Hello, I’m Shelley Tremain and I’d like to welcome you to the fourteenth installment of Dialogues on Disability, the series of interviews that I am conducting with disabled philosophers and post here on the third Wednesday of each month. Dialogues on Disability is designed to provide a public venue for discussion with disabled philosophers about a range of topics, including their philosophical work on disability; the place of philosophy of disability vis-à-vis the discipline and profession; their experiences of institutional discrimination and personal prejudice in philosophy, in particular, and in academia, more generally; resistance to ableism; accessibility; and anti-oppressive pedagogy.
My guest today is Bryony Pierce. Bryony is a research associate at the University of Bristol, where she recently completed her Ph.D. Her research interests include consciousness, philosophy of action, free will, and experimental philosophy. Often, when she is not working, Bryony can be found crouching in the undergrowth, camera in hand, in pursuit of aesthetically pleasing insects or other similarly inspiring sights.
Welcome to Dialogues on Disability, Bryony! You are a founding member of the Experimental Philosophy Group UK and specialize in experimental philosophy. Please tell us about your background and how you became involved in the formation of this group.
Many thanks for inviting me to contribute to this series, Shelley. My first degree was in modern languages, and I only started studying philosophy in my early forties, after closing down my translation company and leaving my part-time job (at a disability consortium), just before I had my youngest child. I took up philosophy because I needed a fresh intellectual challenge.
When I wrote my Ph.D. research proposal, in 2005, on the role of consciousness in action, it included the (then quite controversial) plan to carry out surveys on the folk notion of free will. I wanted to test my hypotheses and be able to refer to empirical evidence related to quite specific questions. I later discovered that other people had already had the same idea—that of using the methods of experimental psychology or other empirical work in order to address philosophical questions—and were calling it “experimental philosophy”.
After a rejection from the philosophy department at one university (the idea of using “questionnaires” hadn’t gone down at all well), I decided to look for the ideal supervisor for my project, rather than focus on practical or geographical considerations. This led me to contact Susan Hurley, who was enthusiastic about interdisciplinary work, knowledgeable about relevant scientific research, and had no reservations about my plan to gather empirical data. Susan encouraged me to apply to the University of Bristol, where she was about to take up a Chair, and became my first Ph.D. supervisor.
My work isn’t predominantly in the field of experimental philosophy (x-phi) but, in 2008, I decided to set up an x-phi lab at Bristol. In 2010, I was invited to give two keynote talks—one defending x-phi and one presenting data from my experiments—at an x-phi conference in Wroclaw, Poland. Stephen Stich was also a keynote speaker at the conference, and when I mentioned that I wanted to set up a group in the UK, he told me about his time at the University of Sheffield, where he’d taught a graduate course in x-phi. James Andow and Robin Scaife were both at Sheffield at the time, I think, and after Tom Wysocki, the Wroclaw conference organizer, gave me James’s email address, the three of us set up Experimental Philosophy Group UK, with Stephen a fourth Founder Member.
The Group’s inaugural meeting took place in Bristol later that year. I was expecting a small informal gathering, but about sixty people registered, and the group has flourished, attracting speakers and delegates from the wider international x-phi community every year. We’ve just had our seventh annual conference at the University of Reading, the proceedings of which are due to be published next year in Ratio.
Some feminist philosophers have argued that experimental philosophy is masculinist, male-defined, and reinstates dominant power relations. How would you respond to such charges?
Not having read much feminist philosophy, I was surprised to learn this. First of all, I want to say that my experience, as a woman within the field of experimental philosophy, has been overwhelmingly positive. Next, I think we need to distinguish between criticism of x-phi as a methodology; criticism of the culture within the x-phi community; and specific cases within the x-phi literature, where questions have been approached in a manner that has attracted criticism.
The methodology for which x-phi is renowned is that of applying the methods of experimental psychology to philosophical questions, especially the use of surveys testing intuitions in response to thought experiments. In a broader sense, it includes any empirical work aiming to address philosophical questions. Feminist philosophers have argued, I’ve now discovered, that the methods of experimental philosophers fail to allow for critical analyses of the social structures that underpin the concepts and attitudes under investigation, perpetuating sexism and racism. But the methods used in x-phi don’t automatically exclude other types of analysis. Experimental studies are done within a wider context, often complementing other methodological approaches, and shouldn’t be viewed in isolation. X-phi isn’t restricted to operating independently of theoretical work—the theoretical work is an essential part of the process, as is further work to replicate, clarify, or challenge initial findings, before any firm conclusions can be drawn.
I think the emblem of the burning armchair, which is used to represent x-phi, tends to lead to a misconception. The objective of x-phi symbolized by the burning armchair is to challenge reliance on armchair methods alone, in some contexts, not to substitute philosophy-oriented psychology for philosophy. I, for one, spend a lot of time in my armchair, before, during, and after running experiments, both literally and metaphorically speaking.
Lisa Schwartzman objects that the subject matter of thought experiments is typically determined by white middle-class males. Even if that’s the case, on balance, that wouldn’t be a consequence of the particular methodology used, but of the preoccupations of the people using it, so the methodology itself isn’t the problem. I do think that, increasingly, people in other demographic groups are becoming involved in x-phi, and hope the trend will continue, in which case the subject matter will presumably reflect the interests of a more diverse group.
Schwartzman also criticizes the reliance of x-phi on data viewed as factual or scientific and on highly abstract thought experiments. This doesn’t have to be the case and needn’t deter anyone who doesn’t want to take that approach, although I admit that it may contribute to women’s under-representation. I’ve used highly abstract thought experiments, and enjoyed doing so, but in some of my work I’ve used open questions and presented participants with real-world scenarios. One of my studies asked people what they’d say to a child who asked them to explain what “free will” meant, for example. Also, I used parents and carers at local toddler groups and schools, to get a more representative sample of the “folk” than if I’d used undergraduate students—I think undergraduate students are far from ideal, as participants, unless one’s objective is to study what university undergraduates think. I feel that some of Schwartzman’s arguments against the methodology we use suggest too limited an acquaintance with the wide range of work undertaken in x-phi.
My inclination is to defend the x-phi community, too, although I can only go by my own experience. It’s the area of academia where I’ve encountered the strongest commitment to inclusivity, not only for women, but for other minority groups within philosophy. At this year’s Experimental Philosophy Group UK conference, for example, three out of four keynote speakers were women, and the topics we discussed included racial and caste discrimination, implicit bias, and gender biases. I know there has been a lot of influential work in philosophy in recent years to raise awareness of the need to combat sexist practices. It is regrettable, for many reasons, that women and minorities are still under-represented in x-phi, but this is the case throughout philosophy, rather than something especially associated with x-phi, and it’s notoriously difficult to establish why various groups are under-represented in philosophy. In fact, experimental philosophy is relatively well placed to investigate how this situation might be improved and to provide data that could encourage change.
Turning to specific cases, I acknowledge that there must be examples in the x-phi literature of work vulnerable to criticism, once feminist principles are brought to the fore, as well as anecdotal evidence of ill-advised comments. That isn’t to say that the sub-discipline as a whole need be characterized as masculinist or male-defined. One x-phi paper that has been criticized by Schwartzman and, more recently, Gaile Pohlhaus is Buckwalter and Stich’s “Gender and Philosophical Intuition”, particularly for its narrow focus on experimental data, rather than on how sociological factors contribute to differences in women’s and men’s intuitions. But Buckwalter and Stich do explicitly acknowledge that historical, sociological, and economic factors are likely to be part of the explanation for these differences, as are gender-based discrimination and sexist attitudes and behaviour. They also point out that further work is needed in this area, and not just in experimental philosophy.
When I first read this paper, I did feel a little uncomfortable, though—for reasons not raised explicitly by Schwartzman or Pohlhaus. Buckwalter and Stich speculate that women might be under-represented in philosophy because they tend to have different intuitions about a number of standard thought experiments. They say women might then feel “puzzled or confused or uncomfortable or angry or just plain bored”, and so become disenchanted with philosophy. My concern is that they omit to mention the possibility that a woman in a philosophy class whose intuitions differ from those of other students might respond by wanting to challenge the assumptions being made (“angry” doesn’t quite capture that attitude). Why not think that women might, in some cases, be unimpressed by appeals to intuition and thus become critical of the methods and dismissive of the discipline more generally? One explanation for the low number of women in philosophy that Buckwalter and Stich present as plausible is that many women become convinced that they are no good at philosophy, so drop out. That could be the case, but isn’t it equally plausible that they might become convinced that the fault lies with the philosophers whose intuitions they don’t share? Intuitions are compelling, yet the authors appear to assume that many women wouldn’t trust their own judgement, if told their intuitions weren’t correct. There are many possible explanations for the under-representation of women in philosophy, but the ones Buckwalter and Stich suggest don’t show women in a positive light.
Bryony, describe how your experiences as disabled have influenced your philosophy and how your work in philosophy and psychology has enabled you to strategize about events that have accrued to you as a disabled person.
Academic philosophy can and should have some application, even if only indirectly, to how we live our lives, relate to others, and understand the world around us. I think that if the principles and values we espouse in our work don’t guide us in our everyday lives, something is wrong. And it’s a two-way process—our lived experiences can and should influence our work, too. The effects of the experience of chronic illness and disability on our thinking have been highlighted in Havi Carel’s thought-provoking work on the philosophical role of illness. There can be positive outcomes of many kinds—a disability acquired later than infancy, or any similarly life-changing event or process, can have a major impact on the way we think, although I believe that this principle applies to all manner of experiences. An article that I happened to read recently, by Mark Vanhoenacker, illustrates this nicely: He writes about the way that working as a pilot has influenced his perception of the world, from the roundness of the planet to the nature of time. The more out of the ordinary our experiences, the greater their power to alter our way of thinking.
When disability is acquired, whether suddenly or gradually, rather than present from birth, we can certainly be led to review our opportunities and prospects, our roles vis-à-vis others, and our underlying values. This process of re-evaluation can lead to insights at many levels, as well as to a new vulnerability to the words and actions of others. When I used a wheelchair, I remember someone asking the person with me whether I was “allowed a mince pie”. A more disturbing incident occurred when I was hospitalized and urged nurses not to lift me by my arms, because my arm was broken (the head of the humerus, as well as the wrist). I was on diamorphine, at that time, which was causing hallucinations, so the nurses ignored my protests, assuming that I had fractures only where they could see splints or plaster casts. Whereas the mince pie incident made me laugh, the nurses’ decision to move me, because they too assumed that I lacked the mental capacity to make decisions about my own welfare, still gives me occasional nightmares, over thirty years later. Would it seem far-fetched to say that maybe the urge to make my views known to others, which is what philosophers do, and to have them taken seriously, stems from my time in hospital?
I should explain that I became disabled after a hit-and-run accident that caused multiple fractures, leading to arthritis, scoliosis, restricted mobility, chronic pain, sleep loss, and chronic fatigue. I was also diagnosed with PTSD. I have reservations about classifying myself as disabled, because I can do so much, but the residual problems undeniably have a significant effect on what I can and cannot do, and they are problems for which medicine has offered no satisfactory solutions. I have adapted to living within certain constraints, developing my own strategies to be able to function as well as I can, and to manage pain (without medication).
Developing strategies to live one’s life within a set of constraints can take the form of a philosophical process, and solving practical problems in my everyday life has often required skills and methods surprisingly similar to some that we use to deal with abstract philosophical problems. Analyzing pain and the accompanying affective responses involves an experiential component and a theoretical component. The sensation provides directly observable empirical evidence for theorizing: any time that I want to examine the sensation of pain, it is readily available. And the theorizing can be used to achieve a reduction or partial elimination of pain, as previously conceptualized, within my subjective experience. I discovered that the worst element in my pre-theoretic notion of pain was not the sensation per se, but the underlying feeling of fear. By recognizing these two things as distinct components, I became able to separate the pain and the fear, re-assess the appropriateness of fear, and, when the pain was familiar, rather than something novel that might indicate a new, alarming problem, tolerate the pain more easily.
In parallel with this process of gaining a better understanding of pain, I was developing theoretical positions on motivation—aware that fear had taken on a stronger motivational force, for example—and the role of consciousness in action production. I was questioning my own altered motives and trying to make sense of them. In time, this resulted in the claim that one function of consciousness is to act as an interface between cognition and emotion. The interface provides a common currency for communication between the cognitive and motivational systems, allowing values to be updated and new goals to be set, as conscious affective responses to situations and commodities provide new information. Reasons for action are grounded in the qualitative character of these affective responses—we judge things, non-inferentially, to be good or bad on the basis of their affective valence, and this knowledge stops the infinite regress of “whys?” that might otherwise arise when we engage in reasoning about what we ought to do. Grounding in biological utility, as proposed by Dickinson and Balleine, fails to stop the regress: we can still question why we should care about our survival or the reproduction of our genes; in addition, there are times when these aren’t our highest priorities. So another type of grounding is necessary.
As I learned more about psychology, through my Ph.D. research and my involvement in the Consciousness and Experiential Section of the British Psychological Society (BPS), I discovered that the strategies I’d developed to manage pain, insomnia, and anxiety had led me to use, as a coping strategy, what other people call “mindfulness”. Learning about mindfulness and how others applied this technique enabled me to develop new strategies to enhance the quality of my life, rather than merely cope with negative aspects of it. For example, I now regularly go out into the garden with my camera to take close-up photographs of insects, arachnids, flowers and raindrops, or in colder weather, ice, frost and snowflakes.
Two of my photographs appear below. The photograph on the top is of a cluster fly standing on the yellow stamens of a flower, with pinkish petals rising up behind the fly and showing through its raised wings. The photograph on the bottom is of patches of snow that have melted and refrozen into fragile, semi-translucent interconnected shapes, some jagged, some rounded and some containing air bubbles, suspended in mid-air from the green leaves of a plant.
Alongside my research and work organizing conferences, I run a community philosophy group, as part of the national organization, Philosophy in Pubs. I trained as a facilitator and set up the group in order to offer people in my local area a chance to discuss philosophical questions, in the hope that they’d find doing so beneficial. At this month’s meeting, the group tackled the question of how we should make decisions on behalf of those thought to lack the capacity to make decisions for themselves, including young children, people with severe learning disabilities, people with brain injuries or dementia, and people who don’t communicate. Should we be guided by what we think people who formerly could make decisions for themselves would have wanted? What they have stipulated, if anything? What they appear to want now, however irrational that may seem to us? Or what we believe to be in their best interests? My experiences in hospital have led me to form strong views on reliance on living wills. I don’t believe that people are able to predict what they will want, without having first experienced what it’s like to be confined to a bed, in severe pain, in a state of mental confusion, and so on. Even people who have experienced these things can’t know how they’ll feel if they find themselves in the same situation again, years later, under different circumstances.
The ways in which my experiences have contributed to my work are subtle and complex, but there certainly are a few key moments that have prompted me either to pursue certain lines of thought or to re-evaluate my views. I remember that people expected me to be angry with the hit-and-run driver, especially when the police told me that they believed he’d been drinking, then had reported his car stolen and persuaded friends to provide alibis so that he wouldn’t lose his licence.
My feeling was that there was nothing to be gained by being angry or by blaming the driver for what had happened. I felt a bit sorry for him, if anything. I hadn’t given free will a great deal of thought at that time, but realized that it was because my assumptions about freedom of the will, and even my reactive attitudes, were different from most other people’s that my response seemed surprising to them, and this got me thinking about blame, moral responsibility, and, again, how action is produced. Many years later, I developed, in greater detail, what came to be one of the key claims in my Ph.D. thesis, which is that all action is a type of reaction, or higher-order reaction. In my account of action as reaction, all behaviour is caused, ultimately, by external factors, so there is no free will and no blameworthiness, although that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t set up criminal justice systems or impose sanctions, for pragmatic reasons.
How might experimental philosophers incorporate disability into their work? Can you suggest some experiments about disability that philosophers could devise?
There is already some work in x-phi in the area of disability. At our recent conference in Reading, for example, Luis Favela gave a very interesting talk on experiments that use vision, a cane, or an enactive torch—a device developed by Tom Froese and Adam Spiers—to assess the width of a gap in order to determine whether a person can pass through it easily. One of the findings to emerge from this work is that the functional ability of people with visual impairments can be preserved, in contexts such as this one, when sensory substitution systems are incorporated into the perceptual system—the three modalities were functionally equivalent. This work has both an educational function, in promoting a different attitude towards visual impairment, and a practical application within the development of new sensory substitution systems. It’s important for people to realize that x-phi isn’t just about conducting surveys to establish what people’s intuitions are in response to thought experiments—any experimental work that addresses philosophical questions falls into the category of x-phi.
If I were to design a study on disability, I might start by doing some qualitative research, exploring the ways that people with a range of different types of disability—present from birth or acquired later in life—describe a welcoming environment or a beautiful place. I could do a follow–up study, showing participants images or providing detailed audio descriptions of places—theatres, beaches, street scenes, restaurants, and so on—asking them to list key features, and might also ask them to evaluate the aesthetic appeal of the place (checking for order effects). The study would test the hypothesis that the salience of certain things that restrict or enable access—such as ramps, stairs, sign-language interpreters, dim/glaring light, narrow spaces, crowds, and uneven floors—would have an impact, not only on what people listed, and in what order, but on people’s assessment of the aesthetic features of a scene. I’d also be interested in any other correlations that might show up unexpectedly. But I’d need to give this more thought—it isn’t something I’d ever considered doing, until you asked the question.
Another area that would be interesting to investigate is attitudes to the classification of patterns of behaviour as “disorders,” including whether people who have been diagnosed with various disorders and/or their carers consider their so-called symptoms to be a constitutive part of who they are—and thus internal causes of action—or something external that could potentially be eliminated. Such a study would relate to both my existing work on philosophy of action, which discusses the way that people tend to classify causes of behaviour as internal or external, and recent work by Rachel Cooper on revising the DSM.
I’d like you to say more about the application of principles of accessibility in the context of x-phi. You regularly organize conferences for the Experimental Philosophy Group UK and make noticeable efforts to ensure that the conferences are accessible to a wide range of philosophers. Please describe your efforts to improve conference accessibility and why you think doing so should be regarded as standard practice.
The Experimental Philosophy Group UK conferences are organized by a small committee, with one person usually acting as local organizer, so my contribution varies from year to year, depending on where the conference is held. I have also been on the conference committee of the Consciousness and Experiential Psychology Section of the BPS for several years.
I do what I can to book venues that are accessible, when possible, publicize information about accessibility, and offer free registration for personal assistants. There are obvious ethical reasons to make events as inclusive as possible, as well as benefits to be gained by having a more diverse group of participants, but it is also necessary to do everything we reasonably can to provide access in order to comply with legislation.
The Disability Discrimination Act in the UK makes it clear that organizations, businesses, associations, etc. that provide services to the public, or a section of the public, are legally required to take all reasonable steps to ensure that people with disabilities are not denied access or treated less favourably than others. A lot of event organizers in academia don’t seem to be aware of this legislation, so it’s good that information about best practice is being distributed and that people are increasingly encouraged to consider accessibility.
It can be quite a challenge to make events accessible. A lot of university buildings in the UK are old, with steps at entrances, rooms up steep flights of stairs, narrow doorways and a lack of parking space. Administrative staff can be dismissive sometimes when I ask, as an organizer, for accessibility information, questioning whether there will be any participants who will actually need the facilities, before we’ve even announced the event. Induction loop systems aren’t always set up and ready to be used, even when we’ve checked that they’re available. Tight budgets, as well as other constraints, can make it hard to provide all the services that I believe we should routinely advertise, in case people need them, such as the provision of documents in Braille or sign-language interpreters.
Some people prefer not to disclose that they have a disability, so this is one reason why it’s important to get as much information as possible available online when publicizing events. Another is that if we expect people to contact organizers to find out about access, they are obliged to spend more time and go to more effort, just to decide whether coming to the event is feasible, than people without access needs need expend, which is a form of indirect discrimination in itself.
There are subtle ways in which organizers can aim for greater inclusivity, too. When I’m the person dealing with enquiries, I try to anticipate needs—for example, offering a family room to a speaker who mentioned having been on maternity leave—and make sure people feel able to approach me with any additional requests or questions. I also try to send a high proportion of personalized emails. The organizer is primarily a facilitator, whose role is to make things run smoothly for everyone, disabled or non-disabled, and it’s much more rewarding to do that to the best of one’s ability than to do the bare minimum.
I’m sure that many readers and listeners of this interview are very grateful for your efforts to increase the accessibility of conferences and other events, Bryony. I’d like to end this interview by asking what resources—articles, books, videos—you would recommend to readers and listeners who want a solid introduction to experimental philosophy.
I would recommend Experimental Philosophy by Joshua Knobe and Shaun Nichols, which includes “An Experimental Philosophy Manifesto”, as well as lots of other key papers. There’s also Joshua Alexander’s Experimental Philosophy: An Introduction. I’d suggest visiting the Experimental Philosophy Page for additional resources, including links to papers. There are also videos on x-phi and there’s an Experimental Philosophy blog.
Or, why not attend an x-phi event? Our next conference in the UK won’t be until next year and the same goes for the Experimental Philosophy Group Germany, but the Buffalo Annual Experimental Philosophy Conference is coming up in September and should be good.
Bryony, thank you very much for these recommendations and for your informative and provocative remarks throughout this interview. You have given us a great deal upon which to reflect.
Readers/listeners are invited to use the Comments section below to respond to Bryony Pierce’s remarks, ask questions, and so on. Comments will be moderated. As always, although signed comments are encouraged and preferred, anonymous comments may be permitted. Many thanks, once again, to Bryce Huebner, as well as to Thomas Nadelhoffer, both of whom generously provided technical support in the preparation of this interview.
Please join me here again on Wednesday, June 15th at 8 a.m. EST for the fifteenth installment of the Dialogues on Disability series and, indeed, on every third Wednesday of the months ahead. I have a fabulous line-up of interviews planned. If you would like to nominate someone to be interviewed (self-nominations are welcomed), please feel free to write me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I prioritize diversity with respect to disability, class, race, gender, institutional status, nationality, culture, age, and sexuality in my selection of interviewees and my scheduling of interviews.