Starting a Conversation about Imperfect Cognitions. Lisa Bortolotti

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This week, Ema and I have been writing about some of the issues we are working on as part of the Epistemic Innocence project.

One of the goals of the project is to start a conversation about imperfect cognitions, among academics from different backgrounds, and involving also the general public. In this spirit, Ema and I created and are still developing a network of researchers (psychologists, philosophers, psychiatrists) interested in discussing the potential pragmatic and epistemic benefits of inaccurate beliefs and memories. The result is a lively blog, called Imperfect Cognitions, where people regularly post news about their research, submit relevant conference announcements and reports, and present new books in the field. We hope to further expand the network in the near future, and we are very proud that so far it includes researchers at different stages of their academic career, from graduate students to professors, and from different geographical areas.

Our first project-related event was a public engagement activity which Kengo Miyazono organised during the Arts & Science Festival at the University of Birmingham. On 17th March, we invited Dr Matthew Broome (Department of Psychiatry, University of Oxford) to talk to a general audience about his experience of the relationship between psychiatric diagnosis and responsibility for criminal action. He described an interesting case of a man attacking his neighbour as a result of suffering from delusions and hallucinations, and kicked off a lively discussion. The presentation was followed by discussion groups on the Anders Breivik case in Norway and other high profile cases of people whose accountability for criminal action has been assessed on the basis of the nature of their psychiatric symptoms or diagnoses. Additional information about the event and some follow-up resources have been made available to participants on the event website.

Another initiative we have promoted is an online reading group in the philosophy of mind and psychology hosted by the Philosophy Department blog at the University of Birmingham. Currently, we are reading an exciting new book by Jakob Hohwy (philosopher and cognitive scientist at Monash University in Melbourne, and member of the Imperfect Cognitions network). The book is entitled The Predictive Mind (OUP, 2013) and explores and defends the theory that the brain is essentially a hypothesis-testing mechanism, attempting to minimise the error of its predictions about the sensory input it receives from the world.

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And this is just the beginning… In October 2014, I shall start a new five-year project, funded by the European Research Council, and called PERFECT (Pragmatic and Epistemic Role of Factually Erroneous Cognitions and Thoughts), where the notion of epistemic innocence will be developed in collaboration with a team of postdoctoral researchers and PhD students. As part of PERFECT, I shall organise three academic workshops and three meetings with clinicians and service users, as well as a final two-day conference to explore all the implications of the notion of epistemic innocence for philosophy of mind and epistemology, psychological research into normal and abnormal cognition, and clinical interventions in mental health.

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