Epistemic feedback loops (or: how not to get evidence)

Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 106 (2):368-393 (2021)
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Epistemologists spend a great deal of time thinking about how we should respond to our evidence. They spend far less time thinking about the ways that evidence can be acquired in the first place. This is an oversight. Some ways of acquiring evidence are better than others. Many normative epistemologies struggle to accommodate this fact. In this article I develop one that can and does. I identify a phenomenon – epistemic feedback loops – in which evidence acquisition has gone awry, with the result that even beliefs based on the evidence are irrational. Examples include evidence acquired under the influence of confirmation bias and evidence acquired under the influence of cognitively penetrated experiences caused by implicit bias. I then develop a theoretical framework which enables us to understand why beliefs that are the outputs of epistemic feedback loops are irrational. Finally, I argue that many popular approaches to epistemic normativity may need to be abandoned on the grounds that they cannot comfortably explain feedback loops. The scope of this last claim is broad: it includes almost all contemporary theories of justified/rational belief and of the epistemology of cognitive penetration.

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Nick Hughes
University of Oslo


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