Friday 1 October 2021

Belief and Evidence: An Interview with Carolina Flores

Today's post is part of a series on the AHRC funded project Deluded by Experience, ran by PI Ema Sullivan-Bissett and Co-I Paul Noordhof. In this post Harriet Stuart (Research Assistant for Deluded by Experience) interviews Carolina Flores about their research interests and most recent work. Carolina is a graduate student in Philosophy at Rutgers, New Brunswick, specialising in philosophy of mind, epistemology, and social philosophy.

Carolina Flores

HS: Your PhD work seeks to address questions around belief and interactions with evidence, how did you first become interested in these ideas?

CF: My interest in these questions has a theoretical and a political source. The theoretical source was my interest, as an undergraduate, in Davidson’s idea that to have beliefs is to be rational. Though I was intrigued by this view, it was also clear to me that it is in tension with the fact that we are frequently irrational, sometimes deeply so (as in the case of delusions). In my undergraduate thesis, I attempted to address this tension in a way friendly to Davidson’s view.

Irrationality and evidence-resistance turned out to be timely topics for political reasons. I finished my undergraduate thesis the year of the Brexit referendum and Trump’s election. As a response to these events, mainstream media propagated an irrationalist narrative which blamed them on ordinary people’s stupidity and irrationality. This political context made me even more interested in understanding belief and interactions with evidence in general, and in particular in pushing back against the narrative that people are epistemically irredeemable—as I attempt to do in my dissertation.

HS: In a paper you currently have under review, you introduce the notion of epistemic styles, could you briefly introduce the notion and explain why you think this notion is beneficial in your research?

CF: I introduce the notion of epistemic styles to help explain why people interact with evidence in different ways. Epistemic styles are ways of interacting with evidence that express a unified set of epistemic values, preferences, and other epistemic parameters. My idea is that differences in what evidence one finds persuasive, how many explanations for evidence one considers, how actively one seeks out evidence, etc. can often be explained in terms of the adoption of different epistemic styles.

There are two main advantages to appealing to epistemic styles. First, it does justice to the role both of situational factors (mood, social norms, etc.) and of agency in how we interact with evidence. In my account, people flexibly take up different epistemic styles in response to situational factors, where their style then governs their interactions with evidence. In this way, appeal to epistemic styles captures the positive aspects of both virtue-based approaches, which seek to explain our epistemic behavior in terms of deep, stable character traits, and situationism, which emphasizes the influence of trivial situational factors.

Second, appealing to epistemic styles can make others’ interactions with evidence intelligible at the personal level. Thinking in terms of epistemic styles can move us from being puzzled at others’ interactions with evidence, or finding them deeply irrational, to understanding how they interact with evidence in the light of the epistemic values, preferences, etc. that they have taken up.

HS: In your recent paper ‘Delusional evidence-responsiveness’, you argue that delusions are evidence-responsive but that patients can rarely be successful in exercising their capacity to respond to evidence. Can you briefly introduce this idea and talk about how this claim relates to your notion of epistemic styles?

CF: The central idea in this paper is that delusions do not erase the patient’s rational capacities. Patients with delusions have the capacity to respond to evidence bearing on their delusions. If they were to successfully exercise their capacities, they would rationally revise. Unfortunately, unusual perceptual experiences, cognitive biases, and the desire to avoid painful beliefs interfere with these capacities. For this reason, it is very hard for patients to abandon their delusions.

This view is independent of my discussion of epistemic styles. I don’t think delusional patients necessarily take up a distinctive delusional epistemic style when interacting with evidence. That said, there is interesting research in psychiatry that suggests that delusions in schizophrenia are underwritten by a distinctive epistemic style—a view I am developing in a new paper.

HS: Your project draws from many disciplines including philosophy and psychology, what are the advantages and disadvantages of interdisciplinary work? How have you overcome any difficulties?

CF: I love getting to learn from many disciplines! It helps me cultivate a sense of wonder at how much there is to learn and discover. I also think that it has improved my work, by making it sensitive to how actual humans interact with evidence and maintain their beliefs.

One downside of this approach is that it is often overwhelming to realize how much there is to learn. I also worry about not doing justice to scholarship in other fields. To combat this, I try to get very clear on what empirical resources a project requires and then go on a focused deep dive. And I strive to continually expand my general knowledge of other disciplines.

HS: What do you hope to see as the outcomes of your work?

CF: At a theoretical level, I hope to make progress in (1) understanding the nature of belief and (2) developing a clear framework in which to understand how people interact with evidence—one which does justice both to cognitive science and to our rational agency. I hope that this will be useful in understanding delusions, conspiracist beliefs, prejudice, ideologies, political beliefs, and so on. I also hope that this work finds practical application in helping us devise better strategies for changing minds and for rationally engaging across deep disagreement.

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