The project investigated the potential epistemic benefits of imperfect cognitions (including delusional beliefs, distorted memories, and confabulatory explanations) in the clinical and non-clinical population.
It was funded by a 12-month AHRC Fellowship (Science in Culture theme) awarded to Lisa Bortolotti at the University of Birmingham (UK) starting September 2013. Ema Sullivan-Bissett was involved as part-time research fellow on the project.
Featured posts on the project themes were published in:
- Brains in summer 2013
- the OUP blog and the Philosophy@Birmingham in February 2014
- Saving Humans and The Reasoner in March 2014
- the AHRC Science in Culture blog in May 2014
- Psychiatric Ethics in October 2014
- Philosop-her in November 2014.
The post on the Psychiatric Ethics blog, entitled Anosognosia and Epistemic Innocence, was among the finalists for the 3 Quarks Daily Philosophy Prize 2014.
In February-March 2015 Imperfect Cognitions published summaries of all the eight papers included in the special issue of Consciousness & Cognition on the themes of the project. On 30 April 2015 a report on the special issue also appeared on the Philosophy@Birmingham blog.
In what circumstances do delusional beliefs, distorted memories, and confabulatory explanations contribute to the acquisition and preservation of true beliefs?
Do delusional beliefs, distorted memories, and confabulatory explanations have genuinely epistemic benefits? Are people epistemically blameworthy for having "imperfect cognitions"?
What are the consequences of acknowledging that delusional beliefs, distorted memories, and confabulatory explanations can be epistemically advantageous?
- A monograph authored by Lisa Bortolotti, entitled The Epistemic Innocence of Irrational Beliefs (forthcoming in 2020 with OUP)
- A special issue of Consciousness & Cognition on the themes of the project (published in May 2015)
- At least three research papers by the project team (one on delusions, one on distorted memories and one on confabulatory explanations).
A two-day workshop was held in Birmingham on 8 and 9th May, 2014, to discuss the themes of the project.
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The Notion of Epistemic Innocence
One of the main objectives of the project was to develop an account of epistemic innocence for imperfect cognitions. Ideally, we would have cognitions that satisfy norms of truth and accuracy and that are supported by, and responsive to, the evidence available to us, as well as fostering the acquisition, retention and good use of true beliefs. But we have limited cognitive capacities, and imperfect cognitions that are false or inaccurate and badly supported by, or irresponsive to, the evidence are a common occurrence (e.g., delusional beliefs, distorted memories, confabulatory explanations).
The project explored the possibility that some of these imperfect cognitions are epistemically innocent, where the notion of innocence captures the fact that for a given agent at a given time it is epistemically beneficial to have such cognitions, even if they fall short of key epistemic norms. The exact formulation of conditions for epistemic innocence varies depending on one's epistemological commitments and the type of cognition to be considered, but the central idea is that a cognition is innocent if the following two conditions are met:
1. Epistemic Benefit. The cognition delivers some significant epistemic benefit to an agent at a time.
2. No Alternatives. Alternative cognitions that would deliver the same epistemic benefit are unavailable to that agent at that time.
Different notions and degrees of unavailability apply. In general terms, there may be no genuine alternative to an imperfect cognition, because information that would lend support to a different, more accurate, cognition is opaque to introspection, not open to investigation, irretrievable, or blocked for motivational reasons; or the alternative cognition could be strictly speaking available, but it would not carry the same epistemic benefit as the imperfect cognition (e.g., it would not offer a plausible explanation of the agent's experience or it would not support the agent's sense of self to the same extent).