Delusions as harmful malfunctioning beliefs

Consciousness and Cognition 33:561-573 (2015)
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Delusional beliefs are typically pathological. Being pathological is clearly distinguished from being false or being irrational. Anna might falsely believe that his husband is having an affair but it might just be a simple mistake. Again, Sam might irrationally believe, without good evidence, that he is smarter than his colleagues, but it might just be a healthy self-deceptive belief. On the other hand, when a patient with brain damage caused by a car accident believes that his father was replaced by an imposter or another patient with schizophrenia believes that “The Organization” painted the shops on a street in red and green to convey a message, these beliefs are not merely false or irrational. They are pathological. What makes delusions pathological? This paper explores the negative features because of which delusional beliefs are pathological. First, I critically examine the proposals according to which delusional beliefs are pathological because of (1) their strangeness, (2) their extreme irrationality, (3) their resistance to folk psychological explanations or (4) impaired responsibility-grounding capacities of people with them. I present some counterexamples as well as theoretical problems for these proposals. Then, I argue, following Wakefield’s harmful dysfunction analysis of disorder, that delusional beliefs are pathological because they involve some sorts of harmful malfunctions. In other words, they have a significant negative impact on wellbeing (=harmful) and, in addition, some psychological mechanisms, directly or indirectly related to them, fail to perform the jobs for which they were selected in the past (=malfunctioning). An objection to the proposal is that delusional beliefs might not involve any malfunctions. For example, they might be playing psychological defence functions properly. Another objection is that a harmful malfunction is not sufficient for something to be pathological. For example, false beliefs might involve some malfunctions according to teleosemantics, a popular naturalist account of mental content, but harmful false beliefs do not have to be pathological. I examine those objections in detail and show that they should be rejected after all.



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Kengo Miyazono
Hokkaido University

Citations of this work

Delusion.Lisa Bortolotti - 2018 - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Delusions in the two-factor theory: pathological or adaptive?Eugenia Lancellotta & Lisa Bortolotti - 2020 - European Journal of Analytic Philosophy 16 (2):37-57.
Doctors without ‘Disorders’.Lisa Bortolotti - 2020 - Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 94 (1):163-184.
Do delusions have and give meaning?Rosa Ritunnano & Lisa Bortolotti - 2022 - Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 21 (4):949-968.

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Biosemantics.Ruth Millikan - 1989 - Journal of Philosophy 86 (6):281--297.
The evolution of misbelief.Ryan McKay & Daniel Dennett - 2009 - Behavioral and Brain Sciences 32 (6):493.

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