Is the biological adaptiveness of delusions doomed?

Eugenia Lancellotta

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Abstract

Delusions are usually considered as harmful and dysfunctional beliefs, one of the primary symptoms of a psychiatric illness and the mark of madness in popular culture. However, in recent times a much more positive role has been advocated for delusions. More specifically, it has been argued that delusions might be an (imperfect) answer to a problem rather than problems in themselves. By delivering psychological and epistemic benefits, delusions would allow people who face severe biological or psychological difficulties to survive in their environment - although this has obvious epistemic costs, as the delusion is fixed and irresponsive to compelling counterevidence. In other words, it has been argued that delusions are biologically adaptive. The adaptiveness of delusions has been compared by Ryan McKay and Daniel Dennett to a shear pin, a mechanism installed in the drive engine of some machines which is designed to shear whenever the machine is about to break down. By breaking, shear pins prevent the machine from collapsing and allow it to keep functioning, although in an impaired manner. Similarly, when delusions form, they would allow a cognitive or psychological system which is about to collapse to continue its functioning, although in an impaired manner. However, this optimistic picture of delusions risks being undermined by both theoretical and empirical considerations. Using Sarah Fineberg and Philip Corlett’s recent predictive coding account as a paradigmatic model of the biological adaptiveness of delusions, I develop two objections to it: (1) principles of parsimony and simplicity suggest that maladaptive models of delusions have an upper hand over adaptive models; and (2) the available empirical evidence suggests that at least some delusions stand good chances of being psychologically adaptive, but it is unlikely that they also qualify as biologically adaptive.
Original languageEnglish
JournalReview of Philosophy and Psychology
Early online date6 Apr 2021
DOIs
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 6 Apr 2021

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