Once Upon a Time and Externalist Epistemology

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I was thinking last night about the new show Once Upon a Time, and it occurred to me that it might provide a really good illustration of the difference between externalism and internalism in epistemology. (I haven't seen last night's episode yet, so please no one spoil it for me.)

Internalism holds that what justifies our beliefs or makes them rational or what grounds our knowledge must be something internal to our thinking, in other words something where the reasons why it is justified, rational, or grounded are accessible to our conscious thought. We have to be able to see why our beliefs are grounded for those beliefs to be grounded. We have to be aware of what makes it a good belief for it to be a good belief. It wouldn't be enough to have reliable belief-forming mechanisms (such as senses that reliably give me the right information).

Externalism holds that there might be things make our beliefs justified or rational or grounding our knowledge that are not accessible to our conscious thought. We don't have to be aware of what justifies us in thinking something for it to be a justified belief. For it to be well-grounded knowledge, we don't have to know that our knowledge is grounded in reliable practices and thus why it is well-grounded knowledge. It just has to be grounded in the right sort of ways.

Perhaps the biggest place of disagreement comes over how to respond to skepticism. If internalism is true, I would have to prove that my senses are reliable for them to ground my knowledge, which of course I can't do, because I might be in a virtual reality for all I can know by internalist standards. There are internalists would would disagree, but a lot of philosophers have concluded that internalism leads hopelessly to skepticism, because I can't prove that my senses are reliable, and just having reliable senses isn't enough. I'd have to be able to prove it, which I can't do. But externalism can handle skeptical arguments by pointing out that I can know all sorts of stuff even without being able to prove it. It doesn't mean I can prove I know things. It just means that skeptical arguments fail, because the skeptic has to show that my senses are unreliable to show that I don't know things. With internalism, all the skeptic has to show is that I don't know if my senses are unreliable. With externalism, the skeptic has to show that they are in fact unreliable. So the burden of proof on the skeptic is higher with externalism.

Once Upon a Time provides a nice illustration of externalist epistemology. The basic premise of the show is that the Evil Queen has cursed all the characters in the Enchanted Forest by bringing them to a terrible place where there are no happy endings except for her. That terrible place is Storybrooke, Maine, in a world otherwise very much like our current day. The Evil Queen is the mayor. The story shifts back and forth between events in the characters' lives back in the Enchanted Forest and events in their lives now in Storybrooke, where no one is supposed to remember their previous lives except the Evil Queen.

Snow White and Prince Charming are the Evil Queen's primary targets. She wants revenge against Snow White for something we haven't seen yet (as least as of last week's episode). She wants to ensure that they are not together. They have no memory of each other, certainly not of having been married to each other. He was in a coma when the show began, and apparently he had been since the curse began. She has no memory of him. When he awakes from his coma, he has no memory, until the Evil Queen at some point seems to have interfered to give him memories of being married to someone else, someone who turns out to have been engaged to him in the Enchanted Forest before he broke it off to marry Snow White. But when they meet up, they feel such a longing for each other, as if they have always been meant to be together.

Prince Charming tries to rebuild his marriage, but he can't ignore his feelings for Snow White. This woman whom he (falsely) thinks is his wife brings out no current feelings, but he seems to have memories of feelings for her, and he tries to make it work. Technically, he's living in an adulterous relationship with her while thinking his feelings for Snow White are the adulterous ones. But Snow White is really his wife, and some process within him is leading him to think he should be with her. But he has no access to what would be leading him to that. An externalist would say that he has some process within him that he can't understand that's leading him to know that Snow White is the one for him, and his false beliefs about his past do not interfere with that knowledge. An internalist has to say that his most justified beliefs are the false ones.

So suppose there's some reliable process whereby his body's memories of his love for Snow White are leading him to know that she's really the one he's supposed to be with. His resistance to this woman who isn't his wife, whom he believes is his wife, is then grounded in processes that he has no access to. An externalist could say that his belief that he should be with Snow White (whom he knows now by another name, of course) is justified by these processes he's unaware of, and it's bogus to rely on his memories for the belief that he's married to the other woman. An internalist would say that his belief that he is married to the other woman is in fact false but is justified. Which belief is justified, then, depends on which epistemology is correct.

Which view you adopt would seem to have significant moral implications. He's doing something clearly wrong, according to internalism, by having clandestine romantic interactions with Snow White. But what if he has knowledge on some level that can somehow cancel his seeming knowledge (that isn't knowledge at all) that this is adultery? Those are false beliefs, based on false memories. If he doesn't know those things but falsely believes them, and he also knows on some level that Snow White is his true love, is it enough to remove the wrongness of the adultery? Perhaps that's too much, but it does seem to be ethically different in some ways.

8 Comments

‘But Snow White is really his wife, and some process within him is leading him to think he should be with her.’

If you’re talking epistemology, bringing in God’s-eye-view-metaphysics looks like cheating: How do you know who the Prince’s wife ‘really’ is? Plenty of people are subject to processes leading them to think their true love they should be with is other than who they’re married to!

‘An externalist could say that his belief that he should be with Snow White ... is justified by these processes he's unaware of’. Is this the externalist gift to anarchy, permission to claim ‘justification’ for whatever strikes our fancy through processes we’re unaware of?!

'An internalist has to say that his most justified beliefs are the false ones ... An internalist would say that his belief that he is married to the other woman is in fact false but is justified.' Who has independent, non-internalist grounds for deciding truth and falsity is no internalist.

‘But externalism ... doesn't mean I can prove I know things.’ Sure, and neither does internalism. You're demonstrating perfect epistemic symmetry rather than incompatibility between internalism and externalism here. Internalists acknowledge they may well hold false beliefs which are rational/grounded/justified etc, or true beliefs which aren’t rational/grounded/justified etc: Internalists just can’t tell which beliefs are which any other way, and externalists certainly can’t either.

You sound like a committed internalist! An externalist would say that the metaphysics makes all the difference, regardless of what it seems like to the person.

Sure, both view hold that you can have false but justified beliefs and that you can hold true but unjustified beliefs. But externalism allows for justification to come from processes that you don't even know are there, such as if someone implanted a chip in your brain to allow you to know which way is north, and you could reliably arrive at the correct answer to which way you're facing but could never explain how you knew it. Internalists would say that you just have a reliably true belief but don't know it. Externalists would say you do know it. That difference is important, and it's what I'm relying on here. Snow White and Prince Charming in this story seem to have some knowledge on an externalist view that an internalist would have to say is just a true belief without any genuine epistemic ground.

‘An externalist would say that the metaphysics makes all the difference, regardless of what it seems like to the person.’

The internalist and the skeptic would say precisely the same thing, which makes exactly 'no difference' to epistemologists who have no independent access to what makes ‘all the difference’; so I don’t see which asymmetry you’re relying on.

The internalist who ‘would have to’ pronounce beliefs to be true ‘without any genuine epistemic ground’ seems like a fictitious entity to me: That one accepts something may be the case does not entail one is able to tell when it’s the case and when it isn’t; the externalist is in no better position here. I'm not sure what to make of all those processes we’re unaware of either: Perhaps Snow White is Prince Charming’s true love he wants to be with because Snow White is the Prince’s mum and Freud is right about the Oedipus complex. I don’t see how we can choose between my scenario and yours in the absence of ‘any genuine epistemic ground’. You can always postulate your scenario to be true, of course, and I could do the same but that wouldn’t get either of us very far, let alone the poor Prince!

You're completely missing the point of externalism, as I remember you having done in the past when I've discussed it. That's why I say you just sound like a committed internalist. You're right that the person who doesn't have access to something that justifies does not know whether it is justified. That's what the externalist says. But the reality is that it is justified, even if the person doesn't know that it's justified. The metaphysics makes exactly that difference. You say that it doesn't tell the ignorant epistemologist anything. But we're not ignorant in this case. We're the viewers of the show, and we know he's really married to Snow White.

Either you're assuming that someone has to know that they're justified to be justified, which is exactly what externalism denies, or you're saying that being justified makes no difference to your internal sense of your justification, which externalists do not deny but which externalists say is not the important issue as to whether you are in fact justified.

You're talking about the internalist and externalist as if the person with the beliefs in question is going to be an internalist or externalist. I'm not assuming one way or the other whether Prince Charming is an internalist or externalist. I'm simply describing how an internalist and externalist who know his situation will evaluate it. He himself doesn't know the situation. He may come to understand it better and later evaluate it differently. But what matters is how it's accurately described, whether he has the information to do that or not.

‘You're completely missing the point of externalism’

If externalism is ‘blunt’, this may not be entirely my fault! Is there some externalist account for how heliocentricism was figured out? Was it some misplaced sense of self-importance which kept our species ‘geocentric’ for so long? What’s the externalist explanation for how Newton came up with Newtonian physics, and the evaluation of how ‘reliable’ that process was? Because others have come up with better ideas since then. Externalism contradicts both the history of science and current understanding of cognitive processes: Perception and memory are thought to be re-constructive, filtered through schemas, expectations and stereotypes. Bias and selection, short-term memory limitations and even post-event information can influence people’s recollection of what they saw; there’s a huge literature on eye-witness report reliability, thought to be crucial in court cases. What you stipulate as ‘the show’ or ‘the situation’ is an arbitrary fragment, up for grabs. My extension doesn’t negate any explicit statement in the narrative; you don’t know that Snow White isn’t the Prince’s mum like Jocasta was Oedipus’. We lack an indefinite amount of information about the characters, which is just a version of the problem of induction. I built upon the story to illustrate that - even if your cognitive processes are made ‘reliable’ by fiat - the ‘accuracy’ of your beliefs is still context-sensitive.

I’m genuinely puzzled where you think an externalist methodology can get one: You may repudiate all of science, of course, and the court system etc and that’s fine by me; but it’s a tough act defeating skepticism through embracing it.

Newton used a pretty reliable process in figuring out what he did. It's called the scientific method. It's produced better and better approximations over time as it's been used. And as it's continued to be applied since him, scientists have gotten more precise than Newton was. To the extent that Newton was right, he knew stuff by doing science, and to the extent that further efforts have arrived at the truth we know stuff by learning from that work.

It's certainly true that we can end up with false beliefs because of biases and filters that lead us the wrong way. If so, then we end up with false beliefs, and false beliefs do not constitute knowledge. But no externalist thinks they do. Externalism just says that when you follow the right method you do know things, even if you can't prove that you know things. When we get the correct beliefs despite our filters and biases, and our methods of doing so are not pure chance but actually do lead consistently to true beliefs, then we know things.

So it turns out your argument relies on the fact that TV shows give us partial information and can deceive us because they may surprise us by doing something crazy? Sure, that can happen. But we don't need to rely on the actual storyline of the show to make this point. We can stipulate an example to illustrate the point I want to make. It happens to be the most obvious interpretation of the show to this point, and it's almost certainly what the writers intend for their show, but maybe they'll go crazy with the storyline at some point. I'm not sure how that affects anything I'm saying. I'm saying something about how the story they've told, if we interpret it in the way that seems most obvious, illustrates a distinction in philosophy. If the actual story ends up not doing so, the story as told up to this point could constitute a different story that does have all these features, and that story illustrates the point. It seems strange to try to resist my point by saying that a story without the features I'm drawing attention to doesn't illustrate the point I'm drawing attention to. To say that is simply to change the subject.

I wonder if we mean different things by "defeating skepticism". What you're saying is that externalism doesn't defeat skepticism, which is true if you mean that externalism doesn't show that skeptics' alternative hypotheses are wrong. But it doesn't pretend to do that. All I mean when I say it defeats skepticism is that it does show the skeptic that they can't assert their skeptical claim. It stops the skeptical argument from leading to its conclusion that we don't know anything. Just because we can't show that we do know things doesn't mean we can show that we don't know things. That's the externalist point, and just because it doesn't get you everything you want doesn't mean it's nothing, because skeptics think they can show that we don't know things. And besides, internalism can't even get you that. It can get pretty much nothing, because it gives in to the skeptics' standards, which are unsatisfiable.

Hi Jeremy,
I only stumbled on this recently (and by now the thread is dead), and I only got to see some OAT recently, but I think reactions to the show provide some (unsystematic) evidence that people are intuitive externalists. Most people I know who watch the show think that Snow White and Charming are justified in their belief, both epistemically and morally.

Very interesting! I haven't had many conversations with people about it, but it did seem to me that the show's writers wanted people to have that sort of view.

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