In contemporary Anglo-American epistemology, it is very widely assumed that knowledge must be reliably produced. On this view, knowledge must be produced by abilities (processes, faculties, powers, etc.) that “will or would yield mostly true beliefs,” as William Alston put it. Call this consensus view “knowledge reliabilism.”
One thing I’ve always been surprised by is how little explicit, direct argumentation there is for knowledge reliabilism in the literature. An old paper by Goldman contains a weak explanatory argument, which gets cited sometimes. Aside from that, the main consideration offered in support of knowledge reliabilism is that it’s just commonsense. For instance, Edward Craig claims that reliabilism “matches our everyday practice with the concept of knowledge as actually found,” that it is “a good fit to the intuitive extension of ‘know’.” And Ernest Sosa claims that reliabilism is the theoretical “correlate” of “commonsense” epistemology. Call this “the proto-reliabilist hypothesis” about folk epistemology.
The proto-reliabilist hypothesis makes at least a couple straightforward predictions. First, people will tend to deny knowledge in cases of unreliably formed belief. Second, clear and explicit differences in reliability should produce large differences in people’s willingness to attribute knowledge. These predictions can be tested with some very simple experiments. Below I briefly describe one I ran.
Participants read a brief story about Alvin. While visiting a friend in an unfamiliar town, Alvin needs to pick up a prescription. He’s on his way to the pharmacy and approaches an intersection where he needs to turn right. Some crucial details of the story differed across conditions. I manipulated whether Alvin was very unreliable or very reliable at remembering driving directions. I also manipulated whether he made the incorrect or correct turn at the intersection. Here is the text participants read, with the two manipulations noted in brackets:
Alvin is very [unreliable/reliable] at remembering driving directions. Today he is visiting a friend in an unfamiliar town. Alvin needs to pick up a prescription while he is there, so his friend gives him directions to the pharmacy. On the way, Alvin needs to make a [left/right] turn at an intersection. Alvin gets to the intersection and turns right.
Participants then responded to an open knowledge probe:
When he got to the intersection, Alvin _____ that he should turn right to get to the pharmacy.
The options were “knew” and “only thought.” Here are the results:
The results from the two conditions where Alvin makes the incorrect turn (the “false” conditions) were exactly as you would expect: he thinks he should turn left, so people overwhelmingly denied that he knows he should turn right. But the results from the two conditions where Alvin makes the correct turn (the “true” conditions) were very different from what the proto-reliabilist hypothesis predicts. When Alvin made the correct turn, people attributed knowledge at similarly high rates, regardless of whether he was very reliable or very unreliable at remembering driving directions (80% vs. 77%).
This same basic pair of findings — high rates of knowledge attribution for beliefs produced by unreliable abilities, and little to no effect of reliability/unreliability on knowledge attributions — replicates across different narrative contexts, cognitive abilities, and ways of measuring knowledge attributions.
Overall, this leads me to conclude that the proto-reliabilist hypothesis is false. Knowledge ordinarily understood does not require reliability.
(A fuller description of these findings and other studies can be found in a paper forthcoming in Ergo.)