Thursday, November 27, 2014

Scripturalism, Internalism, and Externalism

In one of my more recent posts, I mentioned the need for Scripturalists to focus on contemporary issues in epistemology, as there are a lot of interesting dimensions that have yet to but should be explored. To give just a brief example as to why, let’s briefly look at the current internalist-externalist debate. 

A fairly common explanation of internalism is as follows: “the epistemic justification of a person’s belief is determined by things to which the person has some special sort of access… things that are internal to the person’s mental life” (Epistemology: An Anthology, 2nd edition, pg. 408). Externalism is the denial of this thesis: one’s justification of his beliefs is determined by things other than his mental life to which he has cognitive access. [There are varying positions I am skipping for convenience, e.g. one in which internalism and externalism are collectively sufficient although individually insufficient conditions for justification.]

So, whereas an internalist, for example, might reflect on his own beliefs to examine whether they have been properly inferred from other beliefs or pass an epistemic test which a properly foundational belief would, an externalist might appeal to an aetiological explanation for why we can have justified beliefs: for example, our beliefs are justified when they have been caused in a certain way, as that which causes them either in general or even must engender true beliefs.

As such, externalists are sometimes said to view justification from a third-person perspective, where justification is just something persons have: given a person in such and such an environment or circumstance, he will be justified in believing x. Internalists, on the other hand, view justification from a first-person perspective, where justification is something persons can [additionally] show themselves as having: I am justified in believing x because I can cognitively access my mental state y, which is self-justifying (here the internalist would be a kind of foundationalist).

Now, while some Scripturalists like myself have argued for the necessity of self-knowledge (linklink, link, link, link, link), many Scripturalists and non-Scripturalists have denied that, on Scripturalist presuppositions, self-knowledge is possible. For two such examples in this past year, see (here and here). What does this have to do with the internalist-externalist issue?

For starters, if we rule out self-knowledge, do we have cognitive access to our own beliefs? Perhaps pragmatically, but not in an epistemic context, at any rate, which is the context in which the internalist-externalist issue is framed. So if we can’t access our own thoughts, then if our beliefs are justified, it obviously cannot be from an internalist perspective. That would suggest Scripturalists who deny self-knowledge must be externalists. But there are several individuals who have observed that Scripturalism and internalism are a package deal: link, link, link, and so forth. 

A point they make is that if an integral part of a Scripturalist apologetic is that if an individual cant show how they know x is true, then they have no justification for it, Scripturalists are implicitly arguing that internalism is true. But if Scripturalists reject self-knowledge, theyre hypocritically applying a standard to others which they dont even attempt to meet themselves. The result is sloppy apologetics.

Ironically, Scripturalists who deny self-knowledge would logically have a kind of unwitting affinity with the externalists of Reformed epistemology... whom some of those same Scripturalists have criticized. A pure externalist of, say, the empirical variety will face a meta-regress regarding how he knows that his theoretic scenario – reliabilism, proper functionalism, etc. – according to which men allegedly acquire knowledge is itself a product of that scenario. A Scripturalist who denies self-knowledge will face the meta-question of how he knows that he is a person to whom God has imparted knowledge of Scripturalism. 

Scripturalists who think they can side-step the force of this by humbly admitting that while they might not be Scripturalists or even be persons, Scripturalism as a system comes out unharmed need to realize that they’ve already effectively ruined for themselves any chance of knowing that from an internalistic perspective. Theyve as much as admitted they can show no basis for that belief, so whence the assurance? How are they better off than the empirical externalist who is sure that, while he may not be able to know that he knows his belief regarding reliabilism was reliably arrived at, at least reliabilism itself is unharmed?

This is why I’ve stressed the need for Scripturalists to read contemporary epistemologists and issues currently being debated. There is clearly room to improve Scripturalism, if not in revision, then at least in development. [For instance, if internalism is true, so much the better for my argument that we must have self-knowledge.]

And as for my thoughts on the merits and truth/falsity of internalism or externalism - since the above paragraphs were not designed to address that - I will save that for another post. I will only say here that I see no reason why we can’t say we “know” certain things in a looser, externalist sense and “know” other things in a stricter, internalist sense. But I do agree with Bonjour that 
...there is a clear way in which an internalist approach, in addition to being intellectually legitimate on its own, has a fundamental kind of priority for epistemology as a whole, so that externalist views, whatever their other merits, do not constitute satisfactory responses to... whether we have any good reasons to think that any of our beliefs about the world are true (and what form these reasons might take). (Epistemic Justification, 2003, pg. 39)