I know, epistemology is the arcane study of knowledge. Epistemologists theorize how we know the difference between what is a justified belief and what is just opinion. And, I realize it originated way back before we mutually decided (against all reason) that everyone’s belief and opinion is equally valid. It is an old way of looking at what we know.
But, fiction writers have to know that, don’t we? Don’t we have to make our readers’ believe our story? People have been studying knowledge for so long that there are now many types of epistemology, but, luckily for us, three types suffice. To be believable, no element of our story can be obviously wrong, the story can’t contradict itself, and all the elements have to fit into the story -they have to “work.” Understanding these three basics makes our job easier.
Foundationalism: or, recognizing that all knowledge is based on accepted facts. Don’t write, “He leveled his semi-automatic rifle and held the trigger back until the clip was empty.” You’ll lose ex-soldiers, gun owners and anyone else who knows that you have to pull the trigger every time you fire a semi-auto.
Pro: Foundationalism is extremely precise. It draws a clear line between what is knowledge and what isn’t. As long as the facts are true and the logic is sound, we can be 100% sure of our reader’s acceptance.
Con: You have to be sure of your facts! If just one is false, then your reader may doubt more of the story.
Coherentism: Avoid contradictions. Don’t have your character “enter a triangular storage area” and then proceed to describe the contents of four corners. Actions are true so long as they are not self-contradictory.
Pro: Coherentism is flexible. It isn’t based on facts. It is the consistent logic of your creativity.
Con: Mere coherentism can fool you into too quickly believing your own “facts.” For example, you can write that unicorns are real and they live on Mars. This is not a self-contradiction. But it is a ridiculous claim unless other story elements strongly support it.
Pragmatism: If it works, it’s true. If your story elements work well for the purpose of your story, the reader will likely accept them. Otherwise, “Nope, that doesn’t make sense.”
Pro: Pragmatism avoids the problems of both foundationalism and coherentism. Pragmatists realize that human beings have limits and that our knowledge is always changing.
Con: It is hard to define “what works.” For example, the Greeks had many incorrect ideas about how the universe works, which we have since disproven. But the ideas were believed at the time, so they worked for then, but now, they are wrong. That’s pragmatism.
All of which is to justify saying that for your story to be believable, you have to know your facts, avoid contradictions and understand your readers’ beliefs.
Personally, I find Calvin’s approach appealing: