Delusions revisited

“Every Passing Hour”, original artwork by Magdalena Antrobus

Cases of innocence

In my previous post I started telling you about epistemic innocence. Some irrational beliefs can have epistemic benefits that would be impossible or difficult to attain by other means. This does not cancel out their irrationality, but makes them innocent to the extent that, in at least some contexts, adopting, maintaining or reporting them helps agents pursue and achieve their epistemic goals. It is time now to offer some examples of irrational beliefs that can be epistemically innocent.

In the book I consider five cases: distorted memory beliefs in dementia; confabulated explanations for one’s choices; elaborated delusional beliefs in schizophrenia; motivated delusional beliefs; and unrealistically optimistic beliefs. I examined those cases as part of the ERC-funded project PERFECT and I was fortunate enough to rely on formidable collaborators. Ema Sullivan-Bissett worked on delusion, Kathy Puddifoot on memory, Andrea Polonioli on doxastic bias, Sophie Stammers on confabulation. Magdalena Antrobus studied depression, Valeria Motta loneliness, and Michael Larkin shared his expertise in qualitative methods in psychology.

The project PERFECT team

Imperfect solutions

The epistemic innocence of delusion is by far the hardest case to make. We tend to see delusions as paradigmatic instances of irrationality and as unequivocal marks of madness. After all, when we want to disparage a belief, we call it a delusion. So, how can I find anything positive in delusions? If delusions are a clear sign that the person is no longer in touch with reality, how can I claim that delusions contribute to an agent’s epistemic goals?

Following a lead in the seminal paper by McKay and Dennett on adaptive misbeliefs, delusions may be not the source of the problem but an emergency response to the problem. The problem could be an anomalous or traumatic experience threatening the agent’s capacity to function epistemically. Suppose the quality of my experience suddenly changes and I feel nothing. I can’t even feel the breeze on my cheek. As a result, I may be paralysed by uncertainty. What does this mean? What is happening to me? A delusion can emerge as an explanation, albeit an implausible one. Maybe I no longer feel anything because I am dead. (For a first-person account of Cotard delusion, the delusion that one is dead or disembodied, listen to this episode of BBC Radio 4 A History of Delusions).

Where’s the epistemic benefit?

As Kengo Miyazono explains with exemplary clarity in his commentary, against all odds I argue that delusions can have epistemic benefits. Given the person’s critical circumstances, the adoption of the delusion increases the person’s capacity to interact with the surrounding environment. Kengo finds it plausible that the delusional explanation helps contrast adverse effects on the capacity to attain new information.

Kengo Miyazono: “Epistemic Benefit: Methodology and Mechanism”

Maybe the Cotard delusion can (at least temporarily) relieve the anxiety that compromises my concentration and attention. However, the fact that I resume contact with the surrounding environment does not necessarily lead me to epistemic achievements. That’s because now I have a new take on the world and I want to share it, but I am not particularly receptive to people’s feedback on it.

Indeed, delusions tend not to be responsive to counter-evidence and counter-testimony. As Phil Corlett puts it, “One remarkable feature of delusional beliefs is their elasticity: they expand and morph to include new contradictory data. The person with Capgras, claiming their spouse is an imposter, might respond to other family members who greet the spouse warmly by saying, ‘Of course they hug her [the impostor spouse] – they’re in on it!’.”

Towards more nuanced evaluations

The delusion that I am dead does not make me wiser than my peers. Nor does it enhance my understanding of reality. Rather, I am likely to be trapped within it and interpret all significant events in the light of it until the veil is lifted. Epistemic innocence does not redeem irrational beliefs. The potential epistemic innocence of a belief does not make that belief epistemically good overall or even less irrational.

However, epistemic innocence reminds us that we benefit from a nuanced evaluation of a belief’s epistemic worth. If we focus exclusively on the epistemic costs of an irrational belief, it will always be a mystery how people hang onto it the way they do. An irrational belief can enable a person to overcome distress, tame anxiety, get to a point where the world stops spinning and starts making (some) sense again. In the context of an inexplicable experiential change that has overwhelming effects, a delusion may come as the only escape route.

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