Heather Battaly: Location, location, location: can epistemic values be distributed?

Professor Heather Battaly (University of California, Fullerton) speaks at the Extended Knowledge conference, University of Edinburgh, 22-24 April 2015.

Abstract: Thus far, virtue epistemology has been largely concerned with individual agents. It has focused, in part, on the conditions under which an individual agent has an epistemic virtue. But, epistemic virtues may not be restricted to individuals. We sometimes attribute epistemic virtues to groups; as when we say that a research team was open-minded, or a committee was tenacious, or a police investigative unit was conscientious. Recent work on distributed cognition may enable us to explain how a group can have an epistemic virtue. This paper explores whether epistemic virtues, as they are described by virtue epistemologists, can be distributed across groups. Virtue epistemologists have developed two key analyses of epistemic virtue. Virtue-reliabilists, like Ernest Sosa and John Greco, have argued that epistemic virtues are (roughly) stable qualities that reliably produce true beliefs. These qualities range from hard-wired capacities like vision, to acquired skills like using a microscope to diagnose a patient, to character traits like openmindedness. Virtue-reliabilists think that we share some of our epistemic virtues, like vision and memory, with other animals. In contrast, virtue-responsibilists, like Linda Zagzebski and Jason Baehr, restrict epistemic virtues to acquired character traits for which the individual agent can be praised. Such traits include: open-mindedness, intellectual tenacity, intellectual humility, and conscientiousness. Zagzebski and Baehr agree that epistemic virtues are personal qualities which require good motivations, but they disagree about whether epistemic virtues require reliability (Baehr thinks they do not). Despite their differences, virtue-reliabilists and virtue-responsibilists have all been thinking of epistemic virtues as attributable to individual agents. They have made the natural assumption that epistemic virtues are dispositions that are located entirely within the head of the individual agent who possesses them. But recent work on extended and distributed cognition challenges this assumption. It argues that cognitive processes need not be entirely located in an individual agent’s head—they can extend beyond a single agent’s head to include objects in the environment, and even other people. Such external objects and people are taken to be constituent parts (rather than independent causes) of the cognitive process itself. In short, cognitive processes may be located partly outside of an individual agent’s head, or may even reside in a group of people rather than a single agent. Advocates of extended cognition typically motivate their views via functionalism and parity: roughly, they argue that if a part of the world instantiates a functional role that we would recognize to be part of a cognitive process, were we to find it inside an agent’s head, then that part of the world is part of a cognitive process (Clark and Chalmers). At least it is part of a cognitive process, provided there is mutual interaction and interdependence between it and other parts of the process. In a similar vein, advocates of distributed cognition typically argue that for a cognitive process to be distributed across a group of people, function must be preserved, and the group must exhibit cognitive interdependence, interaction, and (perhaps) convergent expectations (Theiner). For advocates of extended and distribution cognition, location doesn’t matter. What matters is function, and interdependence. Does location matter for epistemic virtues, as they are described by virtue-reliabilists and virtue-responsibilists? Granted, virtue epistemologists have assumed that epistemic virtues are located in individual agents, rather than groups. But, must they make this assumption? Is there anything to prevent epistemic virtues from being cognitively distributed? This paper suggests that the features of reliabilist virtues do not prevent them from being located in groups. Indeed, memory is one of the cognitive processes already being studied by advocates of distributed cognition. But, responsibilist virtues are another matter.