Alongside the problem of skepticism, I guess another major source of division in modern epistemology is the question of whether you can know stuff unknowingly. That may sound like a paradox, so let me try to explain the concept with an example.
Imagine, then, that a man reads the newspaper and learns that there was a massacre in Houla, Syria on the weekend. Now, he has not reflected upon the fact that the article was probably written by a foreign correspondent on the ground over there that has talked to eyewitnesses and thereby established the facts. That is the case – the article came about this way – but he does not think about it. So does he gain knowledge about the massacre nevertheless?
Similarly, how about my dog, who seems to ‘know’ that when I come downstairs and put my shoes on in the morning, he will go for a walk. It’s certainly not the case that he has sat back, thought about past experience and logically inferred what will inevitably follow. But we have a hunch that my dog knows what’s going to happen anyway.
This is what we mean by knowing unknowingly: knowledge seems to be acquired without any sort of reflection upon the processes that give rise to one’s true belief. The reader does not check the veracity of his newspaper. If by virtue of a misprint, he was led to believe the massacre was instead in Homs, he would be none the wiser as to whether or not his belief were true. But it doesn’t seem clear whether this is relevant in considering whether he has knowledge.
To try to bring out why this is such a dilemma, note how we seem to think that knowledge requires the ability to give an explicit justification for one’s belief. You must be able marshall the relevant facts and thereby offer a rationale. And what’s lacking here is that precise ability. The newspaper reader would be completely wrong footed if he made a knowledge claim and we asked ‘but how do you know that’s true?’ He has never thought about such questions. Obviously, the same holds for different reasons with regards to my dog. And yet we still have the tendency to say they have knowledge. After all, if we insist upon such sophisticated abilities to defend one’s beliefs, it seems that many will be found wanting and we’ll be back in the skeptic’s camp, concluding that many people don’t, actually, know what they seem to.
Philosophers have two posh-sounding theories to capture these thoughts: internalism is the theory that to know something, we must be able to say how we know it. This implies that our justification must be accessible. Without this, knowledge is impossible. Externalism, on the other hand, suggests that so long as a process is present which leads to a person holding a certain belief that is true, and that process is reliable, the strength of that causal story suffices to mean that knowledge is present. It does not matter whether the agent is aware of this or not.
Clearly, then, externalists can say with relative ease that the newspaper reader knows things by virtue of his reading. The internalist, on the other hand, seems able to cast doubt on this by imposing higher standards. But which one is most plausible? Our intuitions so far seem pretty mixed, so perhaps we need some more thought experiments to bring them into sharper focus. Consider:
1 – 100 people take part in an experiment where they sit at a table and either a real cup or a mere projection of one will be perceivable in front of them. They do not know whether they are hallucinating or not, and half of them will be. Amanda observes what looks to be like a cup, and she believes it is a cup. And, indeed, it is a cup.
2 – A man comes to believe by what he thinks is his clairvoyant power that the President of the United States is in New York. However, all media reports insist he is in Washington, and this man’s allegedly clairvoyant powers have failed to yield decent predictions in the past. However, on this occasion he really does have a clairvoyant insight and the President is in New York.
3 – I learn as a child in history lessons that Abraham Lincoln was born in 1809. Later, as an adult, I insist that I remember the date and have it right, but I do not know anymore where I learnt it or how I know it.
What are we to say about cases 1 through 3? Does Amanda know she sees a real cup, despite the fact she is consciously in an experiment in which she could be hallucinating and her sensory experiences will be identical either way? Does the clairvoyant man know where the President is, when his faculty has proven poor in the past and there is evidence contradicting his prediction? And do I know when Lincoln was born, if I can’t even remember where I heard it?
I take it that, by now, it looks like internalism is really onto something. We certainly seem inclined to be highly skeptical of any of these knowledge claims. And the reason seems to be precisely what internalism identifies: each person has no good, accessible reason to explain their belief.
And yet according to externalism, this is beside the point. In each case, it looks like a reliable process – be it sense perception, accurate clairvoyance or robust memory – has ensured the belief in question is true. And, apparently, that’s all that matters. We know stuff, despite being wholly incapable of understanding why. This may seem plausible when thinking about dogs and newspapers, but when it comes to the examples outlined above, it grows to seem increasingly absurd.