Monday, August 16, 2010

Delusions and Self-Knowledge (by guest blogger Lisa Bortolotti)

Suppose that Chloe suffers from a delusion of erotomania and believes that President Obama is secretly in love with her. Chloe has never met him, so how does she know about his feelings? When probed, Chloe may offer no reason in support of her belief or offer reasons that others would consider unsatisfactory or irrelevant (e.g., “He is sending me love messages that only I can decipher”).

One explanation is that the belief is so certain for Chloe that she doesn’t feel the need to provide a justification for it. John Campbell argued that at least some delusions play the role of framework beliefs, a notion introduced by Wittgenstein in On Certainty. Framework beliefs (e.g., “The Earth existed long before my birth”) are central to our world-view and become virtually indubitable. They are the pillars on which the rest of our belief system rests, and can’t themselves be justified on the basis of beliefs that are more certain. However, they are manifested in our way of life - we wouldn’t believe our grandparents’ war stories if we thought that the Earth had come into existence at the same time as we did. In my view, delusions are unlikely to play the same role as framework beliefs. Framework beliefs are typically shared by an entire linguistic community, delusions are not. Framework beliefs are perfectly integrated in a belief system, whereas delusions are often in conflict with other beliefs.

What puzzles us about those delusions that seem to come out of nowhere is that the person reports them with conviction but doesn’t seem to genuinely endorse them, whereas there is no doubt that framework beliefs are endorsed. Richard Moran developed the notion of authorship which captures the sense in which we know what our beliefs are on the basis of the fact that we endorse their content. We can introspect some of our beliefs. We can infer some of our beliefs from our past behaviour. But at times we know that we believe that p, because we have made our mind up that p based on evidence for p. This mode of knowledge is direct like introspection, but it’s not as passive as perceiving a belief floating around in our stream of consciousness, and doesn’t involve looking inward, but looking outward, at the evidence for p. I know that I believe that the death penalty should be abolished because I have good reasons to believe that the death penalty should be abolished.

When I justify my beliefs with reasons that I regard as my best reasons, according to Moran I’m the author of the belief. The notion of authorship combines aspects of rationality and self-knowledge that we tend to take for granted. We expect that, if Chloe is convinced that Obama is in love with her, she must have some reasons to believe that, and she must be able to justify her belief on the basis of those reasons. But in the case of delusions, authorship can be fully or partially compromised. This suggests that people like Chloe experience a failure of self-knowledge.


Kapitano said...

Framework beliefs are perfectly integrated in a belief system, whereas delusions are often in conflict with other beliefs.

Why can't framework beliefs contradict each other? Or less fundamental beliefs?

I'm not sure just how fundamental a belief has to be to be called 'framework', seeing as even a belief that you didn't exist prior to your conception can be removed by joining the right wacky cult.

Speaking of which, devout religious belief seems a good place to find beliefs of various levels of primacy that plainly contradict each other, for instance:

* God punishes sin, including unbelief, and is never unjust. It would be unjust to punish someone who'd never heard of god for their unbelief, but god will do it, and is not unjust for doing so.

* I know Mary ascended bodily into heaven, and I know it's true because it's confirmed by the bible, which I've read many I'm dimly aware the bible doesn't mention it.

* God will change the universe for my convenience, provided I pray hard enough, but only if it was part of his plan to do so anyway without my asking.

Richard Dawkins has called humans "story making machines". I prefer to think of us as "hypocrisy engines".

Anil Mohan said...

Hi - I am a long time reader of this blog, but this is my first time commenting. I am curious whether a belief "shared by an entire linguistic community" is sufficient criteria to be a framework belief. I would have expected that a framework belief would need some type of grounding with currently prevailing scientific thought. If this is not the case, then the religious beliefs raised in the previous comments have some interesting effects. For instance, a framework belief within one community (or within a subset of a community) could be contradictory with other beliefs within that community. I could be part of a secular community but hold religious views that diverge from most of my community members. In either case I suspect that framework beliefs tend to evolve over time as we learn more about the world around us. For instance, the framework belief "the world is flat" that was held a few centuries ago would seem delusional today.

Additionally, given the criteria of endorsement that you mention, I would think that one can argue that religious belief could be a candidate for delusion. Yet in this case, it would not just be a person "like Chloe [who] experience[s] a failure of self-knowledge" but rather a whole community. The challenge I see is how would one be able to discern whether a belief one holds is a framework belief or delusion. Does a belief get "promoted" from being a delusion into a framework belief solely by the number of people who hold it? Or is there some other criteria that makes this happen?

Anonymous said...

Dear Kapitano and Anil, thank you for your insightful comments. There is much to say about all the points you raise, but I'll just focus on two aspects of framework beliefs.
In my view, their core feature is the special role they play in the justification of other (less certain and more easily revisable) beliefs, not their being shared. But they are usually shared and they can be revised, of course. Anil's example of the belief that the Earth is flat is a very good one. It was a framework belief and it was downgraded to a false belief when scientific progress showed us that the Earth was not flat after all. Wittgenstein himself recognizes that framework beliefs can be revised, but when they are revised big changes occur to the whole belief system.
Kapitano asks whether framework beliefs can be inconsistent with other beliefs and I think they can but they wouldn't be framework beliefs if they weren't at the centre rather than at the periphery of our belief system. One illustration of this is that when a framework belief changes, the meaning of the words we use may change too. If the Earth came into existence at the same time as we did, then the word 'parent' would have to mean something different from what it means now.

Anil Mohan said...

Dear Lisa - I think the qualifications you added to framework beliefs make a lot of sense. Do you think that a framework belief needs to be shared within a community? Using the "earth is flat" belief, this was shared for centuries within the human community and it's subsequent demotion to a false belief came after much effort and subsequently shook the foundations of knowledge as you mention. However, could a similarly false belief being held by one person or a group of people (for instance, the belief that the earth is 4000 years old) be considered a framework belief? If so, at what point does a belief become a delusion? It appears that it would be difficult to distinguish whether a belief I hold is a framework belief or a delusion.

Anonymous said...

Hi Anil - your question is a good one. Some confusion comes from the fact that word 'delusion' is used in everyday language more loosely than in psychiatry. We talk about the "God delusion" or about "collective delusions".

The DSM definition of clinical delusions can be criticised in many ways, but it seems to capture a narrower phenomenon. If we concentrate on clinical delusions, then there seems to be a gap between a belief that just happens to be false, maybe because the means to attain truth in a certain domain are still limited (as could be the case with some scientific beliefs of the past), and a clinical delusion which is not just false, but irrational in a very peculiar way. As I mentioned, delusions are not well-supported by the evidence available to the person with the delusions, and they are very resistant to counterevidence. At times (not always) they conflict with the person's other beliefs. They are not shared.

The belief that the earth was flat was not a clinical delusion - just a false belief. It was well-integrated with accepted cosmological and metaphysical theories of the time, it was not inconsistent with people's everyday experiences, and it was shared. The reason why the belief was hard to abandon was precisely that it was ingrained in people's world-views (think about Kuhn's paradigms here).

Now, I see what your question is. What about those beliefs that share some of their features with clinical delusions (e.g. they are resistant to counterevidence) and some of their features with framework beliefs (e.g. they are central to a certain way of thinking and they are shared in a certain community, such as that of intelligent design supporters, or that of people who believe in magic)?

Well, I don't have a clear-cut answer yet, but I can point to a feature of clinical delusions that other false and irrational beliefs don't have. Delusions are distressing. In the super-interesting literature on the distinction between religious beliefs and religious delusions, authors have noted that in terms of epistemic criteria there isn't a great difference between the two types of beliefs. But there is an obvious difference between the quality of life of people who have religious experiences and beliefs, and the quality of life of people with clinical delusions concerning religious topics (e.g. God or the devil). The former are generally happy and they find their experiences enriching. Having religious beliefs seems to contribute to their well-being and to their integration in the community (of believers). The latter are not happy. They suffer from anxiety, they are isolated, and their beliefs seem to undermine their well-being and compromise their overall functioning.

I don't really know what to think about this, but I suspect that I wouldn't regard the beliefs you have in mind either as framework beliefs or as delusions. If they are shared only within a sub-community, they are unlikely to play the justificatory role that framework beliefs usually play, or to determine the meanings of the words people use in the wider linguistic community. If they are not unique to the person reporting them, they are not likely to engender the level of anxiety and withdrawal that accompanies delusions.

If you like this topic and want to read more, some philosophers have written on the relationship between delusions and framework beliefs. Apart from the Campbell paper I talked about in my original post ("Rationality, meaning, and the analysis of delusions") which is a contemporary classic, there are papers by Naomi Eilan ("Meaning, thruth and the self"), by Tim Thornton ("Why the idea of framework propositions cannot contribute to an understanding of delusions"), and by Matthew Broome and myself ("Delusions and reason giving").

Anil Mohan said...

Hi Lisa - Thanks very much for the insight and clarification above!

Michael Caton said...

The emotional aspect of delusional beliefs is interesting. I doubt there are very many delusions about mutual funds. Could there be a selection effect going on? One possibility is that there is a large space of possible delusional beliefs for a person to have, and the belief(s) to which they actually subscribe are those which leave a stronger memory trace due to their emotional content.

It's worth pointing out that there is an experience of feeling that a belief is true when it's contemplated that's quite distinct from applying it to ongoing experience or thinking through it propositionally. Therefore the lack of endorsement (when the belief could be instantiated) could be an integration problem between the experience of a contemplated belief seeming true, vs its application; for example, it just doesn't seem to be a problem that you believe Obama loves you and that you're not using this to get political favors or at least a special tour of the White House for your friends. I've often wondered for this reason if delusional people are more likely to be auditory learners, or to rely on verbal modes of cognition, making it easier for the delusional belief to float free from the experience it concerns.

Also, I would argue that delusions are indeed often shared by an entire linguistic community, e.g. geocentrism, spirits making us sick, etc., or even more mundane false beliefs about wildlife (rattlesnakes have poison, therefore eating rattlesnakes will kill you.) Don't those count as delusions?

Anonymous said...

Dear Micheal, you raise some interesting points.

I agree with you that "feeling" that a belief is true is not the same as manifesting the commitment to that belief in behaviour. Motivation, for instance, has an important role to play in the complex relationship between belief and action.

I also agree that it's curious how clinical delusions tend to cluster around some themes, but one explanation of this is due to their organic cause. If the neuropsychological deficit that gives rise to the delusional experience concerns the lack of affective response to familiar faces, then it makes sense that the reported delusional belief is about close relatives being replaced by impostors.

Some delusions just seem to exaggerations of very common psychological tendencies, such as the tendency to have an inflated conception of oneself, the fascination with conspiracy theories, the appeal to magical or supernatural powers in the explanation of unknown phenomena, etc.

I know that we use the term 'delusions' to talk about false beliefs in general, but I think it's still worth distinguishing everyday or widespread delusions from clinical delusions. My posts were primarily about clinical delusions, which have characteristics that other types of delusions do not have. In particular, clinical delusions are distressing and affect a person's physical and psychological well-being, and her social functioning.

Some of the beliefs you mention at the end of your post don't seem to share the features of clinical delusions we have been discussing. They are just false beliefs that may be resistant to counter-evidence in some contexts. That said, I have no particular investment in one definition of 'delusion' over another, as long as we don't group together phenomena that have significantly different manifestations.

Anonymous said...

Hi Lisa,

I have been researching delusional disorders for some time and although I understand your concept of framework beliefs and delusions, I was hoping you could clarify something about delusional disorders.

Specifically, are delusions only relevant to the present? i.e. The unequivocal bizarre belief that 'Obama is in love with me right now' vs the unequivocal belief that 'when I was a child, I remember Obama being in love with me?' Where, in the case I am faced with, there is no evidence of the person being delusional at the time of the 'delusional memories'.

Is there a form of delusional disorder where the delusion is held only during say, a 1 year window in the patients' past memory? Or is this a different class of delusion or completely different illness?