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Delusion, Rationality, Empathy: Commentary on Martin Davies et al.:
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Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology 8.2/3 (2001) 159-162

Delusions, we all agree, are pathological. Exactly where we think the pathology lies depends in good measure on how we further characterize delusions. If we think of them as beliefs, our attention is naturally directed to the kinds of experiences that prompt the delusions; strange beliefs can be rational if rationally mandated by strange experiences. As Davies and colleagues note, one view is that delusions are, in fact, rational responses to pathological experiences. They show that this is not an adequate view. They also note that delusions might not always be best characterized as beliefs, though, for the purposes of their essay, they chose to treat them as such. How much difference would it make if we disputed this treatment? Our answer is: Quite a lot.

Of course, delusions are in various ways like beliefs, otherwise there would be no tendency to think of them as beliefs. We suggest that imaginings (of a certain kind) are also significantly belief-like, though they are not, in fact, beliefs. Imaginings are capable of mirroring many of the inferential characteristics of beliefs. Readers of fiction imagine things about the characters and events of the story, and their imaginings combine in complex ways with their beliefs to lead to new imaginings; that is how we make inferences from what is explicit in the story to what is merely implicit content. The imaginings that fictions promote often have strong emotional consequences. We feel powerful emotions when things go badly for characters we admire, and these emotions are not in obvious ways different from those prompted by our beliefs about real people. Perhaps delusions are imaginings rather than beliefs.

We find support for this by recalling the two ways that, according to Davies and colleagues, a delusion can be consequent on an experience. It can simply take over the content of the experience, as when a hallucinating subject has an experience of a pink rat and comes to believe that there is a pink rat in front of him. Alternatively, it can be something that accounts for the experience, as when the idea that one's close relatives have been replaced by aliens of similar appearance accounts for one's peculiarly unemotional response to their presence, though most of us think the idea has little else to recommend it. Imaginings are just the sorts of things that are often formed in these two ways.

First, it is characteristic of imagining to be much more easily triggered by perception than is belief. We might readily imagine that a stranger's gaunt appearance signals that he has AIDS but be rightly very resistant to believing it without further evidence. Indeed, if imagination were not easily triggered by mere appearances, pictures, plays, and movies would have very little appeal for us. Second, it is surely quite common to imagine all sorts of wild hypotheses in response to an odd experience. A rational agent with the odd experience of familiar faces, which we think Capgras patients have, might well be prompted to imagine that his loved ones had been replaced by imposters. On this hypothesis, what needs explaining is not the formation of the delusional state, for the hypothesis has it that the delusional state is an imagining and there is nothing irrational about having such an imagining. What needs explaining is why the imagining is not recognized as such but is, apparently, treated by the patient as if it were a belief.

What is it for an imagining to be treated as if it were a belief, when in fact it is not one? What we suggest happens is this: The deluded subject fails to monitor the self-generatedness of her imagining that P. Because of this, her idea that P presents itself as something generated by the world beyond the self. In the kinds of cases we are currently considering, it would be natural for it to seem that the idea that P is directly a response to the precipitating experience, as something peculiarly connected with and, hence, validated by that experience.

There are occasions on which all of us form beliefs immediately on the basis of experience but...

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