*This is an essay I wrote for an epistemology class I’m currently taking. As full disclosure, I am not a philosopher by any stretch. Nevertheless, it strikes me as an interesting topic.

Sam Seitz

Traditionally, there has been a degree of consensus within philosophy that knowledge exists when one has a true, justified belief.[1] In other words, if one believes that a, has good reason for believing that a, and a is in fact true, then one possesses knowledge. This formulation of knowledge is convincing, in part, because it comports with the spirit in which individuals usually refer to the concept of knowledge in everyday conversation. For example, if someone believes a historical fact about the 30 Years’ War after reading an authoritative book on the subject, we generally agree that the person “knows” that historical fact. However, the formulation of knowledge as a true, justified belief begs a serious question: What does it mean for a belief to be justified?

Reliabilism is an externalist approach to resolving the question of what constitutes justification by contending that any process of acquiring knowledge that is reliably correct is sufficient to justify a belief. To better understand what this means, it is helpful to briefly consider one of the major alternatives to reliabilism: internalism. The internalist tradition suggests that one must reflect upon one’s reasons for belief to ensure that they are justified. In other words, one must validate the justifications for one’s belief.[2] This approach is appealing because it forces a greater degree of rigor by requiring believers not simply to have good reason for their beliefs but also to have good reason for believing that they have good reason. Despite this powerful advantage, internalism suffers from two major shortcomings. First, it is far from certain that it is even possible to determine whether the processes we use to form our beliefs are justified. As Descartes points out in his 1st Meditation, even seemingly obvious beliefs, such as those derived from observations of our immediate environment, might be erroneous.[3] Perhaps we are dreaming or, even worse, in a simulation. It seems as though our faculty of sight is reliable, but everything we perceive around us may in fact be little more than a projection of our dreaming brain or a particularly complex piece of software. Second, even if we could justify our methods of knowledge with absolute confidence, internalism still faces the problem of a vicious regress. Consider the example of the 30 Years’ War book. To satisfy internalist requirements, one would need to reflect on the authoritativeness of the author before concluding that one has “good reason” for believing. But this is not enough, as one would then have to reflect on the reasons one thinks the author is authoritative. This process of reflection would go on ad infinitum, effectively rendering knowledge impossible.[4]

Reliabilism rejects the internalist approach to justification because it argues that one is justified in believing as long as the process one uses to acquire knowledge is reliable.[5] This bypasses the weaknesses of internalism and, therefore, ensures that knowledge is possible: an intuitive and appealing proposition. Reliabilism also has the advantage of being more similar to real world standards of knowledge. After all, it seems absurd to imagine someone asking for the litany of justifications presented above upon hearing a friend recount an interesting fact about the 30 Years’ War. Lest one become too comfortable, however, reliabilism is not without weaknesses of its own.

One of the potentially fatal weaknesses of reliabilism is that it may lower the bar too far regarding what constitutes a good, justified belief. In other words, whereas internalism may make knowledge too difficult to acquire, the externalist approach of reliabilism might suffer from the obverse problem. To illustrate this shortcoming, consider the following thought experiment. During the FIFA World Cup, an aquarium worker puts two soccer-themed feed buckets into the tank of one of his octopodes to make the display more festive. Each bucket is painted with the flag of one of the two teams competing in a given match. The aquarium worker comes to believe that the bucket from which the octopus first eats will reveal the team that will emerge victorious in a given match. Importantly, the aquarium worker cannot explain why he holds this belief, and he never reflects on why he feels justified in linking the octopus’ food selection to the outcome of  a soccer game. The worker also has no access to the internal thought processes or methods of the octopus, thus ensuring that no part of his purported knowledge is reliant on internalist standards. So, before the first set of games, the octopus is set in front of two buckets representing the teams that will face off in the first round. The octopus eats first from the winning team’s bucket for each and every game, and this pattern continues as the field is winnowed. As far as anyone can tell, the octopus’ food bucket selection is, in fact, a reliable process for ascertaining which teams will win, and so the aquarium worker is utilizing a reliable process to generate beliefs that are true.

Does the aquarium worker have knowledge? It seems absurd to assert that he does, as his process for predetermining the winning team involves nothing more than the random feeding habits of an octopus. Indeed, the octopus does not even understand the concept of soccer, much less the connection between its dietary choices and the outcome of a future match occurring many miles away. This process is, of course, reliable in that it consistently yields a correct prediction, but it seems more likely that this accuracy is simply lucky happenstance rather than the result of some effective and reliable process. Intuitively, this process of knowledge acquisition is not justified, and it is doubtful that many people would feel comfortable in saying that the aquarium worker actually has knowledge of which team will win a given match. Reliabilism nonetheless suggests that the aquarium worker, due to the reliability of his method for generating knowledge, is justified in his belief and, therefore, has knowledge about the outcomes of the matches in the FIFA World Cup.

This thought experiment seemingly undermines the link between reliable belief-forming processes and knowledge acquisition, but there are ways to bypass the problem introduced by the thought experiment. One approach would simply be to raise the standards for what it means for a process to be reliable. Specifically, reliabilists would likely contend that reliable processes are better understood as those that have been developed over time or are innate to the individual. As an example of the first case, consider highly skilled and experienced athletes. While many of the tasks they perform on the field are complicated and non-intuitive, athletes are able to consistently execute advanced plays with a degree of automaticity impossible for non-athletes. If you were to ask these competitors why they ran the play they did or took the shot they did, they would often be unable to provide a clear justification. In other words, they would be unable to fulfill the internalist requirements of knowledge. Most people, however, would still contend that these athletes “know” which plays and shots are best at any given moment in the game. Reliabilists would likely agree, contending that this knowledge is demonstrated by the consistent accuracy in play or shot selection produced by the processes of play embraced by the athletes. In other words, the athletes have acquired a reliable process of knowledge by learning over time which strategies and moves are effective. They know what works, but they may not know why.

Innate knowledge is similar to the kind of knowledge demonstrated by athletes, but it is knowledge that emerges at birth. One example of this is breathing. All humans are born with the knowledge of how to breath, but it is unlikely that any of us would be able to explain how to breath if asked. For a reliabilist, this innate ability sufficiently qualifies as knowledge. After all, we are reliably able to breath even though we are not able to isolate any clear justification for our knowledge of how to breath. This seems like a reasonable standard at an intuitive level as well, as nobody would seriously contend that humans do not know how to breath simply because they are unable to justify the process they used for acquiring the knowledge of how to inhale and exhale air.

But, as the reliabilist would certainly retort, the process utilized by the aquarium worker to formulate his beliefs does not meet either of these conditions. After all, the predictive abilities derived from observing an octopus eat are not ones that have been honed by years of practice designed to refine a method for ascertaining which team will win a soccer match. An octopus’ food bucket choices, therefore, do not provide a reliable process for the aquarium worker to acquire knowledge, they simply represent an unusually lucky correlation with the outcomes of some completely unrelated events (soccer matches). The same is true if one considers innate knowledge. Humans have no fundamental ability to glean information about future events by simply observing animals’ consumption habits. Thus, it is impossible to say that octopus observation is simply an innate skill that enables knowledge acquisition. Perhaps the case would be different if this aquarium worker spent years observing sea creatures eat and intuiting a process for linking this activity to the outcomes of sporting events. It would perhaps also be true if he had some kind of innate psychic link to the octopus that allowed him to automatically divine information about the future from its behavior in a reliably consistent manner. But since neither of these conditions are true, reliabilists would likely argue that the thought experiment does little to undermine their theory of knowledge because it does not challenge an actual reliable process for knowledge production.




[1] Hilary Kornblith, On Reflection (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2012), 8.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Rene Descartes, Meditations, Objections, and Replies, ed. & trans. Roger Ariew and Donald Cress (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 2006), 10-11 and 12-13.

[4] Kornblith, 12-13.

[5] Linda Zagzebski, On Epistemology (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2009), 47.

Works Cited

Descartes, Rene. Meditations, Objections, and Replies. Edited & translated by Roger Ariew and Donald Cress. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 2006.

Zagzebski, Linda. On Epistemology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2009.

Kornblith, Hilary. On Reflection. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2012.