(6) Internalism or Externalism? Starting with a Big Bang #Knowledgematters

Other | Tuesday 5th February 2019 | Saskia

So far we have introduced you to three theories of knowledge, namely Foundamentalism, Contextualism and Coherentism. But we should still ask ourselves how we came into the possession of the knowledge we have. Today is your lucky day! We are starting with the series “Big Bang Theory” in order to introduce you to theories about the question of how knowledge made it into our heads.

Here you go:


Amy: “Bernadette, Truth or Dare?”


Amy: “To what temperature must you heat beef in order to kill the prion that causes [BSE] bovine spongiform encephalopathy?” [...]

Amy: “Remember, you have to answer honestly.” 

(“Slumber Party”. The Big Bang Theory, script: Lorre, Chuck; Prady, Bill; Season 4, Episode 8.Warner Bros. Television, Chuck Lorre Productions. USA, 2007, Sitcom, 12:52-13:02.)

Did you know the answer or would you have had to guess? 

The clue here is that you would not be allowed to guess if you had been Bernadette. After all, we are playing Truth or Dare and that demands that you always have to tell the truth. Telling the truth means that you actually have to tell the facts!

Having that in mind, let us say that you read in a scientific book that beef had to be heated to a temperature of 133 degree celsius, under a pressure of three bar, for at least 20 minutes in order to be free from any prion which causes BSE and you have a very good memory. You are equipped with three things now:

(1) Your mind which is able to qualify a source as trustworthy or not by relying on previous experiences.

What does that mean? Well, basically your mind makes conclusions from previous experiences and judges whether you can trust the source you are using or not. So, if you have read some scientific books before and every time you read a fact about the world and compared that to the actual world, it was true, you are more than likely to conclude that the next scientific book you read will also tell you true facts.

(2) The book you were reading.

(3) A true fact. Beef has indeed to be heated to a temperature of 133 degree celsius under a pressure of three bar at least for 20 minutes in order to be free from any prion which causes BSE.

So, when you tell Amy what you remember, you thereby tell her a fact about the world which you have identified as true.
An Externalist would tell you that you had known something. You have a fact of the outside world labeled as true in your head. 

Having something which is actually true defined as true on your own is what Externalism is about.

Cool, now you have told Amy a fact. That is good for the simple reason that you have played by the rules of “Truth or Dare” and of course because you knew something. Good job!

However, the only possibility you have of knowing something is by relying on the ability of your mind to sort the reliable from the unreliable cases. 

So, if you decide to trust the train conductor who tells you the wrong time of the train which would get you to work, you labelled something as knowledge in your head which is not true. If you had played Truth or Dare you would have broken the rules! Horrible, outrageous! But if you come to think about it, it can not be helped. If your mind fails to identify something as not true, you will think you have knowledge even though it is wrong. From time to time, you will break the rules if you stick to Externalism. From time to time you will label something as true which is not a fact. "Never mind, to err is human", you would say now. But what is even worse is that you can not even tell when you know something or when you do not know something. You can be wrong about thinking to know something.

Imagine your friend asks you whether you know at which time your train to work arrives. He thereby asks you to judge whether you know that you know something (namely, at which time your train arrives). What do you have in order to judge whether you know that you know something? Right, your mind. And who can err? Your mind! Thus, you can not even tell reliably that you know that you know something.

If that does not bother you, we can stay with Externalism. 

But please don't decide too fast. I might be able to change your mind by introducing you to Internalism.

I hope you are not tired of using your mind already. Internalism demands you to use it more!




I urge you to get rid of the facts and the truths outside now! What really matters is your mind and only your mind in order to make something true. Let us talk about the question whether there are aliens. There are two values this belief might have. It is either true or false. Whether the belief is true or false does not depend on the fact whether there are really aliens as its would in Externalism, but on the already existing beliefs you have in your head. If you are convinced that you for instance have already talked to an alien, the belief that there are aliens will easily move into your head and it is knowledge that aliens exist.

If you are already 100 years old and have never found any convincing reason that there are aliens however, you will most probably never believe that there are aliens. Therefore, you know that aliens do not exist. Sounds pretty much like the Foundamentalism and Coherentism stuff I have told you about already, does not it? Surprise, surprise: Both are forms of Internalism!

Although you are cut off from the outside world now, Internalism comes with a special advantage. You definitely know when you know something!

In consequence, you either know something, but is is not necessarily a fact in the outside world (Internalism) or you know about a fact of the outside world, but will never know that you actually know something (Externalism).

If that does not sound particularly satisfying to you, you could stick with, "Skepticism“. Let me tell you more about that in the next feature. 

Pssssst! If you want to know more about knowledge, check this out: 

Knowledge - Philosophical Bullshit?

Let`s start with Socrates - with whom else? 

Fake news and the truth, nothing but the truth

How Big Ben defies Socrates

Fixing infinity