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It is impossible by a mere individual… effort to escape from the web of the social lie.

Trotsky, Biography of Lenin, Vol, 1 in “Radical Externalism” by Amir Srinivasan

Introduction to the Paper and the Author:

“Radical Externalism,” published in 2020 by Amia Srinivasan, is about externalist and internalist conceptions of epistemic justification.

Amia Srinivasan is a Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory
at All Souls College, Oxford University, as of today (September, 2023)

Here is the paper: “Radical Externalism” by Amia Srinivasan.

I will start with a brief explanation of the positions of internalism and externalism concerning epistemic justification. Then, I will provide a 500-word paper reconstruction, functioning as an overview. Finally, I will review the paper’s content for a critical analysis.

What are internalist and externalist epistemic justifications?

For internalists, what matters for epistemic justification is one’s mental content. Srinivasan’s paper mentions two versions of internalism: Access internalism and mentalism. While access internalism holds that what matters for epistemic justification is one’s mental content that is accessible, mentalism holds that only the non-factive mental states, not accessibility, matter. Srinivasan argues against access internalism and briefly addresses mentalism at the end of her paper. 

What are non-factive mental states?

Non-factive mental states are mental states of cognition (e.g., thinking or believing).

“Factive mental states, such as knowing or being aware, can only link an agent to the truth; by contrast, nonfactive states, such as believing or thinking, can link an agent to either truths or falsehoods.” (Reference)

Moreover, phenomenal (mental content) duplicates are epistemically identical for internalists. In other words, two persons with the same internal content have the same epistemic justification. Externalists deny this: Even if two persons have phenomenal duplicates, they can have different justifications. The externalist says epistemic justification can be partly a matter of facts outside one’s mental state. In other words, externalists allow for internal and external sources for epistemic justification.

See this Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry for more details.

Aim of the Paper:

Srinivasan provides thought experiments that challenge our normative intuition. She argues that internalism fails to address the challenge while externalism can. 

She attempts to show the following in the paper: If internalism cannot accommodate the objections posed by the though-experiment while externalism can, one ought to endorse the externalist justification of epistemology.

Cases (truncated):

Nour, Charles, and Rhada examples are Srinivasan’s counterexamples.

Nour

Racist Dinner Table (pp. 395–396): Nour, a British woman of Arab descent, goes to dinner with a friend’s family. She leaves the table with the strong sense that her friend’s father is racist against Arabs, though she can point to nothing specific that happened at dinner to support this sense. In fact, the friend’s father is indeed racist, and Nour was subconsciously picking up on subtle behavioral cues to which she is reliably sensitive.

Johnson King 48

Charles

Classist College (p. 397): Charles is a junior fellow from a working-class background at an Oxbridge college publicly committed to promoting diversity. Charles is struck by instances of classist behavior from the other fellows, which he in fact detects reliably. But, when he raises this issue with the college Master—who is also from a working- class background—the Master tells Charles that this behavior is harmless fun and he is being overly sensitive. Nevertheless, Charles retains his belief that the college is classist, though he lacks the concept of false consciousness and has no idea that the Master is suffering from it.

Johnson King 48

Rahda

Domestic Violence (pp. 398–399): Radha lives in a community suffused by patriarchal ideology, which leads her and everyone around her to believe that she deserves the brutal beatings that she receives from her husband whenever he judges that she has been insufficiently obedient or caring. She has never doubted this, nor has anybody ever given her any reason to do so.

Johnson King 48

Norman

CLAIRVOYANT: Norman, under certain conditions that usually obtain, is a completely reliable clairvoyant with respect to certain kinds of subject matter. He possesses no evidence or reasons of any kind for or against the general possibility of such a cognitive power, or for or against the thesis that he possesses it. One day Norman comes to believe that the President is in New York City, though he has no evidence either for or against this belief. In fact the belief is true and results from his clairvoyant power, under circumstances in which it is completely reliable.

Srinivasan

Important note: In the example, Norman has never independently verified his hunches. He has no historical data to refer to when relying on his hunches. In other words, the process is reliable, but he does not know it is reliable.

Mary

DOGMATIST: At a time t1 Mary walks into an art gallery and sees a red sculpture. There is nothing abnormal about Mary’s perceptual faculties or the lighting conditions in the gallery. Thus she forms a true beliefthat the sculpture is red. At a slightly later time t2 a gallery assistant tells Mary that the sculpture is not red, but illuminated by a hidden red light, such that any object it shines on would look red even if it weren’t. Mary ignores the misleading testimony and continues to believe, on the basis of her reliable perceptual faculties, that the sculpture is red. What Mary does not know is that the exhibition – including the gallery assistant’s misleading testimony – is being put on by a famous artists’ collective dedicated to epistemic hoaxes.

Srinivasan

Brain in a Vat

BRAIN-IN-A-VAT: JaneBIV is a handless brain-in-a-vat, subjected to a compelling, electrochemical illusion to the effect that she is a normally embodied person.

Srinivasan

Paper Reconstruction:
Radical Externalism

Internalists concerning epistemic justification have charged externalists with three counterexamples: Norman, Mary, and Brain-in-a-Vat (BIV). In “Radical Externalism,” Amia Srinivasan provides analogous cases juxtaposing the preceding to undermine those challenges and pose fresh challenges against internalists: Nour-against-Norman, Charles-against-Mary, and Radha-against-BIV. Our intuition, the author claims, would favor that Nour and Charles are justified in believing racism and classism in their respective situation, and Radha is unjustified in believing she deserves a beating. However, the preceding intuition is at odds with conclusions regarding Norman, Mary, and BIV. The author shows that the internalist framework needs to explain diverging reasonings between analogous cases adequately. In contrast, the externalist perspective provides a superior error theory for different conclusions. Moreover, Srinivasan claims that internalist fails in another matter: They fail to show a disanalogy between old and new cases.

Regarding disanalogies, internalists object that Nour has a subconscious, introspective content to justify her belief, but Norman does not. The author replies: Even if the subconscious experience is available, Nour* with identical experience with Nour would be unjustified in her belief if the host is merely socially awkward but not racist; however, Nour’s belief is justified if she can distinguish between awkwardness and racism. Similarly, concerning Charles, internalists can argue that his belief is immune from defeat if his university is classist in all metaphysically possible worlds; this is not the same for Mary. Srinivasan concedes that such an explanation is possible, but the position is unattractive due to its strong commitment. For a disanalogy concerning Radha, an objection can be that she does not have a metaphysically possible internal duplicate like Jane in BIV. However, it is conceivable that one can receive misleading evidence against necessary truth, so it is cognizable that Radha believes she deserves a beating despite her necessarily false belief.

Srinivasan provides an error theory for externalism by invoking bad ideology (BD), where subjects are under the influence of a system of social oppression sustaining false beliefs. On the other hand, she claims, internalist fails to explain away the differing intuitive judgment between old and new cases, and internalist cannot rely on BD because of internalist commitments. Nour and Charles’s abilities to pierce through BD are grounded in their lived experience or participation in their particular social positions and communities. Radha fails to see the BD as one of the epistemic justifiers. However, the old cases do not operate under BD. A possible error theory by internalists is the following: We favor apt political judgments despite corrupting epistemological aims; therefore, we judge differently in news cases. Srinivasan responds: If abortion were objectively wrong, Thomas, living under leftists, is justified in believing that abortion is wrong despite ample counterevidence, showing that BD is not inherently sympathetic to leftist views, but it involves subjects forming beliefs contrary to the truth due to BD. 

In conclusion, Srinivasan has shown that internalist responses to new cases are inadequate, and the externalist perspective is more attractive because it provides a superior explanation to our intuition regarding new ones. Externalists hold that the external social world is a source of evidence. She argues that if internalism cannot accommodate the objections while externalism can, one should endorse the externalist justification of epistemology.

Reflections on the Paper:

The use of intuition between Nour and Norman

Nour and Norman are not identical, so they have differing mental content. Still, the two have analogous mental duplicates in the relevant sense. Since they have not tracked their powers, they do not have conscious experience or phenomenal history concerning their powers as their mental content. Therefore, they cannot point to a justifier for their beliefs regarding their powers, and it seems fitting to conclude that Nour and Norman have analogous mental duplicates in the relevant sense. Srinivasan has chosen an excellent example to juxtapose it with Norman’s clairvoyance case. However, as she briefly addresses in her paper, our intuition may be influenced by the social consequences of beliefs, judging epistemic concerns by practical concerns instead of epistemic ones. She has dealt with the criticism at the end of section four of her paper by supplying the distinction between the tight and loose connection between practical and epistemic justification. Still, she has also acknowledged that it is a controversial topic.1 Thus, her comparison was vulnerable to the question: Will Nour and Norman’s cases favor internalism if social consequences were left out? Nevertheless, with the modification of examples, Srinivasan’s claims stand.

Laurence Bonjour constructed Norman’s case as a counterexample against externalist justification; therefore, engaging with the original case was the plausible choice for Srinivasan. However, if Srinivasan were to address the problem of social consequences further, she may add comparable social outcomes to Norman’s case to gauge our intuition. (She must add normative influences on Norman’s case because it is impossible to remove normative content from Nour’s case). For instance, Norman can accurately believe the location of a racially motivated hate crime involving minor property damage when it occurs (e.g., burning a foreign flag). With conviction, Norman calls 911 during the crime taking place. When comparing Nour to Norman, the hate-crime clairvoyant, my intuition is that Nour is justified, but Norman is not. 

As Srinivasan mentions in footnote 15, externalists have a compelling error theory concerning our diverging intuition regarding Nour and Norman.2 This error theory holds for the hate-crime clairvoyant case. There is a link between Nour’s hunch and the world, but Norman’s hunch has no connection to the world. In other words, Nour’s intuition is grounded in the social world, but Norman’s intuition transcends the world in cases involving the President’s whereabouts and hate-crime detection. Our intuition favors events with explanations. While Norman’s case is metaphysically possible, it lacks plausibility precisely because it lacks explanatory power. 

Whether similar criticism applies to the comparison between Mary and Charles is unclear. We must imagine a plausible case where something normatively negative happens if Mary does not believe in her perceptual abilities against the gallery assistant’s misleading testimony. While adding social consequences to Mary’s case may not make sense, it does not stop us from making new comparisons to assess the effects of normative forces. We may construct a new case that retains essential features. Addressing the socio-political influences on our intuition will be an interesting avenue of further inquiry.

We should reject the strong rationalist position that discredits Rahda. They hold that Rhada’s situation is metaphysically impossible. But domestic violence and Stockholm syndrome is a good counterexample to believe that people can believe that they deserve a beating even if no one deserves to be arbitrarily beaten.

Critical Notes:

Is not Radha partly justified?

Srinivasan explains: Scientists can believe that water is composed of XYZ when water is H2O in all possible worlds. In other words, people can receive false evidence that leads to believe in contra a posterior necessity. This is relevant because, given there is no world in which someone deserves to be beaten, Radha can still hold that she deserves to be beaten. So far, good. However, aren’t the scientists partly justified, given that they employ the best methodology available? If yes, how is it different from Radha? Srinivasan may say that scientific facts are entirely empirical, but Radha’s case is non-empirical.

There is a difference, but I’m not convinced. Moral facts contain necessary posterior (or contingent) conditions that determine human nature and inform how we should treat them. If so, Radha must be partly justified if empirical evidence partly formed her belief, like the scientist of XYZ, pace Srinivasan’s intuitive verdict.

Mid of bad ideology, Radha finds reasons to justify (false ones) her punishment. In other words, she does not believe that she is beaten arbitrarily. For instance, to avoid becoming a vulnerable, isolated rebel is a prudential reason for wrong belief. It is more of a responsibility of the outsiders free of bad ideology to assist Radha, who is genuinely putting effort into forming correct beliefs. While it is harsh to call Radha incapable of reasoning like the strong internalists, it is similarly jarring to declare that Radha’s epistemic efforts have no merit because her conclusions are universally wrong.


Footnotes:

  1. Srinivasan 424-25 ↩︎
  2. Srinivasan 403 ↩︎

Reference:

  • King, Zoë Johnson. “Radical Internalism.” Philosophical Issues 32, no. 1 (2022): 46-64. doi:10.1111/phis.12235.
  • Srinivasan, A. (2020). Radical Externalism. The Philosophical Review129(3), 395–431. https://doi.org/10.1215/00318108- 8311261

*Disclaimer: This article is a creative interpretation and synthesis work, drawing inspiration from multiple sources. While efforts have been made to ensure the accuracy of the information presented, readers are encouraged to consult the source material for a comprehensive understanding.

**Please note that I often write the Critical Note (constructive criticism) section after posting the article. If the section is left blank, it is intentional.

I use the term “Critical” in a broad academic sense, encompassing thorough examination, balanced evaluation, and thoughtful interpretation. It is not limited to pointing out flaws or offering negative criticism.

**I reserve the right to edit this page at my convenience.