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Knowledge, reliability and justification


To: Anna H.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Knowledge, reliability and justification
Date: 15th April 2010 12:02

Dear Anna,

Thank you for your email of 6 April, with your thoughts on the question from the University of London Epistemology module, 'Critically assess the claim that any belief formed by using a reliable mechanism is justified.'

In an examination, you may find that you are really struggling with a question. Maybe you've already spent a lot of time on it and it's too late to choose a different question. In that case, write your thoughts down. Let the examiner see your interior monologue. You will gain credit for each good point you make, just as if you had expressed your thoughts in essay form. I've had to do this myself on more than one occasion.

Looking at your notes and questions, it seems to me that the link which would have brought all this together is an understanding of the difference between 'internalism' and 'externalism' with regard to theories of knowledge.

The classic approach is internalist. We start with a consideration of the information available to us through our senses etc. and ask how it is that this information is able to amount to knowledge. Descartes' First Meditation is probably the most famous case, where he argues that beliefs which rest on insecure foundations cannot amount to knowledge, and then sets about establishing foundations for knowledge, with the aid of the evil demon thought experiment.

The role of justification, in this picture, is as a firm and reliable support which rules out the possibility of any doubt as to the truth of the proposition in question. You more or less state this when you say, 'We may mean that a suitable method, if properly followed, is perfectly reliable and never leads to a false belief.'

However, the foundationalist view has come under attack from a number of directions, both from philosophers who take an 'internalist' view about knowledge but see insurmountable problems with the quest for 'foundations', but also from philosophers who take an 'externalist' view. Modern-day internalists accept that you can't build in a cast-iron defence against scepticism, as Descartes sought to do. When I am justified in believing that P, it is not required that I should be able to defeat any conceivable sceptical hypothesis.

What is externalism about knowledge?

The biggest impetus towards externalism probably came from Gettier's paper, 'Is knowledge justified true belief?'. Gettier gave various examples where a belief was true, and met the internalist's criteria for an adequate justification but where it was clear that the belief in question was not knowledge, because although it was true, its truth was an accident so far as my grounds for believing it were concerned.

The idea that 'a belief should not be true by accident' leads to the notion of a path, or process, or sequence where each of the steps is one which transmits truth. There are a number of theories along these lines, but this is something you will need to look up.

From an external perspective, if I am satisfied that your belief that P is true, and also that you didn't merely guess it, but rather that the belief arose through truth transmitting sequence of events which leads back to the fact that P, then I can say that you know that P. I can say this, even if you're a little bit shaky about offering 'justifications' for your belief that P.

As you might guess, this approach has also been seen as a response to traditional scepticism, which simply takes away the ground that the sceptic was standing on. Human beings are naturally constituted to acquire knowledge about the world. When we have true beliefs which fail to be knowledge, then something has gone wrong with this process.

One philosopher (my thesis supervisor John McDowell) once expressed this thought to me: 'Knowledge wears the trousers'. For internalists, on the other hand, belief 'wears the trousers'. What we know we have is beliefs, and the problem is finding sufficient justification to enable us to call these beliefs 'knowledge'.

One objection that might occur to you is that reliabilism, when viewed as an externalist theory of knowledge, seems a bit lax. It turns out that we can 'know' all sorts of things that we aren't even sure of, or can't defend in an argument.

What is strange about the question, 'Critically asses the claim that any belief formed by using a reliable mechanism is justified' is that it seems to mix up the internalist and externalist views. When I seek to justify a belief that I hold, it is no good my trying to prove that the belief was 'formed by using a reliable mechanism'. The precise process which led to the formation of my belief is not something which I know. For example, I believe that the first TV debate between Brown, Cameron and Clegg is tonight. Is that belief knowledge? I heard it from the BBC. Or did I? Maybe one of my daughters had switched the station from Radio 3 to Classic FM.

But then, if you were to seriously challenge me on the question of whether the news on the radio (regardless of the station) is a reliable mechanism for acquiring knowledge, I would have to admit that sometimes items get into the news which turn out to be cases of misreporting, or worse. You, the observer, may be confident that in this particular case the 'mechanism' was reliable, but this is something which you can't necessarily expect me to be able to establish for myself.

If I was answering this question in an exam, I would look at examples, as many as I could think of or have time for, where I am confident that a particular belief acquiring mechanism which I have relied on is reliable, and ask whether, in each case, such confidence constitutes a 'justification'. Maybe in some cases it does, and in some cases it doesn't. Is there a principle which you can discern in these examples? That's the kind of way one does epistemology. If you can do that in an exam you will get more credit than if you merely recall (or half-recall) things you have read in a text book.

All the best,