Knowledge and cognitive integration


Cognitive integration is a defining yet overlooked feature of our intellect that may nevertheless have substantial effects on the process of knowledge-acquisition. To bring those effects to the fore, I explore the topic of cognitive integration both from the perspective of virtue reliabilism within externalist epistemology and the perspective of extended cognition within externalist philosophy of mind and cognitive science. On the basis of this interdisciplinary focus, I argue that cognitive integration can provide a minimalist yet adequate epistemic norm of subjective justification: so long as the agent’s belief-forming process has been integrated in his cognitive character, the agent can be justified in holding the resulting beliefs merely by lacking any doubts there was something wrong in the way he arrived at them. Moreover, since both externalist philosophy of mind and externalist epistemology treat the process of cognitive integration in the same way, we can claim that epistemic cognitive characters may extend beyond our organismic cognitive capacities to the artifacts we employ or even to other agents we interact with. This move is not only necessary for accounting for advanced cases of knowledge that is the product of the operation of epistemic artifacts or the interactive activity of research teams, but it can further lead to interesting ramifications both for social epistemology and philosophy of science.

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  1. 1.

    Despite the influence of Fodor’s work within philosophy of mind and cognitive science, his modular understanding of the mind has met some considerable resistance by equally influential philosophers. One clear example is the work of Churchland (1979, 1988, 1989).

  2. 2.

    Similarly, Estany (2001, p. 208) holds that

    the beliefs of the higher or more fundamental level influence how perceptual units are interpreted by the lower levels [...] Humans use both types of processes in perception because each have characteristic advantages and disadvantages. Thanks to top-down processes we can recognize patterns with incomplete or degraded information. Moreover, top-down processes make perception faster, but they can induce us to make mistakes in a perception by relying on previous knowledge.

    Nevertheless, Estany further notes that even though our perceptual systems get guidance from higher-order expectations, when attention is caused by the mismatches between expectation and reality, the inputs from the arousal system constitute a “reset wave” making it possible to avoid arbitrary relativistic errors of perception (Estany 2001, p. 213).

  3. 3.

    For classical defenses of this view see Chisholm (1977) and BonJour (1985, Chap. 2). See also Steup (1999), Pryor (2001, p. 3), BonJour (2002), Pappas (2005), and Poston (2008).

  4. 4.

    The problem of induction is well known. We form our beliefs about unobserved matters of fact and the external world on the basis of evidence provided by past and present observations and sensory appearances, respectively. In order, however, for the support relations between our empirical and perceptual beliefs and the evidence offered in their support to be necessary, we also need the further assumptions that the future will resemble the past and that sensory appearances are reliable indications to reality, respectively. The problem, however, is that both of these assumptions rely for their support on what they assert. Consequently, given that circular reasoning is invalid, there are no necessary support relations between our empirical beliefs and the evidence offered in their support. Accordingly, the conclusion that has been traditionally drawn is that our empirical and perceptual beliefs cannot amount to knowledge. For more details on a reconstruction of Hume’s skepticism along these lines, see (Greco 1999).

  5. 5.

    Remember, however, that if, as Hume’s skeptical arguments demonstrate, the relation between evidence and belief is not necessary (see also fn. 4), then it is far from obvious how a person can be subjectively justified, especially in externalist approaches such as process reliabilism. If a condition of ‘subjective sensitivity to the reliability of one’s evidence’ must be satisfied, then this should better be accomplished in a way that will not require knowledge of or even beliefs about the said reliability (otherwise Hume’s skepticism will strike back).

  6. 6.

    “Epistemic zombies” would probably be the name that David Chalmers would give to such creatures. Given, however, the present discussion I don’t think they could really exist.

  7. 7.

    An anonymous referee points out that strangeness is description-relative. Take vision for example. We are all familiar with acquiring knowledge through seeing things. But learning about the physiological and neural underpinnings of vision will surely seem strange to some; couldn’t such a person say “This is really strange, and I don’t really see how it works, but, I guess, this is how I know the color of my shoes”? I think this is right, but this example wouldn’t be problematic for the following two reasons. First, even though the explanation may seem ‘strange’ to the agent (in the sense of being difficult to understand) it is not ‘at odds with the rest of the agent’s cognitive system’. Second, the requirement that the process not be strange does not refer to a reflective-explanatory understanding of the process (as in the referee’s example), but to the presence of the process itself. Think about the analogy of a strange (i.e., eccentric) person who is nevertheless not a stranger: the requirement that the process not be strange allows for the process to be ‘strange’ in the first sense, but not in the sense of being a ‘stranger’. I am thankful to the referee for bringing this ambiguity to my attention.

  8. 8.

    An anonymous referee insists that the brain lesion can yield knowledge, thereby implying that process reliabilism is a sufficient condition on knowledge. While it may be possible to make the case for the sufficiency of process reliabilism, the orthodox view within mainstream epistemology goes against this prospect. For classical rejections of the sufficiency of process reliabilism on the basis of thought experiments very similar to the Serendipitous Brain Lesion, see BonJour (1980), Lehrer (1990) and Plantinga (1993). The main idea is that reliability might be necessary for knowledge but what is further required is satisfaction of the internalist intuitions with respect to the possession of subjective justification (as we mentioned above, one of the problems for process reliabilism is that by making de facto reliability the grounds of positive epistemic status, it fails to capture the intuition that, somehow, we must also be sensitive to the reliability of our evidence). Internalists, typically require the possession of reflectively accessible reasons for said reliability. Here, following Greco’s intuitions (1999, 2010, pp. 149–155), we opt for a weaker condition of subjective justification according to which the agent must lack beliefs against the reliability of his belief-forming process, where the process being strange from the agent’s point of view would count as just one such defeating belief. For very similar intuitions on how the strangeness of the origin of the relevant beliefs acts as a defeater in BonJour (1980) and Lehrer (1990) thought experiments see Goldman (1986, pp. 111–112).

  9. 9.

    An anonymous referee is worried that I should not use ‘dispositions’ and ‘habits’ as synonyms. Specifically, not all dispositions are habits; someone or something, for example, may be disposed to act in a certain way—should the appropriate conditions obtain—even if the relevant person or thing has never behaved in that way before. Accordingly, the worry further goes, the fact that a cognitive ability is a disposition does not mean it will also be a habit. In response, even though it is true that in one sense of the term, ‘dispositions’ are not always going to be habits, there is another sense of the term that they are; according to this second sense of the term, to claim that cognitive abilities are dispositions means that abilities are character traits, or habitual behaviors that the agent tends to exhibit. A strong indication that this is how we should understand the dispositional nature of cognitive abilities has to do with the fact that abilities can only be acquired and sustained through practice, whereas dispositions, in the other meaning of the term, can be possessed by an entity even if they are never actually manifested (e.g., a vase may be fragile even if it has never been broken). As we shall see below, Greco appears to concur with this understanding of abilities as he claims they are the stable traits of the agent’s cognitive character; a behavior can be in character only of it is habitually manifested. See also (Greco 2010, p. 150). I am thankful to the referee for pressing this point.

  10. 10.

    I here say ‘the only realistic way’ because we can imagine, for instance, a case of a benevolent mentalist who hypnotizes the agent to trust a newly acquired process, and trust it only in the appropriate conditions (thereby allowing him to be epistemically responsible in employing it), despite the fact that the process is not a disposition of hers.

  11. 11.

    For further discussion of the above intuitions on the Serendipitous Brain Lesion and Careless Math Student cases see (Greco 1999) and (Greco 2010, pp. 149–155). For the discussion of similar thought experiments and intuitions see (BonJour 1980), (Goldman 1986), (Lehrer 1990), and (Plantinga 1993).

  12. 12.

    The idea that knowledge must be grounded in cognitive abilities can be traced back to the writings of (Sosa 1988, 1993) and Plantinga (1993). For more recent approaches to this intuition, see Greco (1999; 2004; 2007) and Pritchard (2009, 2010a, b, 2012).

  13. 13.

    Any theory of knowledge that places in its center the ability intuition on knowledge will fall under the general trend of Virtue Reliabilism (abilities are normally understood as virtues and vice versa). To accentuate the features of his account, Greco calls his view Agent Reliabilism, but it is clearly a version of Virtue Reliabilism—one that emphasizes the importance of the overall agent in the manifestation of the relevant intellectual virtues\(. \)For alternative, robust as well as weaker formulations of Virtue Reliabilism see (Sosa 1993, 2007) and Pritchard (2010a, b, 2012), respectively.

  14. 14.

    The fact that people manifest highly specific, finely tuned dispositions to form their beliefs in certain ways but not in others amounts to an implicit awareness of the reliability of those dispositions.

    For example suppose that it seems visually to a person that a cat is sleeping on the couch, and on this basis she believes that there is a sleeping cat on the couch. Suppose also that this belief manifests a disposition that the person has, to trust this sort of experience under these sorts of conditions, when motivated to believe the truth. Now, suppose that much less clearly, it seems visually to the person that a mouse has run across the floor. Not being disposed to trust this kind of fleeting experience, the person refrains from believing until further evidence comes in. The fact that the person, properly motivated, is disposed to trust one kind of experience but not the other, constitutes sensitivity on her part that the former is reliable. There is a clear sense in which she takes the former experience to be adequate to her goal of believing the truth, and takes the latter experience not to be. And this is so even if she has no beliefs about her goals, her reliability, or her experience (Greco 1999, p. 290 ).

    A similar argument can be found in (Sosa 1993, pp. 60–63).

  15. 15.

    Apart from the example given in the previous footnote, Greco has not attempted to provide an account of how the process of subjective justification works. I assume, however, that he wouldn’t reject this falsificationist approach, as I cannot see how else subjective justification could be accommodated in an externalist way.

  16. 16.

    As an anonymous referee has pointed out I should make clear that this condition should be restricted to reliable processes. We should not allow, for example, to an agent who forms his beliefs on the basis of astronomical considerations or wishful thinking to count as subjectively justified merely by lacking any doubts about the unreliability of his belief-forming processes. Given, however, that the epistemic agent must be conscientious (i.e., motivated to believe what is true) this qualification is actually redundant. If the agent is motivated to believe what is true, he will not employ astronomical considerations or wishful thinking because he will have noticed that such process were notably unreliable in the past. For the same reason, they won’t even be parts of his (conscientious) cognitive character.

  17. 17.

    Further to footnotes 14 and 15, in providing this sort of account of subjective justification, I have relied for the most part on phenomenological intuitions about how we seem to go about our beliefs in everyday life. Nevertheless, such phenomenological intuitions seem to already entertain a certain degree of scientific support. Specifically, within cognitive psychology, there have been several studies indicating that subjects engage in analytic reasoning only when they experience the metacognitive effect of the lack of ‘fluency’:

    “Fluency is not a cognitive operation in and of itself but, rather, a feeling of ease associated with a cognitive operation, it can be generated by nearly any form of thinking. If a percept is blurry, we are aware that it was hard to see. If a word is phonemically irregular, we recognize the challenge in processing it. We know whether we had to struggle to bring a memory to mind and whether we had a hard or easy time solving a riddle. Because the metacognitive experience of fluency can be generated by so many cognitive processes and is nearly effortless to access, it can serve as a cue toward judgments in virtually any situation”. (Oppenheimer 2008).

    For an overview on the metacognitive feeling of fluency see (Oppenheimer 2008), (Alter and Oppenheimer 2007) and (Unkelbach and Greifeneder 2013).

  18. 18.

    Many externalist epistemologists would reject the above biconditional on the grounds that in order for a process to be knowledge-conducive it should also be safe (where a safe process is one that could not have easily being wrong). Consider for example Anti-Luck Virtue Epistemology: S knows that p if and only if S’s safe belief that p is the product of her relevant cognitive abilities (such that her safe cognitive success is to a significant degree creditable to her cognitive agency) (Pritchard 2012, p. 20). Again, in Pritchard (2010a, p. 76) we can read: “ knowledge is safe belief that arises out of the reliable cognitive traits that make up one’s cognitive character, such that one’s cognitive success is to a significant degree creditable to one’s cognitive character”. For a defense of the claim that the safety condition is not necessary for virtue reliabilism to account for knowledge see (Palermos forthcoming).

  19. 19.

    That is, the process does not need to be, due to underlying logical or quasi-logical relations, 100 % reliable. Notice that memory is supposed to be reliable even though one may misremember.

  20. 20.

    For a detailed explanation of why the existence of non-linear relations that arise out of the mutual interactions between agents and their artifacts ensures the existence of extended cognitive systems see (Palermos 2014).

  21. 21.

    See Bach-y-Rita and Kercel (2003) for a recent review on tactile visual substitution systems.

  22. 22.

    It should be here noted that not every case of the employment of an artifact is a case of cognitive extension, but only when the agent mutually interacts with it. For an objective criterion of constitution and on what may count as a genuine case of cognitive extension, see (Palermos 2014).

  23. 23.

    Remember that according to virtue reliabilism and the underlying ability intuition on knowledge, knowledge is belief that is true in virtue of cognitive ability, where, according to Greco, “in virtue of” must be understood in causal explanatory terms. Even though several proponents of virtue reliabilism agree on this general causal-explanatory understanding of the view, there is disagreement on whether the relevant cognitive ability should be the “most salient” (Greco 2010) or merely a “significant” (Pritchard 2010b) factor in the causal explanation of how the agent acquired his true belief.

  24. 24.

    For a more detailed explanation of how virtue reliabilism may be applied to epistemic group agents see (Palermos and Pritchard 2013).


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I am very thankful to John Greco and an anonymous referee for detailed comments on pervious versions of this paper.

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Correspondence to Spyridon Orestis Palermos.

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Palermos, S.O. Knowledge and cognitive integration. Synthese 191, 1931–1951 (2014).

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  • Knowledge
  • Cognitive integration
  • Subjective justification
  • Virtue reliabilism
  • Cognitive character
  • Extended cognition
  • Epistemic group agency