Tuesday 7 August 2018

Adaptive Misbeliefs, Value Trade-Offs, and Epistemic Consequentialism

Today's post is provided by Professor Nancy Snow.

My name is Nancy Snow and I am a Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Institute for the Study of Human Flourishing at the University of Oklahoma (see here for more information). My paper, “Adaptive Misbeliefs, Value Trade-Offs, and Epistemic Consequentialism,” was recently published in the volume Epistemic Consequentialism, edited by Kristoffer Ahlstrom-Vij and Jeffrey Dunn (Oxford University Press, 2018).

As the book’s title suggests, the collection is about various aspects of epistemic consequentialism. This is a view in the theory of knowledge (epistemology), according to which the production of epistemic value is the end at which beliefs or belief-producing processes aim. Epistemic consequentialism parallels ethical consequentialism in structure. I.e., just as ethical consequentialism tells us we should maximize happiness or utility in our actions, so epistemic consequentialism tells us we should maximize epistemic value in our beliefs. Epistemic value can take a variety of forms, such as increases in true or justified beliefs, understanding, insight, accuracy, and so on.

A problem for epistemic consequentialism parallels a problem for ethical consequentialism. Some forms of ethical consequentialism condone performing apparently immoral actions for the sake of achieving greater good, e.g., telling a lie for the sake of making everyone happy. Similarly, some versions of epistemic consequentialism seem to condone holding false or unjustified beliefs when doing so will result in a net gain in epistemic value. My paper examines a larger problem for epistemic consequentialists involving possible trade-offs between epistemic value and pragmatic value. My position is that even when holding false or unjustified beliefs leads to an overall increase in value tout court, having them is, nonetheless, epistemically irresponsible.

My paper focuses on adaptive misbeliefs. These are false beliefs, which, despite their falsity, help us to navigate the world and be effective agents. There is a lively literature on adaptive misbeliefs arguing that these beliefs are sometimes essential parts of our operating systems and help us to be functioning agents in a complex world. An example of an adaptive misbelief is my false belief that I am a good speaker. Having this false belief might buoy my confidence and keep me going through my class lectures, thus contributing to my ability to function in the world.

Adaptive misbeliefs point to complexity and possible tensions in the kinds of value that constitute our well-being as a whole. If our overall well-being consists of epistemic and pragmatic value (in addition to other kinds of value), then adaptive misbeliefs suggest a possible disconnect between what we should believe to be good “knowers” as opposed to what we should be believe to be good “doers.”

I explore this puzzle from a variety of angles, including cases of what I call ‘game-changing’ adaptive misbeliefs. These are false beliefs that contribute to bringing about the conditions under they become true. (E.g., my belief that I am a good swimmer causes me to jump in the water, which causes me to realize I am not a good swimmer, which causes me to take lessons, which cause me to become a good swimmer.) I argue that it is epistemically irresponsible to hold adaptive misbeliefs, even game-changing ones, for the sake of trade-offs between epistemic and pragmatic value that result in overall increases in value. That said, there are cases in which such epistemic irresponsibility is forgivable.

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