Internalism Theories

Externalism vs. Internalism Theories of Knowledge

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Externalism vs. Internalism Theories of Knowledge


The Internalism and externalism debate is at the centre of the discussion of epistemology. Internalism is the position that no fact concerning the world can provide explanations about actions independently of beliefs and desires, while externalism is the notion that reasons for actions have everything to do with objective features of the world. The main ideology about Internalism is that internal factors about a person only determine it. Externalists deny this assertion and claim that justification is dependent on other additional external factors about a person. An important aspect of this debate is what exactly counts as an internal and what counts as external. Usually, when people know a certain proposition, it is usually a basis for good reasons, evidence, personal experiences, or the basis through which the beliefs came about. Internalism is the basis of justified belief or knowledge and it occurs in three forms. The first form maintains that people have or can have some form of access to the basis of justified belief of knowledge. Here, the main ideology is that people are often aware or can be aware of the knowledge. By contrast, externalists deny that people always have some sort of access to justified beliefs and knowledge. The second form of Internalism is linked with the justified belief and extends to the knowledge as well. It is concerned not only with access, but most importantly, with what justified belief is based on. Mentality is the notion that the mental state of the epistemic agent that holds the belief is ultimately what can justify the belief. In this regard, externalism is the view that other things besides mental beliefs can function as justifiers. The third form of Internalism has to do with the concept of justification instead of the nature of and access to justifiers. In essence, the deontological concept of justification holds that epistemic justification should be analyzed in line with its ability to fulfil intellectual responsibilities of duties.

In line with the concept of epistemic justification, externalism is the thesis that epistemic justification can be assessed in other terms besides special responsibilities or duties. This essay argues why Internalism is preferred to externalism. The view that is most compelling is Internalism. This text argues this based on the attitudes of the theories of Chrisholm and Putnam. The text argues that the forgotten evidence and the common intuition in both externalism and internalism justify beliefs as untrue. Worth noting forgotten evidence should not be used to justify beliefs, although at one point, it did justify. As a result, if a believer lacks access to a justification for the belief, the belief can no longer be subjectively justified. This does not mean that the belief is not justified. However, it automatically becomes subjectively justified which without a doubt is an important section of knowledge. Additionally, this text attempts to argue that internalism justifies that forgotten evidence is wrong, however, this is a virtue of the theory and not a shortcoming. The essay also argues that because externalism allows forgotten evidence to justify a belief, it cannot be chosen to internalism.

Supporting Arguments

Internalism Justifies Personal Individual Beliefs

Internalism is the notion that justification and knowledge are gained by having good reasons for particular beliefs. Examples of processes that people use to form current beliefs are memory, perceptual beliefs, and previously formed beliefs. Noteworthy, the reason for subject S believing proposition p has nothing to do with p itself or facts about it. Instead, p or facts about p are often perceived by subject S in a certain way. For instance, subject S does not come up with the belief that garden tulips are red simply because they are red. This represents an internal factor within the requirements of knowledge. Internalists hold that knowledge needs an individual to have one true belief and good supporting evidence and reasons. In this case, the requirement of evidence or good reasons is a justification requirement within the classical theory of knowledge.

Justification Does not Need to be Known to the Receiver.

Another reason why internalism is preferred to externalism is that the latter does not assume that the believer knows about the justification. However, externalism holds that a process must exist to make the belief justified and that the believer does not have to know about it. As such, in the case of forgotten evidence, externalists answer that beliefs are justified as a result of the intrinsic merits of the source of the belief, which is external. For externalism, obtaining knowledge requires an appropriate causal connection between truth and belief. This causation is external since the requirement is that beliefs relate in an appropriate way to the truth and not because there is any conception of the causal connection. By combining these two aspects, externalists hold that a person has knowledge if they have a belief that is causally linked by a reliable process to the truth. In this regard, a reliable process yields a larger amount of truths than false beliefs from time to time. According to Goldman, beliefs are only justified if they are well-informed and deciding whether or not the belief is justified requires assessing the historical causal ancestry in an approach called Historical Reliabilism. This might be the answer to the case of forgotten evidence and without a doubt, it is consistent with externalism doctrines. Even if one forgets the original evidence of the beliefs, one still has a dependable way to develop beliefs. After all, regardless of whether it was subjectively justified or not, the belief is justified. If this is the most important aspect of externalism, whether evidence is forgotten or remembered, it still exists and connects to the truth. Even if the subject tends to forget the evidence of a belief, the process connecting truth to the belief remains reliable and is still known by the subject as reliable.

Putnam’s position in Brain in a Vat Essay

The Brain in Vat thought-experiment was commonly used to illustrate Cartesian or global skepticism. One is told to imagine the moment one’s brain is hooked to a rather complicated computer program that perfectly simulates experiences about the outside world. If one is not convinced that they are not a brain in a vat, then one cannot simply do away with the possibility that their beliefs about external worlds are untrue. In constructing a skeptical argument regarding knowledge claims, let P represent any claim or belief concerning the external world, for instance, that snow is white. If a person knows what P is, then they are not a brain in vat. And If they are not aware that they are not a brain in a vat, then they simply do not know what P is. The argument in Brain in a Vat experiment is derived from Descartes’s argument in the modern version that revolves around the possibility of evil demons that deceive us. Modern philosophers have come up with a way to refute this global skepticism, including demonstrating that the Brain scenario in a Vat is not possible. Hillary Putman first presented his argument that people cannot be brains in a Vat in his text Reason, Truth, and History (1981). The argument has since yielded a large discussion that has repercussions about the debate of realism. It has also opened up discussions to do with the philosophy of the mind and language.

Putnam’s argument is intended to attack any possibility of global skepticism applied in metaphysical realism. Putnam defines metaphysical realms as the notion that the world has mind-independent objects and that there is exists a complete and true definition of what the world is. The truth includes some correspondence in relation to the thought-signs, words and set of things. This construal asserts to metaphysical realists that the truth cannot be reduced to epistemic notions, but rather it has to do with a mind-independent reality. The self-professed metaphysical realists were not satisfied with Putnam’s definition as it saddles with the struggle of matching objects to words and provides correspondence relations between mind-independent facts and sentences. One proposal that construes metaphysical realism as the superior position is that there is no priori on epistemically derived constraints about reality. Realists state the thesis negatively, hence sidestepping the thorny problems that have to do with a ready-made world, shifting the burden of proof to the challenger to refute it. One of the virtues of the construal is that it defines metaphysical realism at sufficient levels that apply to the philosophers that currently agree with metaphysical realism. Putnam’s metaphysical realist also agrees that the reality and truth should not be subject of epistemically derived constraints. In essence, Brain in a Vat scenario simply illustrates global skepticism. It shows a situation where all the beliefs we hold about our world are presumably false despite being well justified. As such, if a person can prove that people cannot be brains in a vat through modus tollens, then one can prove metaphysical realism as false. Simply put, if metaphysical realism can be proved to be true, then it is possible to have global skepticism. And if global skepticism is achieved then, it is possible to have brains in a Vat. However, because people cannot have brains in a Vat, then metaphysical realism is untrue.

The main issue that underwrites Putnam’s argument is what he refers to as casual constraint. Causal constraint is an object that is there when an appropriate causal connection exists between the object and the term. After the casual constraint is established, Putnam proceeds to evaluate the Brain in a vat scenario. Worth noting, not appreciating the ways in which Putnam made changes to the standard skeptical nightmare led to various mistaken refutations of his argument. A mad scientist envatts the brain by inducing virtual reality using sophisticated computer programs in the standard picture. On the picture are an important difference showing the view of the brain from the first and third perspectives. Worth noting, there is the point of view outside the vat and the view of the brain in a Vat. Putnam asserts that all human beings that are sentient are brains found in s vat and that they are hooked to one another using a powerful computer that does not have a programmer; it is just how the universe works. Without a doubt, Putnam answers the question that many people could not; the assertion that people are brains in a vat.

Internalism Requires Good Reasons for Beliefs

Another reason why internalism is the better choice is that its justification states that a person must have good motives behind their true beliefs and that they should believe in those good reasons. According to the jstor article, since externalism only needs a person to have beliefs about a reliable process that connects to the truth in an appropriate manner, there is a possibility that one can be justified without knowing that they are justified. However, this also implies that internalism cannot justify forgotten evidence. The reason behind this is that once evidence is forgotten, despite one believing the proposition due to the evidence, one cannot be said to have believed in the evidence. The proposition does not apply unless there is a different evidence to back it that is connected in an appropriate way. Either way, this proposition can no longer be justified by original evidence.

Opposing Arguments

The Failure of Access Internalism

One of the main criticisms of access internalism is the notion that beliefs that are formed justifiably but the evidence is forgotten are inaccessible. Under internalism, this justification no longer holds because people are supposed to have intuition that the belief remains justified, which is an indication of failure of access internalism. In response, internalists say that if there is a vivid memory of the learned fact, the subject feels confident and does not have undermining evidence. Similarly, this belief is justified despite originally coming from a source that is not refutable. If the believer knows that they are usually conscientious, they lose their defeater because the source is bad. As such, the belief becomes more and more justified if not entirely justified. The only issue with this argument is that it fails to acknowledge the objective truth concerning the accuracy of the original text. Feldman and Conee tend to be confusing justification with epistemic virtues. The individual may be personally justified as far as they are aware. This is because forgotten evidence does not make a belief more justified. Not having defeaters and believing in propositions of bad evidence is not personally justified.

Chisholm’s view of Internalism and Externalism.

From his standpoint, Chisholm appears to support the externalist notion that the justification of knowledge depends on various factors that are external to an individual. This means that a person’s arguments cannot be justified by only looking at the internal factors about a person. Chisholm invokes the tern alternatives to externalism, opining that by itself, internalism is not a mere philosophy but rather an alternative to externalism (Putnam, 1981). Chisholm categorically states that those that believe in internalism do not express the truth. Additionally, Chisholm insists that internalists base their arguments on considerations that do not recognize the external factors affecting the justification of knowledge. The best way to illustrate Chisholm’s belief is using the example of a man that is convinced there is a sheep within his compound. In this regard, the person is convinced there is white sheep in his home compound simply because he can spot white sheep at a distance. However, in the real sense, he has seen a white dog. Despite this, the individual has no idea that there is a white sheep lying somewhere in another section of the compound. There is a white sheep somewhere in the compound, which is the perfect example of an internal justification. It is true that there could be such an animal-based on the simple evidence that there is a sheep somewhere in the compound. However, the individual only sees the dog and does not see the sheep. This means that his judgment was wrong simply because the external factors misled him into believing that he saw a sheep and not a white dog in the compound. In essence, Chisholm’s standpoint is that internalist philosophers hold that the individual has grounds to claim that he sees a white sheep in the compound based on things he sees. However, the fact remains that this is not a strong basis for the argument as the dog will eventually come closer to the man and he will realize that there was no sheep in the compound. In essence, this indicates that the internalist theory of justification is incorrect and involves considerations that are rarely externalist.


In closing, internalism is preferred to externalism based on the fact that it does not recognize forgotten evidence as a justification. There are various arguments that contend that forgotten evidence qualifies as a justification for the belief. However, this can only be true if looked at from an objective basis rather than a subjective basis. This is because beliefs that are held without prior access to evidence cannot be justified for the subject. Because externalism often treats justification as an objective phenomenon, the theory does not pick only what is significant for human knowledge. As such, the truth can be linked with belief and not only because the world is like that but because the subject has evidence and knows that the world is as-is. Without a doubt, compared to externalism, internalism does this better.


Putnam, H. (1981). Reason, truth and history (Vol. 3). Cambridge University Press.

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