Sewanee Senior Theses 2003


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    The Evaluation of Cognitive Systems
    (2003-04) Lemoine, Derek
    Cognitive system s structure thought. They encompass our patterns of inference as well as the types of evidence we require before forming a belief. Since patterns of inference and standards of justification influence how we interpret the world around us, cognitive processes reach into the core of how we think and perceive. We do not use one global system that guides our thinking in every situation; instead, we use multiple, localized cognitive systems as we are confronted with different tasks and needs. As this use is largely unconscious, we likely cannot choose to use a particular cognitive system and then simply begin using it. Cognitive systems underlie decision-making; they are not the results of decisions. We can examine the systems we use, but we cannot try out various systems to see which we prefer. Richard Nisbett and Lee Ross undertook such an examination when they experimented with subjects to assess common inferential practices. The results provide insight into our typical patterns of inference, which can in turn be used to describe our cognitive systems. They found that we typically make basic errors in the detection of covariation, a basic relationship between variables, and we "often rely on poorly justified causal theories of questionable origin and place too much emphasis in even those explanations prompted by causal theories held with good justification" (Nisbett and Ross 1980: 137). People also "perform many prediction tasks quite poorly both in the laboratory and in everyday life" because of a lack of understanding of "fundamental statistical principles" (Nisbett and Ross 1980: 165). We are especially poor at theory maintenance and change: we will force evidence to fit currently held theories and will persevere in beliefs that new evidence plainly renders unwarranted. At first glance, these inferential practices are strikingly bad, but they raise important questions about what it is for such a practice to be good: But the perseverance tendencies of subjects in these experiments were so extreme as to force consideration of the possibility that the traditional scientific standards may not apply. In particular, it seems possible that the behavior of subjects, inappropriate as it is from the standpoint of rationality in the inferential contexts studied, may arise from the pursuit of important, higher order epistemic goals. (Nisbett and Ross 1980: 191) Even though the inferential patterns discovered in these experiments could be better at producing true beliefs, common reasoning is nonetheless effective in daily life. Perhaps there is some reason for these unexpected patterns of inference; they may, for instance, be more economical. Yet our initial reaction is to write them off as bad reasoning. How ought we to evaluate such practices? Do they represent bad or faulty cognitive systems? Even supposing we could make the patterns of inference more rational, we first need to know if we should do this. Are more rational cognitive systems better than the ones used by these subjects? In The Fragmentation of Reason, Stephen Stich advocates treating cognitive systems pragmatically as tools and judging them with regard to their efficacy in achieving what we value. To reach this conclusion, he denies that true belief is valuable. When something is valued intrinsically, it is valued for itself: it is valued because it is what it is and not because of any effects it might have. Something's being instrumentally valuable, however, means that it is valuable as a means to some end. Stich insists that when we come to a proper understanding of the nature of truth, we cease to find it either intrinsically or instrumentally valuable. I aim to show that he does not adequately support this conclusion about truth's lack of value and that his arguments for his standard of cognitive evaluation rely upon this conclusion. I first reconstruct Stich's account of truth before exploring its implications and his objections to the value of true belief. I then explain how all three objections rely upon faulty assumptions and how his core theory of truth conflicts with two of his objections. Because this unfavorable evaluation of his arguments casts doubt on his proposed standard for cognitive evaluation, I propose a new standard that relies upon a different argument for treating cognitive systems as tools.