December 11, 2014

Epistemology: Modest Foundationalism

From: Clear Philosophy - Philosophy Made Easy
(I would point the arrows in various directions,
 to show logical interconnections.)
By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Carillon, December 11, 2014

Epistemology: Modest Foundationalism

Epistemology is that branch of philosophy which studies knowledge. As a philosopher, I've come to think that the epistemological view called modest foundationalism is the way to go.

To understand modest foundationalism, it is helpful to look at foundationalism in general, classical foundationalism in particular, plus the latter's weaknesses.

Foundationalism-in-general is the theory of knowledge that there are two types of solid and secure beliefs: (1) basic beliefs, which ground or confer justification on other beliefs but are not themselves grounded or justified by other beliefs; and (2) those other, non-basic beliefs, which derive their justification from the basic beliefs via some appropriate belief-forming relation, such as deductive logic, enumerative induction, inference to best explanation, etc.

The set of properly basic beliefs of the classical foundationalist consists of—and is limited to—the following three, of which we have certainty.

(a) Self-evident beliefs. These are propositions seen to be true once understood: "bachelors are unmarried" (definitions); 2+2=4 (simple math); "if P then Q, P, therefore Q" (simple deductive logic).

(b) Incorrigible propositions. These are beliefs concerning one's own immediate experience which seem immune from doubt: e.g., that I feel pain.

(c) Sense-data. This is what's evident to my senses: I seem to see a tree (I am being appeared to "treely").

Significantly, classical foundationalism is problematic for two reasons. First, it self-refutes—it doesn't satisfy its own criteria. It's neither self-evident, nor incorrigible, nor evident to the senses. It's a philosophical thesis.

Second, it's a philosophical thesis that fails to include many ordinary beliefs obvious to common sense. Enter modest foundationalsim.

Modest foundationalists hold that the set of properly basic beliefs is broader than that of the classical foundationalist, and certainty isn't required. This larger set of beliefs is justified (modestly) on the basis that these beliefs are intuitively obvious in the absence of defeaters (reasons to think otherwise).

That is, what we take to be obviously true via our sensory/ rational/ moral intuitions is prima facie (not absolutely) justified. Such intuitions are very apparently true, and are legitimately believed as such in the absence of good reasons for thinking our intuitions are mistaken, though, logically, they might be mistaken.

Such intuitions are presumed innocent until proven guilty.

Modest foundationalism includes not only the classical foundationalist's basic beliefs (a), (b), and (c), but also most or all of the following: (d) that we're not trapped in a matrix or a dream (we intuit this); (e) that the world has existed for more than five minutes (we intuit this, too); (f) that many of our memory beliefs are accurate (I remember what I ate for breakfast, so there's no need to cut open my stomach to check).

Also included are (g) that there are minds other than my own (yes, your friends have them!) and (h) that my ordinary perceptions of the world are veridical, i.e., I am more or less accurately seeing what's in the external world when I examine the world around me (when I read this article I know I truly see variously-shaped squiggly black marks on an actual piece of paper).

Also, some philosophers add (i): that there are actual, non-socially-constructed moral truths. We can "just see" (know/ intuit) that beheading babies is really wrong, that cutting children in half is really wrong, that rape is really wrong (though some suppress this knowledge).

Finally, some philosophers add (j): that God is real. This is a properly basic belief triggered (as opposed to inferred) when, say, we experience beauty in nature or read the Bible (though this intuition can be suppressed, too).

I think that (j) is correct, though I would add that, if one struggles with or doubts (j), its truth can also be inferred/ discerned via the evidence of the world—its design, its moral character, plus its evidence of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus—all gotten through the use of (a) through (i) via the study of science, moral philosophy, and history.

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, teaches philosophy at Providence University College. The views in this column do not always reflect the views of Providence.)

For further thought: 


Al Hiebert said...

Well don Hendrik, very helpful. Might you like to do a compare & contrast of modest foundationalism with post-modernism?

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Thanks, Al. Your suggested compare-and-contrast with postmodernism is a fine idea. Sadly, I won't be able to tend to such a project for a while (because of a small pile essays and exams!). If you wish to add some comments on this topic in the meantime, please feel free to do so.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

I did a piece a while back on linguistic skepticism which is related to postmodern skepticism, which might be helpful if anyone is interested: Radical Skepticism, Part 4: Linguistic Skepticism.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

For a helpful look at postmodernism, I recommend J. P. Moreland's essay "Four Degrees of Postmodernism," in Paul Copan & William Lane Craig's Come Let Us Reason: New Essays in Christian Apologetics.