Tuesday 16 May 2017

Aliens, Fairies, Donkey-Conspiracies

This post is by James Andow (pictured above), a Lecturer in Moral Philosophy at the University of Reading. James’s main research interests are in philosophical methodology, in particular, on intuitions and experimental philosophy. In this post, he talks about some recent work in epistemology.

On the basis of no evidence at all, Jo comes to the private belief that aliens from another planet are helping her navigate the social world. Without that belief, Jo would experience profound social anxiety, develop paranoid tendencies, and come to suffer worse delusions that would severely impact her ability to maintain her physical wellbeing, personal relationships, employment, and so on. With her belief, Jo does pretty well for herself.

Overall it is probably good Jo has this belief about aliens. There are certainly comparative benefits to having this belief. The overall quality of Jo's cognitions is improved by having this belief. She is closer to the truth, has fewer false cognitions, is better at predicting how others will respond, is better enabled to carry out her projects and everyday tasks, more accurately understands the mental states of others, and so on, than she would if she didn't have this belief about aliens.

This will be familiar to readers of this blog as a case of a flawed cognition which might be thought to be epistemically innocent in some important respects.

The question I am interested in is, epistemically speaking, was forming this belief about aliens the epistemically right thing to do? Or does it somehow go against what is epistemically allowed? This is a different way of understanding the idea of epistemic innocence than that used by the PERFECT team [e.g., 1, 2]. But, one way to be innocent is to have not broken the rules, to have done nothing wrong, to have stuck to what was allowed. 

The innocence of Jo's belief and other flawed cognitions, understood in the sense I'm working with, swings on the tenability of an idea called ‘epistemic consequentialism’ [3]. This is the idea that the epistemic rules -- the rules that tell us what is and what isn't allowed epistemically -- are focused on consequences. One version might say that Jo's belief is automatically epistemically okay because of the magnitude of comparative benefits she gets from it.

If you’ve studied ethics, you might recognize the shape of this idea. It is analogous to the idea of ethical consequentialism which says that the morality of an action depends on the consequences of that action. Do you think there is probably an important moral difference between torturing someone just for fun, and torturing someone in order to obtain information to prevent a terrorist attack and having fun doing so? If so, you may have ethical consequentialist sympathies.


One objection to both ethical and epistemic consequentialism concerns the idea of trade-offs. Is it okay to do something negative in order to bring about huge positives? Consequentialism says yes. As it happens, most people have their doubts.

In ethics the thought experiment goes like this:

A surgeon has five patients who will die of organ failure later today unless she does something. One donor is all that is needed for the five patients all require difference organs. Unfortunately, there is no such donor available. Suddenly the surgeon realizes that there is a way she could save the five patients. There is a healthy person innocently sitting in the waiting room. She could call the healthy person aside, club them over the head, harvest their organs, use their organs to save the five patients, and leave them for dead. The plan would work for sure.

Question. Is that morally allowed? Most people say no. We know this. The surveys have been run [4]. But according to ethical consequentialism, the answer is obvious. If you face a choice between one life lost and five lives lost, one should sacrifice the one. (There are lots of complexities I'm glossing over here, see [5].)

In epistemology the thought experiment might go like this (inspired by [6]):

You have a relatively boring life. You have a certain understanding of the world. Some stuff you've got right, but in many ways your understanding of the world is incomplete and in quite a few cases it is mistaken. You have no reason to believe that donkeys are anything except what they seem. There isn't much you can do about this.

Except ... wait a moment? What's that?

[Sparkly Tinkerbelle noises].

Oh! It's the truth fairy! The truth fairy has a deal for you. If you come to believe that all donkeys are props in an elaborate CIA hoax, she will grant you perfect knowledge of the world in all other respects, and correct all the ways in which your understanding is mistaken. This deal is for real.

Question. Is that epistemically allowed? Most people hesitate. I have evidence of this. In a recent study, I find that people do not think it is okay to believe simply in order to reap significant epistemic benefits [7]. But if epistemic consequentialism were true, then the answer should be obvious. If you face a choice between perfect knowledge of the world (barring one silly belief), and an incomplete and mistaken understanding, one should do whatever it takes to attain the perfect knowledge. (Again, there are lots of complexities I'm glossing over here, see [3].)

It is not like people don’t care about consequences. In another recent paper, my co-authors and I find that participants do think the consequences of forming a cognition are important, in addition to the nature of the cognition itself [8]. Nonetheless, the picture still seems to be that participants (at least for belief) think the epistemic rules require cognitions to be formed on the basis of evidence as well as bringing comparative epistemic benefits to the individual.


So, back to my question. Is Jo's belief about aliens epistemically innocent?

The data from the two studies I mentioned don't speak directly to this question. In neither of the studies, were participants asked about the case of Jo and the aliens, or about the kinds of flawed cognitions which the PERFECT project has focused on (e.g., delusions). Rather, they concern beliefs, hypotheses, guesses, and assumptions. Nonetheless, I am willing to make a prediction on the basis of my findings to date.

My prediction is that participants will not think that such flawed cognitions are epistemically innocent in the sense of their being allowed by the epistemic rules. Why? Because such flawed cognitions are similar in important regards to other trade-off cases such as the Truth Fairy case, and the cases in my studies. My prediction is that participants will recognize the epistemic benefits that result from flawed cognitions, but nonetheless judge them to be breaking the epistemic rules -- to be epistemically guilty in a sense.

That's just a prediction for now. I think it would be very interesting to ask participants about cases like Jo's and other cases of flawed cognitions. I'd love for someone to run the studies. By the way, you'll find me a very willing collaborator.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting cases James, I also predict they will be judged to break epistemic rules. In case you are interested, here is some further evidence for what those rules are, namely ,that factivity (and perhaps knowledge) are the norms of belief: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11229-015-0727-z


Comments are moderated.