Episode 127 – “The Old Man in the Cave”

Imagine coming across an isolated group of individuals who avow their allegiance to someone they refer to as the old man in the cave, a man they admit they have never seen, but who communicates with them in the form of written notes.  The group has followed the advice of the old man in the cave for the last ten years, and in that time there is no evidence that the old man has left the cave. You might well react with skepticism, as Major French does. Major French treats the group as religious zealots, aligning themselves without reason to a mysterious, invisible leader.  Major French doubts the knowledge claims made by the group about the source of their advice and guidance. His skepticism is fueled by the way the group makes its case: It has one spokesperson, Goldsmith, who identifies himself as the person in charge. He is has the look and demeanor of a minister or other religious leader, and Major French addresses Goldsmith as “Father,” and Goldsmith doesn’t correct him.

Presented with the evidence in this way, without further context, Major French’s unwillingness to adopt the beliefs of the group is fully appropriate. But there is additional information that French does not consider. First, the context is that the group is one among a small group of individuals who have survived the widespread destruction of civilization and the environment that followed a devastating nuclear war ten years ago.  While this group is not flourishing, they have managed to stay alive, and the credit their survival to the council of the old man in the cave. He has told them where they  can plant crops and where the soil is too contaminated. They have stores of canned goods, and continually find more. The old man in the cave tells them which ones are safe to eat and which will kill them.

If we consider this additional evidence, we may begin to move towards a different conclusion than the one Major French comes to. The group makes predictions about what it is safe to eat based on the claims made by their oracle. Following the recommendations of their source, they have stayed alive. No one has died from ingesting contaminated food. While following the recommendations of the old man in the cave has restricted their food options, it hasn’t eliminated them. They’ve been told what they can eat and what they can’t. They’ve used inductive reasoning to establish the credibility of the old man in the cave’s testimony. Even if there is no man in the cave, as French believes, whatever is responsible for the correct information they are receiving should be credited as such.  They can’t say how their source knows what he’s talking about, but the ten year track record of his wise council speaks for itself.

Epistemologists,  those who study the nature of knowledge and justification, characterize this approach to justifying one’s beliefs as “externalism,” to contrast it with a more traditionally held view, called “internalism,” which holds that you are not justified unless you possess all the information needed to show why your belief is true. The group can’t do this. They don’t know have access the the information the old man in the cave presumably has access to. They don’t have the same evidential base he has to reach the conclusions he reaches. But they do know that accepting his testimony is a reliable mechanism for reaching beliefs which are true. He is a reliable source of true beliefs. The externalist says that beliefs caused by a reliable process are justified beliefs, even if the believer doesn’t understand the mechanism by which the reliable belief is produced.  Ordinary visual perception is an example of a mechanism that reliably (though not always) produces true belief. I don’t need to know how visual perception works in order to accept that the red apple I’m looking is indeed in front of me. I believe that it is, and that visual perception is a largely reliable true-belief producing mechanism.

Without revealing the dramatic punch of the episode, it can be said that we do come to see who the old man in the cave really is, and when we do, we can begin to fill in the details and make sense of how the old man in the cave has served his charges so well for ten years.  But rational belief forming mechanisms can only take people so far. The old man’s advice was not what  the people wanted to hear. They wanted to hear that they could eat and drink with abandon, and with the help of Major French, everyone except Goldsmith turn against him, partakes of the forbidden food and drink and turn their wrath on the messenger as well.

One way to look at what happened is that the folk gave up their faith. But it really wasn’t faith, but reason that guided them to accept the testimony of the old man in the cave for ten years. The final result was due to a battle between reason and passion, with the passions winning out. Only Goldsmith had the resolve to resist his strongest desires, and to keep his focus on survival. In the end he speculates that what has happened may well seal the fate of human beings on earth. He is clearly referring not only to  the latest events in his community, but to the events that came before.

Further Reading:

BonJour, Laurence (2002), Epistemology: Classic Problems and Contemporary Responses, “Internalism and Externalism,” Rowman & Littlefield.

Alvin I. Goldman, (1993), “Epistemic Folkways and Scientific Epistemology”
Philosophical Issues, Vol. 3, Science and Knowledge,  Ridgeview Publishing Company, 271-285.

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