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What is reliabilism?


Reliabilism is a sub-category of epistemological justification, the philosophical examination of whether a belief is sufficiently reasonable to hold. This form of justification is entirely separate from the idea of justification with respect to salvation. According to reliabilism, beliefs are only reasonable if they are derived through some known-to-be-truth-generating process. This property is independent of the opinion of the thinker, making reliabilism a form of epistemological externalism, as opposed to internalism.

The simplest way to understand reliabilism would be through its polar opposite, random guessing. Guesses may result in correct answers, but they are not reasonable or reliable ways to arrive at belief. According to reliabilism, this concept applies at all levels of belief. Either one is using some process known to result in truth, or the beliefs are not rational conclusions: they are essentially guesses, and therefore unreasonable. While the Bible encourages clear thinking and avoidance of self-deception (1 John 4:1; Proverbs 14:12), minute philosophical categories such as reliabilism are neither inherently biblical nor unbiblical.

Consider other examples where the idea of reliabilism seems to apply:

• It’s reasonable to determine the total cost of a shopping trip by adding things up with a calculator, and unreasonable to guess or approximate the amount.

• Choosing which person to charge with a crime after interviewing witnesses and connecting evidence would be “justified,” whereas going with one’s gut feeling would not. Given ten suspects, a person might well guess the one who actually committed the crime, but that doesn’t mean such a process is the right way to do things.

• An experienced auto mechanic listens to an engine and diagnoses a particular problem; that’s a justified belief. The layman who knows nothing about cars but haphazardly suggests the same diagnosis might be correct, but only by accident—it does not mean it was a good idea to let him assess the car.

In the study of knowledge, or epistemology, distinction is made between whether something is true, whether it is believed, and whether it is justifiable to believe in it. Epistemological justification is an examination of the confidence one can have in expressing belief. The more justified a belief is, the more reasonable and confidently one can express belief that the idea is true. Reliabilism implies that, for a belief to be justified, it must come from a source that is “reliable,” which in this case means something known to be truth-determining.

Reliabilism is a subset of externalism, which is the opposite of epistemological internalism. According to internalism, beliefs are justified if the one who believes is aware of the reasons for the belief and of his own perspective, and has no reason to think either is flawed. Externalism, on the other hand, implies that justification is determined independently of the thinker’s thought process. Reliabilism, then, is a specific form of externalism, attempting to provide a definition for what makes something external a legitimate justification for belief.

As with other externalist views, reliabilism presents some problems. For instance, it can become circular: if reliable means “leads to truth,” its related concept of justified is logically identical to true. Also, reliabilism could consider a person justified in believing something even if that person thinks his thought process is flawed. Neither is philosophically wrong, per se, but it defeats the purpose of considering justification as its own category. This is closely related to the differences between internalism and externalism: according to externalism, a person has no ultimate way to know if his own thought process is reliable.

Other major concerns about reliabilism are the danger of an infinite regress and solipsism. One could claim some process is reliable, then ask, “But did I use a reliable process to determine it was reliable?” And then repeat that, over and over, for each “level” of examination. On reliabilism itself there would be no way to anchor any claim of reliability or unreliability. Likewise, reliabilism can lead to solipsism, where one is inclined to doubt whether any experience or sense is true—since one’s own perception does not lead to justification under that idea.

On the other hand, reliabilism presents some valuable perspectives, or at least raises worthwhile questions. A person might think he is using a rational process and fully believe his reasons are good, and yet be wrong—should we be willing to label that person’s belief justified? Not all approaches to truth are equally robust; some strategies work better than others. When we are aware of those differences, it would make sense to rely on those which are more proven.

Scripture does not require us to take any particular stance on reliabilism. Nor is there a clear expression for or against it in the Bible—as in philosophy, it’s an open question subject to debate and reasonable disagreement.

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What is reliabilism? What is process reliabilism?
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This page last updated: January 4, 2022