The featured image is a painting by Ulysses Belz, entitled “”Guided Tour Cézanne” (2013).
Let me start by heartfully thanking John Schwenkler for inviting me to participate to this great blog. Thanks also to those who responded with great comments. On this occasion, I will try to respond to the initial question raised by Santiago Arango about the distinction between instrumental and epistemic agency, an important issue that should be a central part of any dialectic of noetic feelings. Reflecting on this distinction may help us understand the strange fact mentioned, in Post 4, that socially fluent ways of reducing uncertainty seem to frequently override people’s effort to extract truth and meaning.
As indicated in the first post, a philosophical motivation for studying metacognition is to clarify the relations between instrumental and epistemic agency. It may be conceptually useful to emphasize what agency has to do with control. When acting on the world, an agent needs to select an appropriate type of action, know whether she can perform it in this particular circumstance, attend to how the action develops, and check whether the desired outcome occurs. When acting mentally, similar functional steps are structurally required. For example, when trying to solve a problem, you need (a) to first evaluate whether the problem is worth being solved, (b) whether it is solvable in the present circumstances; (c) monitor the time and effort worth spending on it, applying possibly a stopping rule if no progress to a solution is in sight; finally, you need (d) to check whether the outcome is likely to be correct or not.
These conditions manifest the interplay between instrumental and epistemic considerations. Steps (a) and (c) are driven by practical reasons. Utility, in particular, determines the type of cognitive action you need to perform at any given time. For example, you may try to solve the problem for yourself, or identify potential helpers, or find relevant information on the internet. Determining which action to perform is inevitably subject to rational constraints as to which kind of information best corresponds to your present needs and resources. For example, considerations of reliability and trustworthiness may leave you with only one solution of the three above. The rational constraints also include the time and resources available for the individual’s action, salient local habits and patterns of epistemic practices. (As briefly discussed in the preceding post, conforming to them is an instrumental goal in itself.) Current research suggests that children acquire a repertoire of mental actions through conversational and collaborative interactions with older children and parents. For example, attempts to explain observed events, or to inform others accurately can be encouraged, discouraged or subject to prudential rules.
The other two steps are purely epistemic: present utility does not drive your ability to solve the problem (although it can raise your motivation to do so). Nor does it determine whether a solution arrived at is correct or not. Epistemic conditions of correctness are exclusively determined by the informational goal pursued. For example, trying to perceive a visual item, trying to visualize it or trying to remember its name have different conditions of correctness .
With this distinction in mind, it is intriguing that agents sometimes substitute an epistemic action with another, believing, for example, that they report what they saw, while reporting what they believe others want to hear they saw. This case is exemplified in the perceptual study described in the Asch experiment: eight participants, including seven confederates, are invited to express a perceptual judgment about the length of a reference line as compared to three segments. The naïve subjects are always the last to give their own perceptual appraisal. The confederates, however, always unanimously give an answer that, from the third trial on, is incorrect in the majority of cases. Surprisingly, the naïve participants tend to conform their judgment to the other confederates’ previous decision in 38% of the cases, going against their own perceptual judgment. In this case, presumably, a social norm of conformity for a socially acceptable report, (just as the equality bias discussed in Post 4), overrules the norm of validity that is constitutive of a perceptual judgment.
Another interesting case of confusion about the type of mental action relevant to a given situation is the substitution of an individual action with a collectively-driven epistemic practice, exemplified in viewers of art exhibits. Scrutinizing what an individual canvas presents with (brush strokes, color patterns, light contrast, etc.) requires from laypersons a demanding cognitive work, most likely associated with being puzzled, a sense of being lost, and, finally, the impression of being a poor viewer. Listening to an audio-guide, in contrast, offers visitors only congruent feedback (“this is what needs to be looked at”) and a higher sense of competence in viewing art. Ulysses Belz’s “Guided Tour Cézanne” (at the top of this post), however, vividly exposes how headphones rather disable viewers’ own sensitivity to paintings.
What these examples suggest is that several motives compete for the control of our attention. Social cues may entice us away from individually learning how to perceive; they may prevent us from discovering for ourselves the best way of extracting information. Adjudicating between several ways of acting cognitively, and resisting misleading attractors, however, are (again) a matter of repertoire, education, time and resources.