Thursday, 24 July 2014

Epistemic Innocence and Delusion Formation

Ema Sullivan-Bissett
In this post Ema Sullivan-Bissett, post-doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham Philosophy Department, summarises a paper she is currently working on. She presented it at the 88th Joint Session of the Aristotelian Society and Mind Association in Cambridge earlier this month. Ema works with Lisa Bortolotti on the project entitled Epistemic Innocence of Imperfect Cognitions.

 In the paper I argue that that delusional beliefs have the potential for epistemic innocence, irrespective of which approach to delusion formation we adopt. If I am right, whatever implications there are for delusions having this epistemic status, hold for whatever one says about how delusions are formed, that is, whether they are bottom-up and involve one or two factors, or whether they are top down.

I use the notion of epistemic innocence to capture an epistemically poor cognition which nevertheless both confers an epistemic benefit, and for which such a benefit is otherwise unobtainable. I place two conditions on what it takes for a delusion to be epistemically innocent. The first is that the delusional belief confers some significant epistemic benefit onto the subject (Epistemic Benefit). The second is that the epistemic benefit conferred on the subject could not be otherwise had since alternative, less epistemically faulty cognitions, are unavailable to the subject at that time (No Alternatives).

I discuss three approaches to delusion formation, broadly construed: the one-factor and two-factor versions of empiricism, and rationalism. According to empiricist accounts of delusion formation, delusions are responses to unusual experiences. Within the empiricist camp, one might be a one-factor or two-factor theorist. One-factor accounts have it that subjects form delusions on the basis of an anomalous experience, such that there is no abnormal deficit in her mechanisms of belief formation, the psychology thereof is within the normal range of human psychology. Two-factor accounts on the other hand claim that there are two factors we need to appeal to in explaining why a subject comes to hold a delusional belief. The first factor is the anomalous experience, but this is not sufficient. The subject, as well as undergoing an anomalous experience, also has an abnormal deficit or bias in her belief formation mechanisms, and it is this deficit or bias, as well as the anomalous experience, which explains why the delusion is formed. Rationalist accounts, on the other hand, do not allow anomalous experiences to play a role in the generation of a delusion, though they may play a role in the maintenance of a delusion. Rather, ‘delusion is a matter of top-down disturbance in some fundamental beliefs of the subject, which may consequently affect experiences and actions’ (Campbell 2001: 89).

I argue that—in rather different ways—delusions have the potential to meet both conditions on epistemic innocence, regardless of what approach to delusion formation one adopts. I conclude that the potential epistemic innocence for delusions is something upon which all parties can agree.

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