Wednesday 25 December 2013

Epistemic Innocence (part 2)

This post is by Ema Sullivan-Bissett.

In her last post, Lisa outlined two conditions on Epistemic Innocence: 

1. Epistemic Benefit. The cognition delivers some significant epistemic benefit to a given subject at a given time, that is, it contributes to the acquisition, retention or use of relevant true beliefs.

2. No Relevant Alternatives. Alternative cognitions to the imperfect cognition are either unavailable or fail to deliver the same epistemic benefits as the imperfect cognition to that subject at that time.

In this post I will focus on the second condition, which requires further elucidation with respect to what notion of unavailability is in play. 

We might usefully distinguish three kinds of unavailability which can be incorporated into the No Relevant Alternatives condition, and what kind is at play will depend on the case. 

The first notion of unavailability is strong unavailability, such that what it means to say that an alternative cognition is unavailable is exactly that—there is no way the subject can gain access to the alternative cognition, alternative cognitions, or information which would suggest them, are introspectively and otherwise unavailable to the subject. The notion of strong unavailability might be in play when we are thinking about cases of distorted memory due to neurological damage. 

For example, consider Lisa’s case of a dementia patient who claims to remember going to the beach with her parents that morning, but the trip she recalls occurred when she was a teenager, sixty years ago. A memory of the trip which included the correct time at which it took place, or information which would suggest to the subject that she had made a mistake with respect to the time of the trip, is strongly unavailable to the subject due to the severe memory impairment she suffers as a result of her dementia. 

The second kind of unavailability which might figure in the No Relevant Alternatives condition is motivational unavailability.  If the motivation for retaining a cognition is sufficiently strong, alternative cognitions are motivationally unavailable to the subject. Confabulatory explanations and self-deceptive beliefs meet the No Relevant Alternatives condition in that alternative explanations are unavailable to the subject in this sense of unavailability. 

If I suddenly cross the road upon seeing a black man, my action might be guided by implicit biases against certain racial groups. I might confabulate to explain my behaviour by saying that I needed to cross the road because I mistakenly thought I saw a friend on the other side. Here I offer a confabulatory explanation of my action. Because I like to think of myself as person of egalitarian persuasion, who does not have racial prejudices, the explanation of my behaviour which cites implicit biases against these groups is motivationally unavailable to me. 

Or take the case of the cuckholded husband who self-deceptively believes that his wife is faithful. Evidence that she is unfaithful may be available to him (insofar as it is perceptually available—he sees that his wife returns home late, dishevelled, and uninterested in him), but an alternative cognition, such as the belief that his wife is having an affair, is motivationally unavailable, due to the husband’s very strong desire for it to be the case that his wife is faithful. 

The third kind of unavailability is explanatory unavailability, which is cashed out in terms of the implausibility or poor explanatory power of alternative cognitions (by the subject’s lights). A subject may come to have a cognition which explains some experience she has. If alternative cognitions which might also be candidate explanations for her experiences are such that they strike her as seriously implausible or explanatorily inadequate, these alternative cognitions are explanatorily unavailable

Consider an instance of non-pathological belief formation: there are bite marks in my cheese, I hear scratching at night, and my cat is agitated. I come to the conclusion that I have mice in my house. An alternative explanation might be that cheese-eating, cat-hating, noisy fairies are infiltrating my home at night. This explanation is not available to me in the sense I have in mind here due to the incredulity I would feel towards it. It is either not considered by me, or it is such that I rule it out on grounds of implausibility or poor explanatory power, relative to the preferred and adopted cognition. 

I think that delusional beliefs sometimes meet the No Relevant Alternatives condition for epistemic innocence in virtue of alternative cognitions being explanatorily unavailable—I will write about this in my next post.

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