Social metacognition and its potential diversity: a puzzle

An individualist viewpoint is arguably justified in the philosophy of metacognition, for classical reasons: it is mainly at the level of the individual organism that it makes sense to analyze mechanisms, feelings, and representational contents constituting epistemic sensitivity. As recognized in the conclusion of The Philosophy of Metacognition, however, metacognition is far from being merely a private affair. Asher Koriat and Chris Frith and his colleagues have started to explore the vast domain of social metacognition. They investigated, in particular, when two brains are better than one. Groups were found to enhance or impair their collective perceptual decisions by merely encouraging or discouraging the public expression by the participants of their own individual confidence level. Philosophically, this result tends to suggest that collective thinking, in contrast with individual thinking, is mainly or even exclusively propositional (this is defended in my “Consensus as an epistemic norm for group acceptance“). Second, it requires exploring what kind of propositional attitude a group generates as a result of its collective agency: believing? Accepting? Accepting under consensus? A strong support of the latter view consists in spelling out the specific conditions of correctness that need to be fulfilled to convert distributed information (a factive condition) into a propositional form. Consensual acceptance, then, can be shown to have a reliable potential for collectively acquiring knowledge, while alternative solutions are not tailored to secure epistemic reliability.

Another facet of social metacognition with a high relevance to philosophy of mind and to epistemology is only starting to be investigated (a collective Oxford University Press book is currently in preparation, Proust & Fortier eds.). It does not have to do with collective epistemic decision-making, but rather with the influence that a culture can respectively exert on individuals’ procedural and analytic metacognition. The evidence collected so far presents us with a puzzle. Procedural metacognition seems essentially similar across cultures. Analytic metacognition (more exactly “core intuitions about knowledge”) seems also to be invariant. How to reconcile a claim of invariant epistemic sensitivity to truth, and a claim of invariant judgments about truth, justification and knowledge, with the anthropological observation of extensive divergences on methods for reducing subjective uncertainty (oracles, astrology, runes, tarot, palm reading, mathematical modeling)? It’s worth drawing the balance sheet of the present evidence.

In favor of the universality in metacognition, evidence from developmental psychology of procedural metacognition is summarized in (A), from the experimental philosophy of analytic metacognition in (B). (C) presents evidence difficult to reconcile with both (A) and (B).

A) The development, across cultures, of procedural metacognition (i.e. feeling-based epistemic evaluation) has been investigated by several groups, including our Europe-based team, including cognitive scientists, anthropologists and philosophers. The children we tested (from Japan, Germany, France, Mayan population in Yucatan) turn out to be able to monitor the (perceptual or memorial) information they have or don’t have, and to form reliable epistemic decisions, several years before being able to provide reliable verbal reports about what they know. In our and in other studies, observed variations, then, seem to concern not the specific sensitivity to epistemic norms, but rather the type of epistemic actions that are valued. For example, in contrast to 6 year-old French children, Japanese children are more likely to endorse an incorrect, but consensual label than a correct label used by a single dissenter. In the US, children tend to raise many ‘why ‘questions. In Kenya, in contrast, children ask ‘where’ and ‘what’ questions rather than why. (Gauvain et al. 2013). To summarize: by and large, children have a similar sensitivity to what is true and consensual, but differ in how this sensitivity is expressed in their behavior. Informativeness and relevance are sensed everywhere, but communication may serve different purposes.

B) The cross-cultural variability of analytic metacognition (i.e., judgment and verbal report about what oneself or others know) has been explored in a sequence of studies in experimental philosophy about “Gettier intuitions”. Edmund Gettier published in 1963 a three-page article where he offered counter-examples to the classical conception of knowledge as justified true belief. You consult the city clock: it presently indicates the correct time, 2 pm. But it is only correct because it is 2pm (the clock is broken). Hence you may be justified to believe that P, where P is a true belief, yet not really know that P. Several philosophers (among them: Nagel et al. 2013, Stich and Machery, 2015, Turri, 2013, Weinberg et al., 2001) have used Gettier-style scenarios to elicit judgments of knowledge in people from different cultures (e.g., Japan, Brazil, US and India, in the Stich and Machery study), socio-economical status or educational background. To the question: “does the character described knows or merely believes (s)he knows that p”?, participants tend to respond in the same way, which is taken to indicate that they share their “intuitions” about the nature of knowledge.

C) These two types of invariance are prima facie difficult to reconcile with the anthropologists’ observation of the diversity of epistemic practices across cultures and social groups: Pythia ravings, astrology, divination, oracles, runes, tarot, etc. Is metacognition absent from irrational practices, or rather silenced? Let’s take the example of the Poison Oracle, a predictive practice in the Azande reported by anthropologist Evans – Pritchard (1937). The questioner proposes a prediction about a future state of affairs, (or about someone being a witch) and commands the oracle to kill the foul. The practitioner then forces a chicken to swallow the poison (an alcanoïd close to strychnine). A second corroborative test is used with the corresponding negative prediction, where the oracle is commanded to spare the foul. The prediction is supposedly correct if the chicken dies or survives as commanded. This method, clearly, instantiates a sensitivity to hypothesis-testing and a preference for observation over testimony, as emphasized by anthropologist Maurice Bloch.

But why do people consider the lethal outcome as caused by the response of the oracle rather than by poison alone? Why does it seem important for the assumed reliability of the poison oracle that the process should respect sexual taboos? These questions, when appropriately framed, point to a solution, which will be explored in my next post, where procedural metacognition plays a prominent role.



The painting on top of this post  is “La sortie est à l’intérieur” (2005), by Jean-Michel Alberola


  1. One might also ask what happens to these intuitions in philosophy! The apparent contradiction between practical reliability and universality of epistemic intuitions and the theoretical unreliability and individuality of epistemic accounts falls directly out of my own (Blind Brain) account. If you look at metacognition ecologically and biomechanically, as the neurobiological capacity to ‘solve’ for endogenous processes in the same, flexible manner the brain solves for environments more generally, a number of inescapable facts leap out at you. The first is that metacognition has to be both targeted and radically heuristic. Our basic metacognitive capacity, on a Blind Brain account, can be seen as a collection of ‘thin slicing’ tools, ways to solve certain high-impact ancestral problems on the basis of specialized cues correlated to endogenous processes. The problem with thin-slicing tools, of course, is their ecological dependence. They only work to solve certain problems simply because they neglect so much of the actual processes involved. They possess what Gerd Gigerenzer calls ‘problem ecologies.’ Their power turns on their specificity.

    The cultural universality and practical reliability of these tools simply follows from their evolutionary provenance. The ability to catch one’s tongue in social environments had reproductive consequences. The ability to theoretically solve for the nature of various forms of cognition (oracular or otherwise), however, did not. When we apply our social and metacognitive heuristics to the solution of these problems, we are literally asking systems adapted to solving absent information regarding what’s going on to tell us what’s going on! (This is the big reason why I’m an eliminativist). But of course, precisely because social metacognition consists of thin slicing, it has no way of cognizing as much, and so we deem our serial misapplications as exhaustive. The florid diversity of epistemic accounts one finds across academic, let alone ethnic cultures, simply follows from what you could see as a kind of natural theoretical anosognosia.

    In fact, it doesn’t matter what the practice is, you always find this dramatic epistemic faultline between our cognitive practice and our accounts of that cognitive practice. Mathematics, I think, provides the most dramatic example of the chasm between the power of a procedure and our abject inability to agree on what that power consists in. We are far from outgrowing the tendency to posit supernatural entities, even within the sciences, I fear!

    • Joelle Proust

      I agree with you that assessing the nature of “intuitions”, and their value in philosophy and in other cognitive or metacognitive matters, are important issues that are only starting to be addressed.
      Your Blind Brain Theory , however, seems to push you to radical conclusions that may be resisted. Granting that metacognitive heuristics can be enriched or replaced by strategical training (in other words, education), there is space for extending the range of metacognition beyond the evolutionary limits that BBT assigns to it, and, in particular, for developing what Rolf Reber calls “critical feelings” in those areas of thought where we are subject to “ecology-driven” illusions.
      Could you explain further why eliminativism is justified by the chasm that separates, on your view, metacognitive heuristics and conceptual accounts of the kind discussed in this blog? One might object that there are other ways of evaluating what one knows than “thin slicing” ancestral tools. For example, methods of collecting evidence are more and more carefully constrained in order to reflect actual, rather than spurious regularities across the relatively short history of the experimental sciences. Does BBT need to deny that?
      I have two other elucidatory questions relevant to the discussion of your comment. Does your BBT reject the duality of System1/System 2 modes of processing?
      Second, how does an eliminativist theorist deal with metacognitive heuristics? If such heuristics don’t consist in predictive cues, i.e., if they don’t have the function to carry information to a cognitive-representational (sub)system, how do they operate?

      • Why eliminativism? Intentional cognition is heuristic, a system underwriting effective behaviours via cues strategically correlated to the systems involved. Humans are ‘shallow information’ consumers, targeting only what our ancestors needed to solve the problems before us. This, of course, constrains the kinds of problems differently targeted systems can tackle. Intentional cognition is quite literally adapted to ignore what’s actually going on, to solve for astronomically complicated systems on the basis of simple cues. Even worse, as a means of avoiding the expense of causal cognition, it, not surprisingly, is incompatible with it. So what are we to make of specialized, theoretical applications of this powerful information neglecting tool?

        They don’t reduce. They sometimes provide for local problem-solving. They are congenitally underdetermined. And, not surprisingly, they generate a countless array of cognitive illusions when misapplied.

        So long as intentional posits rule the roost in cognitive science, the philosophers will always stand at the head of the lab. Cognitive science will never clarify their explananda. From a natural science perspective, this has to be seen as disastrous.

      • “I have two other elucidatory questions relevant to the discussion of your comment. Does your BBT reject the duality of System1/System 2 modes of processing?
        Second, how does an eliminativist theorist deal with metacognitive heuristics? If such heuristics don’t consist in predictive cues, i.e., if they don’t have the function to carry information to a cognitive-representational (sub)system, how do they operate?”

        On BBT metacognition is entirely heuristic: it consists of biomechanical systems adapted to solve on the cheap. ‘Mental heuristics’ of the kind used to explain various interpretations of different experimental paradigms may or may not map onto what is actually going on. A virtue of BBT, I think, is that it provides a very parsimonious way of explaining mental functions more generally, why they are more than mere ‘mechanism sketches,’ while remaining biomechanical artifacts nonetheless.

        I very much like the way you anchor epistemic feelings to heuristic functions. My worry is that since “epistemic feeling” is itself such a low-grained posit, a tag on our conscious access to astronomically complex processes, that we’re doomed to make the kind of mistakes Aristotle and his contemporaries made staring at the heavens. Absent darkness, we suppose sufficiency, that this ‘feeling’ we take as our explanatory target doesn’t have ‘ulterior functions.’ The fact that we access endogenous processes strategically and that we suffer source neglect means we have no way of intuiting where epistemic feelings lie in the system, let alone what they consist in. It’s third variables all the way down with cognitive neuroscience!

        BBT dovetails well with dual cognition approaches (as well as approaches involving Bayesian predictive coding and the Global Neuronal Workspace). System 2 or conscious, deliberative cognition has no ‘darkness’ to work with aside from vague, intermittent epistemic feelings geared to cue specific limitations pertaining to ancestral practical problem solving. If this is all ‘philosophical reflection’ has to work with, then small wonder the human race has been so stumped by itself!

Comments are closed.