• Elijah J. Graham

The Pitfalls of Reliabilism

Updated: Sep 24, 2020

For many scholars, the ability to account for the greater value of knowledge, opposed to true belief, is an integral prerequisite of any theory of knowledge. Believing is agreeing with a proposition in a way that is inferior to knowing, while the object of knowledge is a true proposition. Reliabilism, an epistemological approach to knowledge that emphasizes the truth-conduciveness of a belief-forming process, often fails at discerning the difference between knowing and believing (where knowledge is at least true belief and mere true belief is not sufficient for knowledge). Though knowledge is epistemically greater than true belief, reliabilism is unable to identify the discrepancy.

A common complaint against reliabilist views is that they are unable to attribute the greater value of knowledge, relative to true belief. This inability is known as the Swamping Problem. The Swamping Problem does not only pose a challenge to reliabilism, but rather presents a challenge to a certain conception of epistemic value known as veritism. Veritism proposes that man, since his creation, has been trapped in a endlessly fruitless search for truth. It states that the fundamental epistemic value is truth. This means that either all epistemic values have their value as only contributing to the truth or there are distinct epistemic values, with truth being the most fundamental. Additionally, veritism emphasizes that some of the incapable searchers have rejected the very idea of an absolute truth, plunging them into agnostic practices and ideologies such as atheism and nihilism (Pritchard). Reliability holds value only because it is a means to true belief. Once we have the true belief, the reliability of the belief forming process cannot contribute to the belief’s value any further.

For example, suppose you love coffee very dearly. As a firm advocate for coffee, you greatly value a reliable coffee maker— which regularly produces incredible coffee. You will seek out coffee produced by a similar machine but how much do you really care for the machine? You care about the coffee you drink, not the machine from which it comes! Suppose you are presented with a pair of identical cups of coffee; both cups are prime in every integral aspect of the liquid (smell, color, heat, flavor) but only one was produced by a reliable coffee maker, while the other was produced by an unreliable coffee maker that just so happened to make a good cup of joe this one time. Will you have any particular preference for one cup or the other? Will you be willing to pay a different price for either? If you are satisfied with both cups of coffee, ultimately, it should make no difference!

In reality, you don’t care for the reliable machine; you only favor the good coffee. Once you are in possession of what the machine produces, you no longer care for the means of production. The reliability therefore cannot contribute additional value (or flavor). “In short, since the value of being produced by a reliable coffee making machine is down to the value of good coffee, when one has good coffee in hand, then this value swamps any value that might be contributed by this good coffee being produced by a reliable coffee making machine,” (Pritchard 3-4). This is the origin of “The Swamping Problem” name: the value of the product swamps the value of the producer, so long as the product is itself valuable, and in my opinion, this is a big pimple of a problem, as it is hard to ignore. For this reason, reliabilism fails as a view of knowledge, as it cannot explain what grants knowledge any value greater than mere true belief. Truth, coupled with a reliable source of truth, is unable to sufficiently explain the value of knowledge, therefore, mere true belief is not as good or as valuable as knowledge.

When a reliabilist is faced with a pair of identical beliefs, one formed reliably and one not, nothing sets them apart and the reliabilist sees the beliefs as equally valuable. If knowledge is, from this point of view, merely seen as reliable true belief then it follows that knowledge can be no more valuable than mere true belief. The Swamping Problem of reliabilism therefore leads to a logical fallacy: “(P1) If the value of a property possessed by an item is only instrumental value relative to a further good and that good is already present in that item, then this property can confer no additional value to that item. (P2) The value of the property of being a reliably formed belief is instrumental value relative to the good of true belief. (C1) Reliably formed true belief is no more valuable than mere true belief. [From (P1), (P2)] (P3)] Knowledge is reliably formed true belief. (C2) Knowledge is no more valuable than mere true belief. [From (C1), (P3)]” (Pritchard 4).

In my opinion (formulated with Linda Zagzebski’s help), these conclusions cannot be the truth. While it may be true that reliabilism plays an instrumental role in the truth that makes knowledge belief, effectivity is the key value of knowledge that makes it superior to belief, similar to Zagzebski’s “x” value in her research “On Epistemology,” where Zagzebski states that knowledge is true belief + x where x is a good way to believe. Effectivity is the belief’s ability to be true and also hold value in the truth by coming about it in an epistemically conscientious way, aware of what is known as true. Knowledge must be true belief arrived at in a conscientious way, and a true belief formed in an epistemically conscientious way is more valuable than a true belief merely reliably, accidently, or luckily formed. A belief that is true, for which one deserves merit, is more valuable than true belief. Epistemological merit is itself a part of the true belief when present and this adds value. Belief without the added value of merit is simply not knowledge. Beliefs absolutely must be rightfully manifested in an epistemically good and conscientious way to make a belief knowledge, as “knowledge implies success in reaching our epistemic end and the basic epistemic end is truth,” (Zagzebski 107).

The swamping problem may be conceived more generally in a view of epistemic value such as veritism, where all that truly matters is the truth. When focused on a problem endorsing veritism, the swamping problem proceeds as follows: “(P1*) If the value of a property possessed by an item is only instrumental value relative to a further good and that good is already present in that item, then this property can confer no additional value to that item. (P2*) Epistemic properties are only instrumentally valuable relative to the good of true belief. [Veritism] (C*) Knowledge is no more valuable than mere true belief. [From (P1*), (P2*)] (P1*) is meant to be a conceptual axiological truth. (P2*) just expresses veritism.And (C*) is held to follow logically from (P1*) and (P2*).” (Pritchard 5) With the swamping problem formed in such a way, the real focus of the argument becomes clear as epistemic value with the possibility of one of two things in mind. First, it may be that there is a particular type of value in mind which is epistemic. Otherwise, we may be considering the value of something that is epistemic.

If we consider veritism in this way, it becomes an explicit claim about this epistemic value in terms of the epistemic domain. There are three options that this presents. “The first is that true belief, while of non- instrumental epistemic value, is of no value at all generally speaking. The second is that true belief is not only of non-instrumental epistemic value, but is also of instrumental value more generally speaking. And the third option is that true belief is not only of non-instrumental epistemic value, but is also of non-instrumental value generally speaking,” (Pritchard 6). Pritchard claims that option two is the most plausible, as true belief is something with a variety of benefits, which shows that is of a general, instrumental and epistemic value. No matter what option we may decide to endorse, a key point remains that one would need an additional aspect to make the final claim— not one option is coupled with the fact that true belief has non-instrumental value. Pritchard carries on to say that what is true for non-instrumental epistemic value of true belief applies to the instrumental value of epistemic standings. “Take the epistemic standing of having a belief that is reliably formed as an example. That one’s belief has this epistemic standing entails, according to veritism, that it is of instrumental epistemic value,” (Pritchard 6). It cannot be concluded, however, that such a standing is in general, instrumental value. It is possible that having reliably formed true beliefs may oppose practical interests, and if this is so then at least the epistemic standing will not be of instrumental value and the idea will be difficult to sustain. So, why would we place any value on reliably formed beliefs as an end, opposed to merely as a means for a greater end to come later? Pritchard claims that this proves that the swamping problem is a challenge for a veritist’s conception of epistemic value.

Knowledge should be defined in a way that the truth features cannot be separated from the other features, and the feature of knowledge should be something epistemically good that makes the resulting state better than true belief. Reliabilism, as a practice, fails to do so, as it only attributes epistemic value to the belief-forming process— forgoing the value of merit and effectivity. To a reliabilist, belief and knowledge are dangerously similar with the significance of the truth’s value improperly placed. Philosophers, scholars, and even the common man and woman pride themselves on knowledge that they hold. Without the greater value of knowledge held above true belief, the knowledge held by many people will become perforated, and knowledge itself will lose its significance— along with the knowers’ pride. Originally, I had aligned myself with the fundamental ideas of reliabilism but after compounding information from Linda Zagzebski, Duncan Pritchard, and Lee McIntyre, I came to fold on my reliabilist views. Reliabilism is purely insufficient to account for the greater value of knowledge, opposed to true belief, as an integral prerequisite of any theory or capacity of knowledge, as it is ultimately unable to classify the difference.

Works Cited

  1. “Definitions for Veritismveritism.” What Does Veritism Mean?, https://www.definitions.net/definition/veritism.

  1. Goldman, Alvin, and Bob Beddor. “Reliabilist Epistemology.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 2 Dec. 2015, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/reliabilism/.

  1. McIntyre, Lee C. Post-Truth. MIT Press, 2018.

  1. Pritchard, Duncan. “Veritism and Epistemic Value.” Alvin Goldman and his Critics. Wiley (2016)

  1. Zagzebski, Linda. “Virtue Epistemology.” Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-p057-1.

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