Wednesday, April 11, 2012


Externalism in epistemology is the belief that knowledge can be defined in terms of proper function.  Proper function involves third person descriptions of how the knower is operating.  For instance, whether or not a person knows there is a blue glass on the table depends on the lighting in the room, how well the person's eyes and brain are functioning, that the person is not intoxicated etc.  Fallibilist versions of externalism note that all such knowledge claims are open to revision in the future.

Internalism in epistemology is the belief that knowledge is defined as a true, justified belief.  That a person thinks a belief is true, and the justification a person gives for that truth, are things "accessible" to the person in a way that functionality properties may not be.  Thus, internalism involves a first person account of whether knowledge is present or only appears to be present.

Internalism has come under attack as a failed Enlightenment project.  One example is the Gettier problem, traced to an article from 1963 by Edmund Gettier.  In this article Gettier gives examples of persons who have what appears to be a true, justified belief but do not have knowledge.  However, in each of these examples the justification given is not strong justification, but is a weak example of justification such as testimony from another person.  Even though this is an obvious problem for Gettier examples, they have come to be viewed by some as having demonstrated that knowledge must be more than true, justified belief.  Indeed, one professor of mine during graduate school said that the only thing philosopher has proven is that Gettier was right about knowledge.

One philosopher who offers an objection to internalism is Michael Bergmann.  His objection amounts to a dilemma saying that the justification required by internalism involves an infinite regress or an arbitrary stopping point.  One must justify one's justification, and justify that, to infinity, or simply stop at some point and no longer give justification.

The response to this objection is that the stopping point need not be arbitrary.  To claim that all stopping points are arbitrary amounts to saying that there is nothing transcendental, nothing that is authoritative and self-attesting.  However, his dilemma relies on the authority of reason (as the laws of thought, such as identity, excluded middle, and non-contradiction).  A dilemma is only a dilemma if the law of excluded middle has authority.  As a student of mine, Andrew Presnell, pointed out: If reason as the laws of thought is not authoritative then we need not listen to Bergmann's argument;  If reason as the laws of thought is authoritative then something is transcendental and we need not listen to Bergmann's argument.  Either way, Bergmann's argument against internalism fails.  Bergmann assumes the authority of reason.  Indeed, any meaningful belief or argument assumes the authority of reason.

Some might say that this is a simplistic presentation (I've linked Bergmann's article so it can be read directly), however I believe it is sufficient.  We might speak about conscious awareness rather than justification but this does not change the problem Bergmann will face.  In other words, the knower must be consciously aware of what grounds his belief, and consciously aware of what grounds that, to infinity.  I've used the term justification instead.

Externalists think of knowledge in terms of "common sense beliefs" given their historical situation in analytic philosophy and the ordinary language tradition.  These kinds of beliefs are about the color of an object in the room, or what I had for breakfast, or the date of my birthday.  These are beliefs from the senses, or memory, or tradition.  An internalist account might struggle to give a "simple solution" that shows these are known with certainty.  Indeed, I don't see a problem is allowing that these are not known with certainty.  Rather, what must be clear is what is most basic.  These beliefs are not basic but have many assumptions.  If anything is clear it must be the most basic things.  That less basic beliefs about the senses, memory, or tradition are not certain does not threaten our ability to know with certainty what is most basic.

Alvin Plantinga has made an externalist defense of belief in God popular.  Relying on an analogy to belief in other minds, Plantinga uses the term "warrant" instead of "justification" to say that belief in God is warranted in the same way that belief in other minds is warranted.  He argues that belief in God is the product of proper functioning according to a design plan aimed at truth.  Of course, to import the phrase "design plan" is to import "God" as the designer into the definition, and therefore the definition becomes circular: belief in God is warranted because it is due to proper function according to God's plan aimed at truth.  It is worth noting that Plantinga's argument against naturalism corrects this problem by leaving externalism and instead using an internalist argument to say that naturalism cannot be true.

Indeed, this is a serious problem for externalism: any defense of an externalist theory relies on internalist justification.  Internalism, and the need for justification, cannot be avoided.  The Gettier problem should motivate philosophers to explore stronger justification, rather than abandoning justification altogether.  This is especially true with respect to basic beliefs about which we must be certain.

In this sense extreme forms of externalism are forms of skepticism.  Like other kinds of skepticism, it denies that I can have certainty about questions like "how do I know," "what is real," and "what is the good."  Like other forms of skepticism, it redefines the word "know" into a something that really means we cannot know.  Historically, these seem to go hand-in-hand with naturalist views of human nature and materialist descriptions of the world.  Marx and Freud employ externalist accounts of human knowledge, reducing knowledge to physical considerations like economic and social status. 

At the basic level, less extreme forms of externalism collapse with internalism.  If I am trying to settle a question I will rely on the laws of thought.  From the internal perspective this provides knowledge.  An externalist description of this would similarly describe my use of the laws of thought.  At this level these are only different in perspective (1st or 3rd person) but not content.

Insofar as skepticism, consistently held, leads to lack of meaning, we must abandon extreme forms of externalism.


  1. Owen,

    I wonder if contextualist insights might be of some use in this internalist/externalist debate. As you note, much of contemporary epistemology begins with everyday knowledge claims taken for granted like "I know that I have hands" which presumably non philosophers and philosophers are thought to have in common. I'm inclined to think that this fixes a kind of context of discourse such that when we ascribe knowledge to some subject with these putative examples in mind, the standards for knowledge (and consequently the truth conditions for the relevant knowledge ascribing sentences) are relatively low. On the other hand, perhaps as certain internalists forward relatively stringent standards for knowledge they are stepping into a different conversational context, one that requires a great deal more for an 'S knows that p' statement to be true. Admittedly, much more needs to be said about this and I haven't explained how or why the internalist is shifting the context or how or why the externalist here has fixed the low context. In any case, if I'm right it would explain some of the tensions between internalists and externalists and the respective complaints you find from one group of the other. That is, it would make sense that internalism would seem to make knowledge too hard to come by (given an everyday appraisal), and externalism relatively too easy (given a higher philosophical persepctive).

    Either way it's interesting what you say about extreme externalism perhaps leading to skepticism since this result is precisely what many externalists want to avoid in shunning internalism. Of course, for any contextualist theory there must be a reasonable 'floor and ceiling' and making the ceiling too high or the floor too low seems to lead to skepticism all the same (e.g., imagine saying that knowledge of P requires knowing everything else both presupposed and implied by P).

    It's always interesting when you encounter debates about what the necessary and sufficient conditions for some X are. One side provides some principles and the other either provides a counterexample or responds, "well, that's not really an X" and then provides an alternative theory. But if the two sides ultimately mean different things by X (viz. X refers to different phenomena in the world between the two uses) then the philosophical dispute will seem hopeless at least until the semantic one is addressed.

    Given that there might be some contextual shifts at work in the debate, then once we've enumerated the various phenomena that philosophers on all sides of the int/externalist dialogue are respectively calling "knowledge" we might find that the discussion ultimately end up being about which conception of knowledge is most worth having.

    Thanks for the post!


  2. I think the idea of context is a really helpful insight. And the idea that we need to know what is meant before we can settle any dispute. Thanks for those thoughts!

  3. Owen, in your recent book The Natural Moral Law, on page 17 in the fourth paragraph you write, "In the contemporary age, justification has been understood deontologically as if one is doing one's epistemic duty." Can you explain please what epistemic deontology is and how it led to externalism's claims about warrant?

  4. Fun blog you have here! Anyways, I just wanted to say a couple of things in regards to what you have stated about Plantinga. :)

    Plantinga is not answering the de facto objection in regards to belief in God. Plantinga is arguing that Christianity or belief in God could be warranted, not IS warranted. You state, "He argues that belief in God is the product of proper functioning according to a design plan aimed at truth." Plantinga is not arguing that belief in God is warranted and is the result of proper function, he is arguing if God exists then it appears knowledge of this God could be warranted. However, Plantinga then argues that naturalism could not say the same as it can't account for the preconditions of warrant. Though again, Plantinga never says that naturalism is not true, rather, it would appear it could not be warranted even if true.

    Plantinga never leaves his externalism for internalism. There still is epistemic responsibility found within Plantinga's system. That is, there is a no-defeater clause that has to be appropriately examined before something could be warranted. However, this is not an internalist system because one does not have to have access to the particular properties that confer warrant. Not to mention, Plantinga thinks there is a place for traditional natural theology and that one can have access to the properties that confer warrant, it is just that he believes you do not have to have access (and for good reason might I add).

    Feel free to check out my blog where I have written a lot about this. :)

    1. Thank you for your comment. I'll check out your blog. Want to link to each other? I agree with much of what you said in terms of clarifying Plantinga's project. I understand that he is trying to answer a specific kind of objection, and in that regard I think he is successful.

      However, the statement I make about knowing God being the product of a design plan etc. is almost an exact quote from him, so that's can't be incorrect. And in his earlier career he did reject natural theology although he has changed that more recently. I also don't agree that he doesn't switch to internalism in the sense that one must rely on an internalist account to defend their externalist project.

      Thanks again for your comment!

    2. Thanks for your kind response! Sure, I would love to link.

      In both Warranted Christian Belief and Knowledge of God, he spends an overwhelming amount of time making sure the reader knows he is establishing that it is likely that the belief could be warranted if it is indeed true. In the Knowledge of God he even asks if this could be said of all worldviews and then answers in the negative by asserting naturalism and how even if it were true it could not be warranted. In the section entitled If True, Probably So in Warranted Christian Belief he states, "If theistic belief is true, then it seems likely that it does have warrant. If it is true, then there is, indeed, such a person as God, a person who has created us in his image, who loves us, who desires that we know and love him, and who is such that it is our end and good to know and love him. But if these things are so, then he would of course intend that we be able to be aware of his presence and to know something about him. And if that is so, the natural thing to think is that he created us in such a way that we would come to hold such true beliefs as that there is such a person as God, that he is our creator, that we owe him obedience and worship, that he is worthy of worship, that he loves us, and so on.....if in fact theism is true, then theistic belief has warrant." (188) Notice, he does not argue that theistic belief is warranted because the belief is formed by proper cognitive function, rather, he argues if true it would likely be warranted.

      What do you mean by he uses internalism to prove externalism? Externalism is simply the denial that one must have access to the properties that confer warrant, not that one never does, or that arguments are useless. How is he denying externalism by giving arguments for externalism?

      By the way, I just added you on facebook. :)

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    4. To establish externalism, one must provide an argument. This argument must overcome the dilemma Bergmann gave against internalism, which means that even Bergmann's argument either entails an infinite regress of increasing doxastic complexity or it doesn't. If it does entail this infinite regress, then we have no reason to believe his argument. If it doesn't, then it would contradict his dilemma, which means we have no reason to believe it.

    5. To add to the above point, Bergmann's dilemma builds off the claim that inferential justification necessarily entails an infinite regress of increasing complexity, indeed this is the most important part of his argument. But if it can be shown that not all inferential justification entails that kind of infinite regress, then his conclusion doesn't follow.

      I know Owen shows that something does end the infinite regress in his Natural Moral Law book on page 268.

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