Representing… Emma Gordon

Welcome to ‘Representing…’ in which a philosopher from a traditionally underrepresented group explains their research for a non-expert audience. In this edition Emma  C. Gordon introduces her work on two topics; the Epistemology of Understanding and Bioethics and Enhancement.

north berwickEGEmma Gordon received her PhD from the University of Edinburgh, where her supervisor was Professor Duncan Pritchard. Her interests are mainly in epistemology and bioethics.

The Epistemology of Understanding

There are two main types of understanding that tend to appear in epistemology—understanding-why (e.g. “I understand why we can’t win the war”) and objectual understanding/understanding of a subject matter (e.g. “I understand Scotland’s history.”) While the former is more frequently discussed, the bulk of my work on understanding is focused on the latter—objectual understanding—which I think is both incredibly interesting and significantly underexplored. For example, in a co-authored paper in American Philosophical Quarterly, I argue that cases in which understanding-why seems especially valuable may actually be cases in which the value in question is best explained with reference to objectual understanding in the background. In addition, I continue to work on considering how we might flesh out the popular claim that understanding requires, in some sense, “grasping” or “seeing” important connections (e.g. coherence-making relations) between pieces of information, and I also explore the extent to which one can have understanding of a subject matter while nonetheless having certain false beliefs about it. For example, while it seems too strict to say that a leading doctor cannot understand cardiology if she has one false belief about (say) the year in which a pioneering procedure was first attempted, it also seems that we must be careful about allowing too many false beliefs to be compatible with understanding. However, carving out an appropriate middle ground is challenging.

I am also interested in—and have published work that engages with—some of the implications understanding has for debates in social epistemology, and in particular, debates about assertoric norms. To borrow an example from Jennifer Lackey, suppose that a doctor asserts to you that you have pancreatic cancer. You later find out that the doctor who gave you this diagnosis had never even seen your chart (indeed, had not even glanced at it for a moment), but had merely heard second-hand that you had pancreatic cancer from another doctor who was actually familiar with your condition. In such a case, it seems as though, upon finding out the doctor who diagnosed you was just repeating what she heard and with little appreciation for why it’s true, you would plausibly be in the right to criticise the doctor’s assertion on epistemic grounds; a reasonable expectation about the epistemic pedigree of the assertion was not met. And this is so even though the doctor plausibly has testimonial knowledge that you have cancer (after all, the doctor who gave you the diagnosis had no reason to think the other doctor was lying). While Lackey herself has suggested that cases like this pose problems for the view that knowledge is a sufficient epistemic credential to warrant assertion, I’ve argued that in examples of this kind, it may be that a specific type of understanding (rather than knowledge) constitutes the required epistemic credential. If this is right, then an interesting further issue is whether there is any unique epistemic norm governing assertion at all.

In addition to these issues, I sometimes work on areas in which epistemology overlaps with other disciplines.  Along with S. Orestis Palermos and J. Adam Carter, I argue in a paper forthcoming in Philosophical Psychology that we can generate an emotionally-oriented analogue of currently popular hypothesis of extended cognition much more easily than one might first suppose. Specifically, we suggest that mainstream theories of emotion that give cognition a central role, suitably paired with the hypothesis of extended cognition, can—on the basis of weaker assumptions than one would be inclined to think—jointly generate the thesis that some emotions (like anger and fear) can in certain cases extend beyond skin and skull to parts of the external world. I also have a developing interest in emotion more generally, which is reflected in my co-editing a forthcoming volume of papers on the emotion of pride (in Mark Alfano’s series “Moral Psychology of the Emotions”). In this collection, philosophers, psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists will discuss a diverse range of perspectives on the nature of pride, its connection to other emotions, its status as a virtue or virtue, and the roles it plays in our intellectual and moral lives.

Further, working at a centre for relationship counselling has led me to consider how elements of my counselling work connects with issues in epistemology. For example, I am increasingly curious about the ways in which understanding is facilitated in the counselling room, and in how some of the techniques employed by counsellors might be generalized to give us ideas about how to facilitate understanding more broadly. I’m currently completing a paper on this topic for a volume on understanding edited by Stephen Grimm and colleagues. I suspect that there are many fruitful avenues to explore at the intersection of psychotherapy and social epistemology.

Bioethics and enhancement

Outside of epistemology, my main philosophical interests are in bioethics. Along with co-author J. Adam Carter, I have published in the Journal of Applied Philosophy on the contentious topic of selecting for certain non-disease traits in children, looking specifically at whether Julian Savulescu is right to attest that we are morally obligated to test for and select embryos that are more likely to be intelligent. In addition to briefly considering the practical implications, of such a proposal, the paper argues that the project of testing and selecting for intelligence is significantly less likely to be effective than Savulescu supposes, and offers considerations against his claim that children who are more intelligent are likely to have better lives.

Meanwhile, a paper I’ve recently published in Bioethics (2014) critically evaluates recent work suggesting that (i) cognitive bio-enhancement is currently too risky and (ii) moral bio-enhancement is morally mandatory. The line I defend cautions against assuming easy separability of cognitive and moral enhancement as distinct aims, partly by showing that bringing about moral enhancement partly involves aiming to improve certain cognitive capacities that are essential to moral flourishing.

Finally, my growing interest in enhancement extends to emotional enhancement, where some of my works in progress consider ethical implications of using pharmacological interventions to enhance troubled relationships. I am hopeful that in future research, my training in counselling will help give me a unique perspective from which to engage with the interplay between romantic relationships and advancements in both medicine and technology.

Would you like to be featured on ‘Representing…’? If you are, or have been, a student or faculty member from Edinburgh, and consider yourself to be a member of an underrepresented group, then please get in touch!


Representing… Yohann Kunders

Welcome to ‘Representing…’ in which a philosopher from a traditionally underrepresented group explains their research for a non-expert audience. In this edition Yohann Kunders introduces the Causal Exclusion problem in the Metaphysics of Mind.

Yohann Kunders is an MSc student at the University of Edinburgh. His supervisor is Jesper Kallestrup, and his interests include Metaphysics of Mind and Embodied Cognition.

The Causal Exclusion Problem

The hall of records has a special place for Collin Burns. On the 26th of April this year, he solved the standard 3x3x3 Rubik’s cube in exactly 5.25 seconds. It takes me about 20 minutes to finish a side! (And, no, I’m not going to tell you how long it takes me to finish the cube) But for all my deftness with the cube, I do love puzzles in all their forms, shapes and colors. It’s why I got into Philosophy of Mind. And at the moment I’m working on one that’s kept brows furrowed and fingers a-tapping for decades now. Here’s something to think about before I hit you with it:

  1. Thomas is rushing to leave his apartment on a Monday morning. No time for breakfast. He’s running late as it is. As he’s leaving he thinks, ‘I should eat something if I’m going to make it to lunch’. Quick dash back to the kitchen and he grabs a banana. What caused him to grab the banana?
  2. Suzy and Billy have skipped school to throw rocks at bottles. They’re going through some stuff, okay? Both spy a particularly delicious green Bailey’s bottle squatting on top of a nice flat piece of concrete. Perfect. Unaware of the other, each takes careful aim. Fire! Both rocks hit the bottle at exactly the same time and it shatters. What caused the bottle to break, Billy’s rock or Suzy’s?

The answer to the first question, you might say, is obvious. Thomas’ belief (that he should eat something) caused him to pick up the banana. Thoughts, beliefs and desires cause actions all the time. And most philosophers agree. (Why ‘most’ if the answer is so obvious? The dissenter’s reasons are tied in with Billy and Suzy’s bottle, but I feel obligated to let you know before you’re disappointed later. The only thing Philosophers can agree on is how systematically terrible they are, as a group, at agreeing with each other.)

The case of Billy and Suzy is strange, I’ll admit. If Billy had thrown his rock and Suzy hadn’t, the bottle still would’ve shattered. If Suzy has thrown hers and Billy hadn’t, again, the bottle still would’ve shattered. So it seems like both rocks caused the bottle to shatter. The breaking of the bottle was overdetermined – it had two causes!

Some philosophers argue that mental states (like Thomas’ belief) do not causally influence physical ones (like Thomas’ action). They do this to avoid the worry of overdetermination. Saying Thomas’ beliefs have causal powers, they argue, means saying mental causation is overdetermined. Just like Billy and Suzy’s bottle.

Wait. Hold up just a second, you crazy philosophers. Overdetermination requires two causes. Where’s the second event that causes Thomas to pick up the banana? As far as I can see, there’s only one – his belief! Ah, the philosophers say, there’s one

you can’t see – it’s sitting deep inside Thomas’ brain. We can tell two stories about Thomas’ action. A psychological story: Thomas believes he won’t make it to lunch without something to eat so he grabs a banana. And a physical story: Neurons fire in Thomas’ brain, sending signals to the muscles in his arms, causing him to pick up a banana. Two stories, two causes, overdetermination!

So we see the puzzle beginning to form. On the one hand, it’s absurd to think of actions being caused without neurons firing. We’re good people of physics and physiology, after all. But it’s equally absurd to think actions being caused without beliefs. Aren’t we good people of psychology as well?

Of course, you might answer, let’s embrace overdetermination. So what if behavior is overdetermined? The problem is that this is just as absurd an option as the previous ones – how often is it that fire is caused by a match and lightning both at the same time? It’s possible, but is it routine? Accepting two separate, independent causes can’t be our way out. We must be good people of logic too.

This is the causal exclusion problem. The more we go out of our way to say that beliefs cause actions, the more it sounds like those actions are overdetermined. And the more we go out of our way to say that neurons and muscles (and other physical things) cause actions, the more it sounds like mental states are useless.

‘Why bother with it at all?’ you’re probably thinking. Why not just wait for neuroscience to give us some answers? The mind is becoming less mysterious every day. Good point, I say, but this is a problem of metaphysics. There was nothing within Newton’s physics that could dismiss Hume’s skeptical worries. Kant, the metaphysician, had to step in and give Newtonian physics a defense against skepticism. Similarly, neuroscience cannot dismiss the logic of the exclusion problem. It’s a problem not because it says a belief doesn’t cause an action but because it says there’s no way a belief could cause an action at all.

The exclusion problem is relevant because how we conceive and talk about ourselves is at stake. A compromise in any direction to see it resolved has potentially dangerous implications. To say neurons don’t really cause actions means admitting the physical world isn’t causally closed. We might as well admit Casper exists. To say mental states don’t really cause actions is even worse. It would mean reducing thoughts, beliefs and desires to useless side effects, like Wittgenstein’s paper in the wind. “You sometimes see in a wind a piece of paper blowing about anyhow. Suppose the piece of paper could make the decision: ‘Now I want to go this way.’ I Say: ‘Queer, this paper always decides where it is to go and al1 the time it is the wind that blows it.’” (From Wittgenstein’s ‘Lectures on Freedom of the Will’)

There is another option; Jaegwon Kim, the man who first conceived of the problem in this way, suggests we identify mental events with physical ones. The problem disappears if we stop seeing the two as independent, and start seeing them as the same. Mental states simply are physical states. But this ‘they are the same’ argument has the same problem the ‘mental states don’t cause anything’ argument does. It reduces the human mind to a piece of paper blowing about in the wind.

This puzzle is a Rubik’s cube. And we need a Collin Burns.

Up steps Karen Bennett! She believes that the only way to tract the exclusion problem is to go after the idea of overdetermination. True cases of overdetermination, she argues, require two separate and independent causes (like Suzy’s rock and Billy’s rock). But how independent are mental and physical states? She doesn’t want to go the Kim way and say they are the same but neither does she want to say they’re as distinct as Billy’s rock from Suzy’s. Her ‘in-between’ position is called Compatibilism.

Compatibilism, in essence, is the idea that an event can have two distinct causes without being overdetermined, as long as the relationship between the causes is tight enough. Right off the bat, the Compatibilist is at a disadvantage. She must characterize the relationship between the mental and physical in just the right way. Lean too much to one side and her position can be likened to Kim’s. There is no difference between mental and physical states. Lean too much towards the other and she sounds like a spooky magician. Mental states don’t need neurons to cause physical actions.

My work at the moment revolves around a Compatibilist solution to the causal exclusion problem; using Karen Bennett’s arguments as a base to come at the exclusion problem from a new angle. It will by no means be an end to the discussion (one side, at most, of our Rubik’s cube). But I believe my work is a step in the right direction – ensuring our science of the mind is grounded in a stable metaphysics.

Would you like to be featured on ‘Representing…’ ?If you are, or have been, a student or faculty member from Edinburgh, and consider yourself to be a member of an underrepresented group, then please get in touch!

Representing… Lani Watson


Welcome to ‘Representing…’ in which a philosopher from a traditionally underrepresented group explains her research for a non-expert audience. In this edition Lani Watson introduces us to the philosophy of questions via the epistemology of questioning.

Lani Watson Philosophy of Questions EdinburghLani Watson recently defended her doctoral thesis, entitled ‘Why Ask: The Epistemology of Questioning’, at the University of Edinburgh. Her research concerns the nature and value of questions and questioning, examined from an epistemological perspective. She draws on applied virtue-epistemology and social epistemology, as well as the epistemology of education, and has also conducted experimental research within the Psychology Department at Edinburgh.


The Epistemology of Questioning

Questioning plays an indispensable role in our everyday lives. We use it to communicate with each other, to learn, and to gather information. It is familiar and ubiquitous, across languages, cultures and communities, providing the glue for our social interactions, on both an individual and global scale. Yet, it is a practice that often goes unnoticed, in our daily lives and our intellectual endeavours, as well as in the political and societal challenges that we face. Understanding the role that questioning plays in these contexts can provide us with a valuable insight into the interactions that take place within them, and may help us to negotiate these interactions better.

Stop, then, and recall the last question that you asked. How long has it been since you asked it, what made you ask it, who did you ask it of, and was it ever answered. If you can answer any of these questions then you are on your way to uncovering your own theory of questions. This is because part of identifying the last question that you asked involves identifying what you think a question actually is. You are on your way to answering the question, ‘what is a question’. Perhaps surprisingly, you are also further along this path than the majority of thinkers comprising the history of Western philosophy. Reflections on the nature of questions are sparse and fleeting in the philosophical canon, and yet, questioning undeniably plays a central role in our lives. My research aims to place questioning, understood as a ubiquitous and indispensable social practice, firmly back on the philosophical agenda.

What, then, is a question. The answer I offer is relatively simple; a question is an act performed in order to elicit information. It may be a speech act, as when you ask a passing stranger for directions, a physical act, as when you look both ways before crossing the road, or an act performed in your head, as when you ask yourself to recall the last question that you asked. The key is that you ask in order to find things out, either for yourself, or for someone else (as when the teacher questions the student). This is true even when the information itself is not an explicit goal. I may ask a friend how he is feeling after falling off his bike, not because I am explicitly seeking information regarding his emotional state, but because I want to express my concern for his wellbeing. Nevertheless, it is the fact that I am attempting to find out how he is that does the work of expressing this concern. I could have given him a hug and had the same effect, but instead I asked a question. The difference between the question and the hug is not explained in terms of my explicit desire to express concern for my friend’s wellbeing – they both do this. The question is different from the hug because it is an act performed in order to elicit information. That is what makes it a question.

Think again about the last question that you asked. Does it meet this simple requirement. Was it asked in order to elicit information, even if this wasn’t your explicit goal. Is that how you identified it as a question. Can you identify it as a question in any other way. If you can answer any of these questions then you are, once again, developing your theory of questions, and again, ahead of the philosophical curve. Where philosophy has turned its attention towards questions, they have typically been treated as a distinctive form of linguistic expression, and analysed in terms of logical, semantic and syntactic structure. My research emphasises the epistemological significance of the question as an act, and of questioning as a practice. Identifying a question as an act performed in order to elicit information, as opposed to an interrogative sentence say, does precisely this. It exposes the sense in which a question extends beyond any formal linguistic parameters, and is realised within the context of a social world.

Why is this important then. Why do we need a theory of questions, and how will having such a theory help us in our daily lives.

For me the answer is straightforward. If questioning is something that we regularly do, that we rely upon in order to learn, to communicate, and to express ourselves, then it should also be something that we want to be good at. Being a good questioner will allow us to gather the information that we are after efficiently, communicate with others effectively, and express ourselves and our desires clearly. Poor questioning will impede us in these, and many other, ways. A theory of questions is required in order to understand what it takes to be a good questioner.

What, then, is good questioning. Again, the answer I offer is relatively simple; a good questioner is one who competently elicits worthwhile information. In other words, a good questioner will employ a range of skills in order to elicit the information they are after. They will identify what it is they are trying to find out, how best to express this, who (or what) is most likely to provide the information, and when and where is most appropriate to ask. Moreover, the good questioner won’t seek out just any information. They will seek out information that is significant or relevant to their aims. If I am trying to get to the train station in an unfamiliar city, I may stop and ask a passing stranger for directions. If, however, I ask them how many pizzerias are within a five mile radius of my current location, I am doing a poor job of finding out the information that I’m after. A good questioner employs their question-asking skills in order to seek out information that is worth having. This is what it means to competently elicit worthwhile information, and so, to be a good questioner.

Return, once more, to the last question that you asked. Was it a good question. Did you clearly identify what it is that you wanted to find out. Did you express this in the most effective way. Did you direct your question at an appropriate source of information, and did you ask it in the right place at the right time. Could you have done any one of these things better or worse. What results, if any, might that have had.

In my research, I argue that we can indeed become better questioners. Understanding what a question is, and what it takes to be a good questioner, is a vital part of understanding how this is possible. As well as having implications for a wide range of contemporary epistemological debates, including those concerning the social role and value of information, knowledge, and understanding, the nature and norms of testimonial exchange, the nature of the intellectual virtues, and the problem of epistemic injustice, this conclusion has important applications for the role of questioning in education. Given the central role that questioning plays in our everyday lives, I argue that we should educate for good questioning and draw on the results of an experiment conducted with 7-9 year olds in school, to demonstrate the particular significance of questioning for learning. This reveals the vital role that questioning plays in cognitive development and the intellectual life broadly speaking, raising the pedagogical question of how we can and should educate for good questioning, as well as drawing attention to consideration of the wider, social and cross-cultural implications of doing so. I intend to develop and expand this aspect of my research in my post-doctoral work.

If you are interested in thinking more about questions, or continuing to develop your own theory of questions, why not complete the survey ‘What is a question’. You can also find out more about my research, and read some of my published work, at

Would you like to be featured on ‘Representing…’ ?If you are, or have been, a student or faculty member from Edinburgh, and consider yourself to be a member of an underrepresented group, then please get in touch!

Representing… Ashleigh Watson

Welcome to ‘Representing…’ in which a philosopher from a traditionally underrepresented group explains her research for a non-expert audience. In this edition Ashleigh Watson explores the relationship between the body and the mind from the point of view of cognitive science.


Ashleigh Watson is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. Her supervisors are Dave Ward and Suilin Lavelle, and her interests are mainly in embodied cognition and developmental cognitive science.

How does the body shape the mind?

When I reach my hand over to pick up my coffee cup I may be aware that my arm is extending out towards the cup because I can see and feel my arm reaching outwards. While this is going on my body may make more subtle movements and adjustments to assist this reaching movement that I may not necessarily be aware of, such as the fact that my toes are digging into the floor for better grip (to steady my balance as I reach over) and that my fingers are curling round to form a grasp so that my hand can grip on to the mug.

The point of this example is to show that as we carry out everyday activities we are only aware of an incomplete snapshot of the entire range of movements that our body is actually making. What’s more is that I didn’t need to consciously think about how to grasp my hand, nor did I have to be aware that my hand was forming into a grasp for this to happen – I just did it. The same applies to most of our routine activities, for instance in most normal circumstances we don’t need to think about how to move one foot in front of the other to be able to walk – we just do it. That’s not to say that there are no exceptions, young infants who are learning to walk for the first time pay close attention to how they put one foot in front of the other. The same applies when we are walking in hazardous conditions that require us to proceed with caution, for instance when we are walking along a high ledge or across an icy pathway. However, this doesn’t undermine the fact that, in principle, some movements are planned and performed below the threshold of conscious awareness and attention.

My research interests emerge out of recent philosophical work in relation to a particular pair of concepts that have traditionally been deployed by cognitive scientists to offer separate analyses of the distinct, but interrelated, processes that underlie the conscious perception and non-conscious movement of the body. This is the so-called body image and body schema distinction. In short the body image refers to the processes that underlie how we perceive and think about our body, whereas the body schema refers to the processes that underpin its movement.

Most of you will at one point have come across the idea of the ‘body image’ as it frequently appears in popular newspaper articles about how our environment, particularly our social surroundings, shape the evaluative judgements and beliefs that we have about our physical appearance, for example the belief that one’s body is too short or too tall. Just consider the impact that the current climate in certain sections of the media has in shaping societal attitudes about ideal body type, particularly by perpetuating unrealistic standards and expectations about what the ideal physique should look like. The popular use of this term suggests that the body image involves how an individual ‘sees’ themselves in terms of their physical attributes and shortcomings. As it is used in cognitive science the ‘body image’ refers to not only the perception of body that is shaped by beliefs but also to the conscious perception of the body that’s structured by sensory information (such as the visual information that gives rise to my visual awareness of the movement of my arm in the example above) and the processes that allow us to identify the body parts and recognise those body parts as belonging to our own body, for example that it is my hand that is reaching for the coffee cup and not yours.

In contrast, the ‘body schema’ is not as well-known despite its central use across the cognitive sciences for over a century and is notoriously difficult to pin down as little to no consensus can be found about how this concept should be defined. For instance, Merlau-Ponty describes it as an awareness of the peripheral structure of the body in which case it isn’t clear how this interpretation of the body schema differs from the body image. More recently, there are disagreements about whether the body schema should be used to identify the processes that make up the body schema, or whether it should refer to a set of, as yet unanswered, questions that relate to both the perception and movement of the body. These long-standing inconsistencies over how we should use this concept have stood in the way of productive interdisciplinary research because without a clear definition of what the body schema is it is harder to make a principled distinction between the body schema and the body image and to figure out what a proper research program into the nature of the body schema should aim for.

Against this backdrop, I am working towards a clear and workable definition of the body schema. In order to do this a story needs to be told about how movement can be regulated without the need for planning and intervention at the level of conscious awareness. To approach this issue I draw upon an emerging theory of mind called the predictive coding hypothesis. In the case of non-conscious bodily movement this theory suggests that the brain instructs the body to move by predicting the consequences of its movement. To give a (very) rough idea of the thought in mind let’s go back to the example of grasping the hand. According to this hypothesis, if I want to pick up my coffee mug, my brain will predict the feedback that it should receive when my hand successfully grips on to the mug in the way that’s required for picking it up. In other words my brain predicts the sensory information that it should receive when my fingers have tightly gripped around the surface of the mug. It then issues motor commands that enable the movements that are most likely to generate that feedback. In this case it instructs my hand to form into a grasp.

The story goes that as long as the actual sensory information matches the predicted feedback (i.e., that the fingers do grip tightly around the mug) then the planning and performance of the grasp can work independently of conscious awareness. If, however, the hand fails to grip the mug successfully then visual awareness may come into play. For instance, if my hand clashes against the mug because my fingers haven’t opened up wide enough I may quickly glance or turn my head to look at what is going on and then readjust my hand by opening my fingers up until they grip on to the mug. In turn, the prediction(s) that elicited the initial grasping movement may be updated so that the same mistake isn’t made next time round.

The point of all of this is that it may go some way towards explaining the processes that underlie sub-conscious bodily movement and in doing so provide an account of some the processes that make up the body schema. Furthermore, it may also help explain when and why conscious awareness may play a more prominent role in the guidance of movement when we are learning to walk and when we have to manoeuvre our body in risky conditions. In both cases, the risk of the brain making an error in its predictions is higher for its predictive capacities are under-developed in the first case and it is not always easy to anticipate the consequences of action when we find ourselves in potentially hazardous conditions.

Would you like to be featured on ‘Representing…’ ?If you are a student or faculty member from Edinburgh and consider yourself to be a member of an underrepresented group then please get in touch!