What exactly is epistemically wrong with checking again (and again)? Checking is one of the most common compulsive actions performed by patients with Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)(APA, 2013; Abramowitz, McKay, Taylor, 2008). And while incessant checking is undeniably problematic from a practical point of view, it is hard to pinpoint what exactly makes it inadequate from an epistemological standpoint.
My suggestion is that, in order to understand exactly what goes epistemically wrong with rechecking, we first need to take a step back from the behaviors themselves, and consider the mental state that the re-checker is in as she goes through the moves. What is she looking for, as she goes back for another check?
A first intuitive answer is: although she already has sufficient evidence in favour of p (the stove is off), as she goes to perform another check the compulsive re-checker is looking for more knowledge. Along these lines, Whitcomb (2010) suggests that the individual who checks their alarm clock five times in a row is like the glutton who keeps eating after he has been sufficiently nourished. As I show, we have reasons to find this analogy is dubious.
An alternative view is that, even if she antecedently knew that the stove is off, as she goes back for a new check, she suspends judgement again on this matter (Friedman, 2019). The rechecker is then perhaps not an insatiable knowledge seeker, she is rather a repeatedly suspended inquirer who constantly shifts out of belief, in circumstances which do not warrant such a shift (Friedman, 2019). This explanation seems however to leave out what makes the whole complexity of compulsive re-checking: the fact that the vast majority of re-checkers have insight (they know that they have sufficient evidence to stop checking!) but they nonetheless feel compelled to check.
To resolve this puzzle, Taylor (2020) has recently proposed that while compulsive re-checkers in fact know that the stove is off, they also wonder “what if it is not?”. The combination of knowledge and a “question-directed attitude” explains the paradoxical epistemic position of recheckers. In my paper I object to Taylor by arguing that obsessive thinking in OCD is not mere exploration of a possible scenario through counterfactual reasoning (or “wondering”). In individuals with OCD, thoughts expressing possible threats become obsessive because they are taken very seriously, and are typically accompanied by acute anxiety (Abramowitz, McKay, Taylor, 2008).
Evidence also suggests that obsessions in OCD are cognitively underpinned by hyperactive signals of error which translate into recurring feelings of uncertainty (Cochrane and Heaton, 2017). If this is valid, then it is more plausible that their antecedent judgement that the stove is off actually gets overthrown by these recurrent “what if?” questionings that are accompanied by anxiety and feelings of threatening uncertainty. The doubts that are strong enough to motivate the intention to re-check in OCD patients are not idle doubts: they are serious doubts, able to defeat knowledge.