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07/12/2016

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Joshua,

Perhaps the “self” is a combination of a “featureless point” (as you mentioned in your first post) and all of the emergent properties that exist as waves flowing through time which are associated with the featureless point. What that gives us, is something “essential” about the self (i.e., the featureless point) while also allowing for continual changes in all of the associated waves.

Hi James,

This certainly sounds like a very plausible view. Do you have any thoughts about how it could explain these specific experimental results?

I've told Kevin my view of this (and have published it in a few places), but I'm suspicious that we can learn much just by asking people whether or not they think so-and-so is the same person as some person prior to the accident. That's because most people's intuitions on identity are really tracking some specific practical concern(s) that are thought to be grounded on identity, such as moral responsibility, justified compensation for burdens, prudential concern, various social treatments (how would his mom view the survivor?), or simple legal treatments (if he'd committed a crime prior to the accident, how would the law view him now?). But these practical concerns actually track several different relations (some psychological, some animal body, some a mix, some a tiny subset of the psychological, some merely DNA), and so you may be getting results muddied by having some people think he's the same person in the biological sense (for purposes of legal responsibility or whether the horses he owned before the accident still belong to him) or the same person in the psychological sense (given his ongoing stream of consciousness for purposes of prudential anticipation, say). And some of these practical concerns may indeed be a function of antecedent normative commitments (e.g., attributability), but not others (social treatment). So I'm just not sure what to think about these results because of these complications.

Joshua,

Understanding the causes of emergent properties is complicated, and in many cases, it’s impossible to know since life is fundamentally indeterministic in nature. In other words, I don’t know how to explain the specific experimental results! :)

Hi David,

That is definitely a very promising hypothesis, and one that it would be great to explore further. Still, I think that some of the existing experimental results provide evidence against it.

As I noted in the post, Kevin's studies show an impact of value judgments on intuitions about the identity of human beings. However, we also get exactly the same effect for intuitions about the identity of nonhuman entities. For example, suppose you have a scientific paper and that you are making revisions to it. If you remove the bad parts, people think it is still the same paper, but if you remove the good parts, people think the original paper no longer exists and that what you have now is a different paper. (See http://campuspress.yale.edu/joshuaknobe/files/2016/07/IndividualEssence-1p8mkmj.pdf)

I don't know if you would agree, but my sense is that the practical concerns are quite different for a human being and for a scientific paper. Thus, if these intuitions were driven by practical concerns, it would be surprising if they came out the same in these two very different domains.

By contrast, suppose we start with the idea that people have a perfectly general tendency to pick out the good aspects of an entity and regard them as more essential. Then suppose that identity judgments are driven, not by practical concerns, but by this essentialism. This latter hypothesis seems to fit the existing data more comfortably.

What do you think?

This intro by Thomas promises that you will be here throughout the month:

"Unlike most of the upcoming Featured Authors--who will likely only be doing week-long stints as part of the new format--Josh will likely be posting throughout the month. As someone whose own research program was shaped and changed by Josh's early work on intentional action, it's my honor to welcome him to be this month's Featured Author at Flickers of Freedom. Please join me in welcoming him to program!"

Josh,
thanks for adding the parenthetical remark at the end of this post. I would be interested to know to which disability theorists you referred and which of their claims.

One of the criticisms that philosophers and theorists of disability have made about how disabled people are used to illustrate and elaborate arguments in cognitive science is that, ultimately, these examples and the arguments in which they are embedded aim to reinstate normality and underscore disabled people as subnormal, abnormal, defective, "deteriorated."

Another problem with the use of disabled people as examples in cognitive science is that the philosophers who do this work (invariably nondisabled) never seem to have read any disability theory, don't incorporate the insights of this theory and research into their analyses, don't fashion their studies around it, and so on. Surely, this methodology is not a responsible way to proceed. Some disability theorists have experienced and written about brain injuries.

I think that cognitive scientists who write about head trauma have a responsibility to seek out that material and find ways to use it in their work. I don't think cognitive scientists can continue to treat disabled people as merely the subjects of their experiments. Would they, at this point in time, write about any other stigmatized social group without considering what members of the group themselves have to say about their circumstances? Cognitive scientists and other philosophers need to recognize that disabled people comprise a marginalized and underrepresented constituency. For one thing, the continued neglect of the insights of disabled people on the part of cognitive scientists and philosophers of mind runs counter to the efforts of disabled philosophers to dismantle the ableism in the profession.

Hi Shelley,

Thanks so much for all your thoughts on these issues. Definitely very much appreciated.

Also, in answer to your other question, I told Thomas that I would be doing this for more than just one week. I think I will have one additional substantive post after this one.

Yeah, that's interesting, Josh. One speculative thought (with NO empirical data) is that there are also implicit practical concerns associated with scientific papers, e.g., we want them to advance knowledge, so the normative judgments about identity are riding on that practical concern. But what if you associate the question about identity of the paper with thoughts about attribution to agency? That is, suppose you stipulate that the scientist is just poor at his job? I seem to remember that you've gotten results that show that when people think someone really is bad deep down inside, then various sorts of bad attitudes are indeed attributable to him. So now if people think he's a bad scientist, would they think that his removal of the good portions of the paper preserves the paper's identity?

Hi David,

This last comment of yours is super interesting. At the risk of being evasive, I wonder if I could put off discussing the new example you introduce here for just a moment. Instead, I wanted to see what you thought about the basic idea that the effect we have been discussing has nothing to do with practical concerns.

Maybe it would be helpful to introduce an analogy. People working in economics often use calculus, but it would be a mistake to suppose that the notation used in calculus is somehow shaped by the practical concerns of economists. Rather, calculus is a mathematical tool used in numerous different domains. The notation was shaped by facts about this broader use, and economists are simply adopting a tool that already existed for other reasons.

What I was trying to suggest was that something similar is happening in our practice of personal identity attribution. Just as you suggest in your first comment, the practice of personal identity attribution seems to be wrapped up with certain practical concerns (moral responsibility, prudence, justified compensation for burdens). So one obvious hypothesis would be that the criteria we use for personal identity attribution were shaped by those concerns.

My suggestion was that this is not actually the case. Rather, our practice of personal identity attribution drawls on a very general capacity we have for thinking about essences, a capacity that is also used in cases where the practical concerns associated with personal identity do not really apply. For example, this capacity is used for thinking about scientific papers, even though we don't hold scientific papers morally responsible or ask whether they should be compensated for burdens.

The key evidence for this claim comes from the fact that the same patterns we find for personal identity attributions also arise for intuitions about these other kinds of entities. In light of that result, does it seem plausible to suppose that the effects observed in these studies don't actually have anything to do with the practical concerns associated with personal identity in particular?

I agree with James, David, and Joshua all at the same time. For the dimensionless point, I think we see no evidence of it in these experiments, but in other experiments I bet you would. For example, show your X-Phi subjects some of the personal identity thought experiments that David Wiggins presents, together with some of the thought experiments John Locke presents. I bet you dollars to donuts that plenty of subjects will turn to a dimensionless point theory of personal identity.

I could not agree more strongly with David's point that people's identity-thinking is driven by "specific practical concern(s)." Of course, that doesn't mean that all the concerns can fit comfortably into one concept, nor on the other hand does it mean that people will recognize that and stop trying to cram them all into one single "identity". This, I suggest, is part of the problem with folks' (not necessarily explicit) philosophical thinking about identity.

Among those practical concerns, there are plenty of dimensions where normative/evaluative considerations apply. So I think this is compatible with Joshua's folk-essentialism. I don't get why it's a problem that artifacts like scientific papers have different virtues, hence different essences. Of course they do, because we have different sets of practical concerns for papers, versus people. I must be missing something ... ?

I don't go in for dimensionless points. So I think we'll have to find identity among some of the concerns David mentions. And we'll have to admit (with Parfit, e.g.) that some concerns go beyond identity, and are only loosely related to it. This will be a project of repair and reconstruction, not a simple description of folk intuitions.

Hi Paul,

Thanks for all of these very helpful thoughts. I completely agree with the point you make toward the beginning about how, even if the idea of a featureless point does not help in making sense of this specific result, it might help in making sense of others.

Just a quick clarification about the point I was making regarding practical concerns. I was not suggesting that it is a problem if people have different intuitions about the essences of people vs. artifacts. Rather, the problem is that people's intuitions about these different kinds of entities appear to be the *same*.

The argument here is simple. We observe certain patterns in intuitions about human beings. For human beings in particular, we have certain practical concerns, and one might think that these practical concerns are driving our intuitions. But no, there are other entities for which we don't have those practical concerns, and for those other entities, we still get the same pattern of intuitions. Hence, the pattern of intuitions does not seem to be driven by these practical concerns.

Does that argument seem at all compelling to you?

Joshua, how about other kinds of empirical cases--court cases--where practical concerns at least prima facie seem to trump other intuitions? I'm thinking in particular of the case of James Holmes (there are many others I'd argue, including Dahmer), where one could argue that the horror of the mass murder seemed to supersede any questions about the true self, free will, identity, or even exculpatory psychosis in the collective judgment of the jury. They judged Holmes guilty despite very good evidence that he was deeply disturbed--and this though they then refused the death penalty even though it was an option. Isn't this a data point that sometimes practical consequences put other philosophical concerns aside?

One suggestion I might make for X-PHI is to survey court cases as a subset of empirical data relevant to a certain thesis.

Shelley,

Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. I really hope that this and future research does not reinstate normality and/or characterize disabled people as defective. I also strongly agree with your point about the necessity of considering what members of a group have to say about their own circumstances. This research I’ve done is about (presumably, generally abled) third-person attributions of personal identity and I certainly do not want to suggest that this is anything close to the full story about either the concept or nature of personal identity.

One clarification about the experimental study might be helpful. This concerns the use of “deterioration”, which I hope is not problematic. The term “deterioration” refers to the vignette in which it appears the man after the accident is morally worse than Phineas at the start (this is the first vignette that Josh quote above). The “improvement” condition also involves an accident and a person who suffers a brain injury. So I definitely do not want to suggest that someone undergoing a brain injury is “deteriorated,” in the sense of being defective. Instead, there are certain changes that can result in apparent moral deterioration (another example I use in the paper is Parfit’s Russian Nobleman case, which does not involve brain injury at all).

That said, I hope some interpretations of the experimental results might cohere with, or even lend additional support to, certain well worked out views of disability theorists. For instance, if you think the improvement/deterioration effect on personal identity is a mistake (i.e. direction of change is not actually relevant to personal identity), this could undercut support for certain intuitions about “deteriorated” persons. In that case, the “classic intuition” about the post-accident man being “no longer the same Gage” is partly produced by factor we think is irrelevant to the judgment.

I haven't worked this out in any great detail, but I also wonder whether the finding that intuitions about personal identity depend on direction of change (which itself, depends on the evaluator's values) might fit well with a social theory of disability. That is, if applying the concept of personal identity depends on apparent direction of change, and apparent direction of change depends on what the evaluator sees as improvement or deterioration, then the application of personal identity would seem to vary depending on whether certain changes are apparent improvements or deteriorations. Then, when some arbiter claims that (e.g.) a disability threatens a person's personal identity, this judgment is a reflection of society's dominant value system and not of some real truth about the person's difference.

I’d be especially interested to hear what you or others think about these issues. Does the finding that third-party attributions of personal identity vary according to apparent direction of change (“improvement” or “deterioration”) have any bearing on debates or topics in disability or ableism?

I wonder if you'd get similar results if you used a car as the artifact. The car always ran well and got good gas mileage, but then it was in an accident and afterwards it didn't run well and got lousy gas mileage. Was it the same car? It seems to me that, if your theory is correct, then you'd get more people saying it's no longer the same car in that version than under the reversed version (bad car + accident -> good car). That strikes me as odd, but it is an empirical question.

I think I'm wondering whether there might be something people and scientific papers have in common that cars don't.

And just out of curiosity, has anyone asked about Theseus' ship?

Hi Mark,

That is a great point! I really think you are right and that the results would come out exactly as you predict. This seems like a very important issue to confront.

My guess is that this difference arises because we attribute essences to human beings and scientific papers, but do not attribute essences to cars. In other words, when people are thinking about you, they recognize that you have various different traits, but they also think of you as having a deeper essence ("what Mark is ultimately all about"). Similarly, when people are thinking about a paper, they recognize that it includes various different ideas, but they also think of it as having a deeper essence ("what this paper is ultimately all about"). However, they do not think about cars in this way. All there is to a car is the collection of features it actually happens to have; there is no deeper essence, nothing we could pick out with a phrase like "what this car is ultimately all about."

Hi Alan,

Nice point. This doesn't seem to be on the issue of personal identity, at least as traditionally conceived, but rather an issue of moral responsibility. Still, it is quite clearly connected with the topics we have been discussing here.

In the case of Holmes, one traditional view would be that the central question is whether he was able to respond to reasons, or to do otherwise, or to know that what he was doing was wrong. This is certainly a plausible view. However, one might also argue that this case is better understood in terms of the true self. That is, one might argue that the central question is whether his actions were expressive of his own true self. A pair of students here have been exploring this question experimentally, and they have some very interesting and intriguing results.

Josh, thanks (and thanks again for doing this!). I understand your thinking here. Your thought is that, as you say, the evidence suggests that we're drawing on "a capacity that is also used in cases where the practical concerns *associated with personal identity* do not really apply" (my emphasis), e.g., in scientific papers. My point, though, was that there are readily articulable practical concerns attached to scientific papers too, just *different sorts of concerns* than those that attach to human agents.

All of this goes to a deep methodological question: What explains why we might attribute essences in this way to some things (people, scientific papers) and not others (cars? gradually molding food?)? My hunch (and it's only a hunch) is that there is an explanation, but that it will have something to do with various of our practical concerns.

Hi David,

I feel like this latest comment of yours is really getting at the heart of the issue. Not sure if you will find this helpful, but it seems like there are three different ways in which we could invoke practical concerns to explain the similar patterns observed in intuitions about different kinds of entities.

1. Perhaps intuitions about human beings are shaped by practical concerns that are specific to human beings, while intuitions about nonhuman entities are shaped by practical concerns that are specific to nonhuman entities. Then it could be that these different practical concerns still lead to the same pattern in people's intuitions.

2. Perhaps there are some practical concerns that arise only for human beings, but also other practical concerns that arise for both human beings and nonhuman entities. Then it might be that people's intuitions are shaped by these latter concerns, yielding the same pattern for both human and nonhuman entities.

3. Perhaps practical concerns played an important role in shaping the very general process we use for attributing essences. Then the practical concerns surrounding human beings need not have shaped our practice of personal identity attribution, and the practical concerns surrounding nonhuman entities need not have shaped our practice of attributing identity to nonhuman entities. Rather, both practices were shaped by a single unified capacity for attributing essences, and it was that capacity that was shaped by practical concerns.

To decide between these general approaches, it seems like it would be important to work them out in more detail. For example, if we think that approach 2 might be on the right track, it would be good to trying saying something more specific about what the relevant concern is and how it explains the actual patterns we observe.

I think you're exactly right here, Josh. Methodology is what I'm most interested in, and you've described the different possible approaches and what would need to be done to begin to decide between them.

Dear Kevin (and All),

Thanks very much for your response to my comment. I got the distinct impression from your comment that you are concerned to understand how your use of the Phileas Gage example might be harmful to disabled people, even though you had no such intention.

Before I broach that question, or rather, in order to broach that question, let me ask you and other readers here to consider this excerpt from an article posted at Smithsonian.com:

“Jack and Beverly Wilgus, collectors of vintage photographs, no longer recall how they came by the 19th-century daguerreotype of a disfigured yet still-handsome man. It was at least 30 years ago. The photograph offered no clues as to where or precisely when it had been taken, who the man was or why he was holding a tapered rod. […] In December 2007, Beverly posted a scan of the image on Flickr, the photo-sharing Web site, and titled it “One-Eyed Man with Harpoon.” Soon, a whaling enthusiast e-mailed her a dissent: that is no harpoon, which suggested that the man was no whaler. Months later, another correspondent told her that the man might be Phineas Gage and, if so, this would be the first known image of him. […] Gage’s initial survival would have ensured him a measure of celebrity, but his name was etched into history by observations made by John Martyn Harlow, the doctor who treated him for a few months afterward. Gage’s friends found him “no longer Gage,” Harlow wrote. The balance between his “intellectual faculties and animal propensities” seemed gone. He could not stick to plans, uttered “the grossest profanity” and showed “little deference for his fellows.” […] In time, Gage became the most famous patient in the annals of neuroscience, because his case was the first to suggest a link between brain trauma and personality change. In his book An Odd Kind of Fame: Stories of Phineas Gage, the University of Melbourne’s Malcolm Macmillan writes that two-thirds of introductory psychology textbooks mention Gage. Even today, his skull, the tamping iron and a mask of his face made while he was alive are the most sought-out items at the Warren Anatomical Museum on the Harvard Medical School campus. […] Michael Spurlock, a database administrator in Missoula, Montana, happened upon the Wilgus daguerreotype on Flickr in December 2008. As soon as he saw the object the one-eyed man held, Spurlock knew it was not a harpoon. Too short. No wooden shaft. It looked more like a tamping iron, he thought. Instantly, a name popped into his head: Phineas Gage. Spurlock knew the Gage story well enough to know that any photograph of him would be the first to come to light. He knew enough, too, to be intrigued by Gage’s appearance, if it was Gage. Over the years, accounts of his changed character had gone far beyond Harlow’s observations, Macmillan says, turning him into an ill-tempered, shiftless drunk. But the man in the Flickr photogragh seemed well-dressed and confident. […] Harvard has not officially declared that the daguerreotype is of Gage, but Macmillan, whom the Wilguses contacted next, is quite certain."

This excerpt is a long one to cite in a blog comment, so let me draw out a few noteworthy observations and point out what they suggest.

First, it seems that Harlow (whom you cite authoritatively in your paper) treated and observed Gage for only a few months, a relatively short period of time given the nature of Gage’s injury and the etiology of brain injuries in general.

Second, the description of post-injury Gage with which we are provided (from Harlow) does not seem to warrant the disposition and personality changes (cruel, etc.) that have been attributed to him in the scientific literature over the years. Indeed, it seems to me that these attributions should not be so confidently relied upon as credible and uncontestable. For instance, we cannot be sure that the cited reports from Gage’s friends were not in some way conditioned by (say) their own misunderstandings of his behaviour, their revulsion at his changed physical appearance, or simply their own impatience. That some of these attributions have been produced, reproduced, elaborated, and apparently embellished within the contexts of the literature on neuroscience and medicine should remind us that science and medicine are social practices and thus are not disinterested or immune to biases and prejudice.

Third, Foucault’s arguments for the use of genealogy, especially his assertion that we should create histories of the present if we wish to recognize the contingency of “who we are now,” seem instructive in this context (among others). Thus, I want to ask how this veritable mythology around Gage has contributed to the constitution of the brain-injured person, the disabled person, and the normal person. How has this (embellished) history of Gage shaped, conditioned, determined research programs in cognitive science and neuroscience and practices in clinical settings? To what extent is this before-and-after approach to brain-injured people performative of the very changes that it claims to innocently observe and report? Put directly, what role do social prejudices and preconceptions play in the perception of this “before-and-after” approach to the identities of brain-injured people? What are the concrete consequences of these value-laden perceptions and observations? That is, how do they limit the opportunities of many disabled people in education, housing, health care, intimacy, personal relationships, and so on?

Finally, the Smithsonian article notes that Gage’s skull and mask (among other things) are currently housed at the Warren Anatomical Museum on the Harvard Medical School campus and are quite popular items in the collection. I can’t help but see an obvious and troubling analogy here with the case of Saartjie (Sarah) Baartman (the “Hottentot Venus”) whose body was used in order to advance the agenda of scientific racism and whose remains were displayed at the Muséum d' Histoire Naturelle in Angers.

The entire Smithsonian article is here: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/phineas-gage-neurosciences-most-famous-patient-11390067/?no-ist

Best regards, Shelley

Dear Shelley,

Thanks so much for this response. I really appreciate you taking the time to help me (and other researchers) approach these topics in the most thoughtful and productive way. Your impression is correct; I certainly do not intend for my use of the Phineas Gage example to harm brain-injured people or disabled people. I agree with all these insightful points you write here - e.g. there are very good questions about the historical accuracy of Gage’s myth and perpetuating that myth threatens harmful narratives about brain-injured persons.

However, I am left with the question about whether this research is actually harmful. Does researching judgments about (i) brain-injured persons or (ii) the myth of Phineas Gage harm either brain-injured persons or Phineas Gage? If so, is this reason to not conduct such investigations? (I ask these as a genuine questions. If the answer to either is yes, it would be important to know.)

As you note, there is a “veritable mythology around Gage.” I’m hopeful that the study I report and future studies might offer some additional support to existing historical and philosophical critiques of problematic approaches to brain-injured people. More generally, although I’m open to the idea that (mere) discussion of certain examples is harmful to people of a minority group, my own view is that generally it’s better to investigate these (*in the right way*) than to erase the subject and people in fear of causing offense.

Even if this research isn’t harmful, your post has highlighted how it might be improved. Maybe similar research using brain-injury examples should include a debrief noting some of the problematic aspects of “before and after” approaches and performing the changes we purport to observe. Research about the myth of Phineas could include a debrief about questions of historical accuracy. Maybe you or others have better ideas about ways to improve such research.

Again, I want to reiterate my thanks for your helpful post. It’s important to learn how to make progress on these topics in the appropriate way, and I’ve learned a lot from your comments.

Hi Kevin and All,

thanks for your response to my comment in response to your comment. I do want to address some of your questions, but first, I would like to pose two questions to you, Josh, and everyone else who works on these issues with respect to identity and the "true self":

(1) How would you explain why you use examples of disabled people in your work?

(2) Have you used or considered using real-life examples of
people who have transitioned from one gender to another? or counter-factual examples of people who have transitioned from one racial(ized) group to another?

In addition, I would like to more generally pose a question to the cognitive scientists/philosophers of mind reading this discussion who, in some way, use the situations of disabled people in their research:

(3) How would you explain the fact that your research does not (or at least, does not routinely) draw upon or engage with the insights and the arguments of philosophy and theory of disability or the first-person accounts of disabled people?

Best,
Shelley

Hi Shelley,

Thanks for this continued comment/response :)

I have some responses to your questions, though in responding I want call attention to the distinction between (1) facts about the content of contemporary cognitive science research and (2) my personal beliefs and research motivations.

Regarding your second question about the use of real-life examples of people who transition races or genders, I haven’t done any empirical work on this. I believe some other researchers are working on some of those topics, but I don't know of anything that has been published. There are some other minority group categories that have been the object of true self and personal identity vignettes. For example, Newman, Bloom, and Knobe have an example of a man who is both an evangelical Christian and someone with same-sex attractions. They find some very interesting results about attributions of his “true self” by liberals and conservatives: https://campuspress.yale.edu/joshuaknobe/files/2016/02/true-self-1bo15sb.pdf
I am definitely interested in these and other topics and have considered developing some examples for future work.

Your first and third questions ask for a more personal response, so I definitely want to note that there’s probably a great degree of difference among the motivations, beliefs, etc. of various researchers. Regarding question 1, the simple answer about my direction of change paper is that I was seeking to test the idea that apparent direction of change affects intuitions about personal identity. The (myth of) Phineas Gage and Parfit’s Russian Nobleman cases are two seminal thought experiments about personal identity in which the effect would be relevant. That’s why I chose those two test cases.

The third question asks why the research doesn't draw upon theory of disability or first-person accounts of disabled people. The paper is relatively short and focused and its main concern is whether direction of change affects third-person intuitions about personal identity. That said, it cites a paper from Disability Studies Quarterly and it also notes that the first person perspective may well come apart from the third person perspective (moreover, this is discussed in the context of intellectual disability, page 401). Nevertheless, your comments here have convinced me that there’s certainly more to say about those issues.

Your third question also raises a very interesting issue. I think people who do not specialize in an area (e.g. disability) often opt for a strategy of merely highlighting possible concerns in that other area. That’s what I tried to do in my paper, but perhaps I should have gone further. This is an appealing strategy for a non-specialist if those issues are not part of the paper’s central thesis. But also, I – as a non-specialist – would rather leave a substantive discussion in the hands of an expert. I wonder if part of some people’s “failure to engage” is partly a product of an awareness of their own shortcomings.

Perhaps part of what’s needed is greater collaboration between cognitive scientists and disability theorists. Cognitive scientists, myself included, should read and engage with disability theory. At the same time, I’d be really interested to know if disability theorists have specific objections to current research practices or – even better – suggestions for research questions that would be especially useful to the projects and aims of disability theorists.

Dear Kevin (and All),
Thanks for another earnest response to me. Your willingness to address my concerns and questions in a public forum is greatly appreciated. I think that our discussion is suggestive of the tone with which collaboration between cognitive scientists and philosophers and theorists of disability should proceed. Unfortunately, disabled philosophers and disabled people more generally have seldom met with this evidence of mutual respect in their dealings with most philosophers, especially bioethicists and cognitive scientists, but rather have faced ridicule, condescension, and dismissal. I sincerely hope that the prominence of this discussion and of some of its interlocutors indicate a sea of change.

My remarks in this comment are meant to further motivate such change. Some of the remarks may follow from Kevin’s questions, comments, and article, but they are intended for all of the cognitive scientists and philosophers of mind who work in this area, especially if they use disabled people as subjects of their research or as examples to illustrate it.

First of all, I think it is important for researchers to stop and seriously consider why and how they use disabled people in their work, why certain groups of disabled people are used to illustrate and advance their claims, etc. These researchers need to think critically about why research practices with these people have developed, why certain questions have become salient around these particular constituencies, and what role these research practices and questions might play in sustaining extant power relations. Why are brain-injured and other cognitively disabled people used in this discussion about identity in the literature? I asked why this research on identity change doesn’t focus on transition from one gender to another and from one racial(ized) group to another. After all, these transitions can involve significant shifts in identity. I believe that disabled people are regarded as ideal subjects for the questions in this area of research because cognitive scientists and philosophers of mind hold a medicalized, apolitical, and uncritical understanding of the apparatus of disability.

Kevin indicates that he used the example of Phineas Gage because it is “seminal” to the literature. Indeed, the example of Gage does seem to have initiated work on brain trauma and personality change. Notice, however, that I have provided some evidence that suggests that, to a large extent, the case of Gage has been a product of embellishment, a discursive construction, has been “made up” (as Hacking would say). So, why continue to use Gage as an example in your work? If we subtract the claims about Gage that seem contestable (that he was cruel, rude, etc.), what are we left with that justifies the centrality that he gets in cognitive scientific literature and this work on identity change in particular? We know for sure that Gage was impaled by a tamping iron at the age of twenty-five. What else do we know for sure? The Smithsonian.com article suggests to me, as a philosopher of disability, that Gage was a disabled person who confronted a lot of prejudice and misunderstanding after his accident, was denied employment, and was forced to move thousands of miles from his home in order to earn a living. If there is any truth to the myth that Gage was mean post-accident, perhaps these social factors go some distance to provide an explanation why. Yet, I have seen nothing that suggests to me that these contingent circumstances are taken into account in discussions of Gage. I am sure that social factors would play some role in research outcomes if cognitive scientists and philosophers of mind were to investigate identity change in people who have transitioned from one gender to another. Or would they?

Kevin has agreed that cognitive scientists/philosophers of mind should begin to read the work of philosophers and theorists of disability. He suggests that among the reasons why these researchers do not draw upon philosophy and theory of disability in their work is because they lack the relevant expertise, their projects may be limited in scope, etc. I recognize that philosophers’ expertise and interests vary. Not all of us can claim to be experts in cognitive science. Not all of us can claim to be experts in philosophy of disability. However, I think that if one intends to do work on disabled people in cognitive science or appeal to claims about us that have been made within that field and its literature, then it is incumbent on one to at least familiarize oneself with the broad outlines of the most recent arguments and positions made in philosophy and theory of disability. Even given my limited knowledge of your field, I believe that familiarity with these arguments and positions would significantly change the way that work on disabled people is approached within cognitive science/phil of mind, how disabled people are understood, and even the words used to describe and refer to us. For example, were cognitive scientists apprised of the fact that claims according to which brain-injured people and other cognitively disabled people are bad-tempered, hostile, and even violent reproduce stereotypes that rely upon misinformation and prejudices about these people, they might be less inclined to refer to Gage and other cognitively disabled people as “cruel,” “not themselves,” etc. They might approach such claims in the literature more critically. Indeed, if cognitive scientists/philosophers of mind knew that cognitively disabled people are the victims of violence at the hands of nondisabled people many times more often than the other way around, they might doubt the credibility of the information altogether.

Best regards,
Shelley

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