• Philosophy 101 (philpapers induced) #5: Epistemic justification: internalism or externalism?

    So having posted the Philpapers survey results, the biggest ever survey of philosophers conducted in 2009, several readers were not aware of it (the reason for re-communicating it) and were unsure as to what some of the questions were. I offered to do a series on them, so here it is – Philosophy 101 (Philpapers induced). I will go down the questions in order. I will explain the terms and the question, whilst also giving some context within the discipline of Philosophy of Religion.

    This is the fifth post after

    #1 – a priori

    #2 – Abstract objects – Platonism or nominalism?

    #3 – Aesthetic value: objective or subjective

    #4 – Analytic-Synthetic Distinction

    This post is about a justification of knowledge in philosophy and whether something can be justified internally by the agent or externally. Here are the results, favouring externalism, but still with a sizable internalist camp.

    Epistemic justification: internalism or externalism?

    Accept or lean toward: externalism 398 / 931 (42.7%)
    Other 287 / 931 (30.8%)
    Accept or lean toward: internalism 246 / 931 (26.4%)

    So, let us start the ball rolling. The first thing to say is that internalism and externalism can be applied to many areas of philosophy, from motivation to truth. However, the question here specifically related to justification of knowledge.

    In basic terms, internalism refers to the idea that justification for a particular belief are available to the agent’s mind or consciousness. Externalism posits that factors outside of the agent’s mind can affect the justification of said belief.

    Part of the problem, is the distinction between knowledge and belief. Can we have justified belief in something which is wrong?

    First, some epistemologists understand externalism as a view that knowledge does not require justification while others think it should be understood as an externalist view of justification. Second, there is an important distinction between having good reasons for one’s belief (that is, propositional justification) and basing one’s belief on the good reasons one possesses (that is, doxastic justification).This distinction matters to the nature of the internalist thesis and consequently the I-E debate itself. Third, there are two different and prominent ways of understanding what is internal to a person. This bears on the nature of the internalist thesis and externalist arguments against internalism. (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy – IEP)

    So we can distinguish, perhaps, between a true belief (say a superstition that just turns out to be true) and a justified true belief (JTB), which is something which is both true and justified with good reasons. However, Gettier’s famous problems showed that there were issues with the JTB thesis. For example:

    Suppose that Smith possesses a good deal of evidence for the belief that someone in his office owns a Ford. Smith’s evidence includes such things as that Smith sees Jones drive a Ford to work every day and that Jones talks about the joys of owning a Ford. It turns out, however, that (unbeknownst to Smith) Jones is deceiving his coworkers into believing he owns a Ford. At the same time, though, someone else in Smith’s office, Brown, does own a Ford. So, Smith’s belief that someone in his office owns a Ford is both justified and true. Yet it seems to most people that Smith’s belief is not an instance of knowledge.

    So in order to turn true belief into knowledge, there had to be, externalists posited, some causal or dependency relations between the belief and facts. Of course, this then raised the question as to whether externalists think that knowledge doesn’t require justification or that justification should be seen as external.

    One must be careful. For example, I might believe that I may get a job at a company. This could be justified by good reasons, such as that I have the correct qualifications, they liked me in the interview and suchlike. However, I may in actuality just believe I will get the job (in spite of those good reasons) based on wishful thinking. Therefore, is my belief justified adequately or not? I am justified because there are to be accessed good reasons for the belief, but not justified because I base my belief on wishful thinking (some call this the difference between justification and well-foundedness).

    Now the internalist believes that every condition which justifies a belief in internal. However, causal relations are generally external. As the IEP continues:

    Since basing one’s belief on reasons is a causal relation between one’s belief and one’s reasons, internalists should not claim that every factor that determines doxastic justification is internal (see 1c below for further discussion of this). Accordingly, internalism should be understood as a view about propositional justification. Moreover, given that one cannot know unless one bases one’s belief on good reasons this implies that internalists will understand the justification condition in an account of knowledge as composed of two parts: propositional justification and some causal condition (typically referred to as “the basing relation”). This considerably complicates the I-E debate because there’s not a straightforward disagreement between internalist and externalist views of doxastic justification, since externalists typically avoid dissecting the justification condition. Common forms of externalism build in a causal requirement to justification, for example, one’s belief that p is produced by a reliable method. Nevertheless it is important to get the nature of the internalist thesis straight and only then determine the nature of the externalist objections.

    Now there is great scope for making this post unnecessarily complex. Suffice it to say that internalism concerns itself with propositional justification and claims that this relies entirely on one’s “internal states could be one’s bodily states, one’s brain states, one’s mental states (if these are different than brain states), or one’s reflectively accessible states.” (IEP). There is argument over whether internal justification is simply reliant on (past or present?) mental states, or reflexively accessible states (mentalism and acessibilism) but we need not worry ourselves too much about that now. I will include this excerpt from quite a clear online essay to explain further:

    Internalism is the thesis that knowledge or justification is gained by having good reasons for one’s true beliefs. Some examples of processes that one can use to form one’s current beliefs are perceptual experience, memory, and previously formed beliefs. It is important to note that a subject S’s reasons for believing a proposition p are not facts about p or p itself. Rather they are that p, or facts about p, are perceived by S in certain ways. For example, S does not form the belief that the tulips in the garden are red because they are red. Rather she/he forms that belief because it appears to her/him that the tulips in the garden are red. This is an internal factor in the knowledge requirement. For internalists, knowledge requires that one has a true belief with good supporting reasons or evidence. The good reasons/evidence requirement here becomes the justification requirement in the classical model of knowledge.

    There are two branches of internalism, and they are known as mentalism and access internalism. The most common form of internalism is access internalism, which will be the focus of this essay. Within accessibility there are two branches: actual access and accessibility. Actual access is the idea that for every proposition p that one knows, one is also aware of the knowledge basis, or roots of p. Accessibility is the idea that for every proposition p that one knows, one can become aware of the knowledge basis, or roots of p. The actual access requirement seems to be too strong. It is implausible that one is always aware of where one learned a fact every time one uses it, especially facts learned long ago. In my opinion accessibility seems more plausible and is therefore a stronger claim. If one had to remember the basis for every piece of what we would like to call knowledge, most of our basic vocabularies would not count as knowledge, For example, I do not remember where, when or how I learned what a bus is, as I learned it a long time ago. However, it seems highly counter-intuitive to say that I do not therefore know how to recognise a bus. It would also have the absurd result that I ‘know’ a complicated philosophical concept that I learned about yesterday, more than I ‘know’ what a bus is, because of having memory of where and when I learned about the latter but not the former. Because of this, I will focus on accessibility.

    Externalism is the thesis that knowledge does not require internal justification. There are different forms of externalism, but I will focus on process reliabilism, supposedly the most popular form of externalism. All externalists agree that in order to have knowledge, one must have a belief resulting from a process that reliably connects belief to truth. According to externalism, no support from any other beliefs or systems of beliefs is necessary. According to Alston, reliability requires that a process yields a high proportion of truths over a wide range of ordinarily encountered situations. This is known as process reliability. Alston admits that this definition is imprecise and that the already vague boundaries between what a typical and an atypical case is may shift over time. However, something that is intuitively pleasing about process reliabilism is that it rules out skeptical problems, by only focusing on facts that are directly relevant (or close) to the situation that one is actually in, and scepticism is assumed not to be relevant in most situations.

    The author concludes:

    In conclusion, I believe that internalism can be preferred to externalism on the basis that it rules out forgotten evidence as justification. There are arguments that forgotten evidence still justifies a belief, but I believe that this is only true from an objective basis, not a subjective basis. This is because I believe that a belief held without at least access to its evidence is not justified for the subject. I believe that because externalism seemingly treats justification as a purely objective phenomena, it fails to pick out what is important for human knowledge, which is, in my opinion, that truth be connected with belief not just because the world happens to be like that, but because the subject is aware and has evidence that the world is as it is. I believe that internalism is better able to do this.

    Why this argument is important…

    I actually think this argument could be important in terms of CS Lewis’ Argument from Reason whereby he claims that naturalists, being dependent upon causal relations of the world, cannot rationally hold to their own worldview, since external sources of epistemic justification cannot properly be rational, according to some.

    As the IEP states:

    Another issue with respect to naturalism in epistemology is its connection to naturalism in the philosophy of mind. The naturalist aims to understand the mind as a physical system. Since physical systems can be explained without invoking mental concepts a naturalist in epistemology is weary of using questionable mental concepts to elucidate the nature of epistemic concepts. Internalism in epistemology is not necessarily at odds with naturalism as a metaphysical view but the internalist’s preferred concepts tend to come from commonsense psychology rather than the natural sciences. Externalists, by contrast, tend to stress natural concepts like causation, reliability, and tracking because these set up better for a naturalist view in the philosophy of mind.

    I haven’t done a particularly good job of explaining this because it just gets very confusing and intricate and its not a particularly fun (in my humble opinion) area of philosophy, though it is pretty fundamental to knowledge claims. For further reading, follow the links


    #1 – a priori

    #2 – Abstract objects – Platonism or nominalism?

    #3 – Aesthetic value: objective or subjective

    #4 – Analytic-Synthetic Distinction

    #5 – Epistemic justification: internalism or externalism?

    #6  – External world: idealism, skepticism, or non-skeptical realism?

    #7 – Free will: compatibilism, libertarianism, or no free will?

    #8 – Belief in God: theism or atheism?

    Category: EpistemologyPhilosophy


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce