Supplement to Lectures on BonJour’s Structure of Empirical Knowledge


     Copyright © 2013 Bruce W. Hauptli


Chapter 3. Externalist Versions of Foundationalism:


3.1 The Basic Idea of Externalism:


34 Externalists maintain that “…although there must indeed exist a reason why a basic empirical belief is likely to be true (or even, in some versions, guaranteed to be true), the person for whom the belief is basic need not himself have any cognitive grasp at all of this reason (thus rejecting premise (3) of the antifoundationalist argument [on p.32]).” 


-In his “Externalism/Internalism,” BonJour notes that: “…a theory of justification is internalist if and only if it requires that all of the factors needed for a belief to be epistemically justified for a given person be cognitively accessible to that person, internal to his cognitive perspective; and externalist, if it allows that at least some of the justifying factors need not be thus accessible, so that they can be external to the believer’s cognitive perspective, beyond his ken.”[1] 


-In his Unnatural Doubts, Michael Williams maintains that: “the essence of externalism…is to allow knowledge when a person in fact meets certain conditions, whether or not he knows he meets them.  These conditions may be “external,” not just in not being represented in the person’s knowledge or beliefs, but in having to do with his actual situation.  The capacity for knowledge is thus like any other capacity: it depends partly on the powers of the individual and partly on the circumstances in which he is required to exercise them.”[2] 


-In his “Understanding Human Knowledge in General,” Barry Stroud says that externalist accounts of knowledge “…would explain knowledge in terms of conditions that are available from an “external,” third-person point of view, independent of what the knower’s own attitude towards the fulfillment of those conditions might be.”[3] 


-Externalists usually maintain there is a causal or nomological[4] relation between the believer and the world which ensures the truth of certain beliefs. 


-34-35 “…according to externalism, the person for whom the belief is basic need not (and in crucial cases will not) have any cognitive grasp of this reason, or of the relation that is the basis of it, in order for his belief to be justified; all of this may be entirely external to his subjective conception of the situation.  Thus the justification of a basic belief need not involve any further beliefs or other cognitive states, so that no further regress of justification is generated and the fundamental foundationalist problem is neatly solved.” 


-35 Armstrong’s externalism: the “thermometer” model wherein “…the justification of a basic belief depends on an external relation between the believer (and his belief), on the one hand, and the world, on the other, specifically a law-like connection: ‘there must be a law-like connection between the state of affairs Bap [a’s believing that p] and the state of affairs which makes ‘p’ true, such that given Bap, it must be the case that p’”. 


-Note: Goldman’s causal theory of knowing presents a possible version of externalism (although his requirement for “a correct reconstruction” has an internalistic “ring” to it); of course his “Discrimination and Perceptual Knowledge” has a stronger externalistic orientation. [5] 


36-37 “When viewed from the general standpoint of the Western epistemological tradition, externalism represents a quite substantial departure.  It seems safe to say that until very recent times, no serious philosopher of knowledge would have dreamed of suggesting that a person’s beliefs might be epistemically justified merely in virtue of facts or relations that are external to his subjective conception.  Descartes, for example, would surely have been quite unimpressed by the suggestion that his problematic beliefs about the external world were justified if only they were in fact reliably caused, whether or not he had any reason for thinking this to be so.  Clearly his conception, and that of generations of philosophers who followed, was that such a relation could play a justificatory role only if the believer himself possessed adequate reasons for thinking that the relation obtained.  Thus the suggestion embodied in externalism would have been regarded as simply irrelevant to the main epistemological issue, so much so that the philosopher who suggested it would have been taken either to be hopelessly confused or to be simply changing the subject….” 


-BonJour believes this reaction is, indeed, correct.  Michael Williams offers a very difficult and quite complex argument for this claim: “to show that knowledge is possible is to give ourselves reasons to think that we are in a position to know things; and if we are taken by an externalist account of knowledge, this means giving ourselves reasons to think that we are in a position to meet the relevant external conditions.  The radical sceptic therefore shifts his point of attack from the question of whether we can know things to the question of whether we can have any justification for thinking that we do.  The sceptical obstacles to knowledge simply reassert themselves at second order.  If they are genuine, but cannot be overcome, it will not be a satisfactory response to scepticism to point out that though we may well know all sorts of things, we do not have the slightest reason to suppose that we really do know any of them.  On the other hand, if they do not need to be overcome, this needs to be shown before we can settle for an externalist understanding of knowledge.”[6] 


--Note: a plausible response for externalists to this sort of critique would be to contend that the whole “dialectic with the skeptic” is itself a result of a wrong-headed presupposition of internalism—if one doesn’t accept internalism, the skeptical challenges don’t result, as they are challenges to one’s justification (or contentions that one lacks such)! 


3.2 Some Counter-Examples to Armstrong’s Externalism:


37-38 Clearly, Armstrong is thinking of standard cases like sense-perception and introspection.  BonJour will offer a number of counter-examples to the externalist’s orientation in an effort to show that it fails as an analysis of knowledge.  As you consider the examples below, ask yourself whether they are intended to show that the externalists’ analysis is “too strong” (that is, excludes cases of knowledge, and, thus, fails to specify necessary conditions for knowledge), or whether they are intended to show that the externalists’ analysis is “too weak” (that is, allows cases of nonknowledge to count as knowledge, and, thus, fails to specify sufficient conditions for knowledge). 


38 Consider several cases of clairvoyance:


…according to the externalist view, a person may be highly irrational and irresponsible in accepting a belief, when judged in light of his own subjective conception of the situation, and may still turn out to be epistemically justified according to Armstrong’s criterion.  His belief may in fact be reliable, even though he has no reason for thinking it is reliable—or even has good reason to think that it is not reliable.  But such a person seems nonetheless to be thoroughly irresponsible from an epistemic standpoint in accepting such a belief and hence not in fact justified. 


-Case 1: Samantha believes she has the power of clairvoyance (though she has neither reasons for nor against this belief) and she comes to believe that the President is in New York.  There is counter-evidence about his location, but he is, nonetheless, really there.  Here reliability may be satisfied, but it doesn’t seem that we should accept the claim to knowledge. 


--Consider the D.H. Lawrence short story “The Rocking Horse Winner.”[7] 


--39 First Revision to Externalism: “…not only must it be the case that there is a lawlike connection between a person’s belief and the state of affairs which makes it true such that given the belief, the state of affairs can not fail to obtain, but it must also be the case that the person does not possess cogent reasons for thinking that the belief is false.  For, as this case seems to show, the possession of such reasons renders the acceptance of the belief irrational in a way that cannot be overridden by a purely externalist justification.” 


-Case 2: Casper believes he has the power of clairvoyance but has no reasons for this belief.  In many past trials, he has been unable to confirm his power however, and yet comes to believe the President will be in New York.  Moreover, in this case his clairvoyance is completely reliable. 


-40 Case 3: Maud believes she has the power of clairvoyance though she has no reasons for the belief and her friends provide massive evidence against there being any such power.  She nonetheless comes to believe that the President is in New York. 


--Second Revision to Externalism: “cases like these two [2 & 3] suggest the need for a further modification of Armstrong’s account: in addition to the [I] lawlike connection between belief and truth and [ii] the absence of reasons against the particular belief in question, it must also be the case that [iii] the believer in question has no cogent reasons, either relative to his own situation or in general, for thinking that such a lawlike connection does not exist, that is, that beliefs of that kind are not reliable.” 


---Critical Comment: does this revision go too far?  Don’t we contend that children have knowledge via ordinary sensory perception without requiring anything regarding their beliefs about the “law-like connections” and “reliability” of the perceptive processes? 


3.3 A Basic Objection to Externalism:


41 …external or objective reliability is not enough to offset subjective irrationality.  If the acceptance of a belief is seriously unreasonable or unwarranted from the believer’s own standpoint, then the mere fact that unbeknownst to him its existence in those circumstances lawfully guarantees its truth will not suffice to render the belief epistemically justified and thereby an instance of knowledge. 


-Case 4: Norman is a completely reliable clairvoyant who possesses no evidence for or against this power.  One day he comes to believe that the President is in New York and there is no other evidence available either for or against this belief. 


--42 Whether Norman believes he has such a power or not, his actions here would be epistemically irresponsible.  Part of one’s epistemic duty is to reflect critically upon one’s beliefs, and such critical reflection precludes believing things to which one has, to one’s knowledge, no reliable means of epistemic access.” 


---Note: the presumption that there are epistemic duties confronts several problems: are our beliefs under our control; what, exactly, is the correct the specification of the relevant deontological principles; and what sort of justification is available for these principles! 


---Possible externalist reply: do most (putative) empirical knowers reflect critically on their beliefs, and do they limit themselves to beliefs about things to which they have reliable epistemic access?  In his Pyrrhonian Reflections On Knowledge and Justification, for example, Robert Fogelin notes that: “the orientation of our body, or posture, the disposition of our limbs, and the like, are given to us by a faculty generally known as properception.  These are particular receptors (in muscles, joints, and other places) associated with properception.  Most people know nothing about properception, and, if they accept the folk theory of there being only five senses, they actually hold views incompatible with its existence.  Certainly most people have done nothing like “reflect critically” on the beliefs that come from this source.  Most people haven’t the slightest idea how they can tell that their legs are slightly parted without looking at them or feeling any contact with surrounding objects.  This, however, does not make a belief on this matter either irrational or irresponsible.  If that is right, which I think it is, then BonJour’s Norman example does not establish what it is intended to establish, namely, that we have a positive duty to reflect critically on the sources of our belief, and have behaved irresponsibly and irrationally if we do not do so.”[8] 


The fundamental intuitive problem with externalism, according to BonJour, is: “...why should the mere fact that such an external relation obtains mean that Norman’s belief is epistemically justified when the relation in question is entirely outside his ken?”[9] 


-43 An external observer who knew about the external relationship could use Norman as an epistemic instrument (thermometer), but Norman, of course, cannot be such an outside observer. 


-“Precisely what generates the regress problem in the first place, after all, is the requirement that for a belief to be justified for a particular person it is necessary not only that there be true premises or reasons somehow available in the situation that could in principle provide a basis for justification, but also that the believer in question know or at least justifiably believe some such set of premises or reasons and thus be himself in a position to offer the corresponding justification.[10]  The externalist position seems to amount merely to waiving this general requirement in a certain class of cases, and the question is why this should be acceptable in these cases when it is not acceptable generally.” 


-Philosophical Aside: given this statement couldn’t the externalist contend that the skeptical challenges get their impetus from an internalist presupposition, and that the problem “dissolves” when the presupposition is dismissed? 


--44-45 An analogy to moral philosophy: BonJour appeals to a “moral externalist’s” reading of utilitarianism and contends against such a view, it is not sufficient to have an act generate the greatest overall happiness, the agent’s motivation must also be considered.  That is, we need to add “ the [moral externalists’] requirement for moral justification just envisioned (that the action will in fact lead to the best overall consequences) the further condition that the agent not believe or intend that it will lead to undesirable consequences.” 


--45 Note the implications of externalism for the connection between knowledge and rational action.  Suppose Norman also has a belief that the Attorney General is in Chicago.  This belief is formed in the normal manner (not via clairvoyance).  Suppose Norman has to bet on these beliefs, where does the rational choice lie?  BonJour says that it would be rational to bet on the belief regarding the Attorney General. 


3.4 Some Externalist Rejoinders:


46 First, the externalist might reject the notion of epistemic responsibility in the case of the beliefs in question—the “ordinary perceptual and introspective beliefs” are essentially involuntary, and thus outside the scope of “responsibility:”


-But, if one can’t help but accept them, couldn’t one (over the long run) at least “bracket” them and not use them as the basis for reasoning, action, etc? 


-Moreover, such “involuntary” character, would not explain why we should use them as the basis for all other beliefs! 


Second, one might accept the anti-externalist argument for cases 1-3 but maintain the beliefs produced by the modified sort of externalism which is offered in Case 4 (with Norman) are knowledge.  According to BonJour, Alvin Goldman’s reliabilism[11] constitutes an attempt to show why Cases 1-3 might not constitute knowledge but case 4 does.  To fully clarify this sort of view, he offers:


-47 Case 5: Jones is falsely told by his parents that his memory beliefs are all wrong.  “Though Jones has excellent reasons to trust his parents, he persists in believing the ostensible memories from the period in question.” 


-BonJour presents a modified externalism akin to Alvin Goldman’s reliabilism (a revised version of his causal analysis).  It requires that there not be “...a reliable cognitive process...that would if used have lead the persons in question not to accept those beliefs.” 


--According to BonJour, the externalist might reject Cases 1-3, and 5, and yet accept Case 4 as an instance of knowledge, because “…in each of these cases there is a reliable cognitive process…that would if used have led the persons in question not to accept those beliefs.  Whereas in case 4 there is no such reliable process available to Norman that if employed would have led to an alteration in his belief.  Thus Goldman’s revised position provides a different analysis of what has gone wrong in cases like 1-3 and 5 (an available and reliable cognitive process has not been used), an analysis which does not appear to generalize to case 4, thus leaving the central externalist position untouched [by counter-example]. 


The following counter-example shows the problem with the revised view however:


-48-49 Case 6: Cecil is a historian who uses reliable processes to answer a historical question correctly.  He also happens to have a crystal ball which gives right answers to these questions generally.  This time it would, however, give the wrong answer.  Is Cecil justified in his belief here? 


-49 An externalist’s response might be that the externalists are not interested in cases of crystal balls and clairvoyance.  A restricted externalism might limit itself to sense perception and introspection. 


49-50 “Though the anti-externalist argument was formulated in terms of clairvoyance [and crystal balls], the conception of epistemic rationality which it puts forward—of such rationality as essentially dependent on the believer’s own subjective conception of his epistemic situation—was and is intended to be perfectly general in its application....if mere external reliability is not sufficient to epistemically justify a clairvoyant belief, why does it somehow become adequate in the case of a sensory belief or an introspective one?” 


-50-52 BonJour considers whether or not externalists may make out such a case.  He doesn’t think they can. 


3.5 Arguments in Favor of Externalism:


52 (1) Many arguments for externalism are arguments by elimination.  The other alternatives are held to be terrible, therefore externalism should be accepted.  BonJour will reply that one of the alternatives, coherentism, is not only not terrible, but is viable and preferable!  The development of this argument, of course, is what Part II below is all about! 


(2) Some externalists argue for externalism by claiming that there are cases where individuals know, and in these cases the facts are as the externalist theory specifies.  Ordinary cases where individuals are largely non-reflective, rely upon reliable processes (and yet know). 


-53 BonJour points out that there is no reason for presuming this presumption in favor of common sense: “there seems in fact to be no basis for more than a quite defeasible presumption (if indeed even that) in favor of the correctness of common sense.” 


(3) Some externalists contend that only externalism will allow for the resolution of the lottery paradox:[12]


-54 100 tickets, one winner and a belief about each ticket (that it is not a winner).  “And then, given only the seemingly reasonable assumptions, first, that if one has adequate justification for believing each of a set of propositions, one also has adequate justification for believing the conjunction of these propositions; and, second, that one also has adequate justification for believing any further proposition entailed by the first proposition, if follows that I am adequately justified in believing that no ticket will win, contradicting my other information.” 


--55 BonJour notes that “ seems intuitively clear that I do not know any of these propositions to be true; if I own one of the tickets, I do not know that it will lose, even if in fact it will, and this is so no matter how large the total number of tickets might be.” 


-An externalist might contend, however, that all that is relevant is that one’s belief and the facts be related by “...some true law of nature....” 


-56 Case 7: Agatha is seated at her desk and believes herself to be perceiving a cup on the desk.  She knows that there is a Cartesian demon who has selected 100 individuals for an experiment.  99 of them will perceive a cup and one will have a hallucination.  Does she know she is seeing a cup?  “According to the externalist view, we must say that she is justified and does know.  For there is, we may assume, an external description of Agatha and her situation relative to which it is nomologically certain that her belief is true.” 


--BonJour contends that “if Agatha knows that she is perceiving a cup, then she also knows that she is not the one who is being deceived.  But she does not know this, for reasons exactly parallel to those which prevent a person in the original lottery case from knowing that his ticket will lose.  Thus externalism fails to provide a correct solution to this version of the paradox.” 


--In a footnote (see pp. 235-235), BonJour suggests that a coherentist may be able to provide an “answer” to the Lottery Paradox. 


56-57 (4) If externalists attempt to maintain that the criticisms of this Chapter are irrelevant because they reject the traditional idea of epistemic justification, then they avoid the criticisms only by giving up on the regress problem:


-“in the end it may be possible to make intuitive sense of externalism only by construing the externalist as simply abandoning the traditional idea of epistemic justification or rationality (and along with it anything resembling the traditional conception of knowledge).  I have already mentioned that this may be precisely what some proponents of externalism intend to be doing, though most of them are anything but clear on this point.  Against an externalist position which seriously adopts such a gambit, the criticisms developed in this chapter are, of course, entirely ineffective.  If the externalist does not mean to claim that beliefs which satisfy his conditions are epistemically justified or reasonable, then it is obviously no objection to his view that they seem in some cases to be quite unjustified and unreasonable.  But such a view, though it may be in some other way attractive or useful, constitutes a solution to the epistemic regress problem or any problem, arising out of the traditional conception of knowledge only in the radical and relatively uninteresting sense that to reject that conception entirely is also to reject any problems arising out of it.  In this book I will confine myself to less radical solutions.” 


--Of course, we should note that if one is such an externalist, the regress problem doesn’t arise.  Similarly, skepticism may not be a problem—it requires, some contend, an internalist presumption.  In effect, such a response to the criticisms of externalism amounts to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. 


An Appendix on the “Lottery Paradox:”


In his Pyrrhonian Reflections On Knowledge and Justification, Robert Fogelin maintains the “lottery paradox” undercuts our claims to know:


since most of our empirical knowledge claims are inductively based, their probability typically falls short of 1.  It seems, then, that we are willing to say that something counts as empirical knowledge, provided the level of probability is suitably high.  But however high we fix the suitable level of probability, it is possible to show that fixing the probability at that level leads to paradoxical results.  To see this, suppose, being very cautious, we count something as empirical knowledge only if it has no more than one chance in ten million of being false.  Next, imagine a lottery containing ten million tickets, where one will win, and each has an equal chance of winning.  Under these conditions, ticket #1 has no more than one chance in ten million of winning.  Therefore, given the above stipulation, it follows that we know that this ticket will not win.  The same reasoning holds for each of these ten million tickets, so we seem to know of each of them that it will lose, and hence that all of them will lose.[13] 


Fogelin points out that one possible response is to deny the "principle of closure for knowledge (or implication),"[14] but this doesn't seem adequate.  He says that:


a more interesting suggestion is that we abandon the so-called conjunction principle (or principle of agglomeration) for knowledge, namely, we give up the following principle:


(Kp & Kq & ... Kt) ® K(p & q & ... t)


Of course, we should expect this principle to fail on a probabilistic approach to empirical knowledge, since the conjunction of two propositions each with a suitably high level of probability need not itself have a suitably high level of probability to count as knowledge.  The difficulty with this solution is that the conjunction principle seems obviously correct, and anyone impressed with this may take the necessity of denying it as an adequate grounds for rejecting probabilistic accounts of knowledge.[15] 

Fogelin notes that both of the above strategies for responding to the paradox accept the claim that one knows of each ticket that it will lose.  A different sort of response is possible if one denies this:


we don't know that ticket #1 will lose, because we have been told that it has some chance of winning.  In the language of the theory presented in this work, we do not know that ticket #1 will lose since being told that there are nine million, nine hundred ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred ninety nine chances in ten million that it will lose does not establish the truth of the claim that it will lose.  I think this straightforward response squares with common opinion in the matter.[16] 


Fogelin doesn't think this response is quite right however.  He goes on to discuss the preface paradox (where a historical author maintains in his preface that he has undoubtedly made some mistakes but that he continues to believe his claims).  Fogelin notes that:


the difference between the two paradoxes is that the lottery paradox concerns knowledge whereas the preface paradox concerns rational acceptance, justified belief, or some such notion.[17] 


...if we read the preface paradox as simply concerning epistemic responsibility, then nothing paradoxical emerges.  Our historian may have been completely responsible in making each of his individual claims, yet it would be irresponsible for him to claim that all of them are true.  It would be irresponsible for him to claim this because of the well-known fact that however responsible you are, if you make enough historical claims, the chances are great that at least one of these claims will be mistaken.  Thus the conjunction principle does not hold for epistemic responsibility.  The same point can be made with respect to a lottery example.  It would not be epistemically irresponsible to believe that ticket #1 will lose, and base one's plans on this belief.  The same is true for each of the other tickets.  It would, however, be epistemically irresponsible to believe that all of the tickets will lose.[18] 


     In his Metaepistemology and Skepticism, Richard Fumerton discusses the paradox and maintains that:


if there are a thousand people in a lottery I know to be fair, I can justifiably believe of each participant that he or she will lose and also justifiably believe that not all of them will lose.  If we label the participants P1 through P1000, the following propositions cannot all be true: P1 will lose, P2 will loose,....,P1000 will lose, and either P1 will win or P2 will win, or..., P1000 will win.  This is sometimes referred to as the lottery "paradox," but I agree with Foley that there is really no paradox at all.  We simply do have perfectly good reason to believe each proposition even though the conjunction of these propositions is necessarily false.  Of course we would not be justified in believing the conjunction, but it would be the fallacy of division to suppose that because we are unjustified in believing the conjunction we are unjustified in believing the conjuncts.[19] 



Notes: (click on note number to return to the text for the note)

[1] Laurence BonJour, “Externalism/Internalism,” A Companion to Epistemology, eds. Jonathan Dancy and Ernest Sosa (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), pp. 132-136, p. 132. 

[2] Michael Williams, Unnatural Doubts (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), p. 319. 

[3] Barry Stroud, “Understanding Human Knowledge in General,” op. cit., p. 316 in the reprint in our text book. 

[4] Law-like. 

[5] Cf., Alvin Goldman, “A Causal Theory of Knowledge,” The Journal of Philosophy v. 64 (1967), pp. 355-372; and Alvin Goldman, “Discrimination and Perceptual Knowledge,” The Journal of Philosophy. 73 (1976), pp. 771-791.  The essays are reprinted in Knowledge: Readings in Contemporary Epistemology, Sven Bernecker and Fred Dretske (eds.) (N.Y.: Oxford U.P., 2000), pp. 18-30, and pp. 86-102. 

[6] Michael Williams, Unnatural Doubts, op. cit., pp. 97-98. 

[7] D.H. Lawrence, The Rocking Horse Winner (Mankato: Creative Education, 1982). 

[8] Robert Fogelin, Pyrrhonistic Reflections On Knowledge and Justification (N.Y.: Oxford U.P., 1994), pp. 45-46, emphasis added to passage. 

[9] Note, that BonJour’s  point carries a clear-cut internalist presupposition here.  Does he, in fact, “beg the question against the externalist here? 

[10] Note, that this point also carries a clear-cut internalist presupposition. 

[11] Goldman’s “reliabilism” is a modified version of his “causal theory” which holds that we know when our belief is the product of a “reliable cognitive process,” and there is no additional reliable process which, had it also been used, would have resulted in the individual’s not having the belief in question.  Goldman’s view is advanced in his “What Is Justified Belief,” in Justification and Knowledge, ed. George Pappas (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1979), pp. 1-23).  Cf., also Goldman’s “Discrimination and Perceptual Knowledge,” The Journal of Philosophy v. 73 (1976), pp. 771-191.  Reprinted in Knowledge: Readings in Contemporary Epistemology, Sven Bernecker and Fred Dretske, eds. (N.Y.: Oxford U.P., 2000), pp. 86-102. 

[12] The "Lottery Paradox" is often held to present a challenge to any theory of justification.  One way of "addressing" the paradox is by questioning the acceptability of the principle of [deductive] closure for justification.  In her Evidence and Inquiry, Susan Haack argues that a preferable way to go is to recognize that while one may be justified in believing p and in believing q, but this doesn't automatically yield the result that one is (to the same extent, justified in believing p · q—there are more ways things can go wrong here [cf., Susan Haack, Evidence and Inquiry: Towards Reconstruction in Epistemology (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993), pp. 90-93].  See the Appendix below for more on the paradox. 

[13] Robert Fogelin, Pyrrhonistic Reflections On Knowledge and Justification, op. cit., p. 102. 

[14] This principle holds that if S knows that p, and p entails q, then S knows that q. 

[15] Ibid., p. 103. 

[16] Ibid., pp. 103-104. 

[17] Ibid., p. 106. 

[18] Ibid. 

[19] Richard Fumerton, Metaepistemology and Skepticism (Lanham: Rowman, 1995), p. 145. 

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