Monothematic Delusion: A case of innocence from experience

Today’s post is written by Ema Sullivan-Bissett, who is a Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Birmingham. Here she overviews her paper ‘Monothematic Delusion: A case of innocence from experience'.




Before taking up my current post as Lecturer in Philosophy, I was a Postdoc on Lisa Bortolotti’s AHRC project on the Epistemic Innocence of Imperfect Cognitions (2013-14). In that year we worked together in developing the notion of epistemic innocence, which we thought could be of use in thinking about the epistemic status of faulty cognitions. We understood a cognition as epistemically innocent when it (1) endows some significant epistemic benefit onto the subject (Epistemic Benefit Condition), which could not otherwise be had, because (2) alternative, less epistemically faulty cognitions are in some sense unavailable to her at that time (No Alternatives Condition).

As part of that project, we wrote two papers in which we put that notion to use in discussion of explanations of actions guided by implicit bias (Sullivan-Bissett 2015) and motivated delusions (Bortolotti 2015). Since then, a lot of work has been published which appeals to this notion, in particular, in discussions of delusions in schizophrenia (Bortolotti 2015), psychedelic states (Letheby 2015), social cognition (Puddifoot 2017), clinical memory distortions (Bortolotti and Sullivan-Bissett forthcoming), and false memory beliefs (Puddifoot and Bortolotti forthcoming).

In my paper I take a slightly different approach. I do not seek to extend the concept of epistemic innocence to monothematic delusions, I rather ask to whom would it matter if such states were epistemically innocent. In particular, if we find that monothematic delusions are (at least sometimes) good candidates for the status of epistemic innocence, to which theorists of monothematic delusion would this claim be open to? I focus on the debate on monothematic delusion formation, in particular, that between one- and two-factor empiricists. I argue for the rather surprising conclusion that a judgement of epistemic innocence is licensed by both of these types of theory (albeit via different routes). Thus we find in the notion of epistemic innocence a unifying feature of monothematic delusions.


According to one-factor theorists, monothematic delusions are formed on the basis of an anomalous experience, and any cognitive contribution to the delusion formation is not abnormal. Two-factor theorists take on the insight of the one-factor theory that anomalous experiences contribute to delusion formation, but they add that there is also an abnormal cognitive contribution.

The way some monothematic delusion meet the Epistemic Benefit condition on epistemic innocence does not distinguish between one- and two-factor empiricism. The epistemic benefits I identify as accruing to monothematic delusions are equally available to one- and two-factor theorists. These are apparent gap-filling and anxiety relief, both of which, I argue, contribute to epistemic functionality.

The difference in the way monothematic delusions warrant an appraisal of epistemic innocence depending on one’s preferred empiricist theory manifests in the way they meet the No Alternatives Condition. I argue that in a one-factor framework monothematic delusions meet this condition since alternative beliefs concerning the anomalous experience are unavailable due to being considered as explanatorily poor, or because they are motivationally unavailable (due to the anxiety relief given by the delusion).

In a two-factor framework, that these delusions meet No Alternatives Condition is easier to make out. This is because two-factor accounts are set up to explain—via a clinically significant reasoning bias or deficit—precisely why a delusion is adopted (or maintained) rather than an epistemically better belief. Matthew Broome says of the various biases two-factor theorists posit that they ‘…would likely act in limiting the amount of data gathered to support an explanation and thus end the search for meaning prior to potentially falsifying information being considered’ (Broome 2004: 37). Whatever the second factor is then, it will do the work of showing that monothematic delusions meet the No Alternatives Condition.

I conclude that a judgement of epistemic innocence to some monothematic delusions is one licensed by both one- and two-factor empiricists accounts of their formation. This is an important result since it means all parties can give a richer epistemic evaluation of monothematic delusions, and it also demonstrates the utility of the notion of epistemic innocence, even in the context of opposing views on delusion formation, views which may well be taken to diverge markedly on judgments of epistemic status. Of course, there is more to be said about epistemic innocence and monothematic delusion formation. In the paper though, I only sought to show that empiricists of various stripes can and should be part of that discussion.


 

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