On Strong Foundations

Written by Erik, Mustafa, and I

Preface: In this post, we will explain and defend strong foundationalism. Afterwards, Evan and Mustafa will attack infinitism and circularity, respectively.

Incorrigibility (Erik): By incorrigibility here, we are referring to a very specific thing. It is a belief where, by virtue of you believing it, its truth-conditions are fulfilled (as McGrew Defines it, “if I believe that p, then p is true”). As a result, incorrigible beliefs are immune to correction and questioning- take the belief “I exist.” By virtue of me having that belief, it becomes true. Why? Because me having an attitude towards that proposition (or doing any other action) presupposes that I exist.

Strong foundations are necessary because, as McGrew argued, no foundations are possible unless they have a zero probability of being false. To say a “foundational” belief (with quotes being used for a reason) is merely probable, we must infer its probability in relation to other supporting beliefs or evidence that raise its probability. Thus, if “foundational” beliefs are merely probable, then they are not basic. If they are not basic, then they must be inferred in relation to support from other probable beliefs. And, when we move to the supporting beliefs, their probability must either be inferred from further beliefs with supporting probability, unless we accept incorrigible beliefs that cannot be false in principle. McGrew illustrates this inferential notion of probability through an example:

Suppose you meet a friend on the sidewalk and in the course of conversation he says, “It’s probably going to rain today.” What role does the word ‘probably’ have in this sentence? That will depend on your friend; it could indicate a guarded utterance, meaning roughly “I think it will rain, but don’t call me a liar if it turns out not to,” or it could be an expression of confidence, meaning “I have virtually no doubt that it will rain.” These paraphrases, however, do not bring out the epistemic significance of your friend’s remark; to say that it will probably rain is (normally) to indicate that there are good, though not conclusive, reasons for believing that it will rain.(2) This is perfectly compatible with the implication that one does not wish to be held accountable for actions undertaken on one’s testimony, or at the other extreme that one has great confidence; having good reasons is a paradigm case of well-placed confidence. But it goes beyond these mere psychological factors and focuses our attention on the feature that is critical for the discussion of modest foundationalism: probability arises from a relation between the probable proposition and a body of evidence” (A Defense of Strong Foundationalism, 4).

Continuing McGrew’s line of reasoning, the expected response is for the weak foundationalist to say that they non-inferentially assess the probability/priors of a given proposition. However, this would not get around the problem- how do we know something like precepts/intuitions raise or properly assess the probability of a proposition being true? Do we use percepts/intuitions? If so, we have a regress, and/or the view seems baseless. If not, then the supporting beliefs which make percepts/intuitions count as evidence must be given, and the regress McGrew pointed towards continues. Intuitions/percepts, on this account, act as a supporting background for probability- and, as such, there must be a reason given as to why these intuitions/percepts are probability supporting. After all, weak foundationalists must be committed to there being more evidence for their view rather than against it, given that they’re saying it’s only probably the case.

Next, we should clarify that we can still have fallible beliefs, even if strong foundationalism is true. McGrew makes it a point to clarify this, saying that:

It is important to stress this point: strong foundationalists, no less than their moderate cousins, are free to use beliefs that arise from faint perception, fallible memory and uncertain testimony in the process of justification. What they insist is that everyone who makes legitimate use of such beliefs, even if he is a moderate foundationalist (and therefore committed to denying the need to rely on certainties), is able to do so only because there is a deeper level at which there is something of which he is certain and on which the higher-level belief depends for its justification” (A Defense of Strong Foundationalism, 5).

Strong foundationalism only denies the notion that our most fundamental beliefs are uncertain. In addition, we still believe that the fact that we seem to have percepts is incorrigible, as to doubt a percept fulfills the condition of seeming to have had percept (the same goes for things like rational insights). We think the belief that we seem to have memories is incorrigible, as to doubt a memory is to presuppose that you seemed to have had memories in the first place. I could go on, but the same is true of experiences in general:

When it comes to your headache, you are aware without any inference or possibility of slippage of the very factors that make your belief a true one. This same point can be extended to any sort of experience — not just headaches, but visual sensations, tactile perception, apparent memories, and even rushes of emotion. In each case, there is a level at which you cannot be wrong about your experience. It has just those qualities that you believe it to have. Someone who tries to argue that you do not have a headache may succeed in making your headache go away (though the reverse process is more likely to occur), but no one can make you not have a headache at the very time that you are attending to the experience.” (A Defense of Strong Foundationalism, 11).

According to McGrew, we can move from beliefs about experiences to beliefs about the external world. The beliefs about the external world may not be incorrigible, but it is because they are abductively inferred.

1. I have the surprising experience E.

2. But if there is a lawn in front of me, then of course I would have such experiences. Therefore it is more probable than before that:

3. There is a lawn in front of me.

Under the hypothesis that the lawn is there, it’s going to be more likely that I’m gonna have that experience than under the hypothesis that the lawn isn’t there.

The general form of the simplified argument given here is this: whenever we successfully anticipate and control our experiences on the basis of our theories, the theories gain in credibility. Even if we are not using exact numbers to quantify the degree of probability that a particular theory has, it remains true that under the conditions described the credibility of T given B is greater than the antecedent credibility of T. It is relatively simple to show that multiple lines of evidence supporting the same belief raise its credibility with dramatic speed. But this is precisely what we confront in daily life. The smell, sight, touch and taste I have from a cheeseburger are all independent sensory clues that are well-explained by the actual existence of a cheeseburger in my hands but not well-explained by any rival hypothesis: they provide an overlapping and mutually reinforcing set of sensory evidence in favor of the belief that there really is a cheeseburger. Since we are constantly engaged in this sort of anticipation and control of our experience, the total confirmatory effect is overwhelming” (A Defense of Strong Foundationalism, 11).

Under McGrew’s view, inference rules are infallible, since you cannot be wrong about them once you grasp them, and they cannot be questioned. This, however, will require another blog post in the future, where we will cover his view on the justification of inference rules.

Is infinitism possible? (Mustafa):

This section will be short, as contra infinitism will contain content for an entire blog post itself.

One move we could take is by invoking a notion of complete justification and suggest that, with infinitism, a belief will never be completely justified. Say we have belief ‘P’, where its justification relies on belief ‘P+1’, and P+1’s justification relies on P+2, ad infinitum. Given it’s going to go on infinitely, we can say P will never be completely justified.

Another worry may be given the fact that assuming we have finite minds, infinitism does not make sense. Infinitism says something like: For all x, if a person, S, has a justification for x, then there is some reason, r1, available to S for x; and there is some reason, r2, available to S for r1; etc.” And availability refers to the propositional content of the subject’s mental states, or something similar.

Thus, infinitism requires that there are an infinite number of reasons available to us if we have a justification for a belief. And by reason the infinitist refers to beliefs? We can ask, how can a finite mind have an infinite number of beliefs? Bonjour has this to say: “if justification requires an infinite number of beliefs, then we have no justification for our beliefs since we do not have an infinite number of beliefs.” This is called the very popular finite mind objection.

There are some people who do not accept that we could not have an infinite number of beliefs, but let’s add the non-controversial claim that for any belief a subject holds, they must have taken time to consider it. The consideration may even takes a millisecond. But since we only live for a finite time, we could not have an infinite number of beliefs].

Implications of an epistemic ban on the infinitist theory of justification (Evan):

If a chain of infinite non-repeating beliefs cannot provide justification in principle, thus warranting an “epistemic ban,” then the foundationalist theory of justification (non-inferential justification) is the only remaining theory that doesn’t run into an epistemic ban. This is the case simply because if there are some possible cases of epistemic circularity which do not warrant a ban, then we would have to differentiate between those cases of epistemic circularity that do and do not warrant a rejection of them. Now, if we use another case of epistemic circularity to provide a justification for why another case of epistemic circularity is a case of “virtuous” and not “vicious” circularity, then we will have a metaregress. All I mean by metaregress is that we will have an infinite regress, wherein each regress leads us to a higher epistemic level. Now, if we have an epistemic ban on infinite regress, then we can rule out that epistemic circularity can, by itself, actually provide a reason to believe that its true, i.e., justification, because it cannot escape the metaregress. Thus, what is needed to distinguish between what cases of epistemic circularity provides justification and what cases of epistemic circularity are vacuous and lack any warrant is some non-inferential metajustification. Thus, the foundationalist theory of justification, which holds non-inferential justification for basic beliefs exists, is the only remaining theory of justification that lacks circularity or a lapse into a regress or a metaregress. Now, let us understand that this only demonstrates everything besides skepticism and foundationalism cannot be the case. The relation between metajustification and foundationalism must be explored, but that is for another paper.

To simplify the argument, I’m simply arguing that the only way to distinguish between a case of virtuous epistemic circularity and vicious epistemic circularity and then know that a case of epistemic circularity is virtuous, i.e., truth-directed, justified, etc. would be by way of some non-inferential means, specifically epistemic intuition.

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Evan Jack

How sweet terror is, not a single line, or a ray of morning sunlight fails to contain the sweetness of anguish. - Georges Bataille