Epistemic innocence and the production of false memory beliefs

Philosophical Studies:1-26 (2018)
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Findings from the cognitive sciences suggest that the cognitive mechanisms responsible for some memory errors are adaptive, bringing benefits to the organism. In this paper we argue that the same cognitive mechanisms also bring a suite of significant epistemic benefits, increasing the chance of an agent obtaining epistemic goods like true belief and knowledge. This result provides a significant challenge to the folk conception of memory beliefs that are false, according to which they are a sign of cognitive frailty, indicating that a person is less reliable than others or their former self. Evidence of memory errors can undermine a person’s view of themselves as a competent epistemic agent, but we show that false memory beliefs can be the result of the ordinary operation of cognitive mechanisms found across the species, which bring substantial epistemic benefits. This challenge to the folk conception is not adequately captured by existing epistemological theories. However, it can be captured by the notion of epistemic innocence, which has previously been deployed to highlight how beliefs which have epistemic costs can also bring significant epistemic benefits. We therefore argue that the notion of epistemic innocence should be expanded so that it applies not just to beliefs but also to cognitive mechanisms.

Author Profiles

Lisa Bortolotti
University of Birmingham
Katherine Puddifoot
Durham University


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