Reliabilism

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This is the the tenth post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. Follow the link for more on the series and for links to other entries as they appear.

Reliabilism responds to skepticism by challenging one of Descartes' key methodological assumptions. He claims that you can't know anything unless you have absolute certainty of that thing, not just having a subjective sense of feeling certain but an absolute, objective understanding of why that thing must be true. No one, of course, has such certainty about most things we believe. Reliabilists just argue that we don't need to. Knowledge just doesn't involve that kind of certainty. Reliabilists simply deny the premise that everyone else seems to assume, that knowledge requires this idea of absolute certainty. Reliabilists consider such a notion ridiculous.

We know all sorts of things without being able to prove them to ourselves and without being able to rule out all the alternatives. How do we ordinarily use the word 'know'? We say we know all sorts of things. How do we find out what words generally mean? We see how people use them. In this case, people use the word 'know' when they don't have certainty.

One way to take this is to say that this is correct but only in ordinary contexts. In higher-standards contexts, the skeptic is right. The contextualist thus thinks the word changes its meaning from context to context. This explains why we feel the pull of skepticism in the philosophy room but then feel fine speaking of knowing things when the standards aren't so high. The reliabilist wants to resist this variability, at least at the level the contextualist thinks. It's correct to say we know things, not just in the ordinary context but even in the philosophy room. When someone raises the stakes by asking if we really know, all they're doing is illegitimately trying to change the meaning of the term to something that it simply doesn't mean. We can know without having to prove that we know, and when the skeptic tries to get us to treat it otherwise it's like the spoiler who says that a group of people isn't a family just because their kids are adopted or that Harry Potter isn't fantasy simply because it's in modern times. That's just not what the word means.

The reliabilist wants to say there's a better way to look at the evidence about how we use the word 'know'. The word just doesn't require the kind of certainty Descartes assumed it requires. When you ask in a philosophy class if we really know or if we know for certain, that adds a new shade of meaning to the word, but it's not the fundamental meaning of the word. That's a new use of the word but not the most common. So we are literally telling the truth when we say we know, and we would even be literally telling the truth if we use the word as we ordinarily use it but in a philosophical context. What brings us to the new meaning isn't being in a new context, as if the very existence of someone else's higher standards changes what the word means. That's what contextualism requires.

According to standard reliabilism, you can't just shift contexts and change the meaning of 'know' that drastically. Maybe you can express the higher-standards technical meaning of the word in a philosophical context, but you need to clarify that you're using the word is a specialized and normally illegitimate sense, or you've violated the norms of conversation, because the word simply doesn't mean that sort of thing. The reason we aren't so sure in the philosophy room is that we're asked about a stronger kind of knowledge, absolute knowledge. This would be like saying the table is flat and being right but then being asked if it's absolutely flat, only to say no. But it could be flat without being absolutely flat, according to this view. So we can know without knowing in a completely guaranteed and certain way, and that's what the word 'know' just means.

So what then is required for knowledge if it's not absolute and objective certainty? There are three things the reliabilist would require:

A. Knowledge requires a true belief. You can't know something that isn't even true. Maybe you haven't proved it to be true, but it has to be true.

B. Knowledge requires that you arrived at your belief through a reliable method of getting true beliefs. This is where the name 'reliabilism' comes from. The method doesn't have to lead to true beliefs in every case, as long as it's the sort of thing that would have a good track record. If it will generally give true beliefs, it's reliable and can lead to knowledge. If the skeptical scenarios are false, then our senses would be an example of this, and we could come to know things by following what our senses seem to be telling us.

C. Knowledge requires that your belief is caused in the right way. If you believe there's a sheep in the field, your belief better have been caused somehow by that sheep, or you may have arrived at a true belief accidentally (if, say, there's a real sheep in the field behind the sheep-shaped rock that you saw). Accidentally arriving at true beliefs by a reliable method doesn't lead to knowledge. Your belief needs to be connected in a reliable way with what it's about.

Note: a reliabilist hasn't tried to prove that our senses are reliable. Descartes would insist that he has to prove those very things, or he hasn't proved that he has hands. That's why he's so intent on giving a priori arguments for everything, because those are the only things he can have that level of certainty about.

A reliabilist is well aware of this objection but doesn't consider it to be worth worrying about. A reliabilist doesn't think you need to prove those things. Our senses need to be reliable. You do need to have hands to know that you have them, and your senses need to be a reliable way of getting that information to you. You don't need to prove that all these things are true. They just need to be true. If our senses are reliable, and the things we think we see exist, then we know about them. We don't need to have a proof that our senses are reliable or a proof that there's no evil genius deceiving us. It just needs to be true that our senses are reliable. If so, we can come to know things by using that reliable method.

This view can work for any reliable method, not just the senses. This will be important when we look at the responses to other kinds of skepticism, particularly skepticism about science and skepticism about God. If there are reliable ways to get true beliefs about things that are genuinely caused by that thing, then it can be knowledge, even if we can't prove that we know it and even if we have no access to the reason why our belief is true. Descartes simply wanted too much and thus built into knowledge more than it really requires. Maybe it's worth distinguishing which things we have absolute certainty about, but if we restrict knowledge to be just about those things then we're really pretending that we don't know things that we really do know.

Next: Skepticism About Science

7 Comments

What is the reliable method by which a reliablist knows that his senses are reliable?

No, the whole point is that you don't need to know that your senses are reliable. They just need to be reliable. What makes them reliable is that the things they tell us about are really there, and they are pretty good at giving us information from them. While I can't prove that that's the case, that's simply not required for the beliefs I form to be genuine knowledge. All that's required is that the beliefs be true, caused in a reliable way, and caused by the things they're about.

It's true that I can't know that I know, but it better not be true that knowledge requires knowing you know. If that were true, then the following absurdity results. I'll abbreviate "I know that p is true" with Kp. Kp requires KKp (i.e. "I know that p" requires "I know that I know that p"). But if that's true, then KKp requires KKKp, because I don't know that I know without knowing that I know that I know, and that's just the next level. To know that, I better know that I know it, which means I must know that I know that I know that I know it, and it means I better know that I know that I know that I know that I know that I know that I know it. That's only scratching the surface of the infinite regress. Knowledge better not require that you now that you know. The whole notion is absurd.

"The reliabilist wants to say there's a better way to look at the evidence about how we use the word 'know'. The word just doesn't require the kind of certainty Descartes assumed it requires"

If A is part of the definition of knowledge under reliablism, then reliablists are not using the word know in the same way it is normally used. We use the word know all the time about things that aren't true. We just believe they are true. I can say I know John has a red car. Well maybe John just sold that car and bought another. Therefore what I know is not true, I only believe it is. So if reliablists are redefining the word to suit there own philosophical use I don't see how that is different from skeptics redefining it to fit their own use.

One other thing, as you say in the comments under this definition, knowledge about knowledge leads to an infinite regress. This says to me that the argument is a poor one. We have not really gotten away from skeptism, we have only moved it back a level.

We say things that aren't true. That doesn't make them true. I might say that my car is parked in my driveway, thinking it's there because it usually is. That doesn't make it true. As it happens, it's in the shop being fixed. I may have forgotten that. So if I also say that I know it's there, and it's not there, then I'm speaking falsely. It doesn't mean the word 'know' can be correctly used for false beliefs. According to the reliabilist, that's the sort of thing I can know about, but that doesn't mean I do know it just because I say I do. The word in English refers to a certain state that we may be in. That doesn't mean that every time we use it we really are in that state. It just means that we use it to refer to that kind of state. Sometimes we apply it to things that are in that state, and sometimes we apply it to things that aren't in that state, but it's that sort of state that we have in mind when we use the word, not some state of absolute certainty. If we meant that, we'd never use the word.

I'm having trouble understanding your second point. Let me restate the dialectic to see if you can rephrase the problem in these terms. The skeptic or Descartes will insist that knowledge requires higher-order knowledge. Knowing that A requires knowing that you know that A. The reliabilist responds that this requires an absurdity. That absurdity is that simple knowledge of A can't exist unless you also know that you know that you know that you know that you know that you know that you know that you know that A, and that just scratches the surface.

Therefore, we have two choices. Either knowing doesn't require higher-order knowledge, or things are much worse than even the skeptic things. Knowledge of anything is almost in principle impossible. I couldn't even know that I exist or that 2+2=4 without being in this ridiculously implausible state of reflecting on the fact that I reflect on the fact that I reflect on the fact that I reflect on the fact that 2+2=4 or that I exist. I may be able to think on the third or fourth level, but there's no way I can do it on the 100th level. We just can't do that sort of thing. Given that the English word 'know' is not meant to require that sort of ridiculously higher-order knowledge, we should simply conclude that whatever it is we're referring to with the English word 'know' doesn't require higher-order knowledge. We don't need to know that we know in order to have first-order knowledge. The skeptical argument involves what philosophers call a level confusion. It confuses first-order knowledge with second-order knowledge.

Thanks, this was very helpful.

So if I think(or say) I know the car is in the driveway but later I found out it wasn't, then I would say I thought I knew it, but I didn't really know. By george I think I got it! (g) This does make the reliabilist definition of knoweledge reasonable.

ok. Truthfully I just helped my girlfriend with her Descartes take home test and I found this very interesting. First, read Descartes meditations and even a skeptic says you can know you exist. As I understood it his reasoning for it was this. You think, you have the ability, and even if you are decieved or you're wrong, you still have the ability to think or to be wrong. I think, therefore I am. Just correcting that.

As for first or second level knowledge. I understand where you are coming from, but I don't believe this is anywhere close to what skeptics were trying to uncover. heres something interesting I found

The simplest use of brain-in-a-vat scenarios is as an argument for philosophical skepticism and Solipsism. A simple version of this runs as follows: Since the brain in a vat gives and receives the exact same impulses as it would if it were in a skull, and since these are its only way of interacting with its environment, then it is not possible to tell, from the perspective of that brain, whether it is in a skull or a vat. Yet in the first case most of the person's beliefs may be true (if he believes, say, that he is walking down the street, or eating ice-cream); in the latter case they are false. Since, the argument says, you cannot know whether you are a brain in a vat, then you cannot know whether most of your beliefs might be completely false. Since, in principle, it is impossible to rule out your being a brain in a vat, you cannot have good grounds for believing any of the things you believe; you certainly cannot know them.


So you exist even if your brain is in a vat b/c you can think, but the point of skeptics is that they are trying to find out "absolute truths." I think you were refering to this, but this is how I understand it in my mind. Other than that I really enjoyed reading this. Well to be truthful, I enjoyed all of it except the "I know that I know that I know that I kn........." I think you could explain it in better lamens terms.


my email is bashtr@wabash.edu. Hit me up if you have any other articles like this. It was fasinating and very informative

Trenton, your presentation of the skeptic's argument is correct. Where I question it is in the premise that knowledge requires second-order knowledge. The argument assumes that you can't know X unless you can have higher-order access to what gives you that knowledge of X. The claim is that you don't have knowledge without an understanding of what makes that knowledge secure. It isn't enough for it to be secure. You have to be so certain that it's secure that you can't rule out any alternative. Once you make that assumption, it follows that you know hardly anything, because you can't prove your senses to be reliable in that way. So once you make that assumption, the skeptic wins.

I'm just denying that assumption and presenting a view of what knowledge is that doesn't require that assumption. One reason to deny the assumption is because knowledge doesn't require knowing you know, since that higher-order knowledge would require also knowing that you know you know, and that third-order knowledge in turn requires fourth-order knowledge, and you get an infinite regress.

Another reason to deny the assumption is that we use knowledge-words all the time to refer to cases when we don't have higher-order knowledge, and words mean what we use them to mean. There's no other way words acquire their meaning besides how they're used. So if they overwhelmingly get used to refer to some state that's weaker than the kind of certainty Descartes wants, then whatever we're calling knowledge is a weaker state. So the skeptic is right that we don't have Cartesian certainty beyond matters such as our existence or 1+1=2, but what I'm arguing is that we don't need Cartesian certainty to know things.

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