Extending epistemic innocence beyond belief

No Face Ghost by Duangrat Anutaratanya

A picture of continuity

Some beliefs are epistemically innocent when they are irrational but provide epistemic benefits that would not be available otherwise. We already saw some examples: delusion, confabulation, and optimistically biased beliefs. Here I explain why I apply epistemic innocence to different types of beliefs across clinical and non-clinical settings. Then I suggest that we may learn something new by extending epistemic innocence to acceptances and experiences.

In the book, I use examples from everyday cognition: inflated beliefs about ourselves (chapter 6) and confabulatory explanations (chapter 3). But I also include symptoms of mental disorders: delusional beliefs (chapters 4 and 5) and distorted memory beliefs (chapter 2). As far as epistemic irrationality and epistemic innocence are concerned, the distinction between so-called normal and pathological beliefs does not matter.

Both clinical delusions and garden-variety irrational beliefs (e.g., prejudiced and superstitious beliefs) have epistemic costs and epistemic benefits. The latter happen to be more common than the former, and do not attract as much stigma. But it is not always the case that unusual beliefs diverge from norms of rationality to a greater extent than common beliefs. We may call a belief pathological for its idiosyncratic content, its aetiology, or its adverse effects on the person’s wellbeing. The label should not imply a default attribution of irrationality.

Political ‘beliefs’

Keith Frankish: “In praise of epistemic innocence”

In his insightful commentary on my book, Keith Frankish considers the following situation. We make an explicit commitment to some content in some context without genuinely endorsing it as the truth across the board. Think about the lawyer who accepts that her client is innocent. She is working under that assumption because she is entrusted with defending her client.

For Keith, our political stances are a curious case. They start out as acceptances and then turn into beliefs. I might take a side in a debate (e.g., vaccine hesitancy) because it is a common stance in a group I identify with (e.g., the people in my yoga class). I accept that stance for pragmatic reasons, it makes my life easier to do so. Over and over again, I find myself exposed to reasons for vaccine hesitancy. As a result, I come to believe that vaccines are a fraud. My belief gets entrenched.

How can we avoid the ensuing polarisation of public debates? First, Keith says, we should be cautious when we choose a political stance. But at some point, taking a stance (even an irrational one) is better than watching the debate from outside. It is by exchanging ideas with others that our ideas get tested and improve. The social context of public debates is paramount: when nobody challenges us or we ignore or dismiss the challenges, the engagement may have no benefits.

Psychedelic states

Chris Letheby: “Epistemic Innocence and psychedelic drug-induced states of consciousness”

Chris Letheby finds another exciting application for epistemic innocence. His fascinating research is on altered states of consciousness induced by psychedelic drugs such as LSD (hereafter, psychedelic states). When psychedelic drugs are administered in safe and controlled environments, the ensuing states bring a number of benefits to healthy volunteers. These range from insights into the person’s life, intense emotions, and so-called ‘mystical’ experiences where the person feels united with the divine.

Chris observes that, in some clinical trials, therapeutic benefits of psychedelic states emerge as well, such as the long-lasting reduction in severity of symptoms of depression, anxiety, and addiction. Some critics argue that psychedelic states achieve psychological benefits at the expense of the person’s grip on reality. Aren’t they just comforting hallucinations? Chris responds that, although psychedelic states have epistemic risks, they also have considerable epistemic benefits. Epistemic innocence teaches us that we should reject simple trade offs between wellbeing and knowledge. In human agents epistemic and psychological factors are always intertwined.

What next?

It is wonderful to see that researchers whose work I respect, like Keith and Chris, find the notion of epistemic innocence useful in a variety of domains (see also work by Ruth Wareham, Ema Sullivan-Bissett, Kathy Puddifoot, Sophie Stammers, and Phil Corlett).

In my life-after-the-book, I hope to extend the notion of epistemic innocence to solitude, boredom, and anxiety. When we have such experiences, our mood often drops, but we attain important information about the world and about ourselves.

I also want to think about autobiographical stories as sources of expertise. We often argue for our views based on what happened to us, both in the political sphere and in public health debates. But when do stories qualify as evidence? What are their epistemic costs and benefits?

I hope you enjoyed our week-long journey into epistemic innocence! I am deeply grateful to Nick Byrd for the opportunity to share my ideas and to the commentators for offering such constructive feedback.

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