggest flaw in humanity. Metaphorically it’s God’s biggest mistake and it’s a mistake because it makes acting morally effortful and invites moral failures.

Just as the history of the moral failure of myself and of good people is a history of failing to have regard for persons; the history of moral growth, of going from doing something obviously wrong to doing something obviously right strikes me as the history of expanding the set of people to whom we have regard. Persons are excluded from the group of people we protect at our convenience, because we can use them for something, and more often then not we know it’s wrong. We can tell that we know it’s wrong because these exclusions are accompanied by the most bizarre post hoc justifications. It was ok to enslave Africans because they supposedly lacked a soul, women could be excluded from science because they supposedly lacked intellectual capacity and refugees can be excluded from society because they are dangerous criminals and probably terrorists. Certainly they are not “us” enough.

We grow morally when we expand the group of those who we have regard for. We drop the absurd excuses for excluding them from the group of “us”, real people, who are worth protecting and we welcome them with open arms. This is what I need to do to stop treating people disrespectfully when I am angry at them or someone like them, and it’s what we need to do as a society, as a people, to grow beyond our moral failures. Big things give me hope that we can do this, we no longer endorse slavery (even if we make use of it in ignorance) and we have women scientists (even if they do face systemic disadvantages). Little things give me hope that we can do this too, #Teamhumanity is much more inclusive than Abbott’s team Australia.

But big things also punch back against hope. As I write this Scott Morrison has been promoted from the Minister for Torturing Refugees to the Minister for Disadvantaging Poor People. I’m desperately hoping that in a few months time I’ll look like a divisive partisan knob for the second title. But, I’m not optimistic. Morrison’s work on Asylum Seekers has been to make us see people running for their lives as a dangerous out-group, and thus not worthy of moral protections. His first act in social services was to set up poor people, presumably the dole bludgers the Telegraph et al wish us to exclude from the group of people who’s needs count for something, against people living with disabilities.

When people like Morrison are repeatedly elected to positions of power it makes the entire endeavor of avoiding moral failures seem worthless. Why should I, even in my limited personal sphere, bother trying to avoid moral failures when failing to act morally is encouraged and rewarded in our leaders? Because, trying is the right thing to do. There is no better reason to do something than that.