Delving into an Externalist Theory: Process Reliabilism


With the aim of exploring the epistemic issue of animals seeming to come to know things, this paper includes a careful analysis of internalist justification and externalist warrant. An examination of the benefits and the issues of the externalist theory of process reliabilism leads this paper to conclude that while possessing some fundamental issues, the theory remains in a better position to explicate both sentient (human) and non-sentient (animal) knowledge.

Knowledge in the Wilderness

Can animals be said to know things? If the goal is a somewhat unified theory of knowledge that reconciles both sentient (human) knowledge, with the animal world, where animals behave as if they do, in the very least, know things, —such as appropriate places to hunt, return to spawn where they were originally born, or where a wolf has cached its kill—then epistemology needs to look further than being aware, believing things, or weighing evidence consciously.

Justification, Justifiable and Justified Beliefs

Roughly speaking, justification has commonly been “understood as a relation that obtains between the state that is justified and the states that do the justifying” (Evans et al., 75). In other words, contemporary epistemologists who argue this relation say that all that there is to justify a belief (which is dependent on most sorts of knowledge) is solely predisposed to the agent’s consciousness; epistemological justification, therefore, is borne in, and remains, in the mind. It is intuitive that many thinkers were led to reason that all there was to justifying a belief (or knowledge) was encapsuled in the mind—a strictly internal activity of a cognisor whom should always be aware of it; Internalism is what this consequently came to be known as. 

An important thing to note when justification is considered is the difference between a justified belief and a justifiable one. A justifiable belief, according to Evans et al., is one where the evidence is present for a belief, but the belief exists in the mind as a separate entity from this evidence (76). It may be an irrational belief, such as the supernatural, a longing for p, or even not being aware of the evidence in the first place. Only if a belief is maintained by the evidence, not only optionally, accidentally, or unknowingly accompanied by it, then it is justified. 

“One cannot know that p if one’s true belief that p is accidental; so knowledge requires a tether” illuminates the concept of justification succinctly: it is a tether for any sort of knowledge a cognisor possesses (Elgin, 298). Without justification, in any sense, a true belief possesses no evidence and reasonably cannot be counted as knowledge. 

Warrant, in an External Sense

There exists a different way to think about this justificatory tether to knowledge: “we do not need to be aware of what warrants our knowledge, in order to be warranted” (Evans et al., 18). Warrant is defined as “whatever it is that differentiates knowledge from other forms of true belief” (Evans et al., 6). This implies that while justification interplays with beliefs that a cognisor might hold, warrant’s domain focuses specifically on knowledge. To the average reader, this may seem as a distinction without a difference, but it remains an important underpinning to the delineation Evans et al. attempt to make between the concepts of justification and warrant without succumbing to circular reasoning (17). Epistemologists who argue this side are characterized as externalists because they hold “that warrant consists in states or processes [external] to the epistemic agent’s awareness” (Evans et al., 18). So, while justification in terms of warrant requires an agent to be aware of the evidence that underpins their knowledge, externalists posit that not awareness, nor even a complete understanding of these processes is absolutely necessary for one’s knowledge to be warranted. 

All in a Reliable Process

This paper focuses on the externalist theory of Goldman’s process reliabilism because it offers an attractive alternative to the ideas of warrant as a form of justification. Although not completely denying the necessity of justification for the forming of true beliefs, process reliabilism, in a way, sidesteps the absolute need to be aware of the processes that form knowledge. Goldman argues that a justified belief is formed by a “reliable belief-forming process” (Evans et al., 125). Where reliabilism gains an upper hand over internalist theories of justification is that it ties truth[1] into justified belief. By focusing on the mechanism, it explains why a justified belief will tend to be true; if an agent possesses a form of cognitive process that has a tendency to spit out true beliefs, then it is quite likely that those beliefs will be true. The key is that this mechanism which allows a belief to be warranted must be a reliable one—using processes commonly understood as being reliable such as “perception, memory, mathematical proofs, etc.” (Evans et al., 137). Keep in mind still, that because this is an externalist theory, the agent need not be aware (in any way) of this process. This is why process reliabilism can help formulate an account for how non-sentient agents (animals) seem to know certain things[2]. An animal can run through its existence, being a completely oblivious agent to what is occurring in its head, and through processes such as perception and memory, can come to possess some forms of knowledge.

Critiques of Process Reliabilism

There are issues with process reliabilism, however. For starters, it seems to ignore Edmund Gettier’s infamous problem of questioning if a justified true belief can actually be defined as knowledge. The way that epistemologists can avoid the issue is defining a reliabilist knowledge argument where either it includes a stand-in for a Gettier Blocker or arguing that the certain cases where the Gettier problem comes into play actually creates an unreliable process—essentially taking unordinary circumstance into account as something that could influence a process (Evans et al., 139). Either of these solutions is problematic. The latter bringing forth the issue that testing if a process is reliable can often occur in very unordinary circumstances[3] as well as lead a philosopher to a comparable concern of how one actually chooses to define a reliable process. Known as the generality problem, it is the challenge of how ambiguous or precise one needs to be in defining a process that forms true beliefs. Would the definition include specific details about the circumstance, or would a definition suffice with a simple labelling of the process (“vision”) (Evans et al., 140)?

Coming full circle, Internalists have proposed the opacity objection. Brought forth by thought experiments from both Keith Lehrer and Laurence BonJour illuminate, through the use of highly unordinary examples of an unbeknownst implanted temperature gauge or clairvoyance of the cognisor, that one would naturally intuit that knowledge cannot be really gained from automatic processes—even if they were highly reliable. The point of the objection being that “unless we are in a position to recognize that our cognitive processes are reliable, their reliability is not sufficient [cause] for warrant” (Evans et al., 142). Furthermore, if we were aware of these processes, this would entail a complete collapse of reliabilism towards internalist justification. 

While a very clever approach in critique, Evans et al., and this paper, takes issue with this reliance on intuition. Not because thought experiments don’t have a place in epistemology, but that they have to be carefully implemented. Both examples seem to subvert our intuition by using highly unordinary circumstances (extra-sensory perception in the form of clairvoyance and secretly implanted chips connected to an agent’s brain) that lead us to thinking a desired conclusion. Yet, when we attempt the same intuitive thought experiment using circumstances that we are much more familiar with, “our intuitions [reverse] themselves” (Evans et al., 142). Take, for instance, our wolf who through completely reliable processes of memory and perception, knows—if not exactly, then approximately—where the buried kill is cached. In this circumstance, we say that the wolf knows even though it is not aware of the reliable processes that has led it to find its hidden feast. 

In closing, reliabilism, through its focus on processes offers epistemology an attractive method to rectifying the issue of granting non-sentient agents (such as all members of the animal kingdom) knowledge without getting trapped in the need for the agents themselves being aware of the evidence nor the processes.

Nov. 9, 2015


Evans, Ian, and Nicholas D. Smith. Knowledge. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2012. Print.

Lewis, David. “Elusive Knowledge.” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 74.4 (1996): 549-67. Web. 3 Nov. 2015.

Elgin, Catherine Z. “The Epistemic Efficacy of Stupidity.” Synthese 74.3 (1988): 297-311. Web. 2 Nov. 2015.


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