Professor Fairweather

Philosophy 610

3 March 2014

In this paper, we will be discussing the differences between the externalism and internalism account for justification. As a disclaimer, I am a novice on this subject. However, I will argue that externalism is not an adequate epistemological theory for justification and I will defend the deontological internalism view as the theory that fulfills the necessary and sufficient conditions for knowledge.

To open, we will briefly discuss the normative definition of knowledge and the problem that plagues this standard definition. The normative definition for knowledge is that, “knowledge has three individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions: justification, truth, and belief. Knowledge is said to be justified true belief. (2) The JTB theory constitutes necessary conditions for knowledge. This is to say, a subject must hold a belief about P; P must be true and not false; and lastly, the subject must have reasons to believe the truth of P. To illustrate, the proposition, “This is my water bottle”, will only be true if and only if the subject owns the water bottle. It is a belief since the subject invests his trust in that the water bottle is his possession. And lastly, he is justified to believing this proposition as long as other factors do not cause the proposition to be false, such as the water bottle actually belongs to the subject’s friend. However, in 1963 Edmund Gettier published a paper that addressed that the JTB theory is necessary but not sufficient for knowledge. Gettier provided examples that poses a problem to the standard theory by showing that knowledge arrived by the JTB theory is the result of epistemic luck. Now we shall look at two possible theories of that might remedy this problem: internalism and externalism.

We will define internalism as the view that, “the sole justifying factors of a belief are those internal to the subject.” (1) Moreover, we will define deontological internalism as the view that knowledge pertains to internal factors that are necessary and sufficient for justification. (1) Justification is achieved based on the direct internal activities of the subject, such as their: mental experiences, sensations, thoughts, and beliefs. The subject contemplates these internal factors in order to fulfill their epistemic duty and responsibility. According to internalism, justified beliefs are grounded by undefeated perceptual experiences. The internalist adds a fourth condition to the JTB theory, the defeasibility theory, by adding the rule that there must be no relevant truth that exists, that if an individual were to believe it, it would function as a defeater for his justification. (1) Moreover, the next condition is that the truth of the belief is self-evident or directly recognizable to the belief-holder upon reflection. The motivation for internalism is epistemic deontology, which means one fulfills one’s epistemic obligation after forming and holding a belief. In this sense, one has knowledge if one faithfully forms a belief based on their undefeated perceptual experiences and their beliefs become justified because they are directly recognizable to the belief-holder upon reflection, as a result, this amounts to epistemic duty fulfillment.   

Externalism is the negation or denial of internalism. Based on externalism account of knowledge, a subject has knowledge depending on external factors that justify the subject’s belief. The positive version of externalism is reliabilism, which is the position that knowledge is a true belief that is produced and sustained by reliable belief-forming method. (1) Alvin I. Goldman defends a type of reliabilism called process reliabilism. Goldman’s definition of justification involves an argument or a list of reasons that factor in the support and creation of a belief. (2) A belief is justified if the belief-holder can present a process involving other factors or properties that credit the belief as being justified. More fine-tuned, the reliability of a justified belief lies in the probability of a process to grant true beliefs instead of false ones. (2) For an externalist, the belief-holder can have a justified belief without having internal awareness of it being justified. What makes the belief justified is based on external facts that are outside of the belief-holder’s awareness. To summarize, justification on reliabilism does not rely on internal affairs because a belief is justified from a fact that results from a reliable process; on internalism, justification is contained within whether the individual fulfilled their epistemic duty or responsibility, so that no external facts are necessary in the formulation of a belief. Now that we have roughly sketched the externalist and internalist theories, we will examine why the internalist position represents a stronger account.

The externalism position does not handle the three criticism that epistemologist raised against it whereas internalism does. First, the objection of whether the reliability of a belief-formation process is necessary for justification. This objection causes problems for the externalist because one can have a true belief without the reliable process. To illustrate, an individual can already know that visual experiences are already justified before depending on reliable methods from visual mechanisms. Another example would be the problem of holding true beliefs about mathematical truths or logical truths such as, 1+4=5 or if A is larger than B and B is larger than C, then it follows that A is larger than C. On reliabilism it seems, one cannot have these type of knowledge since they are before the reliable process. (1)

Second, the new evil-demon world objection, which argues that a subject’s perceptual beliefs are unreliably because they are influenced by a demon that makes the subject believe in false pretenses that appear true to the subject. On process reliabilism, one depends on reliability of our sense perceptions when we scrutinize whether the processes that lead up to the justification of a given belief to be true. Process reliabilism breaks down from this objection because justification requires external support and verification to grant a given belief to be considered justified. To illustrate, imagine a situation where there are two identical individuals. The difference is that one lives in a normal world and the other living in a demon world. Both individuals make their inferences to knowledge based on their rationality. However, the inferences made by the individual in the demon world are false because his reliable processes are falsely caused by the evil demon. The example serves to show that an individual cannot depend on their reliable process to form justified beliefs because one cannot be certain that they are in a demon world. In this respect, reliable processes are not necessary and sufficient for knowledge. It is not necessary because formulating beliefs based on external factors can lead to false knowledge. It is not sufficient for knowledge because even if an individual produces a true belief through the reliable method, it can be counted as epistemic luck, because external factors are not reliable, thus no true knowledge.

However deontological internalism answers both of these two objections. Since justification depends on intellectual responsibility or duty within one’s control, external factors do not apply or affect justification for the internalist because he cannot control whether the external world is an illusion created by an evil demon. The internalism position handles the new evil-demon problem since, “internal factors are necessary and sufficient for justification. “ (1) For the internalist, internal factors are the requirement a justified belief, as long as the belief is self-evidently true to the individual and there is no immediate defeater for the belief, one is warranted in holding the belief, moreover, this suffices for knowledge because one has knowledge once they fulfilled their epistemic duties. That being said, deontological internalism is strong form of internalism, the problem arises since this type of internalism does not allow us knowledge that coheres with propositions and the external world since all justified beliefs are internal to the subject. This is the overall goal of theories of epistemology, which is to have our beliefs correspond with the external world; strong internalism struggles with this problem.

Lastly, the objection from the generality problem proposes that the definition of what is considered reliable belief-forming process is either too vague or narrow. To reiterate, the process reliabilist’s position depends on the reliable processes to validate a justified belief. The definition seems to be circular by postulating that a process is reliable because of reliable beliefs. Furthermore, the lack of a firm definition can result in a vicious infinite regress as to what counts as a reliable method, hence, knowledge would be fleeting and unreachable. Again on the internalist view, the definition for justification is more straightforward and defined. A subject has knowledge once one fulfills their epistemic duty of forming an undefeated perceptual belief and the belief is directly recognizable to be true to the subject. Knowledge is contained within the subject on internalism, whereas on externalism knowledge depends on multiple factors external to the subject.

In conclusion, we have seen why the externalism account of justification, namely, process reliabilism is not necessary for knowledge because one can have a true belief before the reliable process kicks in; it also breaks down in face of the new evil-demon argument; and the definition of what is a reliable process is too vague and narrow. We have also seen how internalism handles the three objections by offering a more solid definition of of what constitutes knowledge, namely that, justification is fulfilled as a result of satisfying one’s epistemic duties by forming undefeated perceptual beliefs that are directly recognizable to the individual internally. However, this is not to say that internalism does not suffer from problems also, I’ve mentioned how deontological internalism is a strong form of internalism that results in us lacking knowledge of whether the external world actually exists independent of internal beliefs.

Lastly, my closing remarks is that regardless of whether internalism or externalism can solve the Gettier problem indefinitely, it is beneficial to the individual in a pragmatic way to hold this belief that, “knowledge is at least true belief plus something that confers justification, warrant or rationality on that belief. In this sense, knowledge presupposes truth. There could be truth without knowledge, but no knowledge without truth.” (1)


  1. Moreland, James Porter; William Lane Craig (2009-08-20). Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.
  2. Sven Bernecker. Reading Epistemology: Selected Texts with Interactive Commentary. Kindle Edition.