The Epistemic Innocence of Imperfect Cognitions


Project Team:

Principal Investigator:

Professor Lisa Bortolotti, University of Birmingham

Award Information:

People diagnosed with psychiatric conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia have delusional beliefs and distorted memories. These symptoms are characterised by obvious epistemic faults. Delusions may be absurd in content and resistant to counterevidence, and autobiographical memories may be wildly inaccurate. This Fellowship will explore whether these ‘imperfect cognitions’ have also epistemic benefits, that is, whether they contribute to the preservation or acquisition of knowledge in the context in which they occur. For instance, one may argue that having a distorted memory of an important autobiographical event for someone with serious memory deficits is better than having no memory at all of that event. Being able to remember something about one’s past helps one maintain a sense of self which is instrumental to autonomous thought and action and effective communication with others. The primary aim of the project is to explore a new way of looking at delusional beliefs, distorted memories, and even ‘imperfect cognitions’ occurring in the non-clinical population, and develop the notion of ‘epistemic innocence’. This is the idea that even a false belief, say, may be conducive to knowledge in some circumstances and have epistemic benefits that outweigh its epistemic faults. This notion may change the way we think about epistemic evaluation. Attempting to establish whether a cognition is true or rational is not a simple affair and makes sense when embedded in a context. The same false belief about the past may be epistemically innocent when had by someone with dementia whose memories are fading, and wholly epistemically objectionable when had by someone who has the capacity to reconstruct the memory of the same event more reliably. The development of the notion of epistemic innocence will impact on the philosophy of mind, and in particular on the overlap and differences between ‘imperfect cognitions’, and on cognitive psychology which is interested in whether the formation process of delusions and distorted memories is continuous with the formation process of non-pathological beliefs and memories. Ultimately, if it can be shown that at least some delusions and distorted memories are epistemically innocent, this will have implications for clinical psychiatry and in particular the management of symptoms of people with dementia and schizophrenia. If a false belief, say, is conducive to knowledge, we may have good reasons not to challenge it.

Project dates: September 2013- September 2014