In 2014, I began working on the community of knowledge hypothesis—the view that forming veridical representations of the world is a collective enterprise and that its communal nature must shape individual cognition. The first claim is trivially true; short of where your car is right now and what you had for breakfast, nearly everything you know came from someone else’s testimony rather than direct observation. The second merits study, for the astonishing success of humans as a species shows that this system somehow works despite the demonstrably superficial nature of most people’s knowledge about many things.1 One way it might work is that individual thought relies on credit: I reason as if I know about X because I know that someone else knows about X. Frankly, this would be good enough most of the time—after all, if I really need more details about X, I can usually find them.
Evidence of a contagious sense of understanding2 supports this hypothesis, but interesting questions follow. The sense of understanding conferred by knowing someone else understands seems like a metacognitive process; how, then, does it relate to other socially influenced varieties of metacognition like confidence judgments3 or feelings of another’s knowing?4 People belong to many partially overlapping communities; does this sense of understanding depend on which community ostensibly possesses the target knowledge? And what besides community membership makes a knowledge-holder seem credible (e.g., perceived honesty, perceived expertise, concordance between her claim and perceived consensus)?
I believe these are timely questions. Although the web of epistemic dependence seems to be a basic fact of human cognition, its fragility is being tested by the historically unprecedented speed and reach of information transfer we see today.
What’s art got to do with it?
On the face of it, not much. But one hypothesis from aesthetics that enjoys empirical support is distinterestedness, the Kantian idea that people adopt a semi-detached stance towards art (and hence don’t run screaming when an actor on stage says there’s a fire). This helps explain the apparent paradox that people spend money and time on depressing or horrifying art events while generally avoiding depressing or horrifying non-art events. That much of the evidence5 for disinterestedness comes from physiological measures with matched stimuli in art and non-art conditions suggests that implicit categorization is at work. Events that a perceiver categorizes as art are classified as a special sort of signal that’s neither true nor false, strictly speaking,6 but rather serve to highlight similarities between the art event and other non-art events, much as metaphors work in spoken language.7
This line of thought raises further, not-so-unrelated questions. How do people determine whether a text, image, or video is a work of fiction? Do they update their beliefs about the world in accordance with its content anyway?
1 Fernbach et al. (2013), Kominsky & Keil (2014), Lawson (2006), Rozenblit & Keil (2002), Vitriol & Marsh (2018)
2 Sloman & Rabb (2016), Zeveney & Marsh (2016)
3 Koriat, Adiv, & Schwarz (2016)
4 Brennan & Williams (1995), Ozuru & Hirst (2006)
5 Mocaiber et al. (2010, 2011a, 2011b), Van Dongen et al. (2016), Wagner et al. (2014)
6 Rabb (2017)
7 Rabb & Brownell (in press)
above: Jackson conducting research