loading page

I am philosopher Lisa Bortolotti - AMA anything about rationality and the philosophy of mind!
  • LisaBortolotti ,
  • r/Science AMAs

Corresponding Author:[email protected]

Author Profile
r/Science AMAs
Author Profile


Thank you everybody for participating in this session! I really enjoyed it. Logging off now! Hello! I am Professor of Philosophy at the University of Birmingham. At Birmingham I work mainly in the philosophy of psychology and psychiatry. At the moment I am not teaching undergraduates because I am in charge of a major project that takes most of my time, but I have ten PhD students working on very interesting issues, from the rationality of emotions to the nature and the consequences of loneliness. I have been at Birmingham for most of my career as a philosopher. Before getting a lectureship there in 2005, I was in Manchester for one year, working as a Research Associate on a European project led by Professor John Harris, and I mainly wrote about bioethical issues and the question whether and to what extent scientific research should be ethically regulated. I always loved Philosophy, since as a teenager in school I encountered Plato’s dialogues featuring Socrates. I was fascinated by how Socrates could get his audience to agree with him, starting from very innocent-sounding questions and gradually getting people to commit to really controversial theses! I wanted that talent. So, at university I chose Philosophy and studied in my hometown, Bologna. For half a year I was an Erasmus student at the University of Leeds and immersed myself in the history and philosophy of science. Then I went back to Bologna to complete my degree, and moved to the UK afterwards, where I got a Masters in Philosophy from King’s College London (with a thesis on the rationality of scientific revolutions) and the BPhil from the University of Oxford (with a thesis on the rationality debate in cognitive science). For my PhD I went to the Australian National University in Canberra. My doctoral thesis was an attempt to show that there is no rationality constraint on the ascription of beliefs. This means that I don’t need to assume that you’re rational in order to ascribe beliefs to you. I used several examples to make my point, reflecting on how we successfully ascribe beliefs to non-human animals, young children, and people experiencing psychosis. Given my history, it won’t be not a big surprise for you to hear that I’m still interested in rationality. I consider most of my work an exercise in empirically-informed philosophy of mind. I want to explore the strengths and limitations of human cognition and focus on some familiar and some more unsettling instances of inaccurate or irrational belief, including cases of prejudice and superstition, self-deception, optimism bias, delusion, confabulation, and memory distortion. To do so, I can’t rely on philosophical investigation alone, and I’m an avid reader of research in the cognitive sciences. I believe that psychological evidence provides useful constraints for our philosophical theories. Although learning about the pervasiveness of irrational beliefs and behaviour is dispiriting, I’ve come to the conviction that some manifestations of human irrationality are not all bad. Irrational beliefs are not just an inevitable product of our limitations, but often have some benefit that is hidden from view. In the five-year project I’m currently leading, funded by the European Research Council, I focus on the positive side of irrational beliefs. The project is called Pragmatic and Epistemic Role of Factually Erroneous Cognitions and Thoughts (acronym PERFECT) and has several objectives, including showing how some beliefs fail to meet norms of accuracy or rationality but bring about some dimension of success; establishing that there is no qualitative gap between the irrationality of those beliefs that are regarded as symptoms of mental health issues and the irrationality of everyday beliefs; and, on the basis of the previous two objectives, undermining the stigma commonly associated with mental health issues. There are not many things I’m genuinely proud of, but one is having founded a blog, Imperfect Cognitions, where academic experts at all career stages and experts by experience discuss belief, emotion, rationality, mental health, and other related topics. The blog reflects my research interests, my commitment to interdisciplinary research, and my belief that the quality of the contributions is enhanced in an inclusive environment. But nowadays it is a real team effort, and post-docs and PhD students working for PERFECT manage it, commissioning, editing, scheduling posts and promoting new content on social media. Please check it out, you’ll love it! I wrote two books, Delusions and Other Irrational Beliefs (OUP 2009), which was awarded the American Philosophical Association Book Prize in 2011, and Irrationality (Polity 2014). I have several papers on irrationality and belief, and the most recent ones are open access, so you can read them here. Shorter and more accessible versions of the arguments I present in the papers are often available as blog posts. For instance, you can read about the benefits of optimism, and the perks of Reverse Othello syndrome. Some Recent Links of Interest: Are We Biased About Love? - Philosophy247 podcast “Agency Without Rationality” - Inaugural Lecture, University of Birmingham, 9 May 2016 “Us and Them” no longer: mental health concerns us all - blog post Philosophy Bites podcast on irrationality The Upside of Delusional Beliefs