Reliabilism – some introductory notes

August 22, 2012 — Leave a comment

Notes from the Stanford Encyclopedia

Reliabilism has to do with truth-conduciveness. Reliabilism looks for truth-indicating properties.

“It is generally agreed that a person S knows a proposition P only if S believes P and P is true. Since all theories accept this knowledge-truth connection, reliabilism as a distinctive approach to knowledge is restricted to theories that involve truth-promoting factors above and beyond the truth of the target proposition. What this additional truth-linkedness consists in, however, varies widely.”

Can be thought of as such: a belief is knowledge if it is true, certain and obtained by a reliable process.

Non-inferential belief: a belief that is not a logical consequence of another belief (i.e. a belief which acquires its truth value via experiences in nature)

From Noah Lemos: An Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge

In “What Is Justified Belief?” Goldman contrasts ‘faulty’ belief producing processes, processes that typically produce unjustified beliefs, with those that typically produce justified belief. Things that cause faulty belief systems: confused reasoning, wishful thinking, reliance on emotional attachment, mere hunch, guesswork, and hasty generalization. Thus the task is to uncover the truth-conducive qualities of the belief.

Goldman distinguishes between belief-dependent and belief-independent processes.

Belief-dependent process: starts with some beliefs and yields other beliefs. Reasoning involves belief in a premise followed by belief in a conclusion.

Belief-independent: no inputs that are beliefs. Might include certain basic perceptual and introspective processes. “I believe that I am in pain.” (non-doxastic)

Conditionally Reliable processes refer to the idea that systems of beliefs derived from a set of propositions that are true, are likely to be true, and likewise false, if the premises are false.

Lemos summarises:

S‘s belief that p is justified if and only if (i) S‘s belief that p is produced by a reliable cognitive process, and (ii) there is no reliable or conditionally reliable process available to S which, had it been used by S in addition to the process actually used, would have resulted in S‘s not believing p.” (p89)

However, the idea of ‘availability’ throws up issues. What counts as an available process, and surely there must be room for unforeseen procedures i.e. undiscovered laws of physics in science.

Three Objections:

(1) the new evil demon problem

This refers to the Cartesian demon which (Matrix style) tricks you into thinking you perceive. For instance, Cogito ergo sum, might be a deception from an unknown force. The new evil demon problem suggests a possible hypothetical world with a person who has been caused to perceive experiences just like ours. His perceptual experience is phenomenologically indistinguishable from ours. On this basis he forms a system of beliefs about his surroundings. However, due to the premise of the deceiving demon, these beliefs are false. Many philosophers would argue that these beliefs are epistemically justified. For instance, a coherentist could argue that the beliefs are coherent amongst themselves regardless of the faulty ‘foundation’. Reliabilism however asserts that due to the deceiving demon this is an unreliable process. Therefore, if this is to be taken as justified, reliable process is not a necessary condition for justified belief.


A is a normal person
B is a brain in a jar connected to a very powerful computer (commonly ‘a brain in a vat’ in texts)

The computer stimulates B in such a way as to cause it to have perceptual experiences.

A and B have the same perceptual experience. They both believe they have two legs, two arms, are sitting in a lecture hall and listening to a lecture.

B‘s beliefs about its environment are totally false.

Many would argue with sound logic that because both A and B have the same perceptual belief, and A is true, then B is true as well.

(is there space here for a relativism discussion, moral and cultural?? Perhaps the same ideological forces that shape philosophical views about relativism shape epistemological views as well)

Reliabilism asserts that B’s perceptual experiences are not reliably produced and therefore not justified. This is the simple point of contention between reliabilist’s and non-reliabilist’s.

(2) the problem of unknown reliability

From BonJour:

“Norman, under certain conditions which usually obtain, is a completely reliable clairvoyant with respect to certain kinds of subject matter. He possesses no evidence or reasons of any kind for or against the general possibility of such a cognitive power or for or against the thesis that he possesses it. One day Norman comes to believe that the President is in New York city, though he has no evidence either for or against this belief. In fact the belief is true, and results from his clairvoyant power under circumstances in which it is completely reliable.” (Lemos, p92)

BonJour holds that this is not justified belief even though it is reliably produced. The belief needs to be ‘cushioned’ in a set of other justified beliefs. Thus, according to BonJour, reliability is not a necessary condition for justified true belief.

(3) the generality problem

The problem here is identifying the process which leads to the belief. Lemos takes the example of looking out of a window at night and seeing a full moon. Thus proposition A: There is a full moon tonight. There are 4 possible processes:

a) perception
b) visual perception
c) visual perception at night
d) visual perception of a brightly illuminated object

It seems reasonable to believe that (d) is more reliable than (c). (d) will mean that the belief is well justified. (c) will mean that the belief is not as well justified. Reliabilism needs to be able to tell us which processes are relevant to justification. This remains an unclear area of reliabilism.

A thought and a connection:

I would like to address the issue of how one knows whether belief B has been reliably produced or not. Surely there is always a wider view to which one has not been exposed. Take the concept behind Gadamer’s fusion of horizons. Interpretation is a dialogical process, which grows and moves in unpredictable and unknown directions, and to which there can be no applied method. Is the regress to a foundation, or search for a reliable production line, or system of inter-connected justifications (coherentism – which to me at this stage is looking the most robust) not a similar metaphor and phenomenological case as Gadamer’s hermeneutical horizons?


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